Leaning into discomfort

Leaning into discomfort

"It's he or she who's willing to be the most uncomfortable that can rise strong."

This excerpt is taken from Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, a bestselling book that pulls apart complex themes and emotions like vulnerability, shame, courage, discomfort, and disengagement.

Discomfort comes in many ways. An unpleasant conversation with family or friends, a debate at work, providing feedback to a colleague, speaking in front of a crowd, taking risks.

We can’t control all the things that happen to us, we can just control how we react to them.

Our lives are full of moments that force us to lean into discomfort, to be vulnerable and to take emotional risks. When we lean into discomfort not only does it cause significant social breakthroughs in our relationships with family, friends, and workmates, it also has an incredible impact on our own self-development.

The power of leaning

The more we lean into awkwardness and discomfort, the more we grow.

When we lean into discomfort, we:

  • Get better at being vulnerable.
  • See challenges as opportunities, not setbacks.
  • Create more neural connections in our brain.
  • Expand our way of thinking.
  • Become growth focused.
  • Feel more confident with first times.
  • Create diverse and inclusive cultures
  • Embrace empathy and create equity

Navigating first times

“The awkwardness of anything new is the life blood for us” – Brené Brown

First times are tough.

The first time we give feedback. The first time we trust our team enough to be vulnerable. The first time we walk into a room full of strangers and try to initiate conversation. The first time we start a new hobby or join a sports team or a club.

The fact is, we cannot create any kind of impactful change; be it in the workplace, society, or our families, and at the same time keep people feeling comfortable, so we need to embrace discomfort with open arms and an open mind.

“It may be more tempting to lean away from discomfort with a glass of red wine, or six, but leaning in is far more powerful” – Brené Brown

Creating space for discomfort at work

An inclusive workplace won’t just magically form because people would like it to.

Trust is fundamental for our most productive collaborations. By making the conscious choice to move out of our comfort zones, we inspire others and eventually an environment of safety evolves.

In workplace cultures we cannot avoid uncomfortable conversations or vulnerability. We need to create the space for both. Growth and discomfort go hand in hand. Vulnerability is a way of showing up in our lives, letting ourselves be fully seen, and embracing all of who we are to live more fully.

When is the right time to lean into discomfort? Usually as soon as we begin to sense it.

Permission and safety are cornerstone prerequisites in creating this space for trust, vulnerability and leaning into discomfort at work. 


Setting the context of permission before a meeting allows us to fully express ourselves and to say exactly what we are thinking in a safe, respectful environment. If you are leading the meeting start by setting context around the following questions;

  • What permission would you like from the group so that you can lead effectively?
  • What permission does the group need from you to successfully participate?

Examples of behaviours around this would be setting the context that the team can ask questions any time and the leader can step in if the conversation needs more clarity.    


Creating a safe space to lean in requires an environment that puts inclusivity and diversity first, where empathy and equity are part of the culture and where differing needs, approaches, and experiences are acknowledged and respected.

Fostering an environment that respects and acknowledges the differing needs and approaches of all people allows them to do their best work

In an environment of safety, people can speak up without fear of retribution. This results in a culture where trust thrives, and greater teamwork becomes possible. Things you can do include:

  • Ask team members what they need so they can feel safe sharing their voice.
  • Be careful with what might seem like a harmless sense of humour, make sure that no one is the focus of ridicule.
  • Foster an environment of honest, constructive feedback – but remember, evaluate actions, not people.
  • Think about what you need to feel safe.

Tips for leaning into discomfort at work.

  • Don’t run away from it. Embrace it and acknowledge that it is a natural human reaction.
  • Start to welcome discomfort as a positive source for growth.
  • Develop a self-awareness of your thought process in moments of discomfort. What are you telling yourself? Why is this situation making me uncomfortable? What is going on that is giving me anxiety?
  • When you experience moments of discomfort lean on things like courage, connection, and compassion and become aware of the emotions or habits that impact your ability to lean into discomfort such as being controlling, competitive, or people-pleasing.
  • Embrace failure - You must see the value in failure and get comfortable with it.
  • Be open with what you need in order to feel safe to speak up.
  • Support other team members who embrace leaning into discomfort.
  • Saying, “I’m going to lean into discomfort” signals to others that you are reaching out and making yourself vulnerable.
  • Be willing to challenge yourself and others.

No one likes being uncomfortable, but in the absence of discomfort we miss out on important opportunities for growth. To familiarise ourselves with discomfort we must be willing to experience it over and over again, and eventually, we get better at it.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” —Martin Luther King, Jr

Blog by Genie O Dowd

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