Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has created quite a stir among professional women attempting to figure out how to achieve professional success without sacrificing personal fulfillment. In her book, Sandberg urges and counsels women to take a seat at the table rather than staying on the sidelines, believe in themselves, and reach for challenges and opportunities. Effectively, she advises them to “lean in” to their careers.
I believe the concept of “leaning in” is worth examining more broadly. How do you approach your work, your passions, your strengths, your relationships, yourself, your life? Do you lean in or do you respond in some other way?
With my background in cultural anthropology, I’m fascinated by how people show up: with themselves, with other people, in their work, in their lives. And I’ve noticed a marked difference in the way people respond to and in tough times. If you’ve experienced a personal tragedy of some kind, you’ve likely noticed this yourself: some people step up and show up while others slink back or turn away. Some people are virtually unwavering in their friendship, almost unfailing in providing support or sharing love when you need it most. Sometimes they need to be asked, other times, they proactively offer support even when you don’t. In that same moment, other people fade into the background, shut down, even walk away. And it can feel completely devastating to be on the receiving end of that, to have someone who you thought loved you and cared about you deeply shut down and shut you out.
What causes them to do that?
Why would anyone be so uncaring and unkind to someone they supposedly love?
When we aren’t comfortable with our own emotions, we don’t show up well in situations that activate them. We can’t reliably be there for people who are experiencing emotions we haven’t learned to be with within ourselves. And when we can’t handle imagining ourselves in a situation someone else is facing, we can’t unwaveringly be present with them. To get close to someone else’s pain, we have to be willing to experience our own. To not be triggered by someone else’s anger, we have to come to terms with our own. To be present with someone else’s grief, we have to be able to be with our own.
I know as well as anyone that we are all human and each of us has moments when we don’t show up for people we care about in the way we wish we could. I’ll give you a personal example: an incredibly dear friend of mine had a daughter just over 8 years ago. When her daughter was born, she was immediately placed on life support: feeding tubes, a ventilator, eventually a tracheostomy. Her daughter was in such dire shape that she was in the NICU (the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) for the first three and a half months of her life. They didn’t know what was wrong with her initially. They said that she would have some brain damage. They ran all kinds of diagnostic tests. Ultimately, they determined that she had congenital myotonic dystrophy, a genetic form of muscular dystrophy. I went to visit my friend, Lisa, a few times while her daughter, Kayla, was in the NICU. But I didn’t have a lot of compassion to offer Lisa during this incredibly traumatic and difficult time in her life. I wanted to be supportive. I wanted to help her through this. I wanted to let her know that I would do anything to help. But I didn’t have it in me. It hit too close to home for me. You see, I have an older brother who is disabled. The doctors never had a clear diagnosis for him: developmental delays, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders that ranged from bipolar to OCD to manic depressive. He has been under psychiatric care his entire life. During my childhood, a lot of my parents’ energy (positive and negative) was focused on my brother. And I felt like I needed to be perfect and not make waves. I also felt overwhelmed by my brother’s behavior, and spent a lot of time away from home so that I could be away from him. And when Kayla was born, I was in the throes of feeling burdened by what felt like an obligation to take care of my brother for the rest of his life. I wanted to be there for Lisa. I regret that I wasn’t, and I have told her so. But at the time, showing up to visit her a few times was all I could manage. I hadn’t really dealt with all my own emotions about my brother, and so I didn’t show up with an open heart for my friend, Lisa.
We are all confronted with difficult situations: situations in our lives and in the lives of people we love. The solution — the way through, the path to healing and wholeness — isn’t, though, to avoid situations that feel really difficult or turn away from them when they show up. The solution is to show up, even when it’s hard, and to trust that the situation will help us grow into the kind of person who is able to lean in when others need us most.
How have you been choosing to show up in your life? Are you able to sit there, holding someone as they grieve? Can you be with someone else’s anger without needing to fight back or run from it? Can you stand in the center of the fire with other people — experiencing the helplessness and heartache and sadness and confusion — and not shrink back? Are you choosing to lean in?
Next time you see someone in pain and feel the desire to turn and run, try this instead:
- First… take a deep breath
- Ask yourself what kind of a person you really want to be: what will support you to feel proud of who you are, how you have treated people, how you have shown up in your life
- Check in with yourself and get in touch with the emotion you are feeling (or trying desperately to avoid feeling)
- Find compassion for that part of you that is scared of feeling that emotion, scared that it will completely overwhelm you, afraid that you will be irrevocably swept away by it.
- Connect with God or Spirit or that older, wiser part of yourself that already knows that you actually can handle feeling whatever that emotion is
- Be present with yourself and allow yourself to feel the emotion: remember that emotions come to visit, but not to stay. They are like waves that build and crest and eventually ebb, if we allow them to. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is while you are compassionately present with yourself.
- Take another deep breath
- Now ask yourself what loving action to take
I send my love to Lisa and to all of you who have leaned in when I have needed support.
May we all grow our capacity to be with every part of this experience of being human, so that we can be compassionately present with ourselves and really open-heartedly there for one another.
If you are in pain, my friend, then I am also hurting. We are in this together. And I, for one, am committed to standing in the fire without shrinking back.