Long before Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook made popular the term “Lean In” with the title of her excellent book, I had a different experience of the phrase. My encounters with the term stem from the Coaching world where “Lean into the discomfort” sets the challenge for coaches (and therapists) to remain real, present, authentic, and empathetic, when 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 a reminder to turn towards whatever is disagreeable, uncomfortable, conflicted or befuddling, and just let it be.

Easy to say; terribly hard to do.

I have made progress though.  I have learned to get curious when I haven’t 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 with an invisible whip.

I have also made progress in encouraging and supporting clients to experience their 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 someone, to realising that I was preventing 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.  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.

I recently had the opportunity to practise “Leaning In” daily. When I wrote this article, in October 2015, one of my siblings was dying of a brain tumour.  We didn’t know how long he had and were just hoping that when deterioration and faculty loss came, that it would be swift and pain-free. Until recently, I visited my brother most days in a palliative care hospital (he later moved to a small, comfortable hospice). It was work – very definitely work – to go and see him each day.  It took a lot of time because he was quite a trek from where I live.  It was much harder for me to do this “work” than almost anything I have come across in my professional work.  I didn’t feel skilled at visiting him.  I was nervous each time I arrived, wondering how I would find him, and how I would react.  I had to pull myself together as I parked my car and walked towards the lift that took me to his room on the fourth floor.  I made myself breathe deeply and notice the discomfort I felt – sometimes I even allowed it.  But mostly I wanted the feelings to go away – the sadness, the despair, the worry for all of us affected.  It’s hard to really “lean in” and just be with discomfort.  I wanted to thrash it away – this “discomfort”.  I wanted to absorb myself in another activity where I felt competent; I wanted to run away.

And yet I knew that this leaning in is really important work. Accompanying a dying loved one has to be about the other person – not about me. Yet how could I be fully present when I wasn’t present with myself?

In his last 7 weeks of life, my brother was cared for in a beautiful small, caring hospice. He was closer to dying than he had been when in the hospital, but my visits to him were much easier; in part because more of his emotional needs were being taken care of at the hospice, and in part because my emotional needs were better taken care of. I had more space – we both had more space – to be with each other.

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 has caused intense pain and sadness to many, much like what Sheryl Sandberg said after her husband’s (Dave Goldberg) sudden death last year, I would still choose this experience of him, and this emotional turmoil, than not having him in my life.  The experiences I had with my brother these past few months have been richer and “real-er” than many I had with him over his lifetime.

He died on 10th January this year.

Things will get betterPause 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.