In the classic 1937 song, Billie Holiday sings, “me, myself and I are all in love with you”. Quite honestly, it’s a rare thing to have such consensus of the self!
Flippant comments aside, though, the grammar that underpins these lyrics offers us a simple way into some complex themes for us to explore in coaching – namely, working with different dimensions of self.
One of my biggest interests in coaching (and in life in general) is how we construct, act out and reveal our identities and notions of self. By looking beyond a presenting behaviour, aspiration, challenge, relationship or whatever else is being brought to us, we allow ourselves to explore the nature of the self that is being enacted by our client.
One avenue for this exploration is what is revealed in the structure of the client’s language. The notions of me, myself and I might seem the same – they all point to the individual – but, in fact, this language acts as grammatical signs of perspective, perception and self-construction.
Cast your mind back to your mid-school years. There you were, sat in English language class, as your teacher explained the difference between subject and object, between direct object and indirect object, between the active and passive tenses, and between personal pronouns and reflexive pronouns! (Sorry, have you fallen asleep already? Wake up, you in the corner!)
Grammatically, I is always a subject. It’s the doer, the actor, the agent. Me is the object, the done to, the receiver (except in this sentence, in which it has, ironically, become the subject!). Myself is the reflexive pronoun, being done to by itself.
Thus, when a client talks of I, he or she is active in some way. When they talk of me, they become an object – socially situated, done to, receiving. This might seem obvious at first blush, but bear with me. This simple distinction gives us a lot to work with, simply by hearing, noticing and reflecting on the patterns of language presented.
When a client is me-ing themselves, what is the me that’s showing up? Well, whatever it is, it is an object. Me speaks of social context, belonging or alienation, the acted on and the bestowed upon, the victim or the celebrated, but always the receiver of such – the seen, the perceived. In other words, me offers us clues to the social construction of the self, to the socially situated sense of self. Me is not the same myself, which suggests self-perception, “I see myself as…”, but is rather somewhat distanced from the self: “they see me as…”. Notice the difference: “I’ve always been clumsy and awkward. People have told me that all my life.” Compare this to a more reflective: “I experience myself as clumsy and awkward.” Of course, these are often related, in that the me creates the myself. When the me is defined as clumsy enough, the I starts to experience the myself as clumsy.
Nonetheless, the language offers different routes (and roots) for exploration. The me is neither a good nor bad thing, but it allows us as coaches to see that the client is currently seeing themselves in an object position, and that, even if this is positive – “they love me” – the self is being constructed in relation to the subject.
The I can be equally fluid in its use. Where me is the object, I is the subject. When the I is at work, the decider, the actor, the agent is active, shaping their life for good or bad. “I am determined to achieve this” is actually no more active or subject-focused than “I am useless… hopeless. I get it all wrong!” In both cases, the client is the active shaper of their meaning and experience.
However, an I without a me is a subject that fails to relate, who is socially decontextualised, disconnected or lacking belonging. We often need to bring the me back to the client by exploring with them the context in which they exist, and how the I is situated in relation to the other.
If this all seems like grammatical tomfoolery or naval-gazing, I ask you to simply play with it in your coaching. Give a little attention to the grammar of your client’s selfhood as they share their stories and notice where the emphasis is. As the old saying goes, there’s no I in team, but there is a me. Quite right! The I has become socially situated.
Where is your client focusing their self-construct, and how is this affecting their capacity to act and engage in the world as they truly want to?
We can all become locked in to our identity constructs, sometimes leading to the fallacy of the omnipotent, disconnected I, or the (equally fallacious) impotent, dependent me. In truth, we are all me, myself and I, and a key role of the coach is to help the client integrate the parts, allowing them to happily join in the song with Miss Holiday.