Our sessions took place by Skype, and from the outset we decided it would take as long as it would take. No time constraints, no pressures.
John was raised during the seventies and eighties in a family of what he perceived as masculine and heroic men. He was proud to tell stories of how they had influenced him, and of their bravery and unflinching determination during times of trauma and adversity. It was clear from the outset that his identity as a strong and ‘manly man’ was hugely important to him. It was crucial to John that he didn’t ever appear as weak or vulnerable, and to be seen as either of those things, he exclaimed, was “his worst nightmare.” For John, showing emotion or allowing vulnerability would not only mean he wasn’t a real man, but worse still, it would disappoint the lineage of strong, masculine men who went before him. Those men fought wars, led teams into battle and saved lives, without, according to John, ever seeking help or becoming emotional. Who then was he to allow the trivialities of modern life to get to him?
But the problem for John was that life was getting to him: it was getting to him very much. John talked about carrying a lot of anger, and the feelings of ‘inner rage’ that he was having in everyday situations unnerved him. These feelings of rage and the unpredictability of how they might show up, meant that John was avoiding social situations and highly populated places. He joked about becoming a hermit as a way to deal with it, but it was clear that he was scared of how he might react, and whether he could contain this anger. Somebody standing too close to him in a queue, for example, was sometimes too much to bear. For John, the anxiety around what it would mean to walk away or ‘back down’ from a moment of perceived conflict was almost worse. What kind of man would he be then? For John, being a man meant behaving in a certain way; anything less was inconceivable. But this belief that he reiterated over and over again was no longer sitting easily with him, and as a result, stress and anxiety were penetrating his life on a daily basis. Asked what he wanted from our coaching sessions, John replied, “A sense of inner peace.”
A lot has been written about the idea of masculinity in the twenty- first century that reflects the situation that John found himself in. It has been shown that the perceived pressure to look strong and not show weakness, along with the pressure to appear in control, can make men and boys more vulnerable to both mental health issues and suicide. This is nothing new, however. In their collaborative book Gender Development (1994), Golombok and Fivush claimed that men lived with pressure to endorse gendered identities such as being independent, strong and competitive, along with the pressure of denying their anxieties and insecurities. What John was feeling was not unusual, but he felt as though he was the only one, and he was confused by it.
John’s first coaching experience was over two hours long. It was an intense session and a challenge to facilitate as a coach, but his need to speak was undeniable and the time given supported this. To curtail the session in any way would have ended it prematurely, and the space and trust that had been created might have been lost. Given a safe space to open up to probing questions meant John was able to discuss things that he had never shared with anyone before. Talking about experiences from his life was a huge thing for him, and staying absolutely present as he explored his past was crucial. John recounted events going back to his childhood. He discussed how he and the men around him had reacted to certain things, and how these moments had influenced his identity today. These weren’t easy things to hear, but observing the stress etched into his face and the way that he held himself during those first few sessions, it was clear that they needed to be worked through.
As a new coach the sessions were challenging, to say the least, and at times I feared that I would not manage to hold the space or facilitate John’s journey in the way that it deserved. Also, the realisation came early on that my own assumptions would need to be addressed if we were going to continue working together. My own identity as a feminist and as a mother of boys meant that I would need to really focus to resist any internal dialogues and to stay present. My identity as a health specialist with a strong stance against the ‘boys don’t cry’ ethos came into play too. Having lost a male family member to suicide the year before, I had made a public declaration that I would always challenge ‘man up attitudes’ if I was to witness them. Yet as a coach, any desire or urge I had to lead John or influence his thinking would need to be suppressed, and that wasn’t going to be easy.
But there was something else I noticed during this process. Something that was bigger than any of these things, and it took a couple of sessions and some reflection for me to register what was going on. For the first time since becoming a coach, I didn’t truly understand the reasons a client gave for the beliefs he held. I had studied masculinities at university. I was more than aware of the effects of it on our daily lives, and the perceived ideals about how men are expected to behave in a given setting. But I am a woman, and I identify wholly with being a woman; I am not a man and don’t identify in any way with needing to remain ‘masculine’ at all times. This meant that it was challenging to truly understand the way John thought about things. Yes, I empathised completely and was both interested and fascinated by what he was telling me, but could I do the sessions justice and enable this process the way I so wanted to?
This was a revelation in itself and something that I initially really struggled with. How could I coach this man without a shared understanding to work from? My belief was that as coaches we are encouraged to move in to ‘niches’, to work with people that we understand and identify with, and who will also understand and identify with us, to allow for optimum growth. This is what I had read and what was discussed in these new circles that I moved in. I was concerned about whether growth would be able to happen with such opposing identities at play. This was something that I had to explore in more depth before continuing my sessions with John.
As a coach I too had regular sessions with my own coach, and I took these questions there to enable me to really unpick and explore them, bringing an awareness to any assumptions I had around the subject. I also had an extra session with a male coach as I thought that too might be useful. It was an incredibly interesting and insightful process that enabled me to move forward in a positive way, while simultaneously reminding me of the value of the coaching space. Half way through a session I was asked, “So what is it that you are assuming that is making this difficult for you?” I answered quickly, without too much thought, “I am assuming that I will not be able to help this process or my client as I am not man,” and upon hearing this simple answer out loud, everything fell into place.
Through this reflection, and by exploring ideas around my own identity, I came to an awareness that I didn’t need to wholly understand what John was feeling, or the things that shaped his identity. But there was something more than that. The realisation came, that by not understanding it fully, I would bring a genuine and infinite curiosity about what he was telling me and the rationale he gave. This might sound simple, but it was a revelation. A revelation that really excited me, both as a coach and as a human being.
Somewhere around our fourth or fifth session John was talking about events that had occurred more than twenty years ago, and the fear that he had felt at the time. During this conversation, and whilst thinking about a question I had just asked, something clicked. A connection was made. The anger that John was feeling, the anger that was wearing him down and affecting his behaviour, wasn’t anger at all. It was fear. The unfaltering, unshakeable, unresolved fear from over twenty years ago. It was still present, and permeating his life on a daily basis. John sat in silence with this realisation for some time. In the subsequent sessions everything began to change.
Through the process of our coaching journey, John realised that this person he had become was not actually the person he wanted to be, or even the person that he truly was. Within the safety of the coaching space John allowed himself to be vulnerable. By exposing himself to the fear that had sat within him all that time, by naming it and unpicking it, he was able to move away from it. It would no longer shape his identity. John was able to acknowledge that the fear might always be there, but now he knew what it was, he would be able to detach from it and rise above it. It no longer controlled him, he controlled it. Because of this shift in perception, he was now able to explore not only who he truly was, but who he might like to be, and how that would sit in terms of his sense of masculinity.
During one of our last sessions, I asked John if he felt any less of a man for exposing things and dealing with them during our time together. He looked to the ground and thought about it for some time. His answer came back with a look of surprise and a slow smile. “No,” he said, “not at all.” In fact, he felt more real than he had in a long time, more authentic, more like his actual self and more peaceful than he had in twenty years. John had discovered that by allowing himself to be more vulnerable he could be his true self.
John’s journey was a powerful thing to be part of and I learned an incredible amount from coaching him. Talking with him about it afterwards made me realise that it had a profound effect on both of us. I look back on our coaching sessions as a pivotal point in my coaching journey. Not only that, but working with John on his identity challenged my own identity as a woman, as a health specialist and as a mother of two young men. It made me more aware of the effect of masculinities on every aspect of our lives.
As a coach now working regularly with men around similar themes, I am absolutely clear that working with people that I may not fully understand allows a genuine curiosity, that facilitates growth and learning for both partners. I am also completely clear about the importance of being present: that to be truly present is a powerful and beautiful thing that enables people to flourish in a relatively short time. Lastly and most importantly, I know that if you hold someone in positive regard, in a safe and reflective space, no matter whether you understand or identify with what shapes their beliefs, then truly powerful things are able to happen.
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This blog post is a chapter from the latest Animas free eBook Identity.
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