“I feel like my head’s split in two,” I complained to my partner one morning as I struggled to get out of bed after a long weekend.
“Then let it split,” he said.
I’d just spent the Columbus Day weekend working through my coaching program’s final exam — 26 pages’ worth of explaining how I’d help clients explore their values, fears and dreams so they could make the changes they wanted and lead more fulfilling lives. Then that morning, as I prepared to return to my job, I was scrolling through an e-mail inbox full of dense legal arguments over whether the president could lawfully bomb ISIS in Syria or whether Congress needs to pass a new law. I felt like two very different people.
I guess we all feel that way sometimes, trying to reconcile parts of ourselves that seem strikingly different or even diametrically opposed. “Let it split” was the best advice I’d heard in a long time.
Those words actually echo one of the coaching “pathways” I’ve been learning, which involves helping clients fully experience a significant moment in their lives that raises an issue they’re struggling with. If that moment happens to be filled with pain or confusion, that’s okay. You just let it be that. The idea, which I’ve described here before, is that if you sit with it, and really feel it rather than judge or analyze it, the feeling inevitably transforms into something else, which often contains new insights that help resolve the initial angst. Instead of running away or distracting yourself from your emotions, then, you let yourself have them. Don’t wallow in them, but observe them, let whatever’s beneath them bubble up. You’ll learn something.
This has been a very hard thing for me to learn. My general approach to life has always been as a problem-solver. I see a problem and I immediately want to fix it. I not only do that in my own life, but I was recently called out by my coaching mentor for doing this with a client. Turns out that’s a big coaching no-no.
My mentor had listened to a session I’d recorded – with the client’s permission, of course, as part of my training – and noted that I’d failed to acknowledge and explore the obvious frustrations the client was having trying to balance the demands of the paying work he found empty with doing the more creative work that he loved, but which didn’t pay the bills. Instead of encouraging him to further explore those feelings, or his true desires, she observed, I’d repeatedly tried to coax him into what I thought was a good solution: better time management. By the end of the session, he still sounded frustrated. “Just dance with him, be curious, trust the process,” my mentor counseled. “He’ll come up with the solution himself.”
I felt chastened, skeptical, and annoyed. After all, I was just trying to help.
With a little distance, though, I can see that sometimes, merely helping people sit with and accept what they’re feeling is the best help I can provide. With support and encouragement, they’ll eventually discover for themselves whether, when and how they want to act.
That’s basically what “let it split” did for me. Instead of torturing myself over whether I want to be a human rights lawyer or a coach, I’m just letting myself be both — and I’m feeling much better. Sure, sometimes I’m thrown off by how different these two kinds of work actually are. But they’re just different sides of myself. And in some ways, each nurtures the other. My coach training has helped me respond in much healthier and more productive ways to the frustrations I encounter in my job; meanwhile, running into brick walls in the workplace and as an advocate has helped me relate to what many of my clients experience. Ultimately, exploring and developing the various facets of our personalities and interests helps us make greater contributions and lead richer and more fulfilling lives.
After the critique from my mentor, I had another session with that same client. This time, I let him run the show. Rather than try to solve his problem for him, I encouraged him to fully experience how it felt, and to explore, from that place, what he truly valued, wanted and needed. He really responded to that. By the end of our session, he said he felt much better: instead of trying to choose between one or another role to play or label to apply to what he does with his life, he could see that what he really wants – at least for now – is to do both.