Five things I didn’t expect from my life coach

Searching for a life coach

When you’re in the Bahamas for Christmas, far away from home’s single-digit temperatures, and you’re miserable, it’s probably time to reflect. I brought all my work-related anxiety with me on that holiday and couldn’t find the right mix of tropical rum drinks and dunks in the cyan sea to wash it away.

That’s where my search for a life coach began ­— googling from the bathroom of a tropical ocean-side rental. I needed clarity and an action plan, and I needed asap.

After ten minutes of scrolling through an online directory of certified life coaches, I contacted Diane and scheduled an introductory call for when I returned home to Vermont

During our first telephone conversation, I explained how I was feeling and that I wanted help to build a plan. “I’m determined to leave my job by the end of the year,” I said, “and I’m not sure what I want to do next, so I’ll need your help with that, and also I need you to hold me accountable to meet my goals.”

Her response surprised me. “Yeaahhh,” she said slowly. “We’re not going to do that.”

I moved away from the woodstove, suddenly the room had grown a bit too warm, while Diane went on to explain her style as “intuitive based.” Maybe a life coach isn’t for me, I thought. I need structure, process, metrics, and a coach who would call the plays!

She rightly gathered that I wanted certainty then suggested that instead, she would try to help me reclaim pieces of myself that I could no longer access. She said, “I will help you to open up to things you normally wouldn’t entertain.”

Even though her approach sounded a bit too metaphysical for my taste, I agreed to work with her. Given how adrift I was feeling, I figured doing the opposite of what I thought I needed was probably a good idea.

There is no one answer; everything is always receding on the horizon.

It was. As we began to work together, my life coach reset my expectations in important ways using some surprising tactics.

CHALLENGE – Diane told me upfront that she would call me on my bullshit, and she did. I shared with her my reluctance to network because my LinkedIn profile didn’t match my future vision of my professional self. “Bullshit. Your online profile isn’t the obstacle.”

She wasn’t going to coddle me by telling me it was fine as is, or ‘coach’ me on writing a revision. “How can you expect to write your story confidently, when you don’t know what it is yet?” she asked.

In this and other ways, my coach challenged me to overcome my propensity for rushing things and, in her words, “stop steamrolling my life.”

DEEP WORK – There were a few sessions where I felt we came close to crossing the line into psychotherapy – the line of questioning that made me the most uncomfortable was the one that required holding up a mirror to look inward or look back. But that’s the thing; there would have been no point in engaging a coach if we only skimmed the surface.

Working together, we searched for and identified the catalyst that propelled me to this crossroads – an important discovery that helped me to return to work calmer and with renewed energy after the New Year’s holiday. We also drew a portrait of my inner saboteur in fine detail so that I could recognize her whenever she popped into my head and tried to hold me back.

In short, while I wanted a ten-point action plan, my coach gave me insight into how to better practice empathy on myself.

CONTEXT – As part of life coaching, you explore your whole life – past, present, and future. I had thought we would be only working on my future – picking a point on some metaphorical map and navigating the best way there. As it turns out, the effort is on-going. 

In the notes from our conversations, I had scribbled, “there is no one answer; everything is always receding on the horizon.” That insight alone is worth every dime I paid for the coaching.

My coach helped me to see that I had to leave myself room to make decisions. Instead of charging relentlessly toward a single goal, the energy is better spent on building a relationship with myself. Then, as things unfold, I am always prepared to chart the best course.

RESPONSIBILITY – What I thought I needed most from coaching was accountability, but accountable simply means “capable of being explained,” and I already had that skill in spades. I was too busy to go to yoga, too exhausted to write, too stressed to cut back on alcohol, etc. I thought a coach would make sure I made progress instead of excuses.

Surprise! “You have all you need,” Diane said. “You have the authority to decide. If you’re drawn to change, why haven’t you done anything about it?”  Well, that’s what I wanted to know.

During my coaching sessions, I learned that there would be no shifting of responsibility, no excuses. It was up to me. I am responsible for figuring out my obstacles. The only thing we truly have power over is who we decide to be and what we choose to do.

NURTURING – All I wanted from coaching was an action plan, concrete steps I could take and a person to report back to each week to validate my efforts. Looking at my notes, I see the emphasis was more on stillness than it was toward action. “Empty that box of lists!” “Stop stacking task upon task!” “Slow it down!” “Have faith.”

She thought it was problematic to rely on the mind. “It’s fickle,” she said; and instead encouraged me to look for what she called “bubble” time. It was an active meditation, where I energetically closed the door on my life and put myself into a new place, with nothing weighing on my mind, no tense work encounters to replay, nothing ahead of me. “Make choices that feed you,” she advised. So, I played “pretend” for a few hours a week, manifesting the life I desired.

Through this, I learned that exploration without stated intent is perfectly okay. It’s why I was able to leave my job and honestly say that I was purposefully not committing to anything new for a while. I learned to sit with ideas, try them on, feel how each one might feel. And I am continuing to do this.

The most surprising thing about the coaching process is that it doesn’t start with telling the coach what you need. Discovering what you need is the process.

I hired a coach to find clarity and be held accountable to a 12-month action plan. After several weeks of working sessions, however, I felt no more certain about my LinkedIn profile, but I felt more confident and ready to take action than ever.

Pivotal Points

If you decide to work with a life coach, hire someone who challenges you; prepare to be just a little uncomfortable; expect the unexpected.

Published by Catherine H Palmer

I used to help big companies tell their stories, now it's time to tell my own. I blog about midlife reinvention and making a new life in rural Vermont. Follow me, I have no idea where I'm going.

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