I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
If someone were to ask you the question, ‘Who are you?’ what would you say in reply? It’s a strangely difficult question. Ask me about my family, what I do for a job, my hopes and aspirations, what I like and dislike etc, no problem. But ask me who I am and I struggle to know what to say.
Is it that I don’t know who I am, or I’m not sure how to answer the question without a broader frame of reference? I’m tempted to respond, ‘It all depends on what you mean by the question’ but that still doesn’t answer it. The only satisfactory response I can find is, ‘I’m a child of God.’
Social psychologists often propose that we know who we are, or what we are like as a person, by observing our own behaviour in a variety of situations. We notice how we behave then attribute personal values, attitudes, motivation etc. to it. Over a lifetime of experiences, we discover who we really are.
There’s something about this theory that resonates for me. After all, I’ve sometimes been surprised by how I’ve reacted in situations, as if my reactions and behaviours have been different to how I had imagined myself. Over time, I develop a picture of myself that feels more whole, more reliable.
An example comes to mind of taking part in a disaster relief team effort in Albania during the Kosova crisis. Having watched harrowing images on TV, I had expected to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was surprised, therefore, by my own sense of intrigue and excitement as the trip unfolded.
This theory gets tricky, however, when it comes to making decisions, making conscious choices. I face a dilemma and must choose a course of action. If I take the safe option, it reveals something about the kind of person I am. Conversely, if I take the risky option, that too reveals something about me.
The problem is that this hypothesis feels too deterministic, as if the kind of person I am is already set in stone, as if exposure to different experiences simply reveals what’s already there. But could it be that I have free choice and that my choices actually shape who I am and become?
An example comes to mind from the TV sci-fi series, Space Above and Beyond. The colonel faces an agonising decision over whether to accept a mission that will result in almost certain death. He takes the high risk option, having decided that’s the kind of person he wants and therefore chooses to be.
We experience tension when we fail to live up to the kind of person we believe we are, how we perceive ourselves to be. This tension could be driven by e.g. the demands of conscience, cultural norms, the expectations of significant others, our own aspirations or a need to preserve our self esteem.
So, who am I? I am the unique me, the genetic-physical-spiritual person that only I am, the socially-constructed me, that is, a person shaped by language, culture and interactions with others, and the chosen me, the person I have become as a result of my own free decisions and actions. So...who are you?
Do we have a core, coherent personality or are we really fractured selves? Personal construct psychology suggests our sense of coherent self may be something we superimpose onto ourselves to feel more coherent - a kind of rationalisation of our experience to feel more whole and unified as a person. It makes sense to me as a possibility.
It's a bit like life. I look back over my life and see a pattern emerge. Is the pattern really 'there' or do I subconsciously superimpose a pattern as a way of post-rationalising my experience so that it feels somehow less random and chaotic and more unified and meaningful? It's a philosophical and psychological hypothesis I find intriguing.
It's as if I choose certain experiences selectively from memory and then draw imaginary lines between them. If this is the case, it opens me to alternative constructions that could change how I understand myself, my life story, and thereby open up fresh possibilities for the future.
A Singaporean friend asked this morning, 'Why is this so interesting for you at this point in your life?' I found that question very thought-provoking. Perhaps I'm at a place of re-evaluating lots of things, viewing my life and the world through different lenses as a way of making new sense of them.
It's often a struggle to find meaningful language to express such difficult ideas that lie at the edge of language and experience. I would be very interested, therefore, to hear from any other people grappling with similar ideas, concepts and experiences. May God guide us with insight, wisdom and freedom.