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How Mindfulness is Helping Me Lean In

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Observe the voice in your head that says, “You’re lucky to get your first job offer, you should accept it before they realize you’re a fraud,” detach from that self-doubt and instead tell yourself, “Only 3% of women negotiate for a better first offer, I’m going to be part of the 3.1%”.

By Fiona O’Donnell-McCarthy (Strategy & Business Development Lead, ModCloth)

Did any of the stories from Lean In resonate with you? While I view myself as a go-getter, a girl that can, “play by boys rules,” the psychological patterns and social biases that hold women back have certainly appeared in my career.

Sheryl Sandberg gave voice to the struggles I’ve faced as a young professional:

  • I accepted my first two job offers without negotiating for more
  • In college, my jealous male classmates said of the world-renowned professor, “he only mentors you because you’re a young girl”
  • A group of Silicon Valley executives (all men) told me it was “so cute” that I wanted to start a company
  • I’ve woken up in the middle of the night thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this job”
  • I’ve been my harshest critic
  • I’ve paid the social penalties that young women receive for revealing ambition

Lean In empowers women to reflect on their experiences of self-limiting behavior and hopefully, like me, decide do something about it. After I finished the book, I thought about how I might incorporate her advice into my life. Upon reflection, I realized that I already have a toolkit for leaning in, for overcoming self-limiting behavior.

I am leaning in by practicing mindfulness.

Two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the sudden loss of several close family members. To cope with my grief, I took an eight week “Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction” (MBSR) class. It was basically Meditation 101. We learned to sit quietly, breath deeply, observe our thoughts with detachment, and stay rooted in the present.

This practice of detaching from negative thoughts is not only helpful for coping with grief and stress, it is critical for overcoming the voices in our head that hold us back, the voices that say, “I don’t think I can do this.”

“You are much more likely to know what to do and have the the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is actually happening than when your vision is clouded by your mind’s fears and prejudices,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the MBSR curriculum.

When I heard Sheryl speak at Stanford last week, she asked, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It takes mindfulness to do the things that scare you, to put yourself out there, to take a big plunge. Women everywhere can lean in mindfully to correct the self-limiting behavior that Sheryl describes, but we have to practice. We have to clear our “mind’s fears and prejudices” and give ourselves the space to make intentional decisions rather than reacting based on fear, rather than leaning back.

Observe the voice in your head that says, “You’re lucky to get your first job offer, you should accept it before they realize you’re a fraud,” detach from that self-doubt (more prevalent in women than men), and instead tell yourself, “Only 3% of women negotiate for a better first offer, I’m going to be part of the 3.1%” Observe your doubt, detach from the instinctive reaction to lean back, and respond with intentionality.

It takes mindfulness to overcome the cultural bias and success-likability penalty that Sheryl describes. When you find yourself criticizing or judging another woman for her ambition and drive, find a way to observe that feeling, detach from it, and instead decide to applaud her for leaning in. When you find yourself skeptical of the man who stays home to raise his children … observe, detach, applaud.

Mindfully leaning in takes practice, but it gets easier. Keep leaning in, detach from self-doubt, and stay in your moment.

Photo credit: Gabriela Pinto on Flickr.

Women 2.0 readers: Are you mindfully leaning in? Let us know how you’re doing in the comments!

About the guest blogger: Fiona O’Donnell-McCarthy is the Strategy and Business Development Lead at ModCloth. She has worked in product management and strategy at early and mid-stage startups in Silicon Valley. She enjoys meeting boundary-pushing innovators. Fiona holds a degree in Human Biology from Stanford University, where she won All-American honors as a swimmer and published research on cognitive development. Follow her on Twitter at @fodmc.