Coaching in the Age of Coronavirus

There are so many tips online these days for how to survive the pandemic or what to do during lockdown that I’ve been hesitant to add any, but since so many of us are stuck at home with time on our hands and a jumble in our heads, I thought I’d highlight a few things I’ve found helpful.

The first has been to set some goals: not big lofty goals or enormous challenges that will feel burdensome, but simple choices to focus on things I care about that will occupy my mind and keep me moving forward in a time when I might otherwise feel stuck – at home, in the limits of my life, and in the obsessive tendencies of my mind.

Have something you’re working toward:  learning a simple skill or craft or about a subject that interests you; a moderate physical challenge like a series of pushups or a weekly yoga practice; a book you’ve been curious about but never given yourself the time to read before. Do something simple and achievable that you can feel good about, and that’s different than just what you need to do to get by.

Various combinations of these have gotten me through these last few months, and though I still sometimes feel stir-crazy, my online painting class (thank you Art Students League) or Yoga with Adriene or Insight meditation Zoom sessions have been a huge help.

So has learning new coaching skills, like Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, or IFS. For use both in psychotherapy and in coaching, IFS is a way of understanding our own minds that I’ve found particularly helpful at a time when so many of us are spending more time isolated with our own minds than ever before. Living in lockdown can be a bit like being on your own home meditation retreat (or mandatory home confinement) without the guidance of a teacher or connection to a community, which makes it far more difficult to learn from the experience.

Schwartz’s IFS model is ultimately a way of making friends with our own minds – the good, the bad and the ugly. In his view, we all have different parts of ourselves that emerge and take over and lead us at various times — and often lead us astray. Like a family where different members play different roles in the system (Schwartz started out as a family therapist) we’ve each developed these internal voices or “parts” in response to various experiences in our lives. Each serves a different function, so has different goals and interests and means of conveying them. We may have an inner critic that tells us we’re stupid whenever we make a mistake, for example, or a part of us that’s afraid to try new things. Those parts might have developed because as children we got in trouble for making mistakes, or were shamed if we tried and failed at something. We’ve internalized those responses, and now those parts are battling other parts of ourselves that long for learning, growth or adventure. The critical or fearful voices aren’t bad: they developed for a good reason, to try to keep us from getting hurt. But by now, if they’ve become too dominant, they may be more destructive than helpful, keeping us stuck in internal turmoil.

The IFS model isn’t about banishing those internal voices, but about getting to know them, developing understanding and compassion for them, and ultimately, helping them channel their energies or interests more constructively. In Schwartz’s theory, while we all have these inner parts that often work against one another, we also all have a “true self” or core wisdom that we can access, which allows us to hear and accept the various voices, and learn from but not be ruled by them. Acting from our core wisdom or true self – in others words, self-leadership – is the goal of IFS therapy or coaching.

You can learn more about Schwartz’s model here or through his audiobook, Greater than the Sum of Our Parts. The model can be applied in various settings, including, when used carefully by a well-trained therapist, to situations of serious mental disturbance. But as a coaching method, IFS can help us all sort through some of the noise in our minds that keeps us feeling stuck and dissatisfied. Whether you’re trying to endure the isolation of a lockdown or having conflict in a relationship or feeling stuck in your career, it’s really helpful to identify and come to know the various parts of yourself that are rushing in and trying to tell you what to do. They’re often arguing with each other, so it can be hard to discern what each is saying above the cacophony. Schwartz’s model is all about doing just that:  disentangling the parts so we can hear, listen to and learn from each of them, and ultimately re-direct their energies and interests to guide us in more constructive ways.

If you’re feeling stuck, anxious, or just exhausted by the monotony of pandemic life, consider taking this opportunity to slow down and really listen: what are the different parts within you, and what are they saying? What might you ask them, and what could you learn? What do they want for you, and what do they need? And what can they teach you about how old patterns of thinking may be getting in your own way?

On Staying Hopeful

954325Last week was tough. Not just because many of us were returning to work after a holiday break, but for anyone who works in social justice advocacy, the air is thick with fear, apprehension, lingering shock and disappointment. What will this new administration bring?  So far, the signs are ominous.

I was reading through news stories about refugees and asylum seekers the other day, trying to help my organization figure out how to combat some of the misinformation that’s been spreading like wildfire through cyberspace. It didn’t take long before I was depressed and discouraged. The distortions, the nastiness, the sheer vitriol I found targeted at some of the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in the world these days was beyond disheartening. It made me feel like there’s this huge dark cloud amassing and expanding over the country, threatening a deluge of hatred and anger and violence that could wipe out many of the fundamental values and assumptions we’d come to rely on.

What I’m describing, of course, is a sense of despair, and I see it all around me these days. Many of us seem to be moving through a haze, lamenting the times, and, especially during the holidays, drinking away our sorrows with like-minded friends and neighbors, as if we could put the disappointment of 2016 behind us.

It’s a mood that’s easy to slip into, but really, a luxury we cannot afford. Yes, the idea of Donald Trump as president and Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state seemed so absurd and beyond our imagination just a few short months ago that it’s hard to know how to respond now. But merely indulging or consoling ourselves with the latest spikes in the stock market isn’t the way to go. There’s a lot each of us can do towards shoring up the values and principles and social compacts many of us still believe in, and while some of it may be painful and tedious and frustrating, it’s still worth the effort. Tempting as it may be, we can’t just check out now.

It can be helpful to remember that progress never happens in a steady upwards trajectory. There are always discouraging dips and setbacks and stumbles along the way. And real, lasting gains can require decades or longer to take root. Think of gay marriage, an idea barely considered 20 years ago, or the fact that 100 years ago women still weren’t trusted with the right to vote. Just 50 years before that, Africans could still be seized, shipped, sold and bought as slaves in this country. We’ve come a long way.

In her 2016 book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit likens social change to the emergence of mushrooms in a forest:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

The ugly expressions of racism, sexism and xenophobia so easily found online these days can make it seem as if it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind, especially as people seem to just immerse themselves in opinions they already agree with, the ideas and beliefs bouncing around in their chosen echo chamber getting louder and uglier as they reverberate.

We do, however, operate in a larger culture, and political system, and slowly, over time, progress can and often does occur.

As Solnit puts it:

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power…

Positive change is not inevitable, though. We’re seeing some pretty ugly mushrooms sprout right now. Hope is “not a substitute for action, only a basis for it,” Solnit reminds us. “Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act.”

That’s a sentiment I’ll be holding onto. None of us alone can change the current political climate, but we all can find ways to contribute to its change. Yes, we also have to take breaks, to turn off the news, appreciate silence and take care of ourselves. But this is not the time to retreat and accept the status quo. Those dark clouds will need a strong wind to disperse them.

Bernie Sanders, the Optimist

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One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.

Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)

Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.

Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”

Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.

Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.

It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”

Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.

That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.

I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.

Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.

A Hole in the World

images-4I came across Portia Nelson’s wonderful “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” recently and wanted to share it here. It encapsulates perfectly the challenging and often painstaking process of changing our most entrenched and destructive patterns of mind.

 

“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve also been thinking it applies equally to how we collectively, as a society and political order, approach our most vexing problems — only it’s not clear we ever get past the first couple of chapters.

“I would bring back waterboarding,” declared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on ABC News’ Sunday show, This Week with George Stephanopolous, talking about how he would respond to terrorism if he were president.  Surely Trump doesn’t think that’s the answer, given the wealth of evidence that torture undermines rather than promotes national security. But with so many fearful Americans eager to see leaders do something, anything, to ensure their safety, Trump probably figured it would grab more headlines and score him more votes.

Donald Trump is an extreme case, of course, but whether it’s global warming, income inequality or terrorism, there seems to be a general societal instinct to respond immediately to our most entrenched problems with a defensiveness that clouds our ability to see our role in the problem and how our reactions perpetuate it.

An individual wanting to change can make a commitment to approaching the situation with renewed awareness and, eventually, choose to walk down a different path. But how can we do that as a society, in a political system governed by leaders focused only on short-term gains?

 

“Killing People is Too Superficial”

images-3I love riding my bike, but lately I’ve noticed that within minutes of setting off on a ride in the city, I usually want to kill someone.

I love the feel of the breeze, and the ease of getting around far faster than walking and without waiting in lines of backed-up automobile traffic. But I find I’m also on hyper-alert for danger – a car parked in a bike lane, a spaced-out pedestrian crossing the street, a monster-sized SUV speeding up behind me.

That reaction is understandable, even necessary. But living with that kind of vigilance also gives me a warped view of the world around me, leaving me feeling like a victim of what seems like the city’s endlessly aggressive energy. It’s exhausting.

As psychologist Rick Hansen explains, “humans evolved to be fearful — since that helped keep our ancestors alive — so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.’ ” This is part of our brain’s “negativity bias” – we react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. As Hansen puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

So my intense reaction to someone making a wrong move – opening a car door without looking or swerving their truck into my bike lane – may be perfectly natural. But cursing out the careless driver or pedestrian, fantasizing that I had a rock to throw at his windshield, isn’t actually a very helpful response.  In fact, it can ruin my bike ride, or at least make it much more stressful than it needs to be, which also makes it more dangerous.

Plus, it can send me on a downward spiral: I start to feel like riding a bike in the city is just a lethal exercise. Then, I wonder, why do I live in a city where everyone is out to kill me?  Finally, I turn it inward, and I’m just angry at myself for living in this crazy place.

I think the key to anger and fear of any sort is perspective—stepping back to see what’s underlying it, and how our minds, caught up in those emotions, distort reality. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let ourselves experience them. As psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says, the only people who don’t experience painful emotions like fear and anger “are the psychopaths and the dead.” The key, it seems, is to let yourself experience the emotion, but to pause before reacting to it – or at least to question your reaction, if it’s automatic.

Marshal Rosenberg, a psychologist who created a powerful method of conflict resolution called Nonviolent Communication, talked about anger as a sign of unmet needs. If we can recognize the anger, pause, and identify our unmet needs, he explained, we can focus our energies on meeting those needs, rather than on judging or harming other people. That turns out to be far more productive.

“Killing people is too superficial,” Rosenberg wrote in his groundbreaking book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. The process he recommends “does not encourage us to ignore, squash or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly.” That would be after figuring out what needs are underlying it.

In the case of riding my bike, of course, my need is for safety. And yelling at the person who just stepped in my way isn’t going to make me any safer. It may do the opposite. What will make me safer, and what I’m increasingly trying to do, is to just accept that there are some people on the road who will park or walk in the bike lane, and that they’re going to do it whether I fume at them or not. If I can accept that it will happen and be alert to but relaxed about it, I don’t have to get so angry.

My anger also compounds the problem by distorting my perception of the situation: most of these people aren’t actually trying to hurt me, they’re just not paying attention. In fact, if I think about it, far more people are actually complying with the traffic restrictions than aren’t. Cars are parked in a line all along one side of the bike lane, and the vast majority are not crossing it.  The same is true for the people driving the cars in the street; although some are careless, most actually don’t cross into the bike lane, or try to hit me when they pass me by. I rarely stop to think about that (that’s the Teflon at work), but keeping it in mind can help me relax and direct my anger at the transgressors a bit more skillfully.

The truth is, the anger that arises in these sorts of situations can be really useful, if understood and well-directed. Cyclists’ anger at the dangers posed by motor vehicle drivers has led to an impressive movement in New York City to support more, safer, and more visible bike lanes around the city. Transportation Alternatives is one of the advocacy groups leading that effort, and I think it’s done a great job harnessing and directing cyclists’ and pedestrians’ anger about the very real dangers on city streets, including calling attention to the deadly car crashes that happen on pretty much a daily basis.  It’s a great model for how to use anger to promote a common good.

But learning to respond to anger constructively isn’t easy. It takes conscious intention, effort and practice. Which is yet another reason to get out and ride.