Identity Shift or Journey of Self?

Author : Maggie Campbell

maggie campbell identity blog

29th November 2019

Self-identity is defined as the degree to which engaging in a behaviour is essential to an individual’s self-concept (Stryker, 1987). An individual’s identity is a combination of his/her personality based on experiences (Clancy & Dollinger, 1993; Erikson, 1963). Self-identity can be expressed through interactions…

My coaching work centres around health, wellness, empowerment and transition. Self-identity is interlinked with all of these elements. As a health professional (nurse and midwife) I have worked with many families as they transition into the parenting role and their identity as a parent. I have witnessed the benefits and power of continuity, i.e. having access to a named person, and how this impacts on the start of family life, and perhaps more importantly how it impacts mental health and an individual’s transition into their role and identity as a parent. This is evidenced in a nationally recognised research project that I was involved in.

Most services that are provided around parenting, from the antenatal period until the end of the teenage years, are prescriptive and limiting in their ability to tap into the hidden potential of the individual. During pregnancy, time and energy are spent on medical aspects and the birth itself, with little time or focus on the transition into becoming a parent. Often the transition into becoming a parenting partnership or a couple has not been explored.

Parenting, like life, is an adventure with many ups and downs in which individuals challenge their identities from many perspectives. This includes self-identity and identities of parent, co-parent and worker. It is no wonder that we question “What is ‘work-life balance’?” and “How this can all come together?” Parents often state that they believe their own identity is lost along the way, and they have actually forgotten how to care for themselves.

Coaching provides a confidential space for clients to explore their beliefs and values, one which enables them to focus on what is important for their lives and how to move forward. It does not examine what has gone before; however, there are times when a client requires the opportunity to reflect on what has passed, in order to understand when and why they became ‘stuck’. This enables them to identify new ways of thinking and behaving, and to identify opportunities for change and personal growth. The coaching space facilitates conversation and exploration around long-held beliefs and values, and around questioning and clarifying goals.

The striving for identity is a fundamental, complex and challenging issue for all individuals – from birth to grave. As human beings, we are designed to question, explore and undergo continuous change as we face new experiences, challenges and influences, which we perceive as either being in or out of our control. We have a desire to fit in, belong, be accepted and contribute. Alongside this are our struggles around self-perception, worth and identity.

The formative teenage years provide a powerful example of the beginnings of rapid change in identity being formulated. Personal goals, values and beliefs start to emerge as the adolescent questions previous beliefs they have inherited or acquired from families, friends, educationalists and the society in which they have been raised. It is no wonder that these years are considered the most challenging and influential in the shaping of self and belonging, to equip the adolescent for adulthood. Children are taught how to behave and are bombarded with instruction throughout their childhood and schooling years. Despite many opportunities and programmes that are offered around social health and development, many children are not afforded the opportunity to explore and question without judgement or guidance. It can be argued that this could hinder the full opportunity for children and adolescents to become resilient and self-aware in a way that suits their needs and personality, all of which is required for the building of identity. As the adolescent withdraws from their parents, the opportunity to open up may diminish whilst the dependence upon peers for validation increases.

During many years working with families within health care, I have encountered individuals who have become ‘stuck’ and unable to reach their full potential because they have not shaken off or moved on from their unmet childhood needs. Perhaps more importantly, they have not been given the ‘permission’ to use their willpower, intuition and creativity to guide their future. If a negative self-image and identity develop, it can become increasingly difficult to move away from these entrenched beliefs as the pressures and demands of life take over.

Patterns of parenting have been examined and it is recognised that these patterns are influential on the behavioural and developmental outcomes for adolescents. The purpose of my case study is not to question these parenting styles, but to examine the effects of some aspects of my client’s parenting experience that caused her to become stuck in her personal growth, limiting her ability to parent in the way that she wished to.

This case study provides insight into how complex life can be today, and how the sense of identity can appear like entrenched childhood overspill. Sarah is not unique. We have all been influenced by our parenting experiences. In turn, these experiences can impact on our parenting, and the experiences of the next generation and the identities of all within this continuum.

My client’s story is multifaceted and does not centre around one identity or parenting issue in isolation. Issues of attachment, identity development and achievement feature throughout. Likewise, my client’s ‘nuclear family’, the roles and influences of both mother and father, have impacted on her core belief of self-worth.

Sarah’s Story

Sarah referred herself with the desire to become a better parent and described her goal as follows: “I want to reduce my shouting, become more tolerant and be a better parent.” The catalyst was an event in which a teacher witnessed her shouting at her daughter not to run into the road. Her seven-year-old daughter had slipped her hand and had run across the road to go into school. This event caused her to question herself and her ability as a parent. Her questioning focused on her belief that she “was not a good parent.” Sarah felt she was being judged by the school and was now under scrutiny.

Sarah works hard and juggles two jobs, a new relationship, an acrimonious previous relationship and a stepson who spends considerable time with her and the current family. Her daughter spends weekends with her father; however, he is often unreliable and does not turn up or stick to agreements.

Geographical locations meant that our coaching sessions would have to take place by telephone, so it was agreed that this was the best approach. Sarah welcomed the ‘anonymity’ and felt more comfortable not being seen. Looking back on our sessions so far this has been a successful choice. As a coach, I have been able to heighten my listening ability and not be distracted by what was visually in front of me. This approach also enabled and empowered Sarah to be her authentic self and to open up in the way she needed to.

During our first session, we explored the reasons why Sarah considered coaching as the best course of action for her needs. She explained that she had tried various approaches in the past which had included counselling and CBT in an attempt to address her behaviours and beliefs. Her previous therapies had left her feeling let down in that no tangible change had taken place, and where it had it was temporary. She felt alone outside of the therapy, and was unable to find the skills or the energy to put what had been learnt into practice. The outside world was overwhelming and she admitted she did not know where to start.

Much of our first session was around developing rapport and trust and providing Sarah with the opportunity to ‘offload’. There were tears and frustrations during which I held the space and maintained presence so as not to interrupt the flow. Much of this first session was Sarah’s outpouring of her perceived inadequacies as a parent, and how this had implications for her daughter and how the school viewed her. She was full of panic and her stress was apparent: she did not want the school to ‘press any buttons’ for intervention.

We discussed the coaching contract and it was agreed that the correct approach for Sarah was to continue to discuss our contract during our next session. Even though we were able to address the fundamentals around the meaning of coaching, our roles within it, confidentiality and commitment, it was too soon to go into too much detail at this stage as she was not ready or able to contribute further. We decided that as the coach I would email her a draft copy for her consideration. It was important to Sarah to have a copy of the contract and to consider the implications. The coaching contract ended up being a positive tool that empowered Sarah and gave her a sense of worth, recognition and a deeper understanding that the coaching was to be about her and she would be given the confidential, non-judgemental space in which she could honestly open up.

During our subsequent sessions, it became apparent to Sarah that her commitment to previous forms of therapy had not been ideal. She recognised that she had not been given the opportunity to fully explore her beliefs and values in a positive way. Her experiences had been around looking at the negative and attempting to change behaviours without giving herself permission to be ‘released’, so she could move forward in her own right and behave in different and positive ways. As things progressed it struck me how powerful her coaching experience was to her, and how she was able to start moving from a point of identity crisis to one where she was actively seeking possibilities and opportunity for change.

We discussed the value of ‘homework’, and Sarah decided she wished to be set exploratory tasks around the issues she had raised and where she had identified the need for change. I researched and referred to tried and tested models but decided to tailor any models I was to use around what it was Sarah wished to explore further from our sessions. The tools were also designed to maintain momentum within the coaching experience and provide clarity. Sarah found this to be particularly helpful and would ask for ‘homework’. Interestingly the homework and feedback from any work that Sarah completed helped her reflect on her growth and the positive progress she was making. For me as a coach, it was important to be mindful of the nature and timing of ‘homework’ so that it did not have a negative impact or overwhelm Sarah. It was also important that I recognised the benefit within the coaching journey.

Over time, the conversations and questioning took on a deeper meaning, and I was given permission to challenge Sarah’s firmly held negative beliefs around her identity. As our sessions continued we explored her self-esteem, what it meant to her, what it looked and felt like and how it impacted on her day-to-day life, both inside and outside of work and in particular as a parent. As she opened up further it was evident that she did not want to dwell but wanted move away from her previous unhelpful negative thinking. As a coach, I was able to question Sarah around her understanding of ‘where she got stuck’ and she was able to consider her emergence as an adult and recognise that she was adopting a childlike stance in reaction to certain situations, rather than taking on the role of the adult. As the conversation developed it came to light that Sarah had moved house many times as a child and that her biological father was absent for most of her childhood. Her mother had replaced him with many partners, some of whom had violent and abusive tendencies.

Sarah began to recognise that her emotional and behavioural reactions came from fear and a lack of acceptance. She further recognised she needed to readdress her behaviours so that they did not affect her daughter. Listening to Sarah I could see that she was self-aware and was able to recognise her areas for development, however, she needed to come to her own understanding and be able to check her behaviours from a conscious level in order to effect positive change. As a coach, at times I adopted a questioning approach that enabled Sarah to ‘look into the mirror’ to give her the opportunity to explore some of her reactions, and to identify some of the reasons and triggers behind them. This was taken further and we explored how Sarah’s daughter might observe some of these behaviours, interpret them and internalise the meaning of them from a point of self.

Sarah was then able to facilitate her own identity development by setting herself reasonable behavioural expectations and clearly identified goals, which were achievable and could also be translated and embedded into her own parenting style. She further recognised that her own parenting experiences had impacted on her own identity as an individual and as a mother.

The breakthrough came when she identified that her ‘anger’ and her current parenting style had been as a result of her own parenting experiences, but also, more importantly, when she perceived her desire not to identify with her own parents. She wanted to move away from and to protect her daughter from the same influences that she believed had stunted her own development of identity. She recognised that this was where she had become stuck and, more importantly, that she was taking positive steps for change. She started to take responsibility and to enjoy her journey of self-discovery and transition. As a coach, I had had to curb my need to point this out to her earlier. I reminded myself that this was not my journey but hers. Reflecting back, if I had pointed out this connection for her she may have come back to me to challenge it or it could have produced a negative rather than a positive outcome.

During our sessions, Sarah referred to her daughter’s father and how she wished to manage differently the situations around their relationship without interfering and influencing. We explored what this meant to her and what her concerns were. We also looked at ways in which she felt she could facilitate a relationship but at the same time take on the identity of responsible adult. This involved her questioning when she wanted to step in and how she could support her daughter’s growing need for independent thought so her daughter was validated. As a coach, I used some of the STAR principles to aid the discussions around how some of these situations impacted on her thoughts and feelings, and the subsequent actions she would usually adopt, as well as what results this did or did not achieve. I then went on to repeat the process by giving Sarah the opportunity to look at the same situation from a different perspective and explore what results would come from the alternatives that she had identified.

As time went on, Sarah began to recognise how her daughter’s visits impacted on her behaviour and that a pattern was beginning to emerge. She further recognised that she had to ‘un-pick’ the negative impact the visits had on her daughter and her identity, and that she had to strive hard to regain and maintain ‘balance’. This was challenging for Sarah, and she actively sought ways in which she could maintain her stance as a positive parenting model to her daughter whilst not succumbing to her own learnt behaviours. We used visualisation so that Sarah could look at what she wanted to achieve in this situation, and consider how it might look and feel, both physically and emotionally.

The use of visualisation was a powerful tool for Sarah and one which she was able to identify with. It allowed her to step back from her emotional self and start to consider her identity as a ‘parent manager’ in this situation. Taking her emotional self out of the situation empowered her decision-making and enabled her to seek silence to consider the best course of action. We called this putting the ‘parent manager hat’ on. Using this approach of questioning we also focused on exploring how she could support and guide her stepson in a similar situation. Looking at an alternative but similar situation enabled Sarah to tap into her parenting skills in a way in which she had previously not been able to do. This also affirmed her ‘lost’ belief that she could identify with herself as a good enough mother, one who was striving to support her daughter in the best way possible.

Sarah was committed to change from the outset; however there were times when I had to hold back on my questioning of this commitment. When Sarah ‘disappeared’ away from the process I could have easily abandoned and terminated the coaching relationship. I remained on course due to my belief that Sarah’s desire for change was strong, whilst recognising how the challenges in her life posed a degree of difficulty for her. I drew from my understanding of her story and our conversations that the change process may take time. The deeply- embedded beliefs needed to be challenged at a pace that would afford self-discovery, and new beliefs might need time to be tried and tested. Despite this, I had to be conscious to listen to my self-talk and appreciate that the coaching journey, whilst being a partnership that is client-focused throughout, poses a risk that the relationship may be compromised and have to reconsidered.

Sarah ‘disappeared’ for several months. I received a phone call out of the blue and was asked if we could continue our conversations. I made a conscious effort not to prejudge the situation and questioned Sarah to find out where had she been, what progress she had made and why she wished to return to coaching. To my surprise, Sarah could not wait to tell me that she had started driving lessons, something she had always been meaning to do. She had set herself a goal to pass her test by the time she was 26. She had also joined Weight Watchers and had lost a considerable amount of weight, and was practicing mindfulness. She had been working on her new goals and was waiting to achieve change so she could be proud to share her progress.

Part way through our next session Sarah identified that her goal to be a mother who did not shout was in fact not her overall goal, but was an objective to be obtained as part of a bigger goal – to become more resilient. Our subsequent conversations explored what this meant to her and how it would make her feel and behave if she reached this goal. Sarah offered up her new belief: ‘If I can learn how to be more resilient I can help my daughter to be the same.”

With Sarah’s permission, we went on to explore further an understanding of her desired parenting style to include benefits and insights. It was a delight to listen to Sarah. As she looked further into this issue, she began to share her beliefs and experiences, and recognised that despite her initial thoughts around her identity as parent, she had not been focusing on what she had learnt along the way but had been focusing on what had been wrong for her as a child. One striking realisation for Sarah was that her need for her daughter to have her father in her life was based around her own issues around her absent father, and that this transference of her own belief was not perhaps the best approach for her daughter. As she shared this I could sense her relief in giving herself the permission to let go, divorcing this belief from her perceived identity as a parent. Looking at this in a new way Sarah explained that “Yes my relationship with my daughter is the most important thing to focus on right now.” It had become apparent to Sarah that her relationship with her daughter was based on trust and that the relationship was strong.

I asked Sarah what she felt she had got from her coaching experience so far. Her reply was, “Counselling keeps me down, coaching coaches me up.”

For me, Sarah has challenged me as a coach in many ways. It has affirmed that I am going in the right direction and the experience has helped me look at my own beliefs and values. She has also shown me the power that can be unlocked in another individual from a place of anger and disappointment to one of happiness, hope, deep understanding and self-forgiveness. Resilience indeed.

Sarah is still a work in progress. Our relationship continues.

Find out more about Maggie 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:

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