Lean Into Your Discomfort

Getting to work this morning was an obstacle course. On Friday there was snow. 18 inches of snow. On Sunday some of it melted and turned into slush. Today it’s raining and 52 degrees.  The slush is a mix of slush-ice and deep puddles. It means walking on the road, then moving to the sidewalk, then slipping a little and going back to the road. And all the while I kept on thinking of the mantra “Lean into your discomfort.”

“Lean into your discomfort” – just get up and do it, walk through the hazards, plow through the slush, slip through the ice. Don’t sit at home, don’t refuse to go out, don’t deny that it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant – lean into the discomfort.

Lean into your discomfort. How do I lean into my discomfort so that I can come out the other side?

Google the phrase and you get a million, seven hundred and fifty thousand hits. This is a phrase that people use a lot. It is the social worker’s mantra – Lean into your discomfort. Don’t deny the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration.

There are times when leaning into my discomfort is less complicated than others. Today is a perfect example. I just had to do it, I had to navigate the weather-induced obstacle course to get to work. Other times leaning into my discomfort is so painful I want to anesthetize the process with whatever I can, whether it be sleep, or food, or denial, or putting so much activity into my life that I don’t have to think about the discomfort.

But ultimately, I have to do it.

I think back to coming to this country as a third culture kid, fresh off the boat. FOBs we call them. I knew so little about life in the United States. I didn’t know how to shop for myself, or navigate Chicago’s public transportation system. I wasn’t sure how to dress for winter, wearing clogs through sleet, snow and ice, soaking my feet through. I didn’t even know how to eat, so I went from a curvy teen to an overweight nursing student.

And I certainly didn’t know the phrase “Lean into your discomfort”.

This entry process repeated itself at 36 years old when my husband and I moved our family to the United States — Five kids, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat named Pharaoh. I didn’t know how to parent in the United States. I didn’t know how to shop for groceries or connect with the parent-teacher organization. I wasn’t sure what the unspoken rules were about play dates and birthday parties. I was unfamiliar with social cues and norms.

I wish I had known the phrase “Lean into your discomfort”. This phrase works for me. It doesn’t deny the process, it doesn’t diminish the pain. Instead it challenges me that in leaning into the pain, the discomfort, the confusion, the grief, we learn to walk. First in baby steps, then in regular steps, finally in giant steps.

The steps are like playing the childhood game of  “Mother May I?”

“Mother may I take three giant steps” says the child. And the one who is ‘Mother’ says “No but you can take three baby steps” or “No but you can take one scissor step”. The goal is to reach ‘mother’ who is at the end of the court. When ‘Mother’ isn’t looking, the child on the court tries to sneak a couple more steps in, wanting to reach the goal faster. Leaning into our discomfort is sometimes like asking for giant steps and getting baby steps; or asking for baby steps and being told we have to take a giant step — only our legs are short and our giant steps feel small.

It can be a long process. But the more we lean, the less we try to gloss over and pretend it’s all okay; the less we sit defeated, mourning the life we find ourselves in. The more we face our feelings and circumstances, the quicker we arrive at a place of understanding, at a place that is more comfortable.

I’m at work now, the temporary discomfort of weather is outside and feels much farther than mere steps away. Other discomfort will come today, because that is life. But the thing about leaning into our discomfort is that the more we lean, the taller we stand and the braver we become.

How will you lean into your discomfort today? How have you in the past? 


Stacy was in my neighborhood on Saturday and I missed her! The world is small for the expat and TCK and she moved her daughter just blocks from where I live. Today’s muffin recipe sounds like it came from a kitchen in the south as opposed to an expatriate who lives in Dubai! It is Sweet Potato Brown Sugar Muffins and while you are reading this Stacy is flying back to Dubai! Take a look and see what you think. They look amazing!

19 thoughts on “Lean Into Your Discomfort

  1. Leaning In is my word of the year. I typically don’t pick a word much less blog about it. My acknowledged leaning in comes after a 4 year return from 13 plus years in East Asia. Suffering from transitions and burn out, I was just about too tired to lean but lean on others I did. Leaning in toward God, leaning into Him. I didn’t associated the phrase directly to difficulties and changes and circumstances though how often I have. Two years ago when my husband had serious health issues we leaned in a lot to get us emotional and spiritual through it.


    1. I was so glad you linked to your BEAUTIFUL blog. You are an artist! It was a joy to both look at and read. It’s a good phrase you’ve picked for this year — and I can so relate with so much of your story. I’m really glad you came by and I look forward to reading more from you.


  2. This is such a good reminder. This phrase works for me too : ) It is such a helpful way to view challenges. I love that you acknowledge baby steps in it as well, and that those matter too. I will lean into the discomfort of whatever it is for 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, or a day or week or whatever, and then breathe, rest, and do it again.


    1. Yeah – baby steps are huge. You know I think of babies when they are learning to walk and how critical even crawling is to ultimately being able to walk steadily and properly. I think that’s what it’s like for us going through discomfort and moving through it, not around it or over it. I like your picture of leaning for 15 minutes – then breathing, then doing it again. Thank you for coming by! So glad you did.


  3. Such wisdom here, Marilyn! I had to lean into discomfort in a huge way when my sister died two summers ago. I just *had* to get through that time — there was no way around the memorial service, the burial, the grief, the family, the hugs — and also had to make it a good time, a time where I honored God, a time where we grieved well and for God’s glory.


    1. I remember hearing about Julia’s death and thinking of you and your mom. She was the age of one of my kids and you can’t help but hug your kids a bit tighter. Part of grieving well I think is about leaning into the discomfort. Thanks for sharing this. I still think of how you must miss her.


  4. Once again, Marilyn has written a post just for me and it annoys me. Leaning into my discomfort is too uncomfortable today. We’re back from a month of India and a Canadian Christmas. Our hearts were so full. We had so much joy. Returning to cold and snow, housework and homework my heart sinks and I feel empty and weary. Leaning into it feels like I might lean right over and collapse. The promise of hot coffee on the other side isn’t motivation enough either…. I want masala chai and hot roti!


    1. That first sentence sounds harsh….what I really meant is that this particular post once again rings so true for me! Marilyn….you don’t annoy me!


    2. I read this just now and have this urge to giggle uncontrollably — not least because we are so much alike. I am a total hypocrite about both belonging and leaning. I don’t want to do it. I want to head to Logan Airport with my credit card and my tooth brush and leave. Just.Leave. I will leave no forwarding address and frankly, I don’t even need the tooth brush. So – really I wrote the post for me because I’m such a dang hypocrite.


      1. You could lean into that!!! Love you friend….Miss you! 2014 is the year when we will meet again….I can look forward to that!


  5. I did a lot of figurative “leaning in” while traveling back to Dubai, all because of that same snow storm. The airports were heaving with humanity, all trying to get somewhere after the cancelation of flights. Like moving to a new and unfamiliar city, air travel is all about flexibility, adaptability and keeping your sense of humor. I love that last photo! I’d keep walking, even in the snow, to get inside there, Marilyn!


    1. Love those words “The airlines were heaving with humanity…” What a great description of cancelled flights and weary travelers. That last photo is right close to where your Victoria now lives. When I see the ‘hot coffee’ sign at any time of the day or night, I know I’m almost home. I can lean a little more!


  6. First, I wouldn’t know where to begin in all that snow! Second, I appreciate that this post isn’t about Sheryl Sandberg (although I read the book). It reminds me that being uncomfortable is okay, even though it can feel so… uncomfortable.


    1. I had to go and google Sheryl Sandberg ‘lean in’! While I know who she is, I’d no idea she wrote a book called Lean in :) So much for displaying my TCK lack of knowledge about many things in the US! so – first off I am so glad you came by the other day – love your blog and can’t wait to look at more on your site. Think about doing a guest post for Communicating Across Boundaries. More on that later. Second – yes. It is dreadful and uncomfortable and as would happen, just like the belonging post, I am thinking why the heck did I write this because now I have to think about living it….So there you have it. And I don’t know where to begin or end in the snow – but the picture is our favorite local restaurant here in Cambridge and gives me great warmth looking at it!


Add to the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s