Lean In

Discomfort, pain, anxiety, numbness, grief, anger, frustration. Each of these emotions presents an experience most of us don’t like to go through. We feel discomfort and immediately try to make ourselves comfortable. We feel anxious and immediately distract with YouTube or our to-do list. We feel grief and shut down, we feel frustrated and give up, we feel numb and search for stimuli, we feel anger and stuff it deep down inside.

I’ve done this—constantly. I shy away from discomfort, grief, anxiety, frustration, and especially fear. I browse the internet, bury myself in my to-do list, watch YouTube, read a book, or scroll through a mental wellness blog—all in a frantic effort to escape and get back to a happier place and an experience I know I’m capable of handling.

Because why, after all, do we run from discomfort? I believe we do so because we’re not sure we can handle it (see the Further Reading segment below). For some of us, we also run from happiness, joy, contentment, and excitement because we aren’t sure we can handle it or because we are not sure we can handle a downshift from such a height.

As I’ve studied the past months how to deal with my anxiety, the number one thing I’ve found which is both eye-opening and pivotal is that in order to get to a healthier place, you must lean in to your experience, whether you perceive it as positive or negative.

That’s a tall order. Believe me. And it’s one I’d often rather not follow. Why? Because it seems counter-intuitive. How often have you felt sad and had someone say, “Just think of a happy thought”? Or felt anxious and heard, “Relax in a hot bath and stop thinking so much”? Or felt numb and heard, “Just do something you love”?

We aren’t always taught how to deal with those uncomfortable emotions (positive and negative), and the message we receive often tells us to just bull through it, tune out, or stuff it down. Crying is shameful, anger is inappropriate, and anxiety is a sign of weakness. No wonder we have trouble leaning in!

Yet leaning in is part of the path to true freedom, joy, and strength, and even though it’s not always fun, I’ve found the more I lean in, the overall happier and healthier I become.

For example, if I watch something sad and feel grief, instead of turning away from it, I lean into it, welcome it, and allow myself space to grieve. If I feel frustrated, I try to acknowledge that I’m upset and that it’s okay. If I feel a panic attack coming, instead of rushing to distract myself, I turn around and welcome it in. It’s amazing how refusing to run from uncomfortable experiences frees you to grow as a person, accept what is, and learn that not all shadows are cast by something scary.

It’s also good to start slow, especially if you worry you can’t handle the uncomfortable emotions. You don’t need to start by facing a panic attack head-on or sitting with the numbness of your depression. You can start with smaller uncomfortable emotions–ones you usually shoo aside because you don’t want to experience them rather than because you don’t feel you can.

One last piece of advice: Know when to push through. Sitting with an emotion is fine, but the goal is to let it pass through and emerge more whole, healthy, and at peace. For example, sitting with your numbness while severely depressed can be dangerous if you do it by yourself without professional guidance (trust me on that one). It’s important to listen to yourself and know when to stop, take a break, or have someone sit with you.

Challenge!: For this next week, every time you encounter an uncomfortable emotion, practice leaning into it. Keep the suggestions and guidelines above in mind, and know when to move on or ask for help. That said, trust yourself and your ability to handle the bigger emotions (positive or negative). They’re there to help you and are trying to guide you as best they know how. The only way to let them pass through is to stop, face them, and listen.

Further Reading: Sheryl Paul’s work was pivotal in helping me understand the importance of leaning in. I recommend looking through her blog if you want more information on what that looks like!

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