Leaning in has become a phrase synonymous with leadership, unafraid to tackle the challenges ahead and making a difference. This quality of leaning in with fearlessness is much needed in a our current society. I have met many bright and intelligent leaders that are willing to take risks, courageous enough to take a stand for what they believe in. But often that fearless quality burns out quickly. Before we can lean in, we need to learn how to lean back first.

Leaning in is often done without an inner resource or mindfulness of ones limits. Having spent the bulk of my career in health care, I have met many intelligent professionals that are leaning in every day, no matter how difficult the challenge or how unthankful their job. The cost can be personal burn out. The degree of disillusionment and compassion fatigue is high in anyone wortking or dealing with other people. We want to do well, be helpful perfom at our best but tackling every day’s hurdles takes a toll. The feeling of failure suffers in the form of quiet shame, the initial idealism of wanting to make a difference withers.

The stress of failing one personal goals and motivations are mirrored in the staggering numbers of stress data. The US, UK, Honk Kong are among the highest in the world.

This is not just work load stress or the demand of modern living. Underlying are the silent disappointments of not living up to the self-set expectations of our dreams and hopes. In the strive to excel we don’t allow for emotional inventory to sense if we are on track with our inner motivations.

Leaning back means coming back to the simplicity of checking in with our body. Learn how to read your inner cues correctly. Feeling tired is a body indicator that there is a need for rest or short pause. An emotional low calls for a re-evaluation of what is needed or requires attention. The body’s wisdom is ever present but where we fail is in continously not trusting these body cues. We have trained ourselves to not listen by being distracted or denying emotional indicators of the body.

Back pain is the number one physical complaint, next to repetitive strains, trips and falls. The body falls, stumbles and hurts meanwhile we are too invested in our goals of achievement. We become blind to the subtle messages of the body that nudges us towards health and wellbeing. Instead we ignore, push beyond boundaries and deny that there is wisdom to be tapping into. Instead we distance, entertain and get away from the body messages.

The body is directly communicating the strain it is in. We can learn to listen to our bodies as our own best friend. We can learn to know exactly what is needed to heal. Even good stress, and yes there is good stress, which can motivate and energize us, becomes too much when we don’t learn to notice what is actually going on in the body.

The attitude of ignoring the body cues are not supported by our basic biology. These attitudes are perceived on a physiological level through the threat system of the body as fight and flight responses. Too much stress and the tipping point is reached into a physiological freezing response. Fuzzy thinking, disrupted sleep, ruminating thoughts, low emotional threshold, irritability, inability to feel are part of the freezing response. The body needs a reset. This is a hard break, that often comes with illness patterns, mental health issue and a deep disconnect from the body.

Freezing is a bio-break your body wants you to take, it helps you to get out of danger. It’s a great survival mechanism but not sustainable for thriving as a species. Bio-breaks are not helpful when we need to perform in work and relationships. We get stressed, overwhelmed and shut down as a consquence. The need to survive will always overwhelm the desire to thrive. Thriving is being in connection with your inner resources.

How do we overcome this cycle? Notice your habit to believe the inner speed demons. Recognize that your addictive tendencies keep you locked into a cycle of striving without true and lasting satisfaction.

There is an almost too simple technique that we can learn to practice: Lean back! Lean back first before you lean in to anything.

Call it a mindful moment or a pause. Learn to interrupt the habit of automaticity of behavior. Start with your body. Lean back first, literally!

When I first learned to listen to people professionally, I was eager to do well and had a habit leaning forward with my whole body. My supervisor would gently place his large hands on my shoulder and move my whole body back in the chair. Without a single word he would remind my body what it already knows: when I am sitting back in myself I have a much broader picture of what is infront of me. Seeing the whole picture, and I can respond thoughtfully rather than react in spur. Leaning forward, the 100%-go-mode attitude will narrow what I can perceive. I am so busy going that I can’t see what else is there on the periphery. Creativity, new thoughts and spontaneous play live here in the periphery of our own narrow range of perception.

Here is the cool thing: your body knows this already. Just lean back and your body remembers how to shift your state of mind right away. You breath opens up, your vista expands and you come back to ourself. This is mindfulness of body. You learn how to recognize your body response appropriately.

The first step is to recognize how you are not in our body. Anything from being speedy, emotionally raw, edgy or feeling disconnected. Apply this mindful pause, sit back. You can do this wherever you are: in a board meeting, a park bench, at the dinner table. When you find yourself leaning in and forward: sit back and lean back first both physically and figuratively. Then see what wants to happen next. Let go of the planning, the next cool move. Drop any agenda. Take a pause and literally feel the back of the body on the chair. Allow your next response to be without urgency. It seems small, but remember many small reactive steps lead to the burnout and overwhelm we are all struggling with. Start by leaning back first and build the thoughtful responsive person you are meant to be.

Short instructions for leaning back (2 minutes)

  • Notice a feeling such as irritation, speediness or tension in the body
  • Check into your body posture: Are you literally leaning forward? Are your muscles in the belly clenched? Is your face straining or tense? Your eyes straining or tense? Is your voice hurried or high pitched? Is your head dropped down as if you are fighting a strong wind ahead?
  • Time to Lean back! Drop what you are doing, shift your body posture into a more leaning back posture. This can be sitting back, shifting your weight backwards. Sensing your heels rather than your ball of the feet. Feel the back of the chair. Sense your sitzbones.
  • Let you eye gaze be as if you are looking from the back of your eyes, taking in the whole vista in front of you. You might look around and move your eyes and head slowly as if you are sinning the horizon.
  • Do this for 1–2 minutes. Notice what changes. A small mood shift? Notice a detail you haven’t before? How is your mood now? Want to still react? Or can you pass on that urge?
  • Well done you learned how to lean back-now you can choose what to lean in to?

Originally published at medium.com