T-S-O-

Why Do You Hire a Coach?

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We’re living in a period in history where we’re paralyzed by the fear of some impending doom. Our 24-hour news cycle will have us believe that there are more wars and violent deaths than ever.  But we are actually living in an unusually calm time.  The odds of us dying violently are low and getting lower.  We also keep hearing scary economic data.  And while there’s no doubt we’ve been living in a trying economic period since 2008, we’re also living in one of the most prosperous periods in history.  Fear sells newspapers.  It also has the nasty side effect of paralyzing us. We end up sticking with stuff that, while, on the one hand, feels safe, on the other hand, sucks the life out of us, be it a job or a relationship.  It makes us afraid of change.

Playing It Safe

And then we have all sorts of justifications we tell ourselves for why we should just “suck it up.”  Most of the clients that show up at my office have a self-critical voice inside that tells them that they should just be grateful for what they have.  “At least I’m not out on the streets.” But often, they’re just playing it safe.  They’re doing fine, but they’re disconnected from an experience of life that’s vivid, alive, and meaningful.

By fearing risk, something in them has died.  One client who sought coaching with me used to come home from work everyday, pour herself a glass of wine, and make love to her channel changer instead of the man of her dreams she was dying to meet.  While she didn’t particularly enjoy the time in front of the television, at least she didn’t have to face rejection.

As a coach, I can’t do much when someone has given up.  There has to be a hunger in there somewhere, even if it’s buried in avoidance. Sometimes that hidden and elusive hunger demands that my clients be willing to dive down, through the experience of fear, through panic, and through layers of discomfort.  It’s often at the bottom of this journey downward that my clients discover a gem in the form of wisdom, clarity, and creativity. When the client I described above reached her bottom, she realized,  “I’m scared that it’ll be too much work to try to find someone, but I am even more scared of what my life will look like 10 years from now if I don’t try.”  Hitting bottom woke her up to the recognition that she wasn’t preordained to be a recluse.  She was choosing it.

The Calling

So she traded in her remote control for a yoga mat and a membership to the studio down the street.  “Who knows?  Maybe I’ll meet him in class.”  When we have the courage to take the one step in a direction that might be fun, engaging, and just a little scary, we’re reminded that risk brings vibrancy to life.  That it’s a little scary can be a really good thing.  When we choose something that is both exciting and just a little uncomfortable, we start to move out of paralysis and toward aliveness.  Whether it’s a yoga class, quiet time in nature, or a workshop, it can be extremely helpful to shake things up, to get out of our routines in order to be reminded of who we are and what we’re made of.

We all come into the world with a hunger and zest for aliveness, but it’s often been taken from us by the expectations of others.  Mainly when I get the call for a introductory coaching session, the person on the other line can sense that they’ve been called to something else or something greater, but what that is isn’t clear.   Sometimes this recognition comes in the form of illness, depression, or anxiety.  Sometimes, it’s just a low grade, nagging feeling that they have something important to get to in their lives but can’t see it clearly.  Sometimes, it’s clear as day, but the path getting there is fraught with pitfalls, and they can’t see the way through.

T.S.O.

The only way that it can get clearer is if we take just one step forward. And sometimes, just taking that step can be like pulling teeth because we’ve already thought our way to the end, and it looks very scary.  Poet, David Whyte, offers pithy instruction for this tendency to over strategizing in his poem, Start Close In:

Start close in, 
don't take the second step 
or the third, 
 start with the first 
thing 
close in, 
the step
 you don't want to take.

Start with 
the ground
 you know, 
the pale ground
 beneath your feet, your own 
way of starting 
the conversation.

Sometimes it requires that we just take the step that’s in front of us.  I watch some clients giving too much weight to having a plan.  I am not suggesting that it’s worthless to have a plan, but rarely does a path follow a straight trajectory except, of course, when we look in hindsight.  Mainly, we have to have the courage to just take that one step that’s in front of us, the one we’re afraid to take but equally the one we know we need to take.

The technical term I use for one mode of stepping forward that I teach my clients is called, “T.S.O.-ing,” or Trying Shit Out.  Taking that leap into action sometimes calls for 3 parts balls, 1 part throwing caution to the wind, and a dash of “f**k it.”  That step demands that we let go of what we think we know.  It demands that we be willing to concede mistakes.  Often it requires we be willing to just give it a try.

Giving Up Victimhood

That step is a form of reckoning; it requires us to own our hunger and the journey it takes us on.  It forces us to defeat the fears that we might not have what it takes-- the guts, the smarts, or the stamina—to make it to the finish. Once we’ve taken it, we no longer have anyone to blame for our paralysis, not our cruel boss, not our absent father, or the balance in our bank account.  When we take that one uncomfortable, sometimes painful, yet authentic step, we have to give up our victim stance.  It won’t serve us on that journey.

We also have to be willing to withstand long periods of discomfort, of not knowing the outcome but not so long that we’re pigheaded.  And that’s a fine dance.  It seems to me, though, that most of us could use a little stick-to-it-ive-ness.  We’re often willing to live in atmospheres that are simultaneously empty and combative, but for some reason it’s really hard to stay with something that means a lot to us.  Neurobiologists tell us that we’re not wired to do this.  We’re wired to avoid change because it actually hurts. The brain does not distinguish between physical or psychological pain.  We have to be willing to stay with the pain of not knowing the outcome for extended periods of time.

Why Do It Alone?

Given that that one, risky step is so laden with fear, doubt, and all the stuff that comes up when we put ourselves on the line, it can’t hurt to have community and individual support.  We are, by nature, social creatures, no matter how introverted some of us are.  We need others.  We live in a culture that has historically valued people with gumption who make it to the top through sheer willfulness.  We rarely hear about the Bela Karolyi’s that help form the Nadia Comăneci’s.  Nadia did it, but she didn’t do it alone. Sometimes the mentor comes in the form of a historical figure, like Mohandas Gandhi for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sometimes, it comes in the form of a teaching or a teacher like Gautama Buddha or Jesus.

However it comes, the direct experience of being met in our hunger and acknowledged for it is absolutely life affirming.  It connects us to something we know, something that is much bigger than us, and reminds us to wonder, to stay in curiosity, and to continue to struggle with the journey we feel called to.  The friend, ally, or teacher can’t do it for us, but they can help us frame the path in such a way that it makes sense and, at the same time, helps us stay connected to what’s important.

This is where coaching can be useful.  As coaches, we’re trained to want what our clients want.  Instead of wanting what we want, most people we’re close to, in fact, want what they want for us.  The distinction I am making here is that most everybody else thinks that they know what’s best for us.  But they don’t.  How could they? Someone who comes from a reputable coach training holds their clients as experts and, instead of telling them what they should want and do, asks powerful questions that evokes the learning necessary to forward action.  Additionally, a good coach will hold his/her client accountable for the action, since we all have a tendency to talk good games without much follow through.

Be the Change

This is a time of great change, politically, socially, globally, environmentally, economically and so much more.  The old systems that worked at one time, no longer work.  As a coach, I get that I’m about to be trite when I say that Gandhi had it right when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  The bottom line is that we’re it.  The political system won’t change until we’ve changed, nor will the economic, environmental, social, or any other.  You and I ARE the system.  And its brokenness is only reflecting to us our own brokenness.

Until we’ve become tired of waiting for Santa Clause to come down the chimney; until we wake up to the fact that there will never be enough money in the bank; and until we’re willing to step up to the plate and claim our hunger and take that first step, we’ll remain, at best, innocent bystanders, or, at worst, the cause of the ever increasing decay we see around us.  In short, it’s critical that we, as a species, wake up to what authentically moves us.  It’s my hunch that that’s what will transform the situation we all face.  And it starts with us, you and me.  And it starts, now.  And now.  And now.

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How to Make Profound, Lasting Change

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When we lose a job, get a bad review, experience burn out, or our heart is broken, we often can’t help but experience a sense of groundlessness and paralysis. We struggle with meaning and end up feeling stuck.  Who am I, now?  How do I recover from the sense of frustration, overwhelm, or loss?  In this post, I am going to suggest that what stops us is not the situations themselves.  It’s never fun to lose a job or have our hearts broken, but there’s no inherent meaning in these losses.  In other words, the circumstances of our lives don’t make us unhappy.  Rather, our experience of them depends entirely on the meaning we bring to them.  Some perspectives empower us when faced with even the most difficult of situations and some render us incapacitated.  How we hold the circumstances of our lives can either grow us or take us down.

Part 1: Uncover your interpretations of the situations you find ourselves in.

Rarely do we relate to our actual experiences. Instead, we relate to the meaning we make of our experiences and the emotional charge we feel about the experience.

If we observe ourselves over a few days, we’ll notice an automatic, unconscious propensity to see that we’re always adding meaning to the experiences of our lives.  We have the tendency to fit each experience that shows up into an ongoing story we have about our lives and who we are.  In fact, rarely do we regard ourselves in relationship to the immediate circumstances we find ourselves in.  Instead of relating directly to our experiences, we often just relate to our beliefs, opinions, and judgments about the experiences.  And so when things fall apart, and we lose meaning in life, it can be incredibly helpful to reassess how we make meaning of our lives.

A 48-year old client, Mary, had been driven her whole life to make it big in the corporate world.  A year ago she arrived at my office and declared: “I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.”  She didn’t sleep well; she’d gained ten pounds over the last few years; and her relationship with her girlfriend was suffering from her tendency to what she called “workaholic tendencies.”  She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck, it still didn’t propel the change she desperately needed.

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so felt like torture.  Mary’s sense of purpose in life, up until that moment, revolved entirely around her work.  Her sense of self and the qualities of her relationships went down when her work went down.  Likewise, they went up when her work went well, not to mention the fact that she’d spent her whole life working her way to the top.  Now that she’d finally made it to the “big time,” she couldn’t help but look around and scratch her head, asking, “Is this as good as it gets.”  Her health and her personal relationships were suffering, and she found her colleagues, in fact, intolerable.

While Mary felt that to make a change would put her family in financial jeopardy, she knew, rationally speaking, that they’d do fine if she took a pay cut.  She, like most of my clients use the “financial card,” as an excuse not to make a change.  But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her.  She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

Part 2: Meet the feelings you’re avoiding.

To make profound, lasting change not only must we uncover the background stories that help us make meaning of our experiences, but we also must meet the nervous system’s response to the experiences.  Embedded within each of our narratives is a statement like, “I never want to feel "x" again.”  "X" might be loneliness, sadness, anger or fear.  The narratives that live in the subtle background of our lives help us not only to succeed but also to avoid certain feelings.  If we’re ever going to really transform, we have to be willing to meet the feelings we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In Mary’s case, her workaholism protected her from the fear of being destitute. As Mary examined her life’s narrative and discovered her propensity to be risk averse, she started to confront bodily feelings of terror: fluttering feelings in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, and a knot in the throat.

This part of the journey can be very uncomfortable and equally counterintuitive. Each of us spends a whole lifetime avoiding these feelings.  Turning around and looking at them can be like turning around and facing the demon we swore off almost a lifetime ago.  It takes incredible courage, even-mindedness, tenacity and compassion to ride the waves of emotional pain.  And to do so can feel like this:

Heavy-heartedness… irritation in the chest… boredom… really heavy heartedness… tightness in the ribs…. burning rage…heat in the face…tight throat… boredom… fatigue… numbness… impatience and boredom…. nothing… nothing…nothing…hurt

Often times my clients will ask, “Why would I want to be with this shit?”  Often my response is that to meet it is to transform it.  To avoid it is to let it rule you.”  If we don’t meet the body’s response, we miss a deep learning that our suffering has to show us. So as Mary met the fluttering, queasiness, and knots in one of our meetings, her “fear of change” lost its hold on her.

Part 3: Reinterpret the experience in such a way that it leaves you powerful.

At that point, she was no longer afraid to feel her terror.  She could see that she didn’t need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless, and alone.”  Instead, she was at choice to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and that empowered her.  When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she could see that instead of her burn out being an obstacle, that it could be seen as an omen for change.  “I could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with Donna [her girlfriend].” Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads might give her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy.

Part 4: Make the insight real through action that leads to specific and measurable outcomes.

All it takes is a moment to see our situations in a light that renders us free, powerful, or expressed.  But to make the changes necessary to fulfill this recognition a clear set of goals accompanied by practice. Once Mary committed to a change in her work, she started to look for new work opportunities, both within her corporation and outside.  She made a point of meeting colleagues within her network.  It took time and a lot of what I call “t.s.o.-ing”—trying shit out--to stumble upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she needed.  She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, and so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her nervous system.

Part 5: Practice mind-body techniques that support the nervous system and facilitate the change.

Mary and I co-created a morning ritual.  Each morning she did some movement, whether it was yoga I taught her or taking a walk with her girlfriend.  I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5-15 minutes.  Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry I’d assign her each week. An inquiry is an open-ended question that can be answered from many different sides that gives new insights each way we look at it. One inquiry that uncovered a landmine of insight for her was, “What must I drop in order to gain something new?”  This question helped her discover the confidence that she wasn’t just dropping off altogether but that her change would put her in touch with something new.

Slowly, over a six-month period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. To an outsider, that move might have been seen as a demotion, but to her the move enhanced the quality of her life immensely.  She worked less; had more time to explore new ways of relating and playing with her girlfriend; and found time for herself.  Essentially, this move provided the breathing room Mary needed to replenish the well that had dried up inside of her.

Exercise

  1. Very briefly, write an account of your life and conclude with the situation you currently find yourself in.  Keep the writing to a minimum of one page.
  2. Reread your brief account once.
  3. Notice how your life’s story influences the current circumstances you’re in.  Does  it empower or disempower your circumstances?
  4. Review your brief account, again, this time, reading your account out loud.
  5. Notice how it makes you feel in your head, throat, heart, belly, and genitals once you’ve completed the account.  Do you notice any emotion, sensation, or charge in these areas of the body?
  6. If you notice that you do, read the account out loud, once again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until any feeling of constraint has altogether gone away.
  8. Notice if there’s a new meaning you start to derive from the circumstances you find yourself in accompanied by new possibilities for yourself and your life.
  9. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  10. Hire a coach. A coach will hold you accountable to making the changes in life you sense you need to make.  Don’t bother trying to do this part alone.  Creating something new can be incredibly daunting.  A good coach is really a skilled change agent.  He or she will collaborate with you in designing practices that will make the process of change easier, fun, and intelligent, too.