Julia Vaughan Smith: Writer, Action researcher, Thinker, Public speaker
It is the issues and circumstance of the coaching which have been changed by the pandemic, but not the principles and process of coaching. They remain the same. We, as coaches, are of course affected, too, and may bring that into our coaching. We need to be sure that what we bring is valuable to the process and not our survival parts. These are just a few of the issues to reflect on:
The pandemic, and the lock-down, have broken many of our habits, our established ways of structuring and organising our engagement with the world. We are being required to establish new habits. At the same time, it gives us an opportunity to think which of our habits do we want to let go, following this phase and which new ones might we want to put in place?
For example, with developing skill in using online platforms for meetings, could that continue for parts of our work? For coaches, it can widen our client base nationally and internationally. Many coaches already work in that way and have skills and learning they can pass on. For clients, it may lead to a rethink of how they want to organise their work.
Some clients may welcome the requirement to be at home, even to stop work (for those furloughed), and enjoy the absence of the daily travel and the other work-related habits. This may bring about some enquiry about ‘what would I rather have from now on, if I could have it?’.
There will be those who face a major change in their work habits. For example, if their business or the focus of their work is changed forever by the pandemic. I am thinking of small businesses, the retail and hospitality industry and the tourism industry. However, coaching has approaches for supporting clients in this situation. It may be more intensive than pre-pandemic but we can help the client hold their vulnerability and self-regulate so that they can think their way through their situation.
It is unrealistic to think that most of us can achieve the same level of ‘performance’, that is work outcomes, at this time. There will be exceptions of course and some may find that the opportunities for entrepreneurialism are liberating and their outcome is enhanced. For others though, they are learning how to use online platforms effectively, how to stay connected in meaningful ways with work colleagues, how to juggle the boundaries and demands of being a home-worker. This learning takes time. Working online can take away our boundaries, between home and work, and who has access to us, andwhen. It helps to be aware of how these boundaries have been broken down by the pandemic and what ones need to be put in place as part of this new learning.
It is also an opportunity to notice and reflect on our thought habits; those thoughts that emerge in response to the situation and what is required of us. They could be thoughts about danger and lack of safety, or about our self-worth or our isolation. These are usually negative thoughts that leave us feeling worse than we would if we could think something differently.
We all have thought habits, we hear them as our clients talk and we hear them in our own heads. We can capture these and write them down and identify what feelings they generate and what behaviour that leads to. We can change our thoughts without escaping into positive illusion. “What could I think instead, which would still be authentic?”. I am using the term authentic to refer to that sense that it connects with our inner experience.
Isolation impacts on us all, for some more than other. Especially affected are likely to include those where isolation is a feature of their earliest experience for example, hospitalisation as a child or being passed through the fostering system, or with parents who were unable to connect with us. This experience in the ‘there and then’ and can be recreated in the ‘here and now’ if we tell ourselves how isolated we are. The question is ‘how am I isolating myself, now?’. We can become identified with those who isolated us and with the experience of being isolated, that we fail to take healthy action for ourselves in the present.
Similarly, if we feel uncared for in the present, we may well be identifying with the past. The question is ‘how am I failing to care for myself now?’ or ‘how can I feel my own love and care for myself?’.
Many of us will have to practise these kinds of enquiries as our identification is a survival strategy from ‘there and then’ and has become such a thought habit that we often don’t even notice it. Like all habits, we only notice them when they are taken away or when we set out to pay attention.
The stories we repeat about our past are also thought habits, we use them to reinforce our feelings of not being wanted, loved or protected in a way that we feel is in our control. Those feelings are there, the pain of them remains in the trauma self, but ironically using our stories to keep us imprisoned in the ‘here and now’ blocks our ability to connect with and process the pain.
This became clear to me, personally, last week when I was reflecting on some writing I was doing on mothers and daughters and thinking about memoir writing. Was I using the story to ‘justify’ my thought habits and avoid looking into myself for my own capacity for self-love?
We can support our clients to see their thought habits and decide how useful or avoidant they are to them right now.
Fear and anxiety
It is understandable that there are heightened feelings of fear and anxiety at this time. Those whose core position is not to feel safe, due to their history, are likely to feel these acutely.
Often, behind these feelings will be thought habits fuelling them too, that is bringing the past into the present which is not as dangerous as the response implies. We can explore these in ourselves and with our clients.
We can help our clients develop processes that support their self-regulation. If we are in a state of fear or anxiety, we cannot find a place of safety, we become frozen.
If we are sufficiently free of these emotions with our clients, we can act as a co-regulator with them. We can listen, be with their vulnerability, and support them in accessing other parts of themselves which aren’t overwhelmed by these feelings. Remember, working with parts is a very valuable process (see October 2019 blog).
I feel in a bit of a bubble here in East Devon where the virus numbers are low, and I have a sunny garden and the sea is a 5 minute walk down the lane. I was part of an online group discussion on Saturday, and heard again (having heard it several times from friends) ‘I feel guilty that I am quite enjoying the lock-down and can get out, when so many can’t’. I have also had conversations with friends about ‘I feel I should be making a contribution by doing something’.
The important thing to hold onto is that it isn’t either/or. We can feel privileged in our situation AND feel compassion for those that are in vastly different situations. We can decide if we want to take any action, and if so, what; and it is okay if we do or we don’t. The ‘shoulds’ are the clue to these being the equivalent of ‘parental injunctions’. We can also use this pandemic to become more aware, if we chose to, of the divisions and differences in the society we have helped create.
Guilt is only useful if it triggers some thing we need to learn about how our action has transgressed our value system; for example, if we have stolen something or spoken harshly. Feel it, note it, move on. Often though it is a seeping ‘sore’. A friend sent me this in an email exchange about guilt: ‘and guilt, like the autumn leaves, has served whatever purpose it ever had and now withers, flutters and becomes useful as compost. ‘
We need to be sure that what ever action we take comes from our healthy self and that it isn’t a ‘reaction’ from our survival self needs for validation or rescuing. In terms of what to say to those who talk of their different situations, if we are truly listening from our health self resources, we will be connecting with the client and the words will come. If we are in our survival self we won’t have that connection and we may well say something that doesn’t land well.
If we can stay in our healthy self-regulated state a lot of the time, we can be with our clients in whatever situation they come to us in. We don’t need new tools and techniques. We just need to listen fully, be present and use our coaching expertise effectively.
Julia Vaughan Smith | April 2020
Author: ‘Coaching and Trauma: From surviving to thriving’
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