Why It Is Important (Especially for Leaders) to Feel Their Fear and Pain

When we stop resisting pain, we will often start to notice that it is simply a sensation like other sensations—and that we can be with it instead of reacting to it.

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It is not uncommon for highly successful people to be driven by a motivation to escape feelings of fear and pain. Oftentimes the pain we’re avoiding has laid dormant and unfelt for a long time. Pain that in many cases, has driven us to excel. It’s usually emotional pain, sometimes traumatic pain. It might stem from not feeling seen or valued in the family we grew up in, or persistent worry about not being good enough. This can lead us to become driven to succeed under any circumstances, to work under the pressure of unforgiving, unexamined deadlines, to perpetually strive for the approval of our organizations and shareholders, constantly flooding our bodies with ever more stress hormones.

The pain and underlying fear of not being good enough can become powerful driving forces for throwing ourselves into constant work. 

In a recent talk on Mindful on Wall Street, Matt Harris, cofounder of the multi-billion dollar investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, captured this sentiment when he said that from an early age, he felt that his “worth as a human being was very much predicated on how successful I was.” This is a message many of the leaders I work with received early on, and the pain and underlying fear of not being good enough can become powerful driving forces for throwing ourselves into constant work

How Avoiding Fear and Pain Can Impact Leadership 

The need to belong and be seen as successful in an organization and by others is a powerful, psychological need. Yet in highly performance-oriented corporate cultures, the sense of belonging can be extremely short-lived, always dependent on the very last achievement. Even though someone may appear to be successful, they may feel only as good as their last success. And when an organization is set up in a way to constantly stretch the leader, they may feel or experience a constant state of overwhelm.

Striving for high performance, adapting to new challenges, or setting stretching targets are all great leadership qualities—The problems begin when we tie our self-worth and identity to our success. When we operate from a place of fear, it limits our ability to be creative, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent. This fear is also likely to mirror itself in the organizational culture that we as leaders create. In most cases, when we act from fear, we attract others that similarly operate from a fear-based place and create a culture that may severely hinder creativity, openness, and vulnerability. A tendency that is particularly problematic in times which require leaders to create psychological safety

We become much more effective when we are not constantly worried about failure, we are more open to new ideas, we become more creative and more courageous. The following three approaches can help us find healthier and more productive ways to deal with fear and pain.

3 Ways Leaders Can Use Mindfulness to Work with Fear and Pain

1) Ask Yourself: Are You Seeking Out Stress? 

It’s not uncommon for leaders to seek out stress in order to avoid pain. Stress hormones can be highly addictive (just like alcohol). I once worked with a senior executive of a major retailer who felt she needed to check her email right after waking up (usually after only a few hours of sleep), because the release of stress hormones upon seeing 50+ new emails (coupled with the lack of sleep) helped numb the anxiety and depression she otherwise felt in the morning. Mindfulness can help in the moment when fear and pain arise, and allow us to create space between us and those emotions, instead of impulsively acting on them. Mindfulness helped her be with the difficult emotions until they no longer frightened her. The practice is to surrender and allow our system to experience pain. When we stop resisting pain, we will often start to notice that it is simply a sensation like other sensations—and that we can be with it and learn from it.

Try This: A Mindful Breathing Pause. Commit to doing a few minutes of mindful breathing in the morning before checking your inbox. 

How research supports this outcome: When we’re willing to turn toward our feelings, allowing ourselves to experience them and talk about them, research shows that those feelings become less overwhelming and no longer have the same power over us. When we develop our capacity to be with our emotions, we no longer need to bury them under busyness and stress. The senior executive I worked with stopped constantly overworking herself and, by default, modeling this burnout-producing behavior for her team and organization.

2) Notice: Do You Associate Your Value with Your Successes? 

Mindfulness can also help us see how much we have tied our personal value to our performance so we can start to gradually detach from this damaging belief. Matt Harris says that through mindfulness, he started to notice how much he had grown up believing that his value as a human being depended on his outer successes. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of our emotions but also the thoughts driving these emotions. We may notice, for example, our mind constantly being drawn to imagining failures at work and how they could tarnish our reputation, or obsessing about needing to land the next big success.

Try This: Mindful Journaling. When we become aware of any underlying thoughts and patterns, we can then begin addressing them through a practice like journaling or working with a trained coach or therapist. Over time, Harris found he could create more space between his thoughts and his reactions, and was able to redefine for himself where he draws value from and change his approach to work and life. 

How research supports this outcome:  Journaling has been shown to reduce stress, help manage anxiety, and cope with sadness. 

3) Channel the Energy Behind Fear and Pain

When we allow fear and pain to simply be there, without interference, it can reveal both the original pain and how much it has influenced our life choices. It is by getting in touch with pain (pain is an excellent motivator) that we find the energy to change our behavior. For example, when a leader gets in touch with feelings of sadness about alienation they feel from their family, and allows that sadness to be there—it might help them prioritize family and find the courage to set clear boundaries at work in order to spend more time with them. 

Try This: Draw a Happiness Graph. A few years ago I worked with a highly successful investment bank executive. In one of our meetings I asked him to draw a graph of how his happiness had changed over time and through his many promotions. To his own surprise he drew a flat line. None of his successes had increased his happiness. He realized that his successes had always been overshadowed by the fear of losing what he had worked for, or not being able to fulfill the new role. Getting in touch with that fear—and the loss of happiness this created—allowed him to reflect on his life and make changes to how he approached his career. 

How research supports this outcome: Getting curious about our fear of failure, and starting to see that our self-worth is not tied to our successes can help ease our fears and focus more on what is happening right now (as opposed to an imagined future).

When working with leaders, I try to help them realize that pain is their friend, because pain is a great signal to the system that something needs to change. But before we can change (most leaders like to skip ahead to the solution) it is paramount to feel the pain first.

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  • Shalini Bahl-Milne
  • July 6, 2022

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