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By Marina Illich, Ph.D. (Principal, Broad Ventures Leadership)

Ever been told to “buck up”? The message is everywhere. Get over it. Chin up. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Make some lemonade out of them lemons.

As a native Manhattanite, I grew up with the “buck up” ethos everywhere. “Harder, faster, more intense” was the mantra. It took the form of walking through biting wind tunnels on narrow avenues to subway stations that might have been three cantons away. In heels. Through slush. Or taking my doctoral advisor at Columbia seriously when he suggested I learn Manchu and Mongolian (languages, for the record) in addition to Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan as part of my doctoral training in the History of Religion.

In Marin County, where I now live, the “buck up” story has a different flavor. Here it crops up in the form of impossibly well-sculpted women who inform me, in the course of idle chatter at the local gym, that they run the local La Leche league, eat only organic, run X/Y/Z startup, and finish an Iron Man most weekends before I’ve even stumbled into the kitchen to the arresting sight of daylight.

To be sure, “buck up” has its uses. It’s good in war. It’s good when a bull is about to gut you. It’s good in a serious pinch. But overall buck up isn’t just an overused strategy. I’d argue it’s a very dangerous one. Particularly for us women who, as mothers and housemakers on top of everything else, bear an arguably greater burden to… buck up.

In 2001, I returned to the US after a number of years living and researching in cities and rural destinations across Asia. Something started happening to me that was so pernicious I didn’t even realize it at the time. A life-long “bucker upper”, I never thought twice about just getting through whatever ordeal presented itself. “Pain is gain” was a common refrain from my rowing days in high school and college, so by the time I was traveling through the Himalayas, a little martial law here or bout of giardia there just seemed par for the course. To be sure, watching the twin towers dissolve into a heap of ash on TV in Beijing was jarring. But the show must go on. Right?

What I didn’t realize is that years of “bucking up” was costing me my life. I had lost contact with the cues my body was giving me (despite being an athlete). I had lost contact with the insights my emotions were trying to convey. I had lost contact with the deep wisdom of my intuition. At the end of the day, I had lost touch with my purpose and, most sadly of all, with my joy. Life was becoming an endless laundry list of ambitions to be accomplished, tasks to be completed, goals to be met—no matter what. I had become my own, never-ending performance review.

Then the most curious thing started happening. I got back to the States and started crying — daily — for no reason. I woke up everyday feeling like someone had kicked my kidneys. Within months, my back was out. I had a surgery. Six months later I “re-herniated” except this time, the doctor informed me, “There is nothing more we can do, Ms. Illich. Try not to move around too much.” What a game stopper. Literally.

Within months, I developed a mysterious intolerance to multiple foods. I stopped sleeping. Lucid thoughts disappeared into a fading memory and, before long, I was suspended like a long, sagging bridge between the cliffs of acute depression and severe anxiety with all tones of physical and emotional dysfunction punctuating the spans between those ends.

I won’t lie. It took a while to come back from the abyss. I had to start all over and learn how to listen — really listen — to my body, my inner wisdom, my deepest longings, and my worst fears. In the process, I had to learn how to sit with chronic pain and a new-found fear of driving, cook myself hopelessly tasteless dishes, and discipline myself to take on umpteen protocols for physical rehabilitation.

I had to learn to listen to voices of rage, desperation, judgment, petulance, disdain, and utter disrepair. I had to learn that listening in is a life-long project, one that we succeed at moment by sometimes- glacially-slow moment. Little by little, though, I started making friends with the panoply of inner voices and the ever-changing landscape of outer physical symptoms. And with time, I healed. I can think, recreate, drive, have fun and get the job done like I used to. Except now I can do all those things in a life-sustaining, not a life-degrading way.

To this day I’m not sure what the “root cause” of this devolution was. Parasites? Too much exposure to violence overseas? Information overload as I juggled the raw material for hundreds of dissertation pages in my inner RAM? Who knows.

What I do now know is that the “buck up” mentality is something whose time has come and long gone. It packs us up in a cellophane-wrapped box of neat cognitive strategies, know-hows and can-do’s that rob us of our deepest intelligence—the intelligence of our bodies, our emotions, and our intuitions.

It keeps us focused on the headlong drive to meet quarterly reviews in a way that has us eschew our most profound insights and our most generative capacity. And as it blinds us to our ability to observe, feel, and confront what is actually going inside, “buck up” has us lose touch with ourselves. From there, it’s a slippery slope into breakdown, oblivion… or both.

So what’s the alternative? I’d like to suggest something whose time has come: fully-embodied mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the capacity to come back to our senses and know what we are experiencing in the present moment. This includes knowing what we are thinking (head), feeling (heart), sensing and intuiting (body) so that we can course correct in the moment.

Mindfulness allows us to align the brilliance of our cognitive minds with the equally powerful intelligence of our emotions, values, purpose and intuition. Only when we have all three intelligences — the intelligences of head, heart and body — on board are we in a position to genuinely innovate, collaborate, co-create, and reach goals in situations of enormous complexity.

So, what does practicing fully-embodied mindfulness entail?

Here is a simple strategy: Pause for 3 minutes first thing in the morning and once during the workday. Take a few deep breaths. Focus your attention on the sensation of contact between your feet and the ground for the count of three breaths.

Then ask yourself:

(Body check-in)

  • How is my body feeling right now?
  • How deep/shallow is my breathing?
  • How am I holding myself? What is my posture?

Simply notice what you observe. If judgments come up, note them too. Then keep going.

(Heart check-in)

  • What is the primary emotion that I’m feeling right now?
  • Where do I feel this in my body?
  • How charged up or relaxed do I feel?

(Head check-in)

  • What’s on my mind?
  • Are my thoughts clear or jumbled?
  • Can I observe my thoughts without judgment?

If you practice this every day, even for just two 3-minute stints, you will start to recognize your thought patterns, your emotional tendencies, and your body habits — and how they relate. With a little practice, you’ll notice when you’re losing balance — thinking distorted thoughts, getting stuck in disempowering emotional patterns, and ignoring your body’s cues — and you’ll be able to course correct in real time.

This means choosing more empowering thoughts, practicing positive emotions, and taking better care of your body. With enough practice, you won’t need to “buck up” when the pressure’s on. You’ll be present and centered to deal with whatever comes down the pike.

This post was originally posted at Broad Ventures Leadership’s blog.

Photo credit: Alan English CPA on Flickr.
About the guest blogger: Marina Illich, Ph.D. is a Principal at Broad Ventures Leadership. She is a Columbia and Oxford University trained educator and leadership coach dedicated to helping leaders develop the agility, vision, integrity, and authenticity needed to add genuine value to the global community while succeeding in today’s global marketplace. Marina maintains a private coaching practice in the Bay Area and is a co-founder of Broad Ventures Leadership, a women’s leadership development initiative.