You arrive in a new relationship or a new situation and find yourself reacting unusually. It feels out of character, not how you ordinarily respond in such situations. It feels uncomfortable, disorientating. You struggle to contain it, ignore it, behave normally but it persists, gnawing at you inside. You feel anxious, prickly, agitated and it’s hard to keep things in perspective. You know something is wrong but you don’t know what and you can’t understand why. What could this be about? Is it simply a strange, inexplicable intuition? Is it just about you?
Some psychological theories, e.g. transference or pattern matching, suggest that aspects of a new situation may resonate deeply and subconsciously with personal experiences from the past. It’s as if something seems familiar and we transpose feelings from the past onto that situation. This ability enables us to approach new scenarios with an element of experience, rather than trying to navigate every new experience from a blank sheet. Problems arise, however, when similarities are only superficial or the feelings are inappropriate or unhelpful.
If we find recurring patterns in our responses, one way to address this is to notice the feeling and to reflect back on, ‘When was the first time I remember feeling like this?’ Often, this takes us back to a specific childhood experience. We could vividly re-imagine that situation, (a) as if knowing then what we know now, (b) as an alternative scenario in which what we would have liked to have happened did happen or (c) if another person was involved, with what we would have liked to have said and the response we would like to have received.
This process takes concentration, allowing ourselves really to visualise and feel the revised situation as if it had actually happened. It can have the effect of desensitising our memories and, if they were painful, taking some of the sting out of them. At the point of imagination, we may choose a colour that captures the feeling of the revised scenario, as if painting it in that colour. This anchors the positive feeling in the colour and enables us to recall that colour when facing new situations, thereby associating the new feeling with them.
But what if it isn’t about resonance with a past experience? What else could explain our feelings and responses? Some psychological theories, e.g. countertransference or parallel process, locate the source of the feeling outside of ourselves. It’s as if we receive a subconscious stimulus from a person or our wider environment that causes us to feel what the other is feeling. It’s one step beyond empathy, an actual experiencing of another’s experience. Coaches and therapists may use this kind of awareness to identify unspoken issues in a client or system.
Some ways to recognise this internalising phenomenon are if we find ourselves (a) feeling very alien to how we normally feel in a relationship or situation, (b) reacting out of proportion to what a situation appears to call for or (c) experiencing the same each time we encounter a particular person or environment. We can test this tentatively with others to check it out, e.g. ‘I’m aware of feeling X…is that how you are feeling?’, ‘Each time we meet I feel quite ‘parental’…is that how you see me?’, ‘I feel X when I visit…is that how it feels to work here?’
It could be that we’re experiencing a combination of various internal and external dynamics. After all, it’s sometimes hard to unravel what we’re experiencing and why. Perhaps the boundaries between our present and past experiences, our internal and external worlds, are more permeable than we realise. As a coach or therapist, what do you attribute experience to? How do you discern and differentiate between your own experience and that of the client or system? What do you do practically to help clients handle their experiences differently?
I had a new, short, mini-article published online in About Leaders this week called, ‘What is really going on here?’
It introduces examples of different frames of reference we may use when working with people as a leader or coach. I would love to hear what you think, what frames you use and what experiences you have in this area. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Reaching 64 lengths felt like quite a stretch. I normally swim around 25 so pushing for a mile felt exciting yet daunting. When I did reach the final strokes, I felt tired yet exhilarated. It was a good feeling, a feeling of achieving something beyond my normal boundaries, routine, comfort zone. In that moment, I felt more alive somehow as if I had extended my boundaries into a new space. I was spurred on to test my limits by a good friend who takes his own sport, motorcycling, to extremes, perfecting his riding technique in every detail and crossing continents in ways I only dream of. Rho Sandberg added inspiration in her deeply thought-provoking blog, ‘Working with our Edges and No-Go Zones’: http://thegritintheoyster.cleconsulting.com.au/blog/working-our-edges-and-no-go-zones.
Rho, a coach and consultant, comments on how each time we reach the border of our experience, it’s as if we reach an edge. The edge represents an opportunity for growth and something new yet it can also sometimes feel unsettling, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. We may at times hesitate, avoid or pull back to avoid the discomfort or fear of what may lie beyond. ‘Will I be able to handle it?’ It could be a new relationship, a new job or taking something familiar to the next level. The edge can symbolise adventure...and risk. I remember that feeling vividly, the first time I set off to hitch hike around Europe. I had never done it before and felt butterflies of anxiety and thrill as I made preparations and finally stood at the road side, waiting for that first lift that would signal the start.
Rho comments that, ‘An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with’ and ‘a coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting the client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it’. This echoes with my own experience as coach, supporting people who face fresh opportunities and challenges in life or who are working through change and transition. It inspires me to continually develop my own thinking and practice too…how to keep growing, extending my own boundaries and not to stay within my safe circle of experience. My next challenge is to cycle 1,000 miles and I can already feel myself touching that edge. Rho’s advice: ‘The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to find your way around.’
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.