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Part Ten - Holding on a little too tightly

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

In the early days of this blog I filled you in on how I had an epiphany that I did not need to fix people. Not only that but people don’t want fixing, they are not broken, and actually by stepping in to save the day you simply inflate your own ego as the saviour to a lesser soul.

Tough lesson, but I took it on board and definitely changed my ways. It was liberating, unburdening, and literally one of the best lessons I learnt in becoming a real coach.

It’s sometimes hard not to fly in like superwoman and act the hero, but I’m managing it consciously. What I wasn’t expecting, was the impact it would have on my mental state and my own well-being after these coaching sessions.

During the Barefoot training there would occasionally be times when our practice coaching sessions would bring us to tears. Both the coach and the client, as the emotions swirled around and touched nerves. A mother speaking of her guilt as her children get older, someone speaking of the loss of a parent. It happened. I always had tissues at the ready, it was something I learned to expect.

In fact, a client crying is something I’m happy with. Crying is a display of emotional release and a deepening security and trust in the relationship. But as coaches, whilst in the early days tears were expected and relatively normal, we needed to learn protect ourselves from becoming too deeply involved in the clients story. We had to learn to hold every coaching session lightly. It was hard and I’m not sure I mastered it entirely (in fact I know I didn’t).

I started taking on clients, enjoying these coaching experiences and got used to dropping the ‘fix it’ toolkit. I found it increasingly easier to listen, understand and empathise without jumping in, but to be honest most situations in the beginning were relatively paltry.

“I just don’t know where to start to look to…”

“What would you do if you were me?”

“How can I make my boss see….”

In most of these sessions it was easy to sit in the quiet or give a them gentle nudge,

navigating them into finding their own solutions, to become masters of their own destiny.

Becoming expert in my newfound skill, it’s fair to say, I thought I had nailed it. 46 years of fixing people – reversed in a few months on Barefoot. Job done.…

Not so. As the coaching relationships grew deeper, and our conversations led us further and further from the surface, exploring the icy depths under the icebergs, my clients understandably, opened up more and more.

I was having to fight harder and harder not to react as I was wired to do. So desperate was I to ‘help’, I once again had to remind myself of my role and my duty to these clients to refrain from saving them. Whilst staying quiet and in ‘coach’ mode was tough, it was manageable - it was my job. However, the after effects in those early, deeper coaching sessions were extremely emotional and utterly unexpected.

On one occasion, the issue the client was dealing with seemed so similar to my own life, after I put the phone down I cried for 20 mins. Another was so like a work situation I'd had in the past, it conjured up pure anger, fury even and angst inside me. I managed to keep these from the clients, and process them in my own space and time, but there was one that really hit me, (entirely subconsciously), seemingly out of my control. I started to doubt my ability to cope with being a coach.

It was the third session with a client. She had had a rather traumatic loss in childhood and whilst she was ‘fine’, my emotional side was feeling her pain and loss over the phone. I could feel a bravado, a lost soul, and could hear confusion and questions in the way she was discussing her life. I didn’t flinch at the time, clearly and firmly rooted in coach mode, (being on the phone helped). Happy to stand my ground and challenge with empathy not sympathy. Confident and willing to explore other viewpoints and not dig too deeply into her ‘story’ I was just listening intently, there to serve her reflections.

Non-coach me was desperate to know more. What happened, when, how did it feel, how can I help (!!) but it was all to benefit me and not the purpose of the coaching session. I stood firm and continued on as the ‘real’ coach I had trained to be. The session ended, she gratefully thanked me for my time, saying speaking to me really helped, she felt more in control and was happy with who she was etc….you get the picture. The session was a success…….for my client.

I closed the session and went downstairs back to my own life. As I was chopping onions, the story kept popping up into my head. What an awful thing to happen, she must be so lonely, lost, alone. How would I have coped, would I want someone to offer support, etc. I kept these to myself, pondering. I put it down to digesting the conversation, allowing myself to reflect on everything I had taken in. What I didn’t know was this was a flashing beacon of warning for me, one that I would later learn meant I was holding on to the emotions very, very tightly......

Like a tornado hitting a solitary barn in the mid-west at 3am without warning, that night, in my inner psyche, all hell broke loose.

Tossing and turning all night, I had nightmare after nightmare after nightmare. My client was popping up in every vivid dream, as a toddler holding her mothers’ hand, in my office at work shadowing me, on holiday with me as a 10-year-old. Each time, she had huge sad brown Disney-eyes pleading with me to help and save her from her wretched life – seriously I was a wreck! And I couldn’t control any of it, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

I woke about 6 times that night, each stage with a new image burning into my restless head. When I finally rose in the morning, I was heavy in the head and in the heart, tired and emotionally distressed.

How the hell had that happened??!! I went for a run, and then came home and just cried…I seriously needed to sort this out!

I had taken it all in like a dried-up sponge seeping in a hot welcoming bathwater. I‘d connected with my client with full on sympathy. Not visibly to her, she was none the wiser thank god. But all that outward ‘veiling’ had not prevented my internal human linking onto her story emotionally. Like an umbilical cord, feeling every pulse.

I realised I had not let it out, I had pushed it down, suppressed it sideways. Carried on with my evening duties, then gone to bed. I knew I had to learn from this or my career as a coach would surely kill me in a matter of months . I had to get this in check.

After my tears had dried, I decided to journal everything I was experiencing.

Responsibility, guilt, urgency, saviour, support, sadness. As I read this back I knew I couldn’t coach this person again without dealing with this. This was my baggage, my iceberg, and she didn’t need any of this, she was in a good place. But it felt like a transference of pain, and I was now holding it…..

I was fortunate enough to have a supervision session with a fabulous coach a few days later and I brought my predicament to her. Spilled it out like a waterfall gushing from a vast height. It just kept coming and coming. She listened and allowed me to get all the noise out, the drama and superfluous emotion, and then she simply said….

“You must hold it lightly Claire. You listen, notice, respond, challenge, and detach emotionally”

Holding it lightly is a conscious act upon your subconscious emotion. A reminder this is not your world, your life, your problem to solve. A little you on your shoulder reminding you to breathe, listen and let go, It is not your duty to take it off them, just to hold space for them to reflect.

Our fabulous tutor on Barefoot once said,

"These people have been carrying their baggage around for years without your intervention. They don’t need you to take it off them, they just need you to hold the space for them without judgement, so they can put it down.'"

It was a lovely reframe for me, but seemingly one I had forgotten when working with this client.

We discussed what I had learned from the experience. There were a number of key learning from this, but the most poignant, became my next lesson in becoming a real coach.

I must take personal accountability to hold it lightly – whatever I need to do. Journal immediately after a session, go for a walk, a run, talk it out with a supervisor, but whatever, I cannot hold it in my head.

I had not flinched in my behaviour towards my client, so that was a success, but in doing so I had demolished myself for a 24-hour period.

After years of fixing, people and their problems, I now realise it takes longer than a few coaching sessions of 'not-fixing', to be cured. There is great personal aftercare I need to work through, my own homework in a way. I am not a robot, I am human. I feel and empathise and occasionally slip into an outrageous, unfavourable sympathy. I care deeply and that’s good a strength in a way, but with no outlet it can become parasitic, and unhealthy for me.

Self-care as a coach is where it begins and ends. Putting on your own oxygen mask before anyone else’s is the only way to truly support others......I'm pretty sure this works in all aspect of life too....look after you first.

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