The Life Coach and me: An afternoon spent overcoming prejudice

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This article first appeared on The Big Smoke: http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2016/02/16/the-life-coach-and-me-afternoon-prejuidice/

On the 29th of December, I was cruising the Great Barrier Reef with my family when I received a text message from my boss that read:

Hope you’re having fun in Port Douglas! Real reason for message – would you like some free coaching sessions with a life coach (a friend of mine who needs to go through an accreditation process – so goal or issue that you need direction with) sessions would be recorded and transcribed and free…

My eyebrows hit the roof, my jaw hit the floor and I emitted a strangled laugh as I stared in disbelief at the offending text message. Usually, when I hear the words “life coach,” terrifying images of charlatans and quacks, holed up in offices lined with photographs of peaceful landscapes overlain with inspirational quotes and bookshelves bursting with Louise Hay, Rhonda Byrne and Anthony Robbins books springs to mind. For as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring nightmare about a life coach who ties me to a chair, forces me to drink wheatgrass juice shots and hisses Mary Poppins-esque positive-thinking mantras at me until I agree to succumb to the blinkered route of unbridled hedonism; ignoring all of the problems in my life rather than dealing with them like an adult.

So, understandably, I was reluctant to say yes to the offer of life coaching. However, I agreed to engage with the life coach for the following reasons: (1) someone who I implicitly trust had recommended her; I don’t take recommendations from my boss lightly; (2) I hadn’t known that a professional accreditation body for life coaches existed; this added a degree of legitimacy to the title that intrigued me; (3) I decided that the sessions would probably make for a good pop-psych article, which you are now reading.

I approached our first Skype session with an ambivalent gaze and more than a hint of hubris. By the end of the first session I was alarmed to find that the “issue” I had brought to the life coach, pertaining to improving my public speaking skills, was the tip of the iceberg of some much larger issues – issues requiring a lot of hard work that could only be addressed by engaging in an raw, revealing and difficult internal dialogue about values.

One of the reasons that values work is a little repugnant to me is because it seems a little bit indulgent. In basic psychosocial assessments, a good tool to have on hand is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which you can read about in further detail inA Dynamic Theory of Human Motivation. The needs are split into categories outlined in the pyramid below, and should be addressed from the bottom of the pyramid upwards. For example, in a counselling context, if I was professionally engaged with a person whose physiological or safety needs were unmet, for obvious reasons it would be a poor decision to address self-actualization needs.

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There’s nothing quite so grounding as recognising that the issues at the top of the pyramid are yours. The privilege is humbling. Yet I was aware that I might be using this as an excuse to not do the difficult work that I’d committed to, and pressed on regardless. The first thing I needed to ask of myself was “what is a value?” and from various kinds of literature, I cobbled together this response:

Values are borne of interactions between biology and the environment. Values change as we change. Values reside in the depths of our hearts. Values are concurrently dynamic and static. Values inform the social construction of existence. It is possible to hold conflicting values, and management of these conflicts increases capacity for critical thinking and psychological flexibility. Values can be both inherent and cultivated.

We can find out what our values are by asking any or all of the following questions:

What do I want my life to be about?
What do I want to stand for?
What do I want to do with my brief stint on the planet?
What truly matters to me in the big picture?

The hardest work appears when you realise that there may be some discrepancy (read: cavernous gaps) between what you truly value, and what you think you ought to value. Opening up this part of your consciousness forces you into a very uncomfortable position, in which you become equipped with the tools and knowledge to act congruently with your values and are left with the choice of whether or not to use them. Engaging in values-guided action may involve unlearning some destructive patterns of default behaviour that you aren’t even aware you have. For example, if your default response to conflict is fear, and you want to respond with courage, openness and humour, do not underestimate the amount of work that is required to rewire that cognitive pathway. It’s bloody hard, uncomfortable work, which I daresay is why a lot of people avoid doing it.

I remain happily puzzled over whether it was the skills of my life coach that forced me to revisit my values, or whether I was ready to have the conversation and she was the one who happened to be there when I started talking. Our fifth and final session will be taking place during the upcoming fortnight and I look forward to contemplating my achievements since engaging with her in January.

I am still undecided about the concept of the “life coach,” but this experience has at the very least made a dent in my militant antagonism toward the profession. It’s too easy to stereotype an entire group from a poor past experience, and I should have known better. The same thing often happens with my beloved profession of social work; whenever the title is mentioned, I believe that 99 out of every 100 people surveyed report that if you look as far to the left as you possibly can, all you can see is a barrage of militant socialists, wrapped in swathes of tie-dye and crushed velvet material, garnished with henna’d hair and wafting around in clouds of nauseatingly strong patchouli making overuse of terms like “self-awareness” and interfering with people’s lives. Of course, social workers aren’t all like that…but some of them sure are. *shudder*

In fact, when you look at any of the helping professions – no matter what their philosophy, ontology and knowledge base may be – you’ll find that about 10 percent of their capacity to help you is based on their training, and 90 percent is due to the relationship that you co-create with them. What I got out of my life coaching sessions largely came down to what I was willing to put into them.

From my experience, what I can conclude is this: no matter how you get the values-determination ball rolling, if you have the time and capacity for it, do it. And if you feel that you don’t have the time and capacity for it, well…I guess it’s a bit like making time for meditation. The more you argue that you don’t have time for it, the more you probably need to be doing it.

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