Listen to this story
I’m sitting across a table from a woman with a sticky note stuck to her forehead on which is scrawled, in big block letters, DEFECTIVE.
Eleven years earlier, prenatal testing revealed a severely malformed fetus, and the woman, Jessica, and her husband made the heartbreaking decision to terminate the pregnancy.
She later gave birth to two children, mostly healthy, but one of whom struggled with learning disabilities and the other on the autism spectrum. Despite a decade of therapy, including antidepressants to help with her unresolved grief and anti-anxiety meds to help with the stress of managing two special needs children, Jessica is still not OK.
“I’ve caused my family so much pain,” she said. “It’s because I’m defective that my children have the problems they have.”
Four sessions into our life coach training classes, Jessica and I have been paired to practice what we’ve learned so far. But the truth is, beyond my peculiar (even to me) request that she write DEFECTIVE on a sticky note and affix it to her forehead, I have no real idea how to proceed.
I throw out a few questions: What did your doctor tell you about what happened and How would your life be different without these challenges?
Jessica doesn’t answer right away. Hard though it is, I resist the urge to fill the silence with apologies or additional questions. I am attempting to let resonance, that thrilling connection between an idea and a corresponding hip-hip hooray — or oh, shit — of the heart, either be there or not.
What happens next surprises us both. Jessica’s eyes well up with tears. And then she begins to laugh.
It is the beginning of a breakthrough. For the first time in a decade, Jessica will tell me later, she truly saw the absurdity of the idea that she was somehow to blame for the fault in her genetics. How it was that ten minutes of coaching managed to do what ten years of therapy had not, I didn’t know at the time. Nor did I know that it would result in lasting change. For both of us.
Ministering to clients whose state of mind was often healthier than my own
I came to life coaching indirectly. At twenty-one, fresh out of college and possessed of what I believed was an innate power to heal, I took a job as a counselor at an alcohol and drug halfway house in a tiny south Georgia town.
Never mind that I had not, innately or otherwise, managed to heal myself of my own chronic depression or years-long eating disorder. Never mind that after three years of therapy, a four month hospitalization, and an ever-changing brew of medications, including a smorgasbord of antidepressants, and later anticonvulsants to control the seizures caused by the antidepressants, I still consumed fewer than 800 calories a day, weighed myself hourly, exercised compulsively every afternoon after work and, despite being five feet, nine inches tall, refused to allow myself to weigh in the triple digits.
And never mind that it would take five more years of therapy and a graduate degree in psychology before I stopped starving myself, and another twenty years before my depression — a shapeshifting cloud of apathy, dread, weariness, weepiness, paranoia, fear of dying, and night terrors — wouldn’t be the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night. I took a small-town counseling job in the belief that I could do for others what I could not do for myself. For the next decade and a half, I functioned in a variety of mental health capacities, mostly as a therapist, ministering to clients whose state of mind was often healthier than my own.
By the time I turned 34, my trudge through the shifting sands of depressive illness had lasted half my life, and I was exhausted and burned out on therapy — both giving and getting. I was tired of the question, What have you learned? which every therapist feels compelled to ask, as if the wisdom gleaned from misery is a prize and a privilege that completely makes up for decades of shitty living.
Although I had learned that being the last child born to unhappy parents in an unhappy marriage sucks; and that when no one in your life takes an interest in you it’s very hard not to flail in a slippery pool of unworthiness — none of this learning made up for the fact that my life had been a long, bitter, and mostly unsuccessful attempt to escape the hungry bear of unhappiness.
Choose therapy to make the status quo bearable?
And then one day in my mid-30s, something happened that would change everything. I was testing a young man’s IQ — a highly structured and strictly regulated practice that requires the examiner to be expressionless and inhumanly unobtrusive — when I felt the rumblings of a gathering panic attack.
I’d begun having panic attacks just a few weeks earlier. With few exceptions, they seemed to arise out of a sudden and inexplicable discomfort around men in close quarters. Had we been in the sleepy, peaceable space of therapy, I could have excused myself, freaked out somewhere out of hearing range, and returned without compromising the client’s session.
Instead I fought off the storm of terror until I was enveloped in it, at which time a choked, “Oh God!” escaped from my throat and I leapt from my chair, nearly upending the small testing table and tiny puzzles into my client’s lap.
I lunged for the door, flung it open, and ran past the other therapists’ offices, past the startled secretary in her cubby, to the bathroom at the end of the hall. I laid my cheek on the cold tile, my breath coming out in heaves and whimpers. When at last my heart ceased its explosive hammering, I returned to my office, mumbled something about a stomach problem, and resumed the testing.
I knew I had a choice to make. I could take medication for panic attacks and go back to my therapist to confront this latest glitch in my emotional functioning. This would allow me to continue to do what I was beginning to suspect I no longer wanted to do: work in mental health.
Or, on the hunch that the panic attacks were the result of burnout and the daily thwarting of my desire to explore my creative side, I could forgo therapy and its magical potions, step away from my mental health career, and pursue art and writing.
I left my career. I became a potter and later a painter and a newspaper columnist. With each tiny success (I sold a painting! I published an article!) I started to feel that I was gaining traction in my life. I started to sleep better. I bought a house and moved out of the trailer I was living in, with the rotting floorboards and the ineradicable mice. I married. I started writing a book.
I never had another panic attack.
The problem with unresolved emotional issues
By the time I hit 40, I’d finally managed to downgrade my depression from chronic to intermittent. My lingering symptoms — feelings of worthlessness, night terrors, paranoia — were less 24–7 and more pop-up store.
My new careers, my marriage, and a steady collection of rescue dogs gave me a tremendous sense of grounding and purpose, and I sailed, more emotionally intact than I’d ever been, across the ocean of my forties and right up to the shore of my 50s.
But unresolved emotional issues are funny things. They loiter, like bad guys in an alleyway, waiting for the right moment to brandish their knives. For me, that moment came soon after my husband left his own mental health career to become a photographer.
By this time I had finished writing my book and was looking for an agent. It was a difficult and often disheartening process of submitting, waiting long weeks for a response, parsing form rejections for their deeper meaning, while continuing to write and paint.
During this time, both my husband and I juried into an art festival in Birmingham. It was his second show. At the artists’ dinner, select painters, potters, and sculptors were called to the stage to receive awards for their work. I’d never gotten an award; winners were, I told myself, an elite group, and I’d simply not been in the game long enough.
And then I watched, incredulously, as my husband was called to the stage. My table — all artist friends who had known me for years but had only just met him — erupted into applause. The show director handed him an obscenely large ribbon. The local newspaper snapped his picture. He returned to the table to a hero’s welcome. A wildfire of envy ignited in me.
My husband went on to accumulate more and more successes — awards, exhibits, commissions — as I continued my quest for an agent. Months turned into years, during which time, watching his ascent, I felt my own life and career diminish by comparison.
I became deeply unhappy, and then deeply depressed — again. As one-time therapists, there had been nothing the two of us couldn’t figure out and fix. But this was different. The depth and pettiness of my envy seemed to erupt from some primitive place at the center of my being that no amount of discussion could quell or circumvent.
At the marriage therapist’s office I talked about a pair of dogs we’d recently adopted. They were sisters, and one was jealous of the other. When I petted Bella, she watched Brie. When I gave Bella a treat, she watched to see what Brie got. Often the watching exploded into all-out war, leaving one or both dogs bloodied and shaken.
“It doesn’t matter that my paintings are selling well, or that I too have a steady stream of commissions, or that I am actually the one supporting us,” I told the therapist. “What matters is that every week brings my husband new successes and accolades that are bigger and more impressive and more worthy than mine.” I was the bottomless, insatiable Bella to his contented, unsuspecting Brie. The fights that erupted were ugly and left us shaken.
“It’s co-dependency,” the therapist said. “You have to learn to unhook.” She gave some suggestions: look away, delve more deeply into your own career, ask yourself why you do what you do and hold on to that…
But I did not know how.
Dear journal: I am a disappointment to myself
In the evenings, I read books I thought might help: Eckhart Tolle, Elizabeth Lesser and Pema Chodron on letting go, living well, accepting failure and embracing the unknown. Bonnie Friedman on distraction and vulnerability. Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, Danielle LaPorte, Cheryl Strayed and Annie Dillard and Mary Karr, contemporary female champions of self-love and forgiveness.
I kept gratitude lists, grudgingly at first, and then obsessively. I talked endlessly to friends about my envy problem. I even wrote and delivered a speech about it, after which several people came forward to speak to me, including a doctor who was married to a doctor and envious of her practice, which was larger.
But in the end there was no metaphor apt enough or writer resonant enough or speech bald enough to temper the resentment and the bitterness I felt about my husband’s success. After three months we stopped seeing the therapist and agreed to limit our conversations to only those topics having nothing to do with careers, art, or the future. We barely spoke.
One evening, scrolling through an old journal, I came across a line written sometime in my despondent twenties. I am a disappointment to myself, it said.
It was a heartbreaking line. But it did not break my heart. Instead it resonated deep in my gut. Despite all my efforts to heal myself over the years, there remained, I realized, a scathing dissatisfaction with the person I was at my core: someone who I felt had accomplished nothing of value and given nothing back to the world.
I was disappointed all right — in who I was, in how I presented myself, in what I had accomplished, and in the little I believed I was capable of.
I still did not like my body. Most days I hated my hair. Some days I even stared with contempt at my own lunch.
Disappointment had been the engine of my depression and anorexia. Now, like the black mold left behind after a terrible flood, it was the fuel for my envy. I put down the journal and looked at my husband. If I didn’t fix this, we wouldn’t be married another year. It was time to clean up the mess.
Turning toward Life Coaching
Life coaching has its roots in the Positive Psychology movement, a term first used by Abraham Maslow in 1954.
Positive Psychology asserts that people are motivated more by looking toward the future than by dissecting the past.
It is a departure from traditional psychotherapy, whose primarily backward-spooling reach into the roots of what went wrong and the attendant idea that insight will heal wounds has been the standard of treatment since Freud formulated his theory of psychoanalysis in the mid-1800s.
For me, investigation into my past and the resulting insight had, in fact, helped. I was able to identify some of the origins of my anorexic illness and depression — an angry, weight-focused mother; a distant father; poor physical boundaries; and a familial insularity that mistrusted and pushed away outsiders.
But it had taken most of my life. Now 50, depressed again and drowning in envy, I did not have the time or the inclination to steep myself in therapy. I wanted, and needed, an active, forward-looking approach to deal with the problem of what was eating me. Intrigued by coaching’s innovative and positive approach to healing, I decided to commit. But not by getting a coach. By becoming one.
It took me a year and a half to earn my certification. I went through the program with 24 other students ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties.
Some, like me, had a background in mental health. Two were PhDs. Most worked in upper management at for-profit businesses. A few, like Jessica, were professionals looking for a new career after raising a family.
Together we completed 300 hours of participatory class time, six months of weekly conference calls, 88 hours of practice coaching with private clients, twelve hours of coaching with our own certified coach, and a written and oral exam.
Throughout it all, were required to bring real, salient issues to the training. This is when I experienced Jessica’s “defectiveness”. We also used my envy, and another student’s long-suppressed anger over her father’s murder as practice material.
It was this fundamental requirement that we bring our real lives to training sessions that would be our greatest gift. Under the auspices of learning to coach, we were being constantly coached. It was a seamless and brilliant blurring of facilitator and facilitated that called to mind the surrealistic Escher drawing of hand drawing hand, where illustrator and illustration are indistinguishably merged.
Life coach training was the perfect synergy of helping the helper to help, and in the process helping. So it was that I became certified. And helped.
The stories we tell
Ten minutes into my coaching session with Defective Jessica, something momentous transpired.
Making her belief about being to blame for her children’s difficulties tangible by writing it on a piece of paper, and placing it front and center — affixing it to her brow like a headlamp — allowed her to see it for what it was: a story she had penned and stuck on herself.
Along with a few well-crafted inquiries into her story, these small, calculatedly literal actions moved her closer than she’d ever been to the truth of her life (genetics and not she, determined the fate of her children) and paved the way for forward movement.
It was a momentous ten minutes for me as well. I saw how a hunch, even a peculiar one (stick this to your forehead and see what happens) could root out a story. I saw how powerful it could be to make that story tangible and visible. I saw how that story, once exposed, was harder to hew to, and how easy it was then for truth to supplant it.
And I saw how truths could begin to immediately move a person forward, even one who had been stuck for decades. From my work with Jessica it was a short leap to seeing how almost every negative thing I had penned and stuck on myself for thirty years — about my supposed worthlessness and lack of achievement and failures of compassion and generosity — were biased, subjective stories as well. And once I saw that, I discovered a way out of my pain.
One of the most surprising discoveries, she recalled, was that as her left brain (the language center) shut down, she became aware of a “magnificent silence.” We are the victims of an internal narrative, she wrote, which prattles on endlessly about what we need to do, how we feel and why we feel that way.
These stories are a function of our left brain’s language center, and are the connective tissue that keeps us attached to who we know ourselves to be in the world.
Interestingly, however, whether or not we have all the facts is not of concern to the left brain. It takes it upon itself to fill in gaps in our knowledge with half-truths, inventions, and even downright fabrications. In other words, we are not fully in command of our ship. We are constantly sinking in a bilge full of lies.
Bailing out the bilge is the province of life coaching. And while I am coming to understand this more and more, thanks to my training, at home with my husband I continued to struggle.
An agent who was excited about representing my book unexpectedly reneged after a seven-month rewrite. My husband’s art career continued its upward trajectory. I dropped out of art festivals. I started revising the book yet again. Lonely and lost, I began to fantasize about leaving my husband. I’d still be at a loss for solutions, but at least I wouldn’t be face to face with the perceived source of my pain.
The tactic of Powerful Questions
It’s late winter, and our training room is a sea of discarded coats and scarves. Today we are talking about the crown jewel of life coaching, the almighty Powerful Question.
Powerful Questions (PQs) are broad, deep, open-ended inquiries. For life coaches, PQs are the ticket into the theater of the client’s mind. It is by asking the right PQs in the right way that coach and client gain access to the client’s left-brain stories, its hopes and dreams as well as its falsehoods and limiting self-perceptions.
PQs are unlike the ordinary questions we ask one another during normal social discourse. They are less, “Hey Bob, do you still hate your job?” and more, “Hey Bob, what is the dream you hold in your heart and who would you have to be to follow it?”
Within the context of coaching, they are much more than simple inquiries in search of simple answers. They are an invitation — a challenge might be a better word — to clients to dig deep for answers, to think more broadly about their beliefs and motivations than perhaps they’ve ever thought before.
Formulating proper PQs requires practice. There are rules. For the most part, questions that allow for a simple yes or no do not take the client further down the road to self-knowledge, and are therefore not considered powerful. Likewise, questions phrased to elicit answers pertaining to what a client doesn’t want to do, as opposed to what she does want to do are not considered powerful (consider the difference between Why do you dislike your job? and What would bring you joy?). Nor are questions powerful that buy into a client’s negative self-perception (Why aren’t you more successful?).
Powerful Questions might just as well be called Empowering Questions, because when phrased correctly, they help clients think constructively about themselves and their goals.
Today, we will each answer the same PQ from our trainers, after which they will ask a few follow-up PQs. The purpose is to show us how, like a string of sturdy lily pads, a series of good PQs can transport clients across the murkiest of waters.
“What is the story you tell yourself over and over?” is the first PQs we must answer. It’s no sooner written on the whiteboard than a collective gasp goes through the room.
It is a dazzling question. It speaks to the very heart of what Jill Bolte Taylor was talking about, and to the heart of coaching. You — I, we, all of us — have a story we tell ourselves over and over. Sometimes it’s a story that keeps us stuck. Sometimes it’s one that moves us forward. Regardless of whether it impedes or assists us, it bears examining.
My story goes like this: “I am not successful. I have not achieved enough.” I have believed this since I looked around at my fellow second graders’ drawings and noticed that some were more accomplished than mine, and I corroborated this story every day after that by comparing myself only to those I deemed more accomplished than myself — in art, math, horseback riding, romance — everything that was important to me in the moment.
“What, exactly, do you mean by successful?” asks one of the trainers.
“I mean what everyone means by successful,” I say.
“But what do YOU mean by it?”
I sigh. It seems like meaningless wordplay. “I mean being great at something. Actually, being great at something important. Actually…” the more I talk the more grandiose my definition of success reveals itself to be, until at last I blurt, “I mean being The Best At Everything.”
I recalled that there was a time in my life when I went around noting everything in my immediate environment that I had not invented, which turned out to be everything (light poles, tractor tires, television…the list went ridiculously on and on), and berating myself for each of them, while things I had actually accomplished — getting a graduate degree, writing a book, having a long-running newspaper column, creating a financially viable art career, and marrying a fine man, to name just a few — were relegated to a folder in my head labeled Other People Have Done These Things And More, Better.
A smattering of laughter goes though the room. And then a funny thing happens. I start to hear myself. And what I am saying sounds a lot like . . . well, like a story.
Additional Powerful Questions would delve more deeply into my reasons for carrying such a story around. “What purpose does this story serve?” alerted me to the fact that some narratives are borne of chance encounters with unsupportive people in our lives and carried forward unconsciously, while other narratives begin as self protective mechanisms, meant to shield us from disappointment or pain.
My story about my lack of success came directly from my family’s narrative. When I told my mother I was applying to psychology doctoral programs, she asked what made me think they’d have any interest in me since I had never even travelled the world. When I got my acceptance, I declined, because I was worried I could not do the work since I had not travelled the world. “What would help you move forward?” allowed me to remove my finger from the pulse of my husband’s accomplishments, and to think proactively about what I wanted and needed to proceed.
Over time, as my coach training progressed, I stopped asking myself what was wrong — in all contexts of my life — and started asking myself how I could make things better. I ceased my anxious hovering at the edges of my husband’s career and turned my eyes to my own.
I hired an editor, got some real help with my book, and eventually found a publisher. But the greatest takeaway of it all, whose healing glory I had inexplicably failed to grasp all those years of both giving and getting therapy, was the fact that the mind, in a brilliant psychic interplay of self drawing self, is the architect of our reality. And it is entirely possible, when that reality is no longer working for us, to build an altogether different one. One in which we never fail to act on our own behalf.
Close the back door, walk out the front
There is no doubt that the therapy of my youth helped me. Without it, I’d have likely died from my eating disorder. But the therapy of my adulthood had become something of an extended game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, wherein I endlessly sought to pin responsibility for my pain on this or that childhood hurt or loss, while foregoing the necessary dénouement: Now that I’ve united the donkey with its tail, where does the beast want to go?
Also missing from therapy, along with a sense of forward progress, was positivity. Very little time was spent examining what I liked about myself, or in what ways I felt worthy.
I recall, at one point, asking a therapist why we only talked about the things I felt awful about and never the things I felt good about, to which she responded, “You never bring those up.”
It’s true, I never did. I suspect this is because traditional therapy fed too neatly into my belief system. What’s wrong? it asked, for over three decades, becoming a kind of Powerful Question of its own. Not Is something wrong, or What are you telling yourself is wrong, but Something is wrong; what is it? And it was to the level of that question, and that question only, that I’d risen for most of my life.
Only by exposing the stories we tell ourselves, with an eye toward embracing our more empowering ones, are we able to move closer to our greatest vision of ourselves. In the end, it was life coaching that showed me why — and how — to close the back door and kick open the front.