Layla Messner: “Willingness to feel difficult emotions”

Willingness to feel difficult emotions. Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and rest your attention in your body. Instead of focusing on one body part at a time, see if you can let your attention spread throughout your entire body and even the air around you. Give yourself a few minutes to notice the […]

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Willingness to feel difficult emotions. Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and rest your attention in your body. Instead of focusing on one body part at a time, see if you can let your attention spread throughout your entire body and even the air around you. Give yourself a few minutes to notice the sensations in your body. Be patient, allowing layers of emotion to reveal themselves. Try not to analyze — just be with your inner experience as it is in this moment. Make room for it. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. Then ask your emotions what they’re trying to tell you.

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Layla Messner.

Trauma and resilience expert Layla Messner speaks on happiness and thriving. A survivor of extreme childhood trauma with a Master’s Degree in post-traumatic-growth, she’s now a healing artist, author, and founder of Fashion with Meaning. More info can be found at

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m the eldest daughter of alpinist and explorer, Reinhold Messner, the first man to solo Everest without oxygen. Unlike my siblings however, I did not grow up with my father, spending the summers in Juval Castle in South Tyrol, Italy, and taking trips around the world. Instead, I grew up in Canada with my mother, surrounded by unsavory individuals.

The first few years of my life, my mother was a backcountry ranger (a caretaker for British Columbia provincial parks), and I believe the time I spent in nature contributed to my resilience for what happened later on. The rest of my childhood was extremely traumatic as I endured all ten Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) identified by the CDC-Kaiser study. I survived through a combination of dissociation and amnesia — for example frequently telling myself that traumatic events hadn’t really happened but were only bad dreams — as well as a buoyancy that I believe has its roots in my early childhood connection to nature. My vivid imagination became a haven I could escape to and as a result, rather than growing out of it, I strengthened my creativity over time. This no doubt contributed to my creative career.

I also developed, completely without guidance, the ability to access a haven of Love within myself and to channel that energy for my own emotional healing. This foundational experience led to my mystical approach to life and a lasting sense of connection to the force of Love that both infuses and encompasses everything.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My father inspires me every day. Though his feats of physical and psychological endurance have landed him in the Guinness Book of Records nine times, what inspires me most is his ability to adapt. When he lost many of his toes on the ill-fated descent of Nanga Parbat in 1970, he turned his focus from technical rock climbing to high-altitude mountaineering. When he sustained a foot injury in midlife, he pivoted once again, serving in the Italian parliament and founding Messner Mountain Museums.

Nothing stops him. He does not sit at home, saying, “Oh, I used to be the best climber in the world, but then I lost my toes, and now younger athletes are climbing even harder things.” He just finds his next dream and goes after it with the same determination that got him to the top of Everest without oxygen solo.

I didn’t grow up with my father, but his life speaks for itself. I remember being a child and reading about how everyone used to believe that it was impossible to reach the summit of Everest without oxygen — but then he did it. So all my life I’ve never been able to take the word impossible at face value.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My best friend, award-winning designer, artist, and author, Dani Redfern, is my cheerleader. In my thirties, I dove into healing my childhood trauma. I spent four years focused full-time on abuse healing (which, yes, is about as fun as it sounds). In the thick of it, I went to visit Dani in Knoxville, TN.

Dani had the strong intuitive sense that I needed to practice art. I had taken a few art classes during my bachelor’s degree, but had lost all my painting supplies when I moved back home and never bothered to replace them. Dani invited me to a Paint Nite (a guided event where you paint along with the instructor). This was my first time using acrylic paint. I fell in love with the combination of vibrant colors, workability, and quick dry time that acrylic painting offers. I went home, bought paint and canvases I couldn’t afford, and just didn’t stop painting.

Four years after that first Paint Nite, I found the courage to take my first commission and launch my career as a painter. Everything that has happened since, from my first solo exhibit in 2020 to my clothing line, Fashion with Meaning, wouldn’t have happened if Dani hadn’t trusted their intuition.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Between that first Paint Nite and taking the leap to pursue art as a career, I made a huge mistake; I decided to become an Artificial Intelligence Engineer. That’s not a mistake in general, but it was for me, because my heart wanted to be a painter. Having already spent ten years struggling to make ends meet as an author, taking a similar leap of faith with painting felt like a fool’s gamble.

So I went back to school and studied design, then programming. In less than two years I went from never having written a line of code to certified Deep Learning engineer. Unfortunately, I also went from infrequent migraines to chronic daily headache. In fact, I developed such severe, ongoing migraine that I couldn’t look at a computer screen for more than half an hour a day. The only way I could create without increasing my physical pain was to paint.

That’s what I call learning something the hard way.

The experience didn’t just teach me an ironic lesson about listening to my soul, though. Pushing myself academically increased my confidence. In my classes, I had gotten used to having absolutely no idea what I was doing or how I would complete my projects. When I was offered my first art commission, I felt that same fear but, because of my increased tolerance for feeling like a beginner, I was able to say, “Yes, I can absolutely do that for you.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’ve recently finished a novella called Don’t Stop for Love.

On a planet about to freeze over, stopping for love can kill you.

Born in the decades-long summer on her planet, sixteen-year-old Mary is accustomed to a pastoral life of warmth and blossoming fruit trees. As winter encroaches, she joins a caravan with her family to make the long trek from her home in Summerland to Winterland, a kingdom in the caverns beneath the mountains. However, in the first village they pass through, she is assaulted, trapped, and left behind.

When she finally escapes her captor, she has to cross a freezing dark landscape alone. Her journey deals with themes of consent, agency, and freeing oneself from internalized victim-blaming. Mary’s story is about what happens when a young woman discovers that the light and warmth she’s been seeking through relationship is available within herself.

It is my intention that Don’t Stop for Love, which shows everything I know about how to recover from sexual assault, will help other survivors heal and thrive. I’m shopping the manuscript to publishers right now. In the meantime, I’ve begun creating an art series inspired by the story, which will be followed by a fashion collection. Everything I create is designed to help others heal.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Since it can be hard to see oneself clearly, I did a little survey of my loved ones in preparation for answering this question. Here are the traits they listed:

1. Softness. During my childhood abuse, I made up a story that said I was invulnerable to harm and didn’t need anyone. This was a blatant lie, a defense mechanism against my own suffering. In trauma healing, I faced and embraced my vulnerability. In doing so, I uncovered my real self and learned how to open up.

I will never put the armor back on. Now, my softness is my strength.

2. Perseverance. When a doctor told me, “No one has any idea what causes migraines,” I did not accept that. I vowed to myself that I would research on my own and try everything, until the day I died, in order to decrease my own suffering.

I absolutely refuse to give up.

Sometimes I want to. I collapse, emotionally, for a day or a week, with absolutely no idea what to do next — but then I recommit and find a new strategy. That doesn’t just apply to my health; it’s how I do life.

3. Self-love. One friend told me that what she admires most about me is that, no matter the obstacles or whether or not others approve, I always do what makes me happy.

In childhood, my abusers tried drastic measures to undermine my sense of self. I had to fight for my selfhood; no one else was there to do it for me. Today, I’m proud to say that I love myself beyond measure — and even if I woke up tomorrow and no one else loved me, I would still be on my own team.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

I could list my education and work experience right off the bat, but the bottom line is I’m an expert because I have suffered extensively. During childhood, I endured all ten Adverse Childhood Experiences. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I battled complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression, as well as various health challenges. I didn’t used to be a happy person.

Yet during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, when my boyfriend was stuck home from work, he complained that I was way too cheery in the morning. I couldn’t help but laugh. Me. Too happy to handle!

The journey from miserable to annoyingly joyful is what gives me authority on the topic. I also happen to have a Master’s Degree in trauma healing and experience mentoring fellow survivors on the journey from suffering to thriving.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

In the US — and also in Canada where I’m currently living — we tend to define happiness in a way that isn’t sustainable. Since most of us want to be happy most of the time, when we fixate on a type of happiness that’s unsustainable, we make happiness unachievable. I’ll give you an example:

I have a friend whose definition of happiness is reaching the peak of a difficult scramble he hasn’t done before or flashing a climb that challenges him. Of course, the better he gets and the more experience he has, the harder it becomes for him to feel that rush.

I think his challenge is emblematic of what blocks us from happiness in US culture. We want to have big exciting experiences, to knock things off our bucket lists. It’s always more, bigger, better.

But the trend can’t always go up. As we age, certain things are bound to decline. Maybe we suffer an off year. Or live through a pandemic. Everything can’t always be bigger, better, or more exciting than the year before. This rejection of the natural cycles of life, along with the tendency to define joy as “up” moments, prevents us from experiencing lasting happiness.

True happiness lives in ordinary everyday moments, in the valleys of life, not the peaks. It calls for a balance between contentment and exploring our next curiosity.

The missing key to happiness in our culture is calm. Sustainable happiness is not the same as feeling up all the time. An ongoing basic joy in living comes from feeling relaxed, safe, and connected. The easiest way to experience that is to calm down, slow down, and rest. We need to decrease the stress levels of our modern lives — not use unreasonable expectations to drive them even higher.

I think that the fact that United States ranks so low in the World Happiness Report is proof that things don’t equate to happiness, and neither do checkmarks on our bucket lists. The biggest question is not, “Why does the US rank so low?” It’s, “What is happiness, really?”

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

I think we’ve made the mistake of equating happiness with a peak experience.

My friend who is always looking for the next hardest climb, the next summit he’s never reached before, can’t stop comparing himself to that one summer in his thirties when he was at his peak. Everything he does now pales in comparison to that six-month period. It’s only ever happened once and will probably never happen again. He’s being held prisoner by a larger-than-life Hollywood version of happiness that actually prevents contentment.

Each day, social media taunts us with images of our friends, neighbors, and role models living ever-charmed lives where they smile and look hot, while crushing their goals. We are left with FOMO, that nagging suspicion that our lives (and we ourselves) don’t measure up.

But the feeling of reaching the summit of a mountain isn’t happiness; it’s a peak experience. No one can have a peak experience all the time.

So how do we hack happiness? How do we feel happier more often, no matter what life brings us? We focus on enjoying the valleys of life and leave the peaks to themselves. Peaks will come and go. By cultivating simple pleasures in daily life, enjoying the calm moments, and finding joy in simple things, we enjoy sustainable happiness. That kind of joyful living provides a basic foundation for weathering the storms of life and pursuing our goals.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

The biggest mistake I see people make when it comes to happiness is not listening to their unhappiness. In our culture, we’re supposed to be happy. If we’re not, friends and strangers — not to mention experts and endless memes on the Internet — will all tell us to make gratitude lists and focus on the positive. While those strategies have their place in the pursuit of happiness, they’re not the first step.

Step one is to ask as if we really want to know the answer, “Hey Self, what are you unhappy about?”

Step two is to listen without judgement, as if to a dear friend — and then go out and do something about what’s causing the unhappiness, or look for someone who can help.

I once had a boyfriend who would get enraged when I cried. He would yell at me for feeling unhappy. Tragically, I took his feedback to heart and really tried to suppress my emotions. The truth is he didn’t want me to be happy. What he expected was to be able to treat me however he wanted and still feel good about himself. When I showed my pain, he couldn’t feel the way he preferred to feel, so he left. He had to because the alternative was to change and that would have been too hard.

The real tragedy is when we treat ourselves like that.

Whether it’s saying say yes when we want to say no, ignoring the calling of our souls because we have bills to pay, or making excuses for a family member’s mistreatment of us, most of us have betrayed ourselves in big or small ways.

Of course, there are times when we all have to do things we don’t want to do. File taxes. Go to the dentist. Stay in bed to recover from an injury. But no one can make us lie to ourselves about how we experience life. We never have to turn a deaf ear to our own inner selves. We each have the right to know our own feelings and needs — and then try to have our needs met.

That’s what the pursuit of happiness means.

In the Western world today, we have easy access to things our ancestors never dreamed of wanting, so I can see why many experts say to focus on gratitude. But if you have upgraded your definition of happiness from peak experience to day-to-day joy, and you are still unhappy, then I would hazard a guess that you have a deep need that isn’t being met. What is it?

What do you need? And how can you get that need met? Because you deserve to have your needs met.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

From my graduate studies, as well as personal and professional experience, I have identified five qualities that are essential to resilience. Together, these qualities empower us with the ability to thrive no matter what life brings.

If you’re unhappy, stuck, or in crisis, I’ll show you how you can apply these qualities right now, in order to change both your mood and your life. If you’re generally doing fine, but just want to be happier, these suggestions will also work for you.

Instead of sharing more stories from my own life, I’ll also give you an action step you can take to apply each quality to your life, today.

1. A soul-based self-concept.

When we identify with our jobs, physical abilities, appearance, or social standing, that’s an ego-based self-concept. Having an ego-based self-concept makes us vulnerable to losing our power when faced with some of life’s most common curveballs, including sickness or injury, loss of employment, bad press, or trauma — as well as such commonplace occurrences as aging or career change.

A soul-based self-concept, on the other hand, gives us resilience in the face of difficulties. So what is a soul-based self-concept, exactly? It’s when we know who we are on a deep level, own our gifts and personality strengths, and form our identity around those. In other words, we identify with our inner selves, instead of anything related to our bodies or physical circumstances.

How to apply it:

Grab a journal and pen. Think of the most difficult thing you’ve survived. (Sorry, I know that’s not fun, but I promise I’m putting you through this for a reason). Make a list of the strengths that got you through that situation, or that you developed as a result of it.

Next list three moments when you felt you were thriving as your most authentic self. Write down the talents and personality strengths you demonstrated in those memories.

Lastly, look over what you’ve written. Read it aloud to yourself, if you can, and congratulate yourself for your character strengths. No matter what life brings you, these superpowers will be yours to draw on. You are powerful and resilient!

2. Willingness to feel difficult emotions.

Suffering is often the wise voice of our deepest needs and highest values. With so many pressures weighing on us, though, it can feel like we have no choice but to ignore, repress, or deny our own pain. It can take time to unravel all the layers of discomfort and unhappiness and truly listen to ourselves, time we just don’t have.

We may sense that our suffering calls for changes we don’t know how to make — or maybe don’t even want to make. Opening up to ourselves by really feeling our pain and underlying needs is a vulnerable experience, but it’s also a highly magical one.

How to apply it:

Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and rest your attention in your body. Instead of focusing on one body part at a time, see if you can let your attention spread throughout your entire body and even the air around you. Give yourself a few minutes to notice the sensations in your body. Be patient, allowing layers of emotion to reveal themselves. Try not to analyze — just be with your inner experience as it is in this moment. Make room for it. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. Then ask your emotions what they’re trying to tell you.

You deserve a few moments to listen to yourself.

3. The courage to surrender.

The moment we accept our own vulnerability by facing our pain and underlying needs is the same moment we open to having our needs met.

When things are going smoothly in life, it’s easy to enjoy an illusion of control. When something goes sideways however, the illusion becomes evident. The truth is, none of us have control over what happens to us. Resisting that fact leads to suffering. The most straightforward way to surrender to the lack of control and accept the vulnerability inherent in being alive is to stop trying to rewind time and put things back the way they were (which is obviously impossible), and instead turn our focus to proactively creating a new future.

How to apply it:

Depending on your beliefs and situation, you might like to say a prayer for a specific need to be met or for an issue to be resolved. Or you may choose to reach out to your family and network with a humble request for help. Both strategies create space for new and surprising solutions.

4. An empowering sense of agency.

Control is an illusion, but agency is not. While we don’t have control, we do have choices about how we respond, as well as the instinct to act for our own good and that of others. No matter what life brings, nothing short of death can take the power to away from us.

Let’s celebrate that!

How to apply it:

Create an empowering question, using this simple formula: Thinking of a need you identified earlier, assume it can be met. Turn your core need or goal into a question that starts with “How?” By asking “How?” you act from trust that there is an answer.

Once you have your question, ask it at every opportunity. Whisper it to yourself before bed, during meditation, or while journaling. Ask your friends. Imagine asking your question of life. Just put that question out there.

“How do I get where I need to go?”

You might be surprised how quickly life brings you answers.

5. An authentic vision.

Whew, we made it through the hard part. Now the fun begins! Your fifth and final secret weapon against adversity is your vision.

There’s an endless supply of books and courses on the topic of visioning. My personal favorite is Lifebook by Jon and Missy Butcher, published by Mindvalley. For the purpose of this article, we’re doing a simplified visioning process, but I encourage you to dedicate some real time to fleshing out your vision, as soon as you can.

How to apply it:

Set aside an hour and make a list of your deepest needs, dreams, and desires. Then craft your vision. You might want to summarize it in a couple paragraphs, create vision board to display on your wall, or even visualize yourself living your vision as you drift off to sleep tonight.

The important thing is that you get clear on what you want and need, and then picture yourself having it. There are no rules, but for greatest satisfaction, I suggest the following guidelines.

1) Don’t worry about how your vision is going to come true. At this stage, your focus is on the what, not the how.

2) Make sure your vision is about deep fulfillment for you, not impressing others, or else you might achieve your vision only to realize that it wasn’t right for you. (Case in point, my career in computer engineering.)

Having a vision that’s aligned with your deepest values gives you the power to stay focused on your highest goals and continue making progress towards them even during difficult times.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

Instead of pressuring your friend or loved one to focus on the positive, be present with them and let them know their emotions are welcome, pain included. Hold space for them to be honest with themselves about what’s wrong and any unmet needs they may have. To convey your support and to help them feel heard, try out the following phrases:

“Thank you for telling me.”

“Your feelings make sense.”

“If I was in your position, I’m sure I’d feel the same.”

If it feels right, invite them to tell you more about why they’re unhappy. As you listen, pay special attention to the following: unmet needs; places where they feel trapped or like they don’t have a choice; things they want to say no to but feel they can’t; emotions that need to be expressed, or places they may have silenced themselves.

If it feels appropriate, you can offer help and support with any specific things they need, or encourage them to ask for help from others.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My greatest passion is freedom. In the current climate, I feel the need to clarify that when I talk about freedom, I’m not referring to the refusal to wear masks or get vaccinated, but rather to true liberation that comes from within.

Liberation starts with the freedom we allow ourselves to be exactly as we are and to feel what we feel. From there, we are free to express our unique selves and live authentic lives.

I would love to inspire a movement about listening to ourselves and realizing how much freedom we have to step outside the norms and choose how we live.

Life, I think, is a little like abstract painting. There are no rules about what can go on the blank canvases in front of us and no matter what we painted yesterday, we can always choose differently today.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Mindvalley founder Vishen Lakhiani, hands down. Growing up, when asked who my hero was, I always refused to name anyone. “I am my own hero,” I would answer. Today, I can unequivocally say that Vishen is my hero.

As a teenager, I was the weirdo interested in intuition, dream work, and lifestyle design. I am so inspired by how Vishen has created a highly successful personal development company that is bringing my “weird” interests into the mainstream. He’s even challenged Harvard to a bet over the future of education. (Sorry, Harvard, but I’m betting on Mindvalley). As a member, I start my day with Mindvalley content, which has changed my life for the better multiple times.

My dream is to contribute to the Mindvalley community in any way I can, perhaps on the topics of resilience and thriving, creativity and freedom, or modern mysticism.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out my website

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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