‘When I was a young girl, I slipped and fell down a deep well. I was only saved because my father happened to pass by and noticed my flip flops had floated to the surface.’ As I listened to her story, I felt transfixed…and terrified. This Filipina has survived so many life-threatening experiences that it blows any cats-with-9-lives stories I’ve heard into the proverbial weeds. As she recounts various tales from her life of growing up in the jungle on a remote island mountainside, I feel by contrast like I’ve lived in a sheltered cocoon, free from a freedom that creates so much adventure and danger.
I flash back now to a conversation with a German social worker about how it is today that so many people in so many prosperous, stable, Western societies engage in so many extreme sports. It’s as if people do something dramatic and place themselves deliberately at risk in order to feel alive. I once spoke with a female base jumper who said with a huge grin on her face, ‘It’s even better than sex!’ I have to confess that I struggle to imagine that but…hey, I also struggle to imagine throwing myself head-first off a building suspended only by an elongated elastic band. Each to their own.
The social worker hypothesised that our societies have become so sanitised, protective, health-and-safety conscious and risk-averse that at some deep psychological level we can feel dead. In an era where even the once-unconquerable Everest now appears trampled and tamed, have we lost the thrill of surviving, of overcoming-against-all-odds, of achieving beyond what we ever dreamed possible? Contemporary Western people and societies often feel listless, bored and frustrated and lack resilience, purpose and hope. Can we co-create healthy risks that enliven and not endanger?
I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
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?
A good friend in the police service once commented how he would arrive at work each day, put on his uniform and spend the rest of the day ‘impersonating a police officer’. He had a clear idea in mind of how a police officer would typically speak and behave and so consciously acted it out. It was like playing a role in a theatre with the uniform acting as both costume and psychological prop. A young girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Bangkok told me how she always used a pseudonym when working with clients. This name kept her real identity hidden and provided her with an alternative persona. By doing this, she was able psychologically to disassociate and protect her ‘true inner self’ from the separate persona that was engaging in sexual acts with strangers. A priest spoke of the pressures he felt to live a public life under constant moral scrutiny. By wearing a dog collar, he identified with a faith, a role and a calling that demanded high levels of personal integrity. Over the years, he struggled and found ways to live a more integrated and authentic life commenting that, ‘the real question is not how to be a priest but how to be oneself who is a priest.’
The first example here is of a person who found ways to fulfil a role by copying the behaviours of role models within that specific professional culture. The second is a person who learned to survive by deliberately separating herself psychologically from her persona-in-role. The third is a person who sought to find ways to live out a role by becoming more truly himself within that role. I’ve worked with numerous leaders who have experienced similar challenges. How to live and cope with one’s own expectations of leader and leadership as well as those imposed by the organisation or culture, not to mention the actual or imagined expectations of the board, peers and staff. It can feel stressful, daunting, isolating, debilitating and anxiety-provoking. It can result in burnout. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘impostor syndrome’ where a person believes he or she has been appointed to a role under some assumed false pretext or mistake. In such a situation, the person may put on a brave face and live in continual fear of being found out. ‘Sooner or later, they will discover that I’m not as good or capable as they think I am.’ It’s a form of exaggerated negative self-evaluation.
I’ve experienced similar pressures myself, especially 6-12 months into a new job. During the first 6 months, I tell myself it’s OK not to know everything because I’m new. There comes a point at which, however, I risk placing expectations on myself that I should now know more than I do. It’s a type of personal anxiety (fear of failure) combined with social anxiety (fear of being negatively evaluated). One coping strategy is to wear a metaphorical mask like a stage actor. The problem is that it’s the same phenomenon the word ‘hypocrite’ points towards: literally, one who pretends to be what he or she is not. It lacks reality and authenticity, takes considerable energy to sustain and can lead to stress and exhaustion. It prevents the person being and contributing their best, as they really are. There are spiritual parallels in Christian theology where people are both challenged and encouraged to ‘move into the light’ or to ‘live in the truth’ where everything is exposed for what it really is. It’s as if we need to find a space, a relationship, where we can see clearly and be totally honest, real and accepted in order to build out from that place. It’s about learning honesty, integrity and peace.
It’s like the equation: ‘trust = risk + support’. A person is more likely to open up, to be real (which can feel risky) if, when he or she takes such a step, they experience genuine acceptance and support. It reduces anxiety, helps the person think more clearly and creatively, fuels their energy and motivation, enables them to hear critical feedback and builds trust for the future. Various coaching and therapeutic schools draw on similar principles, e.g. providing unconditional positive regard (e.g. person-centred); enabling a person to question and test their beliefs and assumptions in order to get a better sense of what is real (e.g. cognitive behavioural); experimenting with new behaviours to discover new experiences and ways of being and doing (e.g. gestalt). In my coaching work with a leader, I may encourage him or her to explore and grow using a range of approaches, e.g. draw graphic images, select objects/symbols or strike physical poses that depict (a) their idea of the leader they believe the organisation or others expect them to be and (b) the leader they believe they are or aspire to be, then explore the commonalities and differences. Alternatively, I may encourage the person to experiment wearing different types of clothing, to practice holding themselves in a variety of postures, to speak in different volumes or tones of voice to explore which they feel most comfortable with, to find a physical expression that best enables them to be who they are.
I may encourage the person to brainstorm what they believe others expect of them, believe about them as a leader and to test those assumptions openly with others. I may encourage the person to vividly imagine themselves as e.g. a humble, confident, capable leader and to role play it focusing on real scenarios, reflecting on thoughts, feelings, behaviours and responses as we do it together. I may provide the person with toy figures and invite him or her to create a configuration of their current key relationships (e.g. leadership team), then ask them to move the figures into different configurations to reflect on how that feels and what insights emerge. I may also invite them to reflect on past life or work experiences that have felt very similar (e.g. family, previous teams). I may encourage the person to step back and consider what their own experience might point towards culturally or systemically. If, for instance, the leader feels unsafe to be honest, what light does that shed on, for example, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable culturally within that environment and what can the leader do practically and realistically to influence positive change.
I would be interested to hear of others’ experiences in this area and how you have worked through them. Have you experienced ‘impostor syndrome’? Have you struggled to reconcile who you are with the role you find yourself playing? Have you coached, mentored or trained others working through similar personal or professional challenges? If so, I would love to hear from you.
I’m both impressed and a bit disconcerted by courageous people, especially if they're doing something heroic in the cause of that which is good, right and worthwhile, doing something beyond themselves in the service of others. Perhaps it’s partly because I’m not a particularly courageous person myself. Yes, I’ve taken risks when the benefits (fun, excitement, reward etc) have outweighed the potential costs. I’ve also taken steps in faith that felt inspired at the time and where outcomes were far from certain.
But the challenge I guess is how to really push myself into spaces and experiences that genuinely terrify me. How to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. How to do the right thing, the new thing, the courageous thing in the face of my own deeply held, paralysing anxieties. How to overcome the internal barriers that almost physically hold me back from stepping out. Courage after all is acting in the face of fear, not acting without fear. That’s the part I find most difficult to imagine and to do.
Charles DeFoucault once said, ‘The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything.’ It’s something about absolute faith in God’s providential plan and care. It’s believing that some things are more important than our own lives, comfort, security etc. Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.’ It’s about seeing and grasping the bigger picture, the greater cause, the more important relationship. Lord, help me to see, trust and do.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.