“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Those who enter therapists’ offices often relate that they feel broken and that they will never be whole. The catalysts may range from physical or sexual abuse to abandonment in relationship, from war trauma to addiction. These are not uncommon confessions heard over the years:

“I feel like damaged goods.”

“I don’t know who I am and how to be with people.”

“I have no purpose. I will never be successful.”

“There is this lingering sense that there is something wrong with me.”

“Who will want someone with all of the baggage I carry?”

“How can anybody love someone as flawed as I am?”

“They (parents, siblings, teachers, clergy) told me that I am bad and I believe them.”

“What can you do to fix me?”

To the first statements and questions, this seasoned clinician has responded that there is a difference between being broken and broken open. To the final question, the answer was, “Nothing, but I can help you heal your wounds.” The reminder that they need not judge their entire lives by how they feel in the moment is crucial, as is the idea that just like ocean waves, there will be an inexorable ebb and flow. Some days the fragments of the puzzle that is their lives will fit easily as if it was meant for a preschooler and on others they will feel as if they are putting together one that the box tells them has 100 pieces and #98 and #99 are missing.

Elizabeth Lesser; author, teacher, and co-founder of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, shares stories of redemption in her 2004 release called Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

She says, “How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.” 

The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr is the consummate example of the concept:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference”

What if we came to accept change as part and parcel of this human existence, rather than avoiding it?

Consider the case of a gay man whose drug addicted father demeaned and abused him throughout his life for his choices, both personal and professional. Now he is a successful socially conscious entrepreneur who nearly a year ago married a man who has been his partner for almost two decades. These accomplishments didn’t happen overnight and not without a great deal of symbolic surgery that had him cutting away the emotional necrosis to which the abuse contributed.

An octogenarian survived the Blitzkrieg in London during World War II, being sent away without warning or explanation, ostensibly for her protection, married a man with whom she lived in an abusive relationship; came to the United States and raised her four children as a single mother. She became a well-respected professional in the therapeutic, addictions and broadcast fields. She met the love of her life nearly 30 years ago and midway into their relationship he was diagnosed with cancer. She did what she called “care sharing” for him until he died two years ago. Her poignant words about her loss, ring true for many who feel broken because of loss. “I was prepared for his death, but I wasn’t prepared to live without him.” She continues to be an active professional, a devoted mother and grandmother, supportive friend and since the death of her sweetheart has accumulated six tattoos as a tribute to their love.

Both of these people are resilient thrivers who acknowledge their wounds and like the mentor of the second person, Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning, they have made a conscious choice to transform trauma into growth. One powerful tool is simply acknowledging their inevitable human emotions.

As a therapist, I have encouraged clients to imagine floating downstream, not fighting the tide and noticing their emotions like leaves and twigs on its surface. As they do, they can take note, “There goes my fear, my anger, my sadness,” without attempting to clean them up. When they do this, they are better able to traverse what might otherwise seem like rapids in which they will capsize and drown.

In a Psych Central article entitled “Are Our Hearts Hardwired To Heal Our Heads?”, the concept of Broken heart syndrome, also referred to as “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” was discussed. This stress- related medical condition is often brought on by loss, Tako tsubo, are octopus traps that resemble the pot-like shape of the wounded heart. Once shattered, a life may not be able to be put back together as it once was. Creating a new normal is the optimal and necessary direction to take. When clients have expressed feeling heartbroken, the therapeutic process takes into consideration the ways in which they can reassemble the fragments into a beautiful mosaic.

Interviewing others elicited their wisdom on the topic:

“To me being broken seems and feels hopeless. Not able or willing to be repaired or healed. Closed. Shut down. Broken open is ready for the initiation. Seen, vulnerable. Brought down to your knees and ready willing and able to climb that mountain. To ride the waves to begin to heal. Seat belts on.”

“Being broken is when life hits you with a baseball bat. Examples are when you get fired from your job, you have to move due to lack of money. Or to find out your husband cheated on you, or another is the loss of a dear loved one. Broken open is a spiritual awareness that takes over and one heals and grows from all the negative experiences. Broken open is when the angels step in and show you the way to the light. I know as many do, just call on your soul and slowly life has a whole new meaning.”

“Broken open: you were closed. Which is not usually a good thing. Emotionally not in touch with yourself or with others. Being broken open is a good thing. Broken, is something that requires fixing. If your heart is broken, it no longer works. It can’t do its job, which is to love. Or, in some cases, to live.”

“Broken — curveballs or depression, playing the victim. People can live a lifetime in this state. Broken open — you can’t breathe, deep and profound loss/human experience (soul lessons) for your soul’s greatest growth! Dark night of the soul…Phoenix rising…moves you to work from a space of love and accelerates spiritual advancement/enlightenment!”

“I broke when my husband passed away, but was determined I would be broken open to new possibilities in life. Not another person in my life, just open to another kind of life.”

“Depending on how you manage it, the same experience could be a breakdown or a breakthrough! I always appreciated breaking open as breakthroughs — breakthroughs to better well-being.”