When I look back on my early 20’s, I do so with a sense of embarrassment so profound that my skin crawls. I was so self-centered, so smug, so intolerably all-knowing that I want to go back and punch that girl in the face.

I remember being at a party with friends and disagreeing with an older woman who was there and backing her into a corner with my loud, insistent arguments and laughing with my friends about it later. I never thought that the reason that I “won” that argument might have been that she was kindly letting me yammer on, figuring it wasn’t worth it to waste her breath on a brat.

I know that my experience as a know-it-all is not unique; in fact it is the norm. That stage of life occurs when you have enough experience to think you are wise, but usually haven’t suffered enough to realize that you don’t.

I had been fortunate to go through a life that was largely tragedy-free. Unexpected death,  horrible disease and accidents seemed to pass my family by. Instead, I made up my own dramas and convinced myself that my teen relationships and friendship crises were Big and Important Life Events.

It took my first real heartbreak when I was 24, then another a few years later, to even begin to dent my impenetrable exterior.

In my early 30s, I dated a guy who was emotionally stuck at about age 15. He had grown up with a severely mentally ill mother and an abusive stepfather, and he had a black, sucking vortex of rage that spun around his center, surrounded by a concrete wall of false bravado.

I broke up with him because I couldn’t take it. The few times he let me look past the wall, the chaos within scared the hell out of me. My breaking up with him didn’t seem to affect him much, but his next short relationship shattered him when it ended.

It was only about 3 months long, but he fell suddenly and deeply in love with a woman he thought was perfect and with whom he wanted to marry and have children. She did not return the feeling. When she broke it off, he was inconsolable.

Admirably, he got extensive counseling and worked hard on his problems. We stayed friends and now, 15 years later, he looks younger, healthier and happier than he did when I met him. My opinion is that he may have never made the Velveteen Rabbit-like leap to becoming real if he hadn’t risked and lost his whole heart.

That we love deeply helps make us human. But to love and to lose does something even more profound. It leaves us like a mollusk without a shell, defenseless. That broken state, if we are lucky to have inner resources and if we take the opportunity to change, makes it possible for us to grow beyond our former boundaries in ways that seemed impossible before.

My sister’s death last May wrecked me. I spent the next six months feeling like a TV that was stuck between channels, blankly fuzzing away. She was my best friend, my closest confidante, my mirror-self. She understood me in a way that no one else ever will. I am still trying to figure out how to get through the rest of my life without her and there are times when I don’t really want to keep doing it.

But buried beneath that mountain of crap is a blessing, something to be grateful for. That suffering busted down the wall that was keeping me from feeling real loss, and now I can feel others’ loss almost as keenly as my own. That is a skill that I would have never asked for but that I believe made me more empathetic, a better friend, a better listener, more human. Like my ex-boyfriend and like the Velveteen Rabbit, I am getting more real as time goes by.