How to Identify ‘Identity’ in Coaching

Author : Fawzia Bheekhun

2nd December 2019

How do I see my own identity?

Well I am Fawzia. I am a woman with a mixed heritage, having ancestral history from India, Arabia, France and Mauritius. I see myself as a human being with a sense of belonging to the ones that I hold dear. I went to a grammar school until I was thirteen. I looked different. My clothes had a patterned design on them, and I had olive skin and jet black hair. I was a minority in the community. I experienced racism and brutal attacks on myself and my sister, but I loved the people that treated me like a person. One person shared their bread with me, something that I’ll never forget.

I loved being in school and learning to read and write. I found it really fascinating being with others. We looked different. We had different values and beliefs. However, even though it fascinated me, I wondered why I was treated in certain ways by certain people. After some time, I realised it had to do with my identity.

Now that I am an adult (in theory) and a coach, I have to face identity in others as well as within myself on a daily basis. The most important ingredients of the explorative process are self-realisation and self- actualisation. I believe that as an individual you have to understand your own self-worth and identity before attempting to understand someone else’s. Noticing how we see ourselves and having a clear understanding of our own beliefs is important as it teaches us to value our sense of being in this world. Moreover, it is also vital to acknowledge how our thoughts and behaviour change in different contexts, how we want to been seen and received by others who we love, and that we are aware of our own congruence. In my profession, it is important to respect the client’s own autonomy, personal choices, and safety within the therapeutic coaching relationship.

Identity often presents an issue in coaching because it is important to understand our clients, and what they regard as equality is imperative to this understanding. As coaches, we need to understand which part of the client’s identity is in crisis and the impact this has on their daily life, especially when they are transitioning into the next stage of their life or when they have suffered a loss.

As coaches we need to consider whether we are compatible with the client, the right coach for them, and whether we are skilled in providing the transformational process for change. Moreover, we need to be aware of practical issues that may arise, such as the need for an interpreter, as there is such cultural diversity among the clients we may encounter. There are also some who would prefer a gender-specific coach, and that is all part of their desire to feel secure in talking about their issues with their identities. Being a person-centred coach requires you to be an attentive listener: this is a key skill to the understanding of clients’ problems with identity.

As a coach, noticing how we see ourselves, having a clear understanding of our own beliefs, and valuing our sense of being in this world can have a big influence on the success of the coaching process for many people.

Ally’s Story

Ally is a twenty-three-year-old Digital Photographer who graduated from university three years ago. She was a client of mine who struggled with an identity crisis. I was present with each stage of Ally’s development and suggested the use of creativity: I asked Ally if drawing or taking photographs of different images would help her to express her own identity in the world. After consideration she agreed that it would.

Struggle 1 – Not Knowing Who She Was And Where She Fitted In The World

Ally had been struggling to pin down who she really was and her place in the world. She felt stuck, anxious and extremely stressed, and explained that she wanted to have coaching sessions in order to understand her true self and the purpose of her life. These were extremely challenging times for Ally. She was presented with different identity issues as an individual, particularly what career she would like to pursue.

Struggle 2 – Huge Amounts Of Expectations From Family Caused Ally To Develop Emotional Anxieties

Another core struggle Ally faced was the onset of emotional anxieties as a result of her family’s high expectations. These included becoming a successful woman after her graduation, increasing her income and finding a partner. As a result of this immense pressure, she felt she had lost the knowledge of who she truly was. This feeling was further exacerbated by her parents’ frequent comparison of Ally to others. This had a huge impact on Ally’s self-worth and self-confidence, as she was under a lot of pressure to please everyone in her life.

Looking back, I noticed that another key aspect of Ally’s life was her religious beliefs. These played a big part in her sense of loss, as she was yet to fully connect with her religion, due to the loss of her identity and the lack of freedom she had to live life as she wanted. Corresponding to this, Ally explained that she felt she would have been rejected by her family if she were to be herself.

Struggle 3 – Religious Restrictions Stopped Her From Pursuing Her Dreams And What She Really Wanted To Achieve In Llife

The last key feature of her identity crisis became apparent during the therapeutic coaching session. She explained that in regards to her religious faith, she had to attend lots of meetings during the week which took up a great deal of her time. In turn, this meant that Ally had a lack of time to pursue her dreams, and make practical steps towards achieving those dreams and what she wanted to do with her life.

Ally wanted to be coached in an effort to deal with the aforementioned struggles, however, she was under the impression that I would be able to give her the answers to her problems. I asked her which problem she wanted to deal with first, something which proved challenging for her to get her head around, as she was accustomed to being told what to do rather than making her own decisions. She was very quiet and kept saying, “I thought that you would be giving me things to do and would provide me with a quick solution.” I allowed her to have some space to clear her mind, and in doing so allowed her to focus her attention on herself. Ally said she thought about who she was and what her actual identity was. From our session, Ally realised that her family values were very important to her, but they came at a cost: losing her sense of identity and who she was in the world. When that thought popped up she immediately felt guilty and selfish for wanting something different from her family’s expectations.

Through the explorative discussion, Ally came to the realisation that she wanted to travel the world. She shared a really happy moment during the coaching session of visiting her friend in Madrid in 2017. It was the first time she had truly felt alive, and she recalled feeling a great deal of joy and pleasure in taking beautiful photographs of the natural habitat. Her physiology completely changed in the room. She was smiling and expressed her new-found passion to pursue travel writing and photography.

Whilst this was a great breakthrough for Ally, she still had to face her fear: telling her family that she wanted to leave home and start her own life. She felt a deep sense of responsibility for her sick siblings and her parents, and felt that by choosing to leave them or to seek an independent life for herself, she was being selfish.

Ally was under the impression that she had to find a successful job to uphold her family prestige. This was not just what her family wanted, but what they expected from her. She questioned whether it was her own dreams or those of her family. Ally realised that her irrational thoughts were predominantly linked to the past and this triggered her to feel lonely and sad.

Looking at her experience from an introspective stance, Ally realised that her thoughts were outdated, and noticed the impact that returning home had had on her. She felt that she had to be separate from her family in order to maintain her health, and her expectations about what she wanted from our coaching discussions had changed as the sessions went on.

Although Ally had a life-changing experience through coaching, she did have challenging moments. She would get lost in her own thoughts about how others valued her introspective conditioning process. She conveyed her anger on a number of occasions during the process and I would reflect this back through open questions. “What is this anger you feel?” “Why do you feel like this?” “Is there a certain experience that made you feel this way?”

Ally felt uncomfortable at first with the slow pace of the coaching session; however she realised it was a collaborative effort to explore and clarify what her identity was in the world. She was surprised that a total stranger had understood her true dreams and aspirations in life, and had listened to her not just without judgement, but with a great deal of compassion. By ensuring she was comfortable, I enabled Ally’s trust in me to grow, as well as her trust in herself, as she began to take the initiative to make her own decisions about her life and what she wanted to do on a daily basis.

Even though Ally found the silence in the beginning very uncomfortable, as the sessions progressed she learned to treasure those moments of silent thought. She noticed that the silent moments allowed her to spiritually connect with herself, and the sensory world. By listening to her own words aloud and recognising her own emotions, she became more fluid in the way that she communicated her concerns and thoughts to me as her coach. She realised that she paid a lot of attention to how she described herself to others.

Ally expressed that she hadn’t realised just how powerful therapeutic coaching could be. This made me smile, as I could see her sense of awe at the success of our time together. She explained that due to the coaching she was now more self-aware and reflective of what she was putting out into the world, as well as how important it had been for her to value her family’s opinion about what they thought she ought to be in the world. Allowing her to explore the answer for herself and simply guiding her ideas and reflections meant that Ally was able to identify her true feelings about her own life, giving rise to emotions that she did not know she had. This created a much more open-minded and calm space for our sessions to unfold.

Having a space in which she could invest her time in understanding herself proved to be pivotal for Ally’s development. She expressed that for a long time she had not had a space where she could just be herself. Ally conveyed that she wanted to allow herself to experience the negative emotions as well as the good, such as reaching the conclusion that she did not have to please everyone in her family.

She took her self-reflective process further by taking the time to understand what she loves to do, in terms of hobbies. Ally explained she wanted to give herself the best life she could, by honouring the gift of life and seizing the opportunities that she had. She found that I was able to connect to her creativity and help her express it through her writing, photos and vision boards. The atmosphere she felt was one of comfort, calmness and a sense of inner peace. She explained that she felt she now had a space in which she could let out of all her incongruence without any judgement or interruption. Making her own decisions in her life was something she had not previously experienced, and this new mindset enabled her to flourish.

She realised her career path was in travel writing and photography, which led her to seek a job within the travel industry. She had applied for a couple of jobs and successfully got an interview for one of them. It was a huge step and to this day I’ll never forget her smile. She smiled with tears of joy glistening in the corner of her eyes. A joyous smile that was so heartwarming because it was so genuine. As her coach, I realised in that moment that creativity is sometimes an affirmation of people’s pain, emotions, and experiences, as well as their transformational discovery into the unknown parts of their lives.

Ally realised that she was the only one who could face the layers of her incongruence through addressing the false identity she was putting out into the world. She understood this would be a difficult process, but Ally expressed how she felt a sense of safety to be herself, think for herself and identify how she wanted to use the therapeutic coaching session. Through the therapeutic coaching person-to-person relationship, Ally understood that I was simply a guide in her journey to her authentic sense of being in the world. She expressed her gratitude for the self-realisation that she had the intrinsic truth and strength to overcome her own troubles within her own existence.

One of my key beliefs is that it is so important to having an understanding of your self-worth. This is an important part of knowing yourself, and a very precious ideology in how we articulate our sense of identity and how we see ourselves.

Let’s use an analogy. You are a five-year-old child who is energetic and full of life. As you are still young, you will usually have the freedom to express your spontaneous self, one that is vibrant and authentic. There is a general expectation or norm that as you are a child, there is no need to edit yourself to fit into the societal norms that are expected of an adult. This is due to the simple fact that as you are a young child, your mind has not yet been influenced by the societal conditioning and knowledge of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1996). However as you get older you start to look at others, and this has a huge impact on how you see yourself due to your surrounding environment and the society in which you grew up. You become shaped by societal norms that teach you how to act and behave as an adult, limiting your sense of freedom to focus on living and expressing your intrinsic identity.

As Ally’s coach, I utilised the power of creativity to help her find her new intrinsic identity, encouraging her to keep a journal and read her favourite poetry. Ally also loved to dance. She used her body to ease the stress in her mind and to relax. This enabled her to feel calmer in the sessions, which allowed me to get to know her true personality. I found that she had a great sense of humour, and by understanding what made her happy she understood why she had become lost, and that it was okay to not have all the answers. She told me, “It is so lovely to be able to breathe so openly, especially when we did the walking enlighten coaching in the park. It was so enlightening and beautiful; these feelings and emotions are what I reflect on when I am doing my mindfulness affirmation which you shared with me during our session.”

Ally’s experience has had a positive impact in developing my own identity and experience as an existential coach. She taught me that I have to listen to my own beliefs and values in life. That uncertainty is cool. That it is okay if I don’t have the answers for all my problems. Ally taught me that you could become your own leader and make your own destiny in the world.

What we experience with our sight, smell, sound, touch and taste, all has a huge impact on how we see ourselves. We identify our identities through our heritage, social groups, sexuality, education, profession, personal interests and social class. I encompass these concepts in my coaching, using them as a foundation to create open questions that will allow the client to explore their identity. I believe in the power of the body, how we want to be seen and who we want to be. Therefore, deep space and stillness of the mind and body, as well as a transpersonal sense of existence, all need equal consideration in the coaching environment.

I attended Dr John Demartini’s seminar and he asked the audience, “Who do you think you are?” Most people responded with answers like, “I am a lawyer, mother, lover, teacher.” I sat there thinking: “Well I am just me and that is all I can be right now in this space.” Believing in the power of self-efficacy is essential in coaching. As coaches we need to allow the client to be empathetic to their own explorative searching, and the meaning of their own identity and purpose in life.

The crux of it all is to flow freely by knowing who you are and what your identity is, and in doing so you will blossom. Always remember, your identity will evolve throughout your life, so embrace the change, live freely and stay happy.


Find out more about Fawzia here.

This blog post is a chapter from the latest Animas free eBook Identity.


If you would like us to help tell your story or you would like to share your coaching niche, philosophy or agenda in the form of a blog, like this one – contact Sam to express your interest: sam.chambers@animascoaching.com

Categories: Graduate stories  

Categories: Working as a coach  

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