On Leaning In: Choosing to Fight for Relationships When You’d Rather Run

I’ve been in a season of life that I call leaning into it. It’s a self-selected season; I’m opting in to it, so to speak. It’s something I’m doing for my personal growth and development, to learn some skills I find myself lacking.

So, what is leaning in?

I’m working on leaning into discomfort. Leaning in to the things that challenge me, the things I would typically avoid or run away from. Leaning in means planting my feet, digging in, and staying put. It means choosing to engage when I’d rather ignore.

Communication is the area of my life where I need to practice leaning in the most. I grew up with a somewhat strained relationship with my mom. We loved each other dearly, but we argued a lot. Sometimes, it got out of control. It created in me an avoidant communication style. When confronted with a hard conversation, I’d rather just not. In fact, when I perceive that a conversation is getting heated, or that it seems to be going in a negative direction, I toss a grenade into the mix and run as fast as I can before I get hurt. I learned this through my arguments with my mom — it’s something we both do. Rather than experience the hurt that the argument could cause, we throw the grenade and don’t wait around for the explosion.

I call them grenades because they are loud, obnoxious, and offer far more firepower than what the situation calls for.

For example, if I find myself in a disagreement with a friend and things start to get heated, it would be appropriate to say, “Hey, it seems like we’re both getting a little too upset, and we’re not getting anywhere. Let’s take a break and come back when we’re both calm.” But instead, I’ll say something far too punitive like, “You know what, we’re just too misaligned. Maybe this friendship doesn’t make sense. I’m done.”

I’d rather kill the friendship myself than witness its slow, painful death.

I used to do the same thing in my marriage, which I’m sure my husband would say was my most toxic trait in our relationship. When arguments got too intense, when it felt like things were spiraling, my first defense was always the most insidious offense: “Well, whatever, this marriage isn’t working anyway. Who wants to live like this? I’m done.”

I’d rather set the marriage ablaze than watch the spark slowly fade.

The thing is, this avoidant and preemptive behavior is unhealthy. It is unnecessary. And it serves no purpose other than to exchange a helpless sort of pain for a self-selected one.

I can’t keep destroying every relationship I have because I don’t like hard conversations. In the end, it doesn’t save me any heartache. In fact, in some ways, it just makes the heart hurt worse.

It also keeps me stuck, stagnant, unable to grow and evolve. How do I become better at communicating, how do I learn how to reconcile instead of destroy, how do I learn to offer olive branches instead of Molotov cocktails, if I never give myself the chance to try? If I don’t push myself beyond my limits, confronting my dysfunctional behaviors and lovingly coaxing them into something more functional and fruitful, I will never reach the self-actualized version of myself that I’ve been chasing down for years now.

So, I’m leaning in. I’m having the hard conversations. I’m forcing myself to stay put when I feel my brain lacing up my running shoes. I’m choosing to engage the hard things, because … well, because of a lot of reasons.

First, I deserve to watch myself at least try to heal broken relationships. I deserve to show myself that I can do it. And perhaps more importantly, my inner child, the one who still isn’t totally sure anyone would want to stay in my life, deserves to see other people leaning in, too. She deserves to watch me fight for my relationships with the people who matter, and in turn, to watch them fight for me, too.

Second, I deserve to finally learn the lesson that relationships aren’t as fragile as my wounded ego says they are. Through the work of leaning in instead of running away, I’m learning that relationships are actually quite resilient — when you’re willing to fight for them.

Third, the people I love deserve better than to be discarded the moment things get uncomfortable. It’s an incredibly juvenile idea that relationships will always be easy and light. The truth is, as relationships become more intimate, as love and vulnerability grow, there will be more and more uncomfortable moments. It comes with the territory.

If I want to reach real, penetrating, authentic and vulnerable intimacy with the people who matter to me, they have to understand that we can fight. We can disagree. We can be furious, even. And I will still lean in.

Learning to lean in has been hard. It’s not easy to push back against the instincts you’ve developed over a lifetime. But I’m working on it. I’m asking the people I love to be patient with me while I evolve and grow. And, to be honest, it’s going surprisingly well! To anyone wanting to learn the delicate and courageous art of leaning in, here is what I’ve learned so far:

  • Start with self-compassion. You’re learning a whole new way of responding to an already difficult thing. It’s going to take time to unlearn the behaviors you’ve been cultivating all these years. Understand that it’s a process, and processes like this take time.
  • Stay with the discomfort. You are so much more resilient than you think! You can stay in the hard conversations. You can stick it out without running away. I know it’s frightening, especially when hard conversations become heated. I like to think of myself as being literally rooted to my chair. Whether I am in person, on the phone, or even texting or emailing, I tell myself I cannot get up until this conversation has been had. It’s a mental trick that helps me lean in and not run away.
  • Remember that leaning in doesn’t mean staying in unhealthy situations. You don’t have to stay rooted in a conversation that is becoming toxic or abusive. Even when leaning in, it is a good idea to take breaks when things get too heated. It’s also okay to decide that a conversation truly isn’t worth having, or a relationship isn’t worth saving. Leaning in means rescuing healthy relationships out of the pit. You leave the unhealthy ones right where they are.
  • Tell the people you love that you’re working on leaning in. The strangest thing about working on your communication, is that you need to communicate to your people that you’re working on communicating. (Yes, I wrote that sentence on purpose, exactly as it is). I’ve learned to say this: “I’m feeling the urge to shut this conversation down and walk away, but I’m working on learning how to have hard conversations instead. I’m not very good at this yet, and I’m going to be uncomfortable the whole time. But I believe this conversation can be good for us, and I want to reach a resolution. Can you help me stay”? I’ve found that people find this language very disarming. They realize your true intent — to save the relationship, and they become more willing to cooperate. Sometimes, all it takes is letting people know that they matter to you, and that you’re willing to overcome your own fears and discomfort to restore the relationship.

If there is any gift you can give yourself and the people you love, let it be leaning in. You’ll discover a new depth and sincerity of relationships that you didn’t know could exist. Take off the running shoes. Stay rooted where you are.

Don’t run. Lean in, instead.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who writes primarily about women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the FREE newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox, and to never miss an upload.


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