6th October 2015
Long before Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook made popular the term with the title of her excellent book, “Lean In”, I had a different experience of the phrase.
My encounters with the term stem from the Therapeutic/Coaching/Counselling world where “Lean into the discomfort” sets the challenge to those in my field to remain real, present, authentic, and empathetic, when we are faced with either our own distress, or that of a client. Rather than running away from something scary, getting busy, making excuses, laughing it off, saying something scathing, (pick your avoidance strategy), “lean into the discomfort” is the reminder to turn towards whatever is disagreeable, uncomfortable, conflicted or befuddling, and just let it be. Awfully easy to say, and terribly hard to do.
I have made progress though. I have learned to get curious when I haven’t got a clue what to say or do next in a coaching session. I have gone from looking like a gasping fish out of water, to saying, (out loud because, let’s face it, I am an extrovert), “Gosh – I haven’t a clue how to respond!”
I have learned to simply notice the symptoms of abject horror (blood rushing out of my body – or so it feels) as my mind goes blank, whether in a one-to-one or more public setting. And just let the pause get longer…and longer… until something happens. I am not saying it’s easy or fun, but it is more freeing than thrashing myself inside and out with an invisible whip.
I have also made progress in encouraging and supporting clients to experience their own discomfort, not rushing to help or to comfort them, but just letting their emotions run their course. I have gone from believing I was “good” and “helpful” with people in distress because I found it easy to calm and soothe them, to realising that I was preventing any growth from occurring by effectively quashing the emotion that was there. I now know that the best I can do for anyone experiencing strong emotions is to provide safe space, and to trust in myself and the other person.
Learning to allow the energy of an emotion to move through has been invaluable to my personal development too. The expression “Emotion is energy in motion” rings true to me – after all, when I feel joyous and happy, I definitely feel movement and energy bouncing around, inside and outside my body.
And I have come to recognise that the less pleasant emotions (I have learned not to call them “negative” emotions or “bad” emotions) also need to be experienced and allowed full expression.
In the past month a very dear friend from university days has died after an exceedingly painful battle with cancer. Don was one of those rare friends with whom everything was easy and simple, no games, no complexity – just kindness, tolerance, sincerity and acceptance. Despite having lived continents apart for the past two decades, I feel the gap left by the man who was probably my closest male friend.
And at the same time, one of my siblings is dying – my younger brother Edward. Cancer that couldn’t be more different to Don’s – one that will simply shut down Edward’s organs because it’s in his brain, and the brain governs all. We don’t know how long he has and are just hoping that when deterioration and faculty loss come, that it’s swift and pain-free.
I visit Ed most days and it’s hard work. It is work – very definitely work. It takes a lot of time because he’s quite a trek from where I live. It’s much harder for me to do this work than almost anything I have come across in my professional days. I don’t feel skilled at visiting him. I am nervous each time I arrive, wondering how I will find him, and how I will react. I pull myself together as I park my car and walk towards the lift that will take me to the fourth floor in his palliative care unit. I make myself breathe deeply and notice the discomfort I feel – sometimes I even allow it.
Mostly I want the feelings to go away – the sadness, the despair, the worry for all of us affected. It’s hard to really lean in and let it be. I want to thrash it away – this “discomfort”. I want to absorb myself in another activity where I feel competent; I want to run away.
And yet I can also feel glad of this work, this experience. As with any trying time, I am learning – about myself, about my clients, about people and humanity, life and death, love and fear.
I do know that there will be – there is already – a silver lining to all of this hardship – I truly believe that. I also know that even though my brother’s illness and inevitable death is causing intense pain and sadness to so many, much like Sheryl Sandberg said after her husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly this year, I still choose this experience of him than not have him in my life. The experiences I have had with Ed these past few months have been richer and “real-er” than many I have had with him over his 46 years.
Pause for thought
- Where do you allow emotions to show up in your leadership?
- When do you share what is going on for you emotionally? Demonstrating vulnerability with others builds trust faster than does any pretence of coping perfectly.
- If you knew that people are essentially emotional – rather than rational – beings, what would you think feel?
- Next time you feel discomfort, allow it to be and get curious as to what its message is.
- Notice your natural tendency around uncomfortable emotions – what are your ways of dealing – or not dealing – with them? What works and what doesn’t?
- Be curious about others’ emotional reactions, and encourage them to experience whatever comes up. Not judging others’ emotional reactions not only makes us kinder towards them, but also kinder to ourselves.