Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘Lean in’ in wellbeing and self-development circles and like me, loved the sound of it. It has a visceral quality, especially if you’re kinesthetically inclined or your love language is touch, leaning in feels warm and connected. If your mind loves getting closer to the truth or the facts or whatever it is you seek then leaning in may sound intriguing and be something you are drawn to from a more intellectually curious position.
However you operate, leaning in is appealing unless of course it’s leaning into discomfort. And then we often feel ourselves taking a back step. Suddenly the fearful watchdog part of the brain is on high alert and the inner voice warns us not to trust this idea. But research is telling us a different story, one of leaning in to discomfort that brings hope and healing.
A skill for the wholehearted
The important research of Dr. Brene Brown teaches us that leaning in to discomfort is an incredibly powerful way to heal old stories and patterns if we are brave enough to be vulnerable and try it.
Dr. Brown’s work confirms that those she describes as ‘wholehearted’ (well adjusted) have the common trait of being able to sit with discomfort and work with it, to get through it. In her words, “It can revolutionize the way you live, the way you love, the way you lead, the way you parent. It has completely changed everything for me.”
Those who haven’t yet learned this skill tend to use avoidant coping mechanisms that often work for a while but eventually catch up with you in some form, often physical in my experience. One question I learned to ask long ago as a trainee naturopath was ‘what was happening for you around the time you developed that (gut issue, cyst, pattern of headaches, pain etc.) Often the physical symptoms would be linked to an emotional trauma or life event and once the connection was made obvious, true healing could begin.
We cannot selectively numb emotions
Another part of Dr. Brown’s work that I love and I think speaks to the concept of Leaning in is her discovery that “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” So when we avoid feeling sadness, grief, anger, frustration, emotional pain of any kind, we also lock away our capacity to feel joy, gratitude and happiness.
A personal teaching moment for me was the day I was walking on the beach about a year after my painful, messy divorce. It was one of those hyper-coloured days. The sea sparkled but the sky was dark and intense, everything seemed dramatic and completely buzzing with aliveness.
My life was in tatters at the time, I had no fixed home address, no job, a flailing business and had been bullied into a child custody situation I wasn’t happy with. I had a new relationship that was deeply soulful but he was located in another country. I was not where I wanted to be on any level of existence.
And yet that day on the beach I simply surrendered to what was real for me, all the moving parts that were outside of my control and how much grief, anger and sadness I had been carrying around. I was broken. But at the same time, I was alive, walking on the most beautiful beach, I had loving people in my life and I knew I was there for my kids despite distance or time constraints.
It was a moment of leaning into the whole lot – the challenges and difficulties as well as the gratitude for what I did have. Ironically, the overarching feeling I am left with when I recall that memory is pure joy, under a blackened stormy sky. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was fleeting and yet incredibly powerful and inspiring.
Two really helpful things to note about the practice of leaning in;
The first comes from a Buddhist Mindfulness approach and it’s the understanding that thoughts and feelings are like clouds. They come and go so there is no need to attach to any particular thought or feeling and imagine it’s our identity or permanent state.
“You are the sky, everything else is just the weather” Pema Chodran
Secondly, the physical peak of these emotions is actually quite short-lived. Around 90 seconds to be precise. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s amazing work after she endured a stroke has brought this to light. I love it because it gives our brains some certainty, even if it’s uncertain how often it will return, it’s helpful knowing the intense peak lasts all of a minute and a half.
As physical beings we are supposed to process and let go of the emotion in this time. In reality we often get stuck in the loop and experience discomfort for a lot longer but knowing our bodies have the capacity to process and let go quickly is just another reason to trust them in helping us heal.
Leaning in can feel like coming home to yourself. Becoming aware of what you’re feeling requires you to be curious, vulnerable and courageous (three of Dr. Brown’s favourite words). Using these words as a starting point, this three-step process can help you to lean in;
What am I feeling?
Starting with the simple question of what do I feel now in this moment, name all the emotions and write them down if you feel like it.
Do I give myself permission to feel everything I’m feeling?
Remind yourself you are safe and have full permission to feel anything and everything then ask if there is anything else you’ve missed, anything not yet uncovered. Often the more shameful feelings are well hidden so ask the question and give yourself permission to allow ALL thoughts and feelings to arise.
Can I bravely and courageously be with these feelings for a little while?
Give yourself space and permission to just be with the feelings as they arise. See if you can do this without shutting down and without becoming attached. You may like to give yourself a short time limit and know that the intensity will come and go but feelings themselves cannot hurt you. This will help you build confidence to be with uncomfortable feelings. Over time, the practice will help build your self-awareness and your ability to move through discomfort quicker and more calmly without shutting it away for a dark and rainy day.
Ideas for practicing leaning in
Lean in to a mood you find yourself experiencing
Lean in and really listen to someone sharing an experience with you
Lean in to an experience of being triggered and reactive
Lean in to boredom (the space between creation)
Lean in to compulsive behaviours or repetitive thoughts
Lean in to a an experience of nature inspired awe or wonder
The best bit is you get to un-numb and experience the whole range of the emotional spectrum which includes some pretty fabulous highs. As I mentioned, my highest high came at one of the darkest times of my life, who knew that leaning into my emotions at such a challenging time would bring a spark of pure joy that went on to light my next steps forward. It can for you too.