Whether you’ve read the book or not, you’ve likely heard the term “lean in” used when talking about the art of mastering the work-life balance. Coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book with the same title, “leaning in” is an approach to realizing yourself as a professional. It is about being brave in asserting yourself in the workplace, being honest with yourself and your colleagues, and embracing your reality. Leaning in encourages us to take on challenges, while still being mindful of your colleagues, and striking a balance between your personal and professional life.
I wonder, however: If we are leaning in all the time, are we really allowing ourselves to fully be aware of our environment? Are we, at times, losing sight of some of the things that truly matter? Are we missing out on important changes in our relationships and our inner lives because of such a tight focus on a specific goal?
What do I mean by that? Recently, I was speaking to an Ayurvedic physician at the Chopra Center about a personal struggle I was experiencing. His advice to me? “Expand your awareness.”
I had no idea what that meant, or how it applied to me. So, I went on a search. I meditated, then started a mindfulness based stress reduction course, where I heard about it again. This time, it was in the context of meditation and awareness of our breath, our bodies, thoughts, and feelings. Some of the practices I began to do really helped me tune into both my internal and external environment in a way that was unintentional and natural.
For example: I was not listening for something specific, looking for something, or tuning things out for the purpose of a very focused task. I was just open to experiences and sensations. This helped me tune into things during my meditations that I normally would not notice. Things like sounds, or how my body felt. Aches, pleasant feelings, a tightness in my throat if I was feeling sad or fearful, or a heat in my chest if I was upset. Doing so helped me better identify bodily sensations and correlate them to my thoughts and feelings. It helped me deconstruct a pattern I was in. I was again recently presented with a challenge that was very personal and difficult to cope with. Unfortunately, I had “fallen out” of my meditation, yoga and self-care routine at the time. After working very hard to problem-solve and realizing that I am running up against the same barriers each time (note: constructive problem-solving undoubtedly has a role and purpose), I decided to lean back. I decided to practice meditation and yoga routinely, to expand my awareness to all aspects of my life, to the beauty of life, to my family members and friends. I made a conscious effort to engage in things and activities that I normally wouldn’t have, to experiment with visiting new places in my city, to spend more time connecting with people in a meaningful way. I expanded my awareness through my routines and my engagement with many exciting things the world has to offer. It slowly helped me get “out of my head”, re-examine my purpose, and enjoy the moment. It helped me be mindful about my choices (choices that we make every day about how we feel, how we behave and react to circumstances – favorable or unfavorable) and helped me be less fearful and critical of my actions by putting things into perspective.
Expanding your awareness to the environment and the people around you will help you gain a better insight into the people you interact with and why they do things they do, as well as any changes happening within yourself and others. It will help you develop a tolerance, because it allows you to look at things from a distance, but with empathy. You become an observer who is close enough to understand the situation, but far enough not to be too attached or biased.
When an issue presents itself, your reaction is likely to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” Instead, shift your perspective. Think, “This problem is a great opportunity for me to learn something new and expand my skills.” Of course, I know this is much easier said than done, and it is a process that usually does not happen overnight. I have been there, and I can guarantee you, I’ll be there again. But practicing skills of mindfulness and leaning back helps us gain the perspective and ability to detach, observe, and act confidently, rationally and with inner peace.
For example, let’s say you’ve had an argument with someone you’re close with. Maybe it’s a friend, your partner, or someone you work with. It’s easy to push ahead without evaluating the situation, assuming that their negative reaction was all about you, and had nothing to do with other factors that might be contributing to their current state. But stopping for a moment to lean back and see the situation from the other person’s perspective can bring a new awareness to the disagreement that you’ve had. You’ll feel more compassion and understanding for this person by expanding your awareness of what other people are going through, rather than thinking that every action is directed at you
You may wonder: If I am leaning back too far, what if I fall off the corporate ladder (or a branch in the “jungle”, as Sandberg would call it) due to my lack of focus and ambition?
In his book 10% Happier, author and former ABC anchor Dan Harris examines the idea that as one gets more “zen” and accepting of his or her environment, they become more at risk of losing motivation and high achieving qualities. I have also often wondered if this is true. Does equanimity, that internal sense of calm, truly have to mean the loss of ambition? Loss of that drive that propels us forward in our careers, educational achievements, social circles, and makes us strive to achieve our personal best? Or, on the contrary, does it give us the clear focus and the confidence to make decisions, to cultivate an inner strength and peace that helps us be the best version of ourselves?
Is there a way to balance the two, and swing back and forth, like a pendulum, between a proactive, highly focused mindset, and an observant, non-reactive and “big picture” mindset? Now, Dan Harris is an advocate for meditation as a way to achieve a greater sense of happiness, relief from stress, and a healthy way to cope with our busy, critical minds. If we can achieve this, there is no doubt we can live life with more clarity, focus, and insight.
But I still sometimes wonder what the perfect balance looks like. How do we achieve that equilibrium? And perhaps, is finding a way to work with what we have to achieve this mindful, compassionate, clear state the purpose of our existence?
Let’s have a discussion. I invite you to comment here on whether you think taking a step back, rather than acting, has helped you in some way. Has being and observing, rather than doing, helped you overcome a difficult situation in life or reach a goal?
 Ayurveda is an ancient system of healing that originated in India approximately 5000 years ago. It emphasizes natural approaches of restoring mind and body balance.
I am going through a hard time. My nephew died in an accident and I lost my job in the same week. My mind is trying to rationalize both but my face looks like a mine field blew up so I know that mind and body are not in sync. The more I try to think through everything in a calm, rational way the worse the nightmares get. I sit and try to acknowledge my grief and fears expecting that to help me with this process. But rational thought is not working. Your article helped me see that I need to lean back, open my awareness and listen to what my body is trying to tell me. I have been exercising to releive some of the stress but I look forward to adding yoga and meditation to my routine. Thank you for giving me directions on my journey.
I am trying to do this with my 22-year old son. He wants to work for the NYPD abs go into the Air Force. His heart is in the right place but I hate it. We use to fight but now I take a deep breath and we talk instead. I need to walk away, focus, breathe, and go back to it. It’s hard though lol. I do use it in my daily life as well, but obviously he’s the most important “project” of mine. Great article. ?
I have been grappling this a lot lately, so thanks for this post. I used to not have a balance / mindfulness practice at all, and was so focused on climbing the “ladder” and “leaning in” that I lost sight of everything including my self-care.
But after a huge shift in perspective, I’m now on the other side of the pendulum and see that work actually isn’t everything – other things in life are much more important. With this perspective shift, I lost passion for my work and what I was doing. It didn’t fulfill me / seem important anymore.
So now I am trying to bring the pendulum to more of an equilibrium. I am trying to find the perfect balance between being mindful / calm / not reactionary and being strong / motivated / productive. I used to be a machine, but I was miserable inside. Now I am less passionate and strong-minded.
Sometimes I wonder if meditation and mindfulness is making me soft / complacent. Or maybe it’s just making me more alert to my feelings and helping me get to what I’m actually passionate about. Hard to tell at this point!
Wonderful advice! Thank you for the reminder. It’s much needed currently in our country.
YES! I love this. When I was very young my parents taught me to step back, to literally and physically take a step back, whenever I’m faced with a difficult situation or challenge. I’ve learned that this affords me the opportunity to see a point of view that would likely otherwise have been missed.
I am going to try this. Had a disagreement today with my husband of 37 years and did not like how it felt. Am trying to balance my life by adding yoga to my 3 times a week spin classes. Need to learn to let go of some things. Thank you for this insight. And yo your husband for posting it on Twittet.
This is definitely something to think about especially in this crazy world we live in. I like how you use your own experiences to illustrate your points.
For most of my life and career I definitely leaned in, sometimes to the point of stressing out. It has taken a lot of soul searching (and age) to change that mind set. For too many years my reaction to even professional criticism was to take it personally and respond in kind. That led to unpleasant situations and often to no resolution. I don’t meditate per se but I do like to take some time to myself either in the hot tub (my guilty pleasure) or over a cup of tea. It has helped me take that step back and realize that people don’t usually mean to be hurtful. Sometimes it’s about what they are going through in their own lives and has nothing to do with me. I can’t control their feelings or words I can only control my own. I now try to take the time to listen and understand more. This has helped my reaction be more tempered and involves much less yelling and crying. Life is just happier that way. The only one I was hurting before was myself. I admit I still have trouble dealing with some of the truly nasty people in the world (the internet seems to be populated with many) but….baby steps.
I am a listener, not a doer, by nature, so it usually is not a problem for me. I find myself always having to take a step back in order to evaluate any situation. Within my own personal crisis’, stepping back takes me out of the equation and helps me focus on another perspective than my own. I am able to make better decisions this way. For goals and work success; if something isn’t making me happy then I have to reevaluate, again stepping back helps me here too. It is not a quick process but making decisions for Your own personal and professional reasons should never be rushed. I “lean back”.
“Being and observing” rather than doing has most certainly helped me overcome a difficult situation in life. Or, to be more accurate, being and observing has helped me to live. I am 70 years old and have suffered from depression since childhood. In the most difficult teen years I was so lost that I even attempted to end my life. It took much effort and searching (yes, doing!) to find balance – equanimity – in my life. And I can say with certainty, as much certainty as shifting sands can allow, that pausing – simply being – is the foundation for that equanimity. That is not to say that I do not still suffer from depression from time to time, or enjoy all of the other difficulties or hardships to which we humans are all subject. But through the practice of mindfulness, whether on a cushion or while washing dishes, we become aware – aware of what is happening now. And that awareness allow us to pause, to stop or, as you say, to lean back – if only for a moment! – and we can “let it be”. We can accept what is happening now and life moves on with less resistance – more balance. Wow! don’t mean to sound too “new-agey”. Nothing is magic. This mindfulness takes practice – lots of practice – and moving on with equanimity happens most often at a glacial pace. But over time that pace builds capacity – to be, to observe, to pause. And, for me, that’s made all the difference. Thank you so much, Dr. Bojana, for sharing your work and your understanding with us.
I was excelling in my corporate career when I became pregnant with my daughter. I rushed thru my maternity leave and most definitely “Leaned in”to my career which left me stressed and angry all the time… after my declining health forced me to take a leave from my job I sought out alternative therapy and found meditation and yoga which literally saved me. My former colleagues would say I lost my drive but I found myself… and I am more driven today to build my business than I ever was working in corporate America. Lean back it just may save your life
I think, whatever approach we take, it’s important to acknowledge that we will fail at times but that doesn’t make us failures. So often we can feel that everyone else is doing so much better than us whereas the reality may be that they are struggling with feelings of inadequacy – I was heartened by your willingness to accept the times you have had a setback.
I think we probably need a balance – there are times when we have the mental and physical energy to reach out and achieve new goals and times when our energies are more suited to openness and opportunity. A bit like the whole of society – we need creators but we need sustainers as well – perhaps our individual lives need both as well.
The times where I have stepped back and examined things have usually been times when I have physically removed myself from a situation. Taking the time to reevaluate and basically breathe has been so beneficial. I enjoyed your article a great deal, and I will try to be more proactive in employing leaning back in the future.
This resonates a lot lately. I have found myself “leaning back” to consider where someone else is coming from, to really listen to what they are saying. I have found it to be very helpful as I can then respond with questions to help me understand better and be more accepting to a difference of opinion rather than “reacting” from the gut. (Especially in today’s political climate!) It has also helped me in a group I volunteer with to consider the larger scope of the problems we are addressing so we can focus on where we CAN make a difference instead of beating our heads against where we cannot.
PS – just found your site – love it!
Thank you for sharing Tracy! And thank you for your feedback 🙂
I have habit of jumping forward, and then realizing I should have stepped back. Thank you for reminding me to step back.
The first two paragraphs hit me right where I live .Have lived most of my life. I did accomplish in my early twenties to over come being extremely shy. I have struggled with bullying for most of my life, and this past year I found myself being bullied at work. It was brought to a head when I found myself in rehab for other issues but the added pressure drove me to a mental breakdown. I pushed everything down inside of me for so long I had no energy to pull myself out of it. I got the help I needed, but when I got back to work I found myself constantly on guard with these two people. I tried so hard to take the high road, telling myself I was the bigger person. Not to stoop to there level. ” It wasn’t until I finally slowed down and remembered what I was taught in rehab about being worth it , and not to let anyone treat me that way. Continue to journal, to challenge myself and more importantly to take care of myself first. I thank you for this article. I will add it to my arsenal in keeping me on the road to peace within myself. Gail
Thank you for sharing your story Gail. Journaling and taking care of ourselves is important and helpful in finding that peace and grounded state. Furthermore when we take care of ourselves and take the time to reflect and process information, we can take better care of the people around us, do our job better, and cultivate compassion. I wish you all the best on your journey!
Stepping back and listening to others, thinking before acting…these are things we should all be doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s trying to climb the corporate ladder, working on relationships at home or with friends, or having political discussions. We MUST listen to each other first and react with empathy and love instead of hate.
I don’t think there is ever perfect balance but that is OK!!! Equilibrium in life like the body shifts slightly back and forth and to attempt perfect balance adds an element of stress that we can eliminate if we accept it’s ok to not be perfect. Yes, you should be observant to your environment and the people in it, and not selfishly barging through life to achieve only your own goals. Helping others achieve theirs gives you perspective on your inner self and a calmness of being that can not be achieved by “leaning in”.
I’m Amir’s on a busy stressful demanding progressive care unit I have found that practicing the mindfulness and leaning back not only helps me see the whole picture for me and my patients but also helps me be more effective and productive in my day
Thank you for sharing Melanie! I also find, and often hear from patients and colleagues that mindfulness, and setting the intention overall help with being more grounded, centered, compassionate and effective at the task at hand.
Very interesting thoughts – thx ????. I definitely tend to take things personally and already I can see that the last person who attacked me has lots of concerns that must have affected his modus operandi. Could it be that we women need to practice this more than men? As first generation female executive we are challenged…
Thank you for sharing Birgitte. Definitely something to be aware of and examine when we get into these situations.
I just found your website! My doctor, a fellow internist in Texas, gave me your website, specifically this blog entry. Last year, a week after my husband’s 40th birthday, he passed away from a rare and aggressive form of cancer – chondrosarcoma. I had just completed my Ed.D. in special education, had moved into a position at a large university as a BCBA-D to continue my studies and research in learning and behavior techniques for children with autism. My husband passed so unexpectedly (even to his medical team) that it shook the very foundation of my life, as well as the lives of my two teenage daughters. Many doctors wanted to put me on one medicine after another. While I have no objections to medications if they are necessary, I felt my stresses and anxieties were more circumstantial than anything else. My husband and I were college sweethearts. He passed four months before our 20th wedding anniversary. I dream of him each night, only to awake to reality. My mind has been consumed with what life was like before his death and what life is like now. These techniques have helped me start my day with the proper perspective. With each day, I feel that the “grief brain fog” is lifting. I appreciate your posts and look forward to more!
Thank you so much for sharing your story Julianne. I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds as though you are finding your strength and resilience during one of the most difficult times that we find ourselves in – loss of our loved one. I often turn to the work and talks by Pema Chodron and Jon Kabat-Zinn at times of change, challenge and loss. I am glad to hear that the posts have been helpful, and hope that the fog continues to lift, and eventually becomes a remote cloud in the sky.
Dr. Bojana I am reading this article again, because I am going through a very hard period of my life! My mother died before Christmas (2017 year), I’m trying to find a job, the firm when I was working went to bancrupcy…. I am 45 year old, married, but I miss my basic Family (mydad died before 10 years ago), I have a brother, but all of these circumstances make me very vulnerable. Your article give an fantastic objective perspective how to deal with hard life times and find a peace into ourselves! Thank you for this article, it helps me to deal with my own thoughts in a positive way!
In the past I had struggled with meditation but earlier this year I did a confidence course and in this was shown properly how to do it along with other exercises and things to do and I have certainly found that this has helped me learn to deal with things that come up in my life a lot easier, as well as helped me come to terms and put away some of the more difficult things that have happened in my childhood and a bit later in my life as well.
In my life some things have happened that have been really difficult to get through especially during my childhood, as well as when I was also being a carer for my Nan. At that time I did make an attempt to do meditation but really didn’t think it was helping, then earlier this year I was able to do a confidence course where I was finally taught how to do meditation properly as well as some other exercises and I have now found that it has really helped me to put some of those things to bed and helped me to move on from it.