I entered the world of life coaching after completing my MA in Drama and Movement Therapy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. When I enrolled in the Animas course, I was practicing as a drama therapist and was hoping to enrich my skill set. Since the beginning of this journey, many have asked me how I bring together therapy and coaching. In this article, I will share the key elements which inform my coaching style.
My understanding of the place coaching holds in current society is based on two theoretical pillars. The first is Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity” (2000), which signifies a time in history in which “change is the only permanence and uncertainty the only certainty”. The other is Sartre’s notion of humanistic existentialism, in which man is condemned to be free and is constantly called on to make choices, thereby forging his destiny. Man holds only one certainty: the impossibility of not choosing. From this hermeneutical stance, it is no wonder that the demand for life coaching has grown exponentially in recent years, and that more and more people entrust a life coach to help them navigate their way through life’s complexities.
As an arts therapist, my choice to pursue another qualification, was informed by the fact that I often witnessed people’s resistance when considering the possibility of asking for help and starting therapy. I believe the stigma therapy still holds in our society today is linked to an obsolete concept of mental illness, and is usually not associated with trauma and not to the desire to thrive. As I embarked on my life coaching journey, I reflected on how, possibly for the first time in Western history, people are strongly encouraged to find fulfilment and satisfaction in their everyday lives on such a large scale.
The rampant race towards what is perceived as success, happiness, and even enlightenment, is heavily supported by the media, offered by companies in wellbeing packages, and encouraged by most Western educational systems. Reaching one’s highest potential is no longer the ambition of an elite but a goal which is attainable by and sold to the majority of us. Furthermore, the decline of religions’ influence has created the space for new forms of meaning-making to arise and new practices linked to this fundamental human need to grow.
Both as an arts therapist and a life coach, I felt I had an important role to play in helping others grow in awareness and explore their potential. I was thrilled at the idea of becoming a professional who worked on empowering people to take ownership of their life script. As I’d always felt drawn to being part of such a narrative, which fulfilled my desire to serve the contemporary aspiration of “man in search for meaning”, as Jung would put it.
Since my ultimate goal is to help people live a life they feel they can identify and be happy with, I chose to train as a life coach and bridge the gap between this new profession and therapy, while creating a space for both mental wellbeing and for people who feel the ambition or the need to decipher their soul’s code (Hillman 1997).
As a therapist, working with the dwellings of the mind was the basis of my practice. I soon saw the similarities between therapy and coaching, which include helping people to find insight through reflecting on their behaviour, thought patterns and emotions, while maintaining confidentiality and respecting time limits. What fascinated me about coaching was the flexibility the work could take when supporting clients in making decisions that will shape their lives. In recognising a shared human condition, I felt free to create a space in which client and coach are on an equal footing. This was one of the key differences I felt when working as a coach instead of a therapist. I soon realised that my unwavering belief in human potential to self-heal and reach self-fulfilment was the rock with which I was going to build the bridge that connected these two elements to my practice.
What I was seeking to find in coaching was a different set of techniques that would aid people to progress, potentially more quickly than in therapy, and take concrete actions towards achieving their goals and dreams. Differently from my therapy practice, I saw the coaching space as characterized by a more direct and challenging quality of relating. I particularly appreciated learning how to tackle limiting beliefs and witness how this helped clients gain new perspective on their situation quicker and move forward.
Halfway through my training, I found that my practice was growing towards a new and exciting territory I could explore and shape for myself. While following the training courses and collecting my practice hours, I observed the dance of complementary skills as they moved, landed and adjusted in my sessions. It gradually became clear to me that the key difference between therapy and coaching was where the focus was set. While as a therapist I usually work from the current situation and delve in the client’s past to understand what is informing the present. In coaching, I found myself still starting from the present moment but with the intention of focusing on the future. How will the client move forward from this point? The past was obviously informing the current situation but less time was spent in addressing that side of the client’s journey.
Furthermore, in relation to Jung’s theory of Anima and Animus (1995), the female and male energies within the human psyche, I started noticing how while in therapy-mode I felt beholden to a very feminine quality, characterised by holding, listening and gentle exploration. While when in coaching-mode, I was engaging what I associate to be my masculine qualities: focus on a clear sense of direction, definition of goals and moving forward as part of the session’s structure. The drive to move on, change and break old patterns predominated.
In my reflective journal, I represented therapy with the symbol of a circle, and coaching with an arrow. These two symbols also offer a very evocative representation of the masculine and feminine principles and the intrinsic energies they express. While practicing as a coach, I realised how my attraction to this particular style of working with people had been informed by my desire to find balance between these two internal energies of mine: the feminine, therapeutic and creative side; and the masculine, driven coaching side. This dance of two complementary energies informs my practice today. As by being aware of holding these two opposites, I find the way to balance them and bring together the two sides within me that inform my practice: the therapist and the life coach, my feminine and my masculine nature.
In sessions, the feminine side is what I use to build rapport, hold the space and be present to a client’s story. By holding the space, I act as a witness to my client in front of me. I listen and invite time to unfold. I work to create a safe space for trust to be built and consolidated to the point where clients can dare to go deep inside their psyche and catalyze their resources. This internal backflip can help clients retrieve a fragment of light or insight to their struggle. The masculine elements come into play when I use a more dynamic quality of enquiry, exposing clients to a different quality of questions as well as offering challenging moments of reflection.
I’ve learnt to intuitively rely on this blend between my coaching side and my therapist side, which ebb and flow in response to the client’s journey of introspection, depending on what the client brings to a session. When necessary one side will dominate while the other will diminish to shape the space and the quality of the interaction according to the client’s needs. Their complementary nature creates a grounding quality to the sessions which supports the client’s journey and my role within the interaction to flourish.
Sessions are fragments of time in which two people commit to being present and attuned to one another, while together setting the intention for what the meaning of this meeting will be. As a coach, I hold in mind the idea of offering an open space for enquiry to be strengthened and for insight to be found.
The drive to better understand my new skillset and share my reflections came from the sense of responsibility I feel in relation to the impact life coaching can have on people’s lives. Now, when asked what I do and why my work is relevant to people’s lives, I find myself making a connection that goes back to my ancestors in a time where guidance and wisdom were sought from the sage or healers in a village. Then I find myself reflecting on to periods of history in which the answers were situated outside of man and aimed towards Nature and God. I then land in my present moment, where I find that many people have the inkling of the power of their inner healer and their unique divine spark inside of them. As a life coach as well as an arts therapist, my job is to help them find their path to that side of themselves, embrace it and build an allegiance with it.
Bauman Zygmund, Liquid Modernity, 2000
Hillman James, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, 1997
Jung Carl, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1995
Jung Carl, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 2001