This article is all about identity. If you feel very clear about who you are right now, remember that coaching does not have to focus on identity; there are many other lenses we look through. But remember also, identity is not static either, and the more convinced we are that we know exactly who we are, the more tightly we might be holding that story, blocking the unfolding of the new self, which is constantly changing, like everything.
Coaching is essentially all about empowering clients to be and become the fullest expression of themselves they can. “It enables a person, group, or team to move from where they are to where they want to be, through a process of exploration and action.” – Nick Bolton
As a purpose-led coach and facilitator inspired by social and environmental progress, I seek out compassionate individuals and organisations. Those I offer to work with all have at least one thing in common: the potential to multiply love in their world. I call them ‘Human Bells’ and I help them resonate and ring true as their fresh new self or ‘isness’ emerges.
Thinking this is a fluffy thing? Not at all. It takes courage, grit and insight to be the change, to have hope of things becoming better, to name feelings, needs and thoughts. A thought becomes a behaviour, then a habit, then a lifetime. Every step of the way we make fresh choices, again and again, forgiving ourselves and others, letting go and learning to grow on the spiral path upwards. Many of us want to do that to help others, not just ourselves.
As my fellow Australian, Baz Luhrmann, invoked in Strictly Ballroom, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” So if life boils down to one binary question, perhaps it is this: what will you choose – love or fear? I choose love, and so did Nicola, who I will be introducing soon. My hope is that you will too.
Together in coaching, we bring compassionate presence to your stories and learn to garden the conditions of life to allow the best possible future to emerge. People come wanting to shape their own world and end up realising how interconnected everything is. What affects each of us, in some way affects all of us. Perhaps that’s the true meaning of fractal coaching. It’s not just you that benefits, everyone around you does – present and future, and all who sail upon you.
With macro and micro lenses, we zoom in and out to see where you sit on this spinning ball of moments, creating time and space to be truly present to what wants to be born. As Dr Catherine Vulliamy, a recent client, said: “This feels like what the Maori wood-carvers do: you’re helping the ‘soul of my wood’ emerge.”
However beautiful and evocative that metaphor may be, it is still incomplete. The wood learns to carve itself, as we help it find its own soul. The clients become both wood and carver. I hold their hands as they become confident with the awareness required to direct the tools of mind, body, spirit and community. Connection to self/earth/others all comes into play in helping be reflected back as the person they are truly being and becoming. Their whole organism learns to become alert to, and honouring of, their own experience, and how this plays out moment to moment in the ever-changing world around them.
A bit cosmic? Maybe, and still very practical, safe and grounded in the latest findings in cognitive psychology, ancient spiritual practices, organisational learning and human development. The Animas Learning Tree at bottom of my home page describes this visually.
A New Identity
The result of effective transformational coaching is nothing less than a new identity, a new self that emerges over just a few months initially, and beyond, into all the years ahead. Further coaching is often useful when blocks occur, a point of integration arises or a shift in identity is being felt.
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” – Anaïs Nin
Buddhism, one potent source of inspiration, teaches us not to be too attached to our old self in order to let the new self keep emerging. Embracing paradox we realise there is a self, but if we try and pin it down as a fixed thing, we realise there is no self actually there in our direct experience. Both things are true, and I love to blame Descartes for the whole right/wrong, black/white, male/female false dichotomy. The reality is far more beautiful and kaleidoscopic. We are not one thing, we are many, and the more lightly we hold our stories about our self, the more they can evolve.
My supervisor, Hetty Einzig, author of The Future of Coaching (Routledge), and many others I’m informed by like Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Roberto Assagioli, Joanna Macy and Rupert Sheldrake, talk about concepts like murmuring swarms, hive minds and biomorphic resonance. The focus shifts from who am I as a separate self at this moment in time, to how am I interdependently co-arising with everyone and everything around me. When we feel the reality of that connection (think butterfly effect and chaos theory) what happens in Rwanda starts to come into stronger focus. What affects you, affects me. It’s all connected. Confused? Go watch Avatar or The Matrix and come back to me. Love to hear your recommendations too.
Kiss the Joy as it Flies
So then imagine the power of realising we are not our thoughts and that whatever we are experiencing, this too shall pass. Also imagine how we can learn to shape our thoughts with the coach we are best suited to being with.
Now that’s where it gets really transformative and cosmic.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
“Love one another and you will be happy, it is as simple and as difficult as that. There is no other way.” – Michael Leunig
Usually we think of romantic love, but when we stop and ponder even for a moment, we realise ‘Love’ is a many-splendoured thing. The Greeks talked about different forms of love: agápe – love of humanity, philia – friendship, pragma – enduring love, éros – romantic love, storge – parent/child or family love and even ludus – playful love or flirting. Imagine a life with all of that!
Buddhists talk about mettā or loving kindness and much of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, can be seen to focus on the cultivation of mettā as the entire purpose of life, without which nothing else of any positive substance can arise. Mettā is vastly different to éros, for example. More like unconditional love for all beings. The feeling might be very fleeting but we can learn to know it exists, and that in itself is truly transformational. Right action is preceded by right thought, which is preceded by right mind. When we reside in the possibility of mettā, as best we can, all else flows. We cannot control the outcome but we can influence the intention and some of the conditions. We can just experiment and see. The more we learn who we are and the nature of mind, the clearer it all becomes. It’s a big topic and the path of a lifetime that countless before us have trod and can show the way.
So if we just love others enough everything will be okay? No, Leunig’s
words were incomplete. What’s missing then?
A meditation practice called the mettā bhavana teaches us to cultivate loving kindness for ourselves and all beings, including those we struggle with. In the first stage we start by allowing mettā to flow towards ourselves. Not squeezing it out, or faking it, but noticing even the smallest evidence for its existence in memory and, ideally, in our direct experience. It is a felt sense we are looking to notice and cultivate. Then we turn towards a friend in the second stage, then a neutral person, a difficult person, then all together with equanimity, and all beings and perhaps even all that is! There are many variations and it can have a profound effect on the way you experience the world.
When I was learning to teach the mettā bhavana in the West, having practised it for over a decade, we were encouraged not to start with the self, as it has been taught for centuries in the East. My teachers had learnt that this would be so challenging for people in the room, that we started with a friend in stage one.
Sometimes I have to try hard to empathise and remember what intense self-loathing I had felt towards myself at times, and how crippling this is on a daily basis for so many. Thank goodness change is possible. Neuroplasticity and coaching have proven this. But it takes commitment and practice.
Pioneering Western Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg asked The Dalai Lama in 1990: “Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”
“What’s that?” he answered.
How would it be if we could all answer the same? Can you imagine what the world might look like if healthy self-love was a core part of human identity, including world leaders? If we legislated to create and protect it? If the media was held accountable for it, and self love was measured as part of Gross Domestic Happiness, just as Bhutan is doing, while global economists get inspired? Imagine how we might behave en masse if our human systems led to a stable sense of love for ourselves: how might we vote and share resources? Not the shadow side of narcissism, but a healthy sense of positive self regard. Of being ‘enough’, of being ‘whole’, rather than pouring limited resources into filling the gaping hole.
I have been evolving my practice around the causal pathways towards that utopian dream for over three decades, and distill it as best I can in coaching.
There are many resources available on the topic of self-compassion and Dr Kristen Neff is one of the foremost experts on the subject. You can test your level of self compassion on her website and see what’s there for you.
Expressing love can be as simple as making someone a cup of tea or signing a petition. Or it can be as big as starting a social enterprise, working for a charity, donating a large amount of your time, treasure or talent – or dedicating yourself to the care of others as a parent or coach. The possibilities are vast and unique to each person.
Yet so often expressing our care makes us wince and hide. Will it be good enough, shiny enough, done in just the right way? How will it compare? How will it be received? What can I do in the face of so much complexity? Exploring your personal interests and sphere of influence helps resolve this. The Myer-Briggs psychometric tool, Enneagram and the Japanese model of Ikigai (‘reason for being’) are part of the toolkit we draw on, working skilfully with whatever is most useful for you at the time.
Our words and deeds have great power to lift someone’s spirits and open us to each other. But attachment to an old self, cynicism, old wounds, can get in the way.
The people I coach begin with varying degrees and types of love alive in their lives. Some feel it for others, but not much for themselves. The common ingredient is they all value themselves enough to embark on a coaching journey once they find the right coach. During our partnership, we always end up focusing on the most important kind of all – self-love. From this flows all possibility, and it starts with simply being willing to listen to our needs and know we can meet at least some of them when we get clear about how to work with change.
And what is a life without love? Surely a barren one indeed. But with hope, grace and courage, love will grow and flow – in one form or another.
Nicola came to me after burning out and receiving a promotion. She achieved great things in her role as events co-ordinator for an international women’s charity, but at great personal cost to her adrenal system, like so many others. Now she was ready to take a good look at how she worked, and who she wanted to be as a leader in this next stage of growth.
The organisation helps rebuild communities in conflict zones, with funds invested in women’s education, which is proven to help the whole society rise back up. Good men support them along the way; it’s an excellent model. Now Nicola was being asked to grow into a more senior role, responsible for raising millions to affect the lives of thousands. Her impact would spread through societies and generations in places like Rwanda. It was no small task, but we were both energised by the opportunities ahead, despite clear challenges.
A promotion can often bring about a shift in identity, as can a redundancy, or any big change at work. Most of us spend the majority of our lives at work, so the person we are there affects the person we are throughout our life. The way we are reflected back through our relationships with clients and colleagues, particularly authority figures re-enacting the archetypes of ‘Mother/ Father’, reinforces existing scripts we are operating from. Psychodynamic, person-centred and gestalt among other approaches all support this view.
Nicola’s work was very inspiring to both of us. While this made it compelling, it also carried a shadow we and many others experience – burn out. Anyone who has known the feeling of ‘I’m not enough’ will know what I mean, especially if their work is meaningful to them and strongly resonant with their highest potential.
Overidentifying with the suffering of others we want to help, without turning towards our own suffering, is counterproductive as well. We can only grow as far as the oldest parts of ourselves are integrated into the emerging new whole. Sometimes we must turn towards that suffering with kind awareness to let it go. Sometimes we need help with that.
“If only I could try harder, do more, work more hours, be more effective, be smarter, help more people, if only I could be… more.” But we can never do enough if we are coming from a scarcity script of “I’m not enough.” We would be giving from an empty well, or in transactional analysis terms, a ‘leaky stroke bucket’. No matter how much we achieve or how much praise we are given, it will fall out the bottom and we will be left scoured out.
Given my own history of burn out and feeling ‘not enough’ at times, I knew I needed to be careful of projection and countertransference. Her issues were not mine, but I could certainly empathise and learn more, which made the work all the more compelling. How could I help Nicola find her own answers to avoid experiencing the worst of what I had? How could I hold this work in compassionate awareness and not get too caught up in overservicing her? Keeping boundaries around time and email contact between sessions was but one way I found.
We both knew the education and development of women had a ripple effect well established in development studies. Indeed I had specifically researched and offered to work with this charity knowing that; I looked for this systemic impact multiplier in all my ‘macro’ clients.
When that core principle was applied to women in post-conflict zones, who had often been raped and seen their children and entire communities murdered, you can imagine the potential and challenge of the coaching process. Nicola had a huge heart and mind and was high potential. Understandably, she had worked beyond her previous capacity, helping raise over £1 million the year before. She was hugely proud of the team’s achievements, but had, in her own words, “been giving from an empty well.” Her boundaries were barely existent and her new identity was only a sketch to me at first.
Nicola had to upgrade her identity, in essence, to expand into her new role. The emphasis would be fully on Nicola, but there are of course two people in the room. Let’s have a look at her coach then.
Russian Dolls & Former Selves
In my early 20s, I too was a highly ambitious young woman wanting to change the world and be more than enough. That young woman is still in here, like the Russian Dolls I bring out to share with clients. All those younger selves still reside within us; as our identity emerges over time, we experience quite fundamental shifts. Adolescence is one, leaving home, a new job, a new child, a new country or community. Each time we go through this, our previous self is still there, but it changes. Sometimes the change is as radical as, say, a caterpillar into a butterfly, or stages in between. The Harry Enfield sketch on Youtube “Kevin becomes a teenager” is one hilarious example of this happening in rapid time.
I have undergone extensive training, therapy, coaching and meditation to enable me to both feel, understand and hold my own material to keep the coaching space ‘clean’ for my clients, but still resonant. I’ve learnt to ‘know myself’ well, shadow included. I rarely give advice, because it’s the client’s experience that matters, not mine, but there is certainly a dynamic at play between the two different but highly connected people in the space. It is, after all, a relational intervention and we are not robots programmed to deliver formulaic results.
In Nicola’s case, her employer was happy for her to spend her annual training budget on coaching, and has since been extremely pleased with their investment. Many clients fund their own coaching and in a way, it really doesn’t matter who pays as long as we seize the opportunity if we can.
The coaching agreement was for an initial three-month partnership, with check-in points at six and 12 months. We met fortnightly or monthly in six one-hour sessions in Central London and kept in touch via email and the Human Bells Facebook group in between. I was also able to share contacts from my extensive network and recommend books and other resources.
Unlike therapy we worked primarily in the present, moving forward. The past came up when relevant, but we did not linger there and I did not push her to go there. Although there is much crossover between the two ways of working, and many train in both, coaching comes from a paradigm of potential with a focus on possibility, not healing dysfunction, although that may be an outcome of the process.
We explored her relationships at work and home, her core values, hobbies and interests, about what filled her well and how she spent her time. There is much more that could be said about the process, but perhaps coaching is best experienced rather than described; it is intensely personal and never prescriptive. Self love was, as ever, a focus.
The New Nicola Is Carved
When I spoke to Nicola recently, I only wish I had a camera rolling. She had just returned from taking another group of donors to Rwanda. There had been a profound shift from the experience of previous journeys, which could be emotionally and physically quite gruelling. This time she was able to cry, when previously she felt she had to hold it all in and suffered for it, creating a chasm between her own self and others, all while maintaining her professional duties on tour.
“The work we did together completely changed my life. I learnt to fill my well, and to cultivate a semipermeable membrane to hold myself but still be present. I know what my core value is now and it’s empowerment. Of me, of women and men everywhere. I keep it close by at all times and it helps me make decisions daily.”
Being present to her own emotion meant she was able to be present with others on the journey, including major donors and survivors of genocide who need all the help we can give them to rebuild their society. Emotional connection can make or break a donor’s experience, as you might imagine. I’ve been invited to go with her to Rwanda this year and would love to see all of this in the field of relentless love, in action.
In my work with coaches, we also see this multiplier effect. As coaches we are the product, and so our investment in our own development has a direct impact on our own emerging identity and efficacy. Whether that is further training, supervision, time with peers, high quality coaching or perhaps most importantly, time to reflect – we notice ourselves evolve over time when we hold up the lens of learning to look at ourselves. We are also never a fixed thing. We are all constantly emerging.
You can hear more about all this in an interview I did with Robert Stephenson, MD at Animas Centre for Coaching here.
During the first session with Nicola I chose a poem that fell straight into her heart, which she shared widely with friends and colleagues. “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. You can find it online in full. Enjoy a taste of its wings.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
(Hope + Love + Trust + Timing) – (Fear + Attachment to the Old Self) = The New Self
Find out more about Libby 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: firstname.lastname@example.org