Sometimes, it all seemed too hard; as though I was wasting my time. Why would I ever be any different anyway? I have been like this for over 40 years. Who am I kidding, thinking I can change? What is going to happen when my coach finally realises that I am useless? And what kind of a coach wouldn’t have already figured out that I am useless, anyway? Don’t they know this stuff?
And such was my experience in the second week of August of that year, about 3-4 coaching conversations into the process.
I really only had a few moments throughout the entire process that felt as hopeless as this one and, when I did, I was tempted to give up. I wanted to just walk away and accept that I would always be me, and that being me meant being useless, doubting myself and failing. And, you know, I probably would have given up, had it not been for a fear of being seen as a failure, and some really dogged determination that just would not leave me alone. Looking back, I can see that it refused to let me do this journey solo; it jumped on board and it insisted on staying for the journey. I didn’t even notice it at the time, and I am still not sure where it came from.
I felt incredibly overwhelmed at work. I had a huge team, a demanding customer, a leadership team that displayed behaviours that I found challenging, and tasks on my list that I just wasn’t getting to. It was very early days of the coaching process, and I was still fighting self-doubt. I was also struggling to understand how lifting my shoulders and asking myself questions was going to fix an overflowing inbox, people wanting a piece of me no matter where I turned, managers yelling at me and being abusive, and everything else that was going on at work. I guess I felt as though I was missing something in all of this, as though the actions that we came up with were just too simple and I wasn’t doing enough. It was all too much for me to comprehend.
So, I did what I tended to do when everything got too much. I did nothing. I still tried to do my job, but I ignored everything that we had talked about in our coaching conversations. I simply did nothing and avoided it all.
I spent the biggest majority of that week in tears. The feeling of failure was back with a vengeance, as was the self-doubt. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t do this. I really couldn’t.
I was aware that one of my life habits was that I would face an issue that I struggled with, really suffer and think it was the end of the world and that I had to fix it no matter what. I would think about asking for help, then I would calm down with the benefit of time, decide it wasn’t really that bad and do precisely nothing about it, thus never resolving the issue. I was worried that if I did this during the coaching process, I would prevent new learning from becoming available to me. I also didn’t feel as though doing this would be being particularly honest with myself.
I wanted to own this, so I commenced a practice that I ended up using whenever I had a challenge throughout the coaching process: I sent my coach an “I have crap to own and I am telling you about it right now so that we can both hold me to account for owning it” email. (Thinking about it, I guess these emails were, in effect, my own declaration: “I will own my crap. I will take learning from this”. They were probably also a request for support in doing so, although I never really made an explicit request).
In hindsight, I wonder whether I was sitting in that space of knowing that my old learning was no longer working for me, knowing that I had new learning that might serve me better, and not knowing what to do with any of it. At the time, though, I just thought I was failing.
I went to my next coaching conversation, embarrassed that, because of my bright idea to send an email, my coach knew that I had done nothing, and that I had completely failed.
It was only good luck and incredible foresight on my coach’s part that I didn’t cry in this conversation. I rocked up, overflowing with shame, embarrassment, self-judgement, anxiety and goodness knows what else. I sat down, and we started to talk. I remember my eyes really welling up, and thinking “I am about to cry. Great. I failed the entire process and now I am going to make that even better by crying on this guy who barely knows me and who must think I am a moron” and I could tell that, if I started, it was going to be one of those cries that would never, ever stop. Well, at least not before the end of the conversation. That didn’t feel particularly constructive, but I thought it was all that I had in me. Then I heard those magic words: “Let’s go for a walk”.
I can now say that walking coaching conversations are the best, for one reason. When you walk, you don’t have to make eye contact.
I don’t really remember much about that conversation, except that there were three pieces of learning that I took from it:
- When in anxiety, worst case scenario questions are very helpful. I remember being worried about my job and my coach asking “Well, what is the worst that can happen?” When we talked about it, even the worst case scenario of me being out of a job wasn’t really going to cause the world to end.
- Understanding the standards that we are using can be helpful. In that conversation, it became apparent that I was holding myself and others to some high standards, and some of those standards weren’t achievable.
- A coaching conversation is just a conversation.
The final point in my list – a coaching conversation is just a conversation – sounds fairly obvious and simple. However, this was a massive piece of learning for me, and my opinion is that if this had been the only learning that I had taken away that day, the conversation would have been very much worth it. This was another turning point moment for me.
I realised that I was coming along to our coaching conversations with masses of self-judgement and anxiety, and I was incredibly worried about what my coach was going to think about me – probably because I couldn’t cope with another person in the conversation thinking the same things about me as I was thinking. I didn’t really remove all of the self-judgement from our conversations until two years down the track. However, realising that a coaching conversation is just a conversation also opened up the following learning:
- It didn’t matter what my coach thought about me. He kept his opinions to himself anyway, so I was never going to know. And I didn’t need to know. (Actually, this whole keeping his opinions to himself thing was the source of massive frustration at the beginning of the process. I was sure that if he would just confirm that I was a failure, we could focus on that, fix it and move on and the whole process would go a lot more quickly. That said, not sharing his opinions became the thing that I was most grateful for. This developed my trust in our conversations, and I felt safe saying whatever I wanted to say, knowing that the only person in the room who would be openly judging me would be me. And, when he did offer opinions, it was so rare that I considered it a gift and looked for the learning). So, basically, I created a story for myself that my coach was Switzerland – whatever I said, he would seemingly remain neutral. This was gold, in my opinion.
- Being honest with my coach was being honest with myself. From this point on, if there was something that I was considering not telling my coach, I would ask myself what it was that I didn’t want to face, because I formed the assessment that if I didn’t want my coach to hear it, it was probably because I wasn’t ready for myself to hear it.
- If any future conversation became too much, I could always request a walking conversation (I never did, although there was one conversation where I came close).
- I didn’t have to lock myself into the usual way of doing things. There were always other possibilities that I may not have considered and that may be more serving. For example, the walking coaching conversation. Previously I would never have seen that as possible, and yet it gave me so much. (Years later, questions that I now ask myself when I feel limited with regard to possibilities are: “What possibilities might be available to me that I am not seeing right now?” or “What possibilities would I like to be seeing right now that I am not seeing?”)
From this point on, I always referred to my coaching conversations as a coaching conversation; never a coaching session. My reasoning was that a conversation felt like a safe place. The word “session” felt harsh and daunting and it just didn’t serve me, in my assessment. I think this is a great example of the power of language. We all have positive and negative listenings of certain words. If the listening of a word is not serving us, then perhaps changing the word may be more useful.
The challenges leading up to this conversation were very real and, in my assessment, almost broke me all over again. However, I also think that it was the experience that I had to have. For one, I learnt that the seemingly simple steps that I was taking were producing results; they had to be because when I refused to do them, I went back to my pre-coaching ways. This was a lesson that I think I really needed an opportunity to learn, and life gave me that opportunity.
There was no longer a need for skepticism; this way of being stuff really was working.
I think that sometimes, when things don’t go as planned, we have a tendency to see that as failure, or getting it wrong. That’s certainly how I saw the week where I chose to do nothing, evidenced by me sitting in the coaching conversation, beating myself up so much over the events of that week that I could hardly speak. What happens if instead of interpreting such events as failure, we look at them as learning? Our behaviours and habits can be with us for decades and are probably all that we know. They have also most likely worked very well for us in the past. So, when those actions are not working for us, how are we meant to “know” what to do, when doing the same thing previously has always worked? If it was a new maths formula, or a new craft, or a new hobby, we would give ourselves permission to learn it before we judged ourselves for not being able to do it. With this whole being a human thing, we are not accustomed to allowing ourselves time to learn; we expect ourselves to know.
Something else that comes to mind is, as humans, do we take enough time to be kind to ourselves? Do we even realise that being kind to our self is ok?I carried a lot of self-judgement, for a number of years, over this particular time of my life. Yet, when I look back through my notes from that time, what I see is someone who was really suffering. Not useless or dumb or incompetent or any of the other judgements that I was placing on myself. Just suffering.
When I was reading my notes from that time, I started to ask myself: “How would I have treated someone else in this same situation?” The thing is, I would have had a lot of respect for someone in the same situation. I would have shown compassion and kindness and love. I would have congratulated them and honoured them for their efforts. And I would have tried to help them through their pain. It was quite some time (years) before I realised that it was ok to do all of that for myself as well.
The worst case scenario question is something that I find quite interesting. Sometimes we create this story that everything is so bad, and when we ask ourselves what the worst case scenario is, and why we are so worried about that worst case scenario, it can provide clarity and potentially remove some suffering.
Finally, understanding our standards can be incredibly helpful. In many of the struggles that I have had, I have realised when looking at my standards that they have been very high and potentially unachievable. It is quite ironic, really, that someone with such a fear of failure can be inadvertently setting themselves up to fail. Reviewing and resetting my standards is something that I have found very useful on numerous occasions.
Points to Ponder…
- Think of a situation that may not be working so well for you at the moment. Have you taken time to be kind to yourself? How would you treat someone else in the same situation?
- Thinking of the same situation as above, what standards are you applying to that situation. How well are those standards serving you?
- What conversations are you perhaps struggling with that you could look at a little differently (for example “just a conversation” or other language that would work for you)?
I am a leadership and life coach, available for coaching and facilitation services. If you feel that it would be useful to have a conversation with me, please feel free to view my services on the Leading and Being website.