The vulnerable coach

It’s a first supervision session for this coach and I’m exploring how her early life shaped her adult beliefs and behaviour. She looks dubious. ‘I had a perfectly happy childhood’, she says, hesitating a little. ‘Except we did have to tiptoe around my Dad sometimes’

‘Tell me about that.’

‘He was in a senior role in the Police, so his work was demanding and he’d often come home with a short temper’.

Mmm. The story unfolded. As a little girl, the coach had learnt to be ‘good’. This meant looking after her Mum when her Dad got angry and sometimes intervening when the shouting got out of hand. She described herself proudly as ‘super-sensitive’, alert to nuances and the small signs that a massive row was on the way. Unlike her three younger siblings, she had decided to be no trouble to her parents. Where the siblings acted out with unruly behaviour, she was the diplomat, the conciliator, the obedient and dutiful one.

Anxiety and anger

All the caring professions are full of people who experienced this kind of childhood. We grow up with a fear of conflict because adult anger felt dangerous. Beginner coaches will often tell me that they feel paralyzed with anxiety about speaking during coaching sessions. As one such coach said to me, ‘I’m desperate to keep everything calm. All the time I’m thinking that the client will burst out with something about how stupid I am’. We can grow up in environments where anger was often lurking away in the background. We ‘earned’ love by taking care of our parents’ needs because when we wanted legitimate needs of our own to be met, they often were not.

The danger of rescuing

This is why many coaches are super-alert to the needs of their clients. They offer extra sessions, unpaid; they find it difficult to set boundaries; they find it hard to ask for help for themselves. They may find silence in the coaching room intolerable and rush to fill it. They want clients to like them, they want to protect their clients from negative feelings while being unable to manage negative feelings of their own. If the client fails to ‘improve’ they feel personally responsible. They may find they are living vicariously through the apparently more dramatic lives of their clients, thinking about clients all the time at the expense of thinking about their own family and friends. Where the client is in conflict with colleagues, they are inclined to side with the client, even to the extent of being willing to act as their advocate.

What has happened here? They have turned into super-efficient and wonderfully caring rescuers. Rescuing never works because it is underpinned by pity and is about the needs of the rescuer, not the rescued.

When the frightened and frozen child of the coach meets the frightened and frozen child of the client, nothing of value can happen. The coaching stalls. then peters out. Or in the intensity of trying so very hard to make it work, the coach quickly burns out. Sometimes, even worse, an inappropriate relationship develops.

How should we look after ourselves?

We need to look after ourselves in this work. Just before the pandemic I went to a conference whose participants were therapists. The subject was trauma. I was probably the only coach present. I sat near the back. The woman next to me openly worked away with the sharply pointed nail of her right thumb on the soft underside of her left thumb until it was raw and bleeding. In the rows in front of me were two hair-twirlers, a nail biter and a leg twitcher. The conference was a panorama of anxious faces. It is inevitable that we are affected by the stories that clients bring. It’s part of what enables us to do this work. Any idea of remaining ‘objective’ is a delusion.

How do we manage this aspect of our work? It starts with understanding ourselves and our own emotional biography. We need to express concern for the vulnerable children that we were and the vulnerable adults that we have become but without descending into self pity. We need self compassion before we can show compassion to others. We need a supervisor who has done this work on themselves and who understands without judging.

A supervisor will help us calibrate our work, help us decide how many and what kinds of clients we will take on. My own informal rule is that I can only work with one desperately needy client at a time. That way I can contain their disappointment, grief, rage and occasional outbreaks of hostility – which might well be aimed at me. A supervisor will also remind me about getting enough fun and healthy distraction into my life. ‘When did you last go to the cinema?’ a colleague asked me recently, her frowny expression suggesting she had already guessed that the answer was ‘several weeks ago’, a beloved interest put on stand-by in favour of work.

Take holidays, do yoga, practise mindfulness, train for the marathon, walk 10,000 steps a day, re-pot your plants, go to the theatre, read a novel, do Wordle, play with your cat, take your kids to the beach – or whatever you find will steady you. Our work is emotional labour and we must have regular respite from it.

Accepting our limitations

Accept your limitations because perfection in this work is impossible and some failure or ambiguity about success is inevitable. Move away from the idea of doing coaching, something you do to a client. Instead move to the idea of being a coach. Being is more important and rewarding than doing.

None of this takes away from the richness and reward of being a coach. We get to walk with clients at moments of transition and of profound learning in their lives. We often help them find their life purpose. And in doing that, we often find our own.