If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working

“Mindfulness is a state of being fully present, aware of oneself and other people,
and sensitive to one’s reactions to stressful situations.”

~William W. George

I recently had a conversation with a client named Claire, who was giving mindfulness a try with a meditation app. But she was frustrated that it wasn’t helping her feel more relaxed — instead, she was actually a bit more agitated.

tension is whoBecoming truly mindful and aware means that we are also able to see, name and more fully experience things when we are angry, sad, jealous, anxious, vulnerable or lonely. I told Claire two stories about leaders as a better way of understanding mindfulness.

The first is about a leader named Randy, who is working on elevating himself as a leader. He wants to take time to be more strategic in his role and build more visibility for himself and his team, but he admits that he hasn’t made much progress.

Then there’s Natalie, who is working on becoming a more patient leader. Over the course of the past year, she received feedback that her hard-changing style rubs others the wrong way. The tone of the feedback suggested that if she didn’t make some measurable changes, she could derail her career.

For both Randy and Natalie, cultivating mindfulness meant being able to see the patterns at play, becoming less reactive and making clearer leadership choices. Each took the following steps:

  1. “Witness” and track the pattern. Randy began to notice that he felt a pit in his stomach when he wasn’t in his comfort zone of “doing.” He discovered an underlying feeling of vulnerability and a fear of letting go of things he was really good at.Natalie began to notice that she felt her jaw tighten and her blood pressure rise most acutely when someone on her team didn’t perform. The voice-track was a harsh critic that screamed, “This person is so incompetent! How dare she risk how others perceive me?”
  1. Notice, name and pause. As Randy and Natalie became more skilled at noticing and naming their body sensations, they were able to hit the pause button more often. My fellow Paravis managing partner, Pam Krulitz, describes this step in these terms: “In cultivating mindfulness, we learn to not scratch the itch right away.”
  2. See more clearly, choose more clearly. It’s when we can see and experience the situation or moment with less reaction — even if we are experiencing anxiety, fear, anger or sadness — that a more constructive set of choices emerges.

For Randy, he realized that he needed to be less hard on himself and build a sound plan of transitioning items to his team while ramping into a more elevated role. Natalie realized that a lot of her interactions were driven by a pattern of needing to prove herself, even though she had the respect and confidence of others in her expertise.

And Claire, who was not feeling relaxed after using her meditation app, discovered that her meditation was bringing forth a set of emotions that she was repressing, thus leaving her feeling agitated. The irony, said Claire, was that she had started using the meditation app in the hope of escaping those feelings.

(Amy Jen Su is a co-founder and managing partner of Paravis Partners.)
Amy Jen Su
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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