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How To Keep Your Heart Open When You're Angry

Lissa Rankin's picture

Open heart

It’s easy to talk about opening your heart when everyone is getting along.

When you’re with your best friend, who has just built a cocoon around you because you just got your heart broken, and your bestie then climbs into the cocoon to hold you in her arms like a mother, your heart is likely to feel so open that honey just pours right out of it all over the floor.

It’s easy to keep your heart open when you’re with your child, who just told you the story about how she used to be a fairy who sat on your shoulder while you meditated until she became sad that you couldn’t hear her say “I love you” in real life. When she tells you how one day she decided to fly into your vagina, deposit her fairy wings in your heart so you’d always have fairy magic, and then hobble over to your uterus so she could grow into a baby who would be able to grow up and say, “I love you,” your heart melts like chocolate chips in a hot stove.

When the object of your undying affection, down on one knee and holding a bouquet of roses, confesses that he’s been madly in love with you for years and just can’t hold it in anymore, you’re unlikely to armor up your heart very much.

Check in with your heart right now. How does it feel?

It’s easy to keep your heart open when it feels safe and nurtured. But what about the other times?

How good are you at keeping your heart open with your fellow human being when terrorists crash planesinto your country’s beloved landmarks and kill thousands of innocent beings?

Can you keep your heart open when your abusive mother abandons you?

Can you keep giving those you love permission to break your heart when your heart keeps aching from loss, longing, abandonment, and betrayal?

Can you keep your heart open when your beloved pets keep dying?

What about when you’re trying to keep your heart open with those you work with in your professional life, but the knuckleheads in charge of the purse strings keep insisting that you sell out your integrity, seemingly with no concern for the well-being of those you’re trying to serve?

Can you keep your heart open when politicians threaten to withhold resources from inner city children in public schools, women who are victims of domestic violence, the mentally ill homeless population, women who are sold into sex trafficking, or uninsured children who need medical care?
How does your heart feel now?

The True Test Of The Open Heart

If you’re like most people, you most likely find that it’s easy to open your heart with those who leave your heart feeling safe, respected, appreciated, and honored. But the real test comes when you learn to keep your heart open even when your heart feels threatened.
Consider the knucklehead that wants to thwart the doctor’s ability to open his heart with his patients. Should he get pissy at the mucky mucks that are getting in the way of him doing the right thing with his patients? Or should he find a place within his own heart to have compassion for the closed part of the mucky muck’s heart that is thwarting him?

Should the woman whose mother abandoned her in childhood accept her mother into her heart and her life when that mother shows up at her wedding and asks to be forgiven?

When you find yourself feeling righteous, angry, entitled, or victimized by the actions of another, can you find within you any seed of softness, some place deep within that recognizes how much pain that person must be in, how burdened their soul must be, how deeply armored they must be in their heart in order to behave in a way that is surely out of alignment with their own integrity?

Can you begin to touch the suffering of your fellow human beings and meet them at the place of their suffering, rather than judging them, criticizing them, dismissing them, or making them wrong?

Can you find within your soft, human heart the ability to open when you feel inclined to close?

Can you forgive?

Can you approach those people as a healer, knowing that in order to behave in the abominable ways they have, they must be hurting. Can you greet them in the hurting, knowing that we all have our wounds, we are all flawed, and we’re all doing the best we can?

Do another heart check. What’s your status?

It’s Not About Condoning The Behavior

Keeping your heart open when the knuckleheads are being knuckleheady or the sociopaths need jail time doesn’t mean you’re giving anyone your stamp of approval. But it does mean that keeping an open heart requires radical acts of compassion in order to keep you out of the ego trap of righteousness, anger, and revenge.

It doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries that protect you from dangerous or even just plain mean people, but it does mean that if you wind up responding in ways that are just as unkind as those you’re judging, you’re missing the opportunity to live from the heart in a way that brings more peace and joy into your life and heals the world while you’re at it (no biggie.)

I know it’s a lot to ask. It’s so much easier to fall into righteous anger when you don’t get your way or when people are thwarting you in your commitment to opening your heart to those who need your love. But if we open our hearts only when it’s easy, aren’t we failing to model for those who hurt us what a true open heart looks and feels like?

Are You Willing To Go All The Way With Your Open Heart?

Will you practice radical acts of heart-opening?

Next time you get your feathers in a bunch, might you try to find your compassion for the suffering in another? Next time you get on your high horse, might you get off and sit cross-legged on the ground and ask the person you’re upset with to meet you there?

I know it’s scary. But I dare you…

Inviting you to explore an even more expansive heart,


Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourselfand the host of the hit National Public Television special Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine (link). Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com, teaches teleclasses (link) with luminaries like Martha Beck, Rachel Naomi Remen, Amy Ahlers, and Tosha Silver, and has sparked a movement to revolutionize health care at HealHealthCareNow.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, a lover of dancing, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area.



Lily Ward's picture


Wow, nice article, i'm sure it is helpful for a lot of people! thanks for sharing

LB's picture

Critical Compassion and the Constructive Use of Anger

Hi Lissa ~

It's always wise to be slow to anger and not easily offended. Life is just easier that way. The bigger issue is how to keep our hearts open and forgiving without being "soft-headed" or complacent and inadvertently allowing wrongdoing to flourish.

Sometimes the most courageous and loving thing we can do is to speak truthfully and respectfully in the face of an injustice, hypocrisy or untruth, if not for ourselves then on behalf of those who are without a voice. Other times, the wisest response may be to turn the other cheek or withdraw by limiting contact or discussion and then choosing to forgive while taking a more indirect approach. Whatever the case, true healing can only take place when both truth and kindness thrive. But first, we need to get in the habit of exercising our powers of discernment.

I'm reminded of something Dr. Gayle Sulik said during an interview she just gave as part of the Women's International Health Summit. At the end of her interview, she talked about the value in "critical compassion" or "compassionate criticism" and how our willingness to step into suffering allows us to be critical only because we're motivated by a genuine desire to look deeply and truthfully in order to make things better. I loved what she said, so I hope I managed to capture the essence of her message.:)

Unfortunately, I think many of us have misunderstood what it means to be compassionate and forgiving, believing we have to suppress or ignore our divine gifts of intuition and discernment, which only turns us into easy targets for those who would take advantage of our reluctance to appear unpleasant or judgmental.

Most of us feel angry sometimes - it can be a natural reaction to cruelty, suffering or profound injustice. Speaking from experience, I've learned it isn't my anger or even my sense of indignation that's the problem, it's what I choose to do with it that matters.

For instance, with Valentine's Day quickly approaching I'm angry that people will continue to buy mainstream chocolate most likely produced using child-slavery and/or forced labor, including those deceptively sweet-looking Hershey's Kisses. I became inspired after seeing aisles and aisles of this slave-chocolate on store shelves during Halloween season. My anger has served a useful purpose though, in that it's led me to become a more informed and impassioned advocate for fairly-traded, ethically produced slave-free chocolate. I keep talking about, hoping to inform others who will continue to spread the word so more of us will choose differently.

And like you, I'm frustrated that in a country as wealthy as the United States, there are literally millions of people who, in spite of the ACA, will continue to go without reasonable access to affordable healthcare - even *with* insurance. Once again, instead of allowing my anger to fester or turn destructive, I've chosen to channel it constructively by actively supporting HR676, the "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act" which would provide a single-payer system of comprehensive coverage for *all* Americans, and which is supported by various groups throughout the country, including PNHP, Physicians for a National Health Program.

If you're not already a supporter of HR676, I hope you'll consider it, Lissa. In the struggle to improve and provide affordable, accessible healthcare, your voice could go a long way towards creating positive change - just by talking about it on your blog, you could make a difference.

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