Am I a coach? Is that my role in life? I have wondered about this off and on. Vaguely. My work does sometimes have a support component, yes, although that was more often the case when I was still in the Netherlands.
Then, some time ago, when I was watching a Tony Robbins video, I was amazed to discover that in my teens and in my early twenties, I used what turns out to be a very powerful coaching technique to draw someone out of a dark place, getting the person from feeling completely stuck to become more dynamic, more open to other options.
What I did is the following. I used to make fun of the person, ridicule the person, until the person could no longer stop herself from bursting into laughter. It always felt very risky to me, like I was treading on unboiled eggs that could crack any moment, but it was the only thing that worked and once she burst into laughter, the battle was won.
How did I know to do that?
This morning, I was talking about that with someone who happens to be a coach and then it slowly started to dawn on me that I’ve more or less been a coach all my life.
Except, I didn’t see it that way.
I saw the things I did as being silly or desperate or as clowning around. I also saw it as something that I had not chosen but that was put on my shoulders at a young age, something heavy and dark, something in capital letters. RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHERS.
I have felt a duty to help make other people’s worlds whole from a young age, and yes, maybe I was pushed into that into some degree – and yes, I was also highly aware of the fact that I wanted a life for myself, away from this imposed duty to cater to other people’s needs and look after myself instead.
But maybe it is also something that I am actually really good at and really enjoy? Something that I should consciously embrace, do more with?
I certainly like making people happy. True. And I like seeing people smile. I also like building bridges.
One of the things that apparently make me special is that I see a lot. It’s benefited me tremendously in science, but also in other areas. I see the things that many people overlook.
Why? I have no idea.
Maybe because I grew up close to moors and woods in which I spent a lot of time as a child, observing the world around me. Nature. Maybe because growing up I had to make sense of a world that didn’t often make much sense.
I suppose you could say that I have had lots of “bad” things happen to me. I no longer think of it that way, though. I love learning, and I have meanwhile seen that some things that happened to me later in life were my own doing, the result of looking after other people’s interests at the expense of mine. That, yes, that is an inheritance from my childhood. But it’s one that you can reject as soon as you develop the wisdom to see that you no longer want it.
(I also inherited a musical talent from my mother. That I’ll hold on to!)
My mother was a strong enough woman and at the same time sometimes a very silly and weak woman but perhaps mostly a very hurt and confused woman because she expected a fairytale when she married my father and what she got was anything but a fairytale. She didn’t know how to deal with it. And she contracted cancer shortly after her marriage, which was misdiagnosed twice. She passed away young.
I think I was still pretty young when I was somehow made or became responsible for making my mother’s world whole in spite of who – or what – my father was. At least, that is how I vaguely remember it. Was I supposed to compensate for what my father wasn’t?
My mother was very close to one of her sisters, though, so it was probably more a matter of matching my mother’s expectations (providing sweetness and reliability) and putting up with the extremely short leash she kept me on. She wanted to keep me safe, make sure nothing bad happened to me. I used to break out of that, do things she didn’t want me to do and my dad also consciously encouraged me to explore the world more than my mother felt comfortable with. He bought me my first bike, and my second.
At the same time, my mother too created chances for me. Violin lessons, for instance. And when the kindergarten teachers wanted to keep me another year because I was very young, my mother stepped up and made sure I wasn’t held back and I am very grateful for that. Boredom is the bane of intelligence. Maybe that is putting it too strongly, but the fact is that if you have a nicely working brain, that brain wants to do lots of stuff, not be held back and get bored. You don’t want to learn how to walk and then be kept in a high chair. You want to learn how to run, too. And jump, and dance.
She also bought me my first mineralogy book, encouraged my rocks and minerals hobby, even though she wanted me to become an air hostess. (I started the hobby after I found a piece of rock with the imprint of a shell in our garden. I also found a piece of flint that was almost certainly a prehistoric tool, in hindsight, as I used it as a tool all the time.)
Maybe my coaching insights began with the Sunday fights my parents used to have. When I think back to those fights – oh, how I hated them, hated it when my parents quarreled – I still can see myself going into the large commercial cooler we had at the back of our very large house where I’d hidden pastries that I had bought from my weekly allowance. I can feel myself hesitantly shuffling back into to the room, feeling as if I was walking on egg shells, feverishly hoping that my pastries would be enough to break through the impasse and stop my parents’ fight.
Worrying even that I might trigger an explosion instead.
I felt so damn powerless.
But it usually worked. In fact, I think it always worked, but the shifts in atmosphere weren’t always the same, not always as good as I had hoped.
Did that teach me that in order to draw people out of a dark place, you have to offer them – make them see – something better? That you sometimes have to push them – goad them – into something better, something they will surely prefer over the darkness once they become aware that something better exists?
I never forced them to choose. The choices were up to them. My parents could have chosen to ignore my pastries and continue to fight and the woman I made fun of could have chosen to remain in her dark place instead of bursting into laughter. (Maybe it’s a matter of persistence.)
I didn’t actually make that choice for them. All I did was offer them a better alternative.
But I never saw it that way back then. I saw it as a heavy burden I took upon my shoulders. Or as doing silly stuff to get my sisters to smile. Clowning around.
I have never, not once, tried the humorous approach on my dad. He would only have gotten furious. (I suspect that what he essentially needed was to be told in a calm but stern voice what to do – and to stop the nonsense – in certain situations, but I learned that when I was around 20.)
My dad often used to go completely berserk. He’d always done that. Even before my parents were married, he’d threaten to kill himself, drive into a wall when he left the farm on which my mother grew up if she considered breaking off the relationship, the way young couples sometimes do.
Yes, I grew up with that same kind of emotional manipulation, particularly after my mother had passed away, but when you’re lucky enough to be born with a wonderful brain, you can often see such things and decide to try and stay as whole as possible in spite of everything that goes on around you. (I am not saying that my father’s emotional manipulation didn’t affect me. Of course it did.)
Like I said, my dad often used to go completely berserk. Usually, of course, when no other adults were around. My dad was not a bad person. He was a very friendly resourceful person, but he wasn’t very smart and he had gotten damaged very badly in his childhood.
He partly blamed me for that. This is an example of how I had to make sense out of a world that didn’t make sense, which I mentioned above. I had not even been born yet when my dad was a child, but something to do with the biblical story of Cain and Abel caused my dad put a lot of blame on me, as I too was the eldest. Even as a child or teenager, you KNOW that that doesn’t make sense. You also know that it isn’t fair.
I concluded at a relatively young age that my dad was simply ill and I also decided to disengage who he happened to be from what a father is supposed to be to his children. He was not a father; he was merely the man who had fathered me and who I grew up with. It enabled me to keep my beliefs intact of how life is supposed to be and feel less “lack”, I suppose. From a young age, I read a lot of books and I could see that in books, dads were very different from what mine was. The dads of kids in school also seemed different, although it can be hard to tell what goes on once you’re out of their house.
So besides probably having served as some kind of coach – or a sounding board rather – for my mother in some way I also must have served as a coach to my dad.
He used to threaten me often, with knives, poisons, ropes, what not. It had nothing to do with me, with who I was. He was giving voice to his own powerlessness that came from an extremely dark place that sprung from his childhood and he was directing it at whoever was around him and who was supposed to make his world whole again so that he could be happy, in his optics.
And he was furious with not being understood – though he certainly didn’t understand himself either – and other people’s inability to make his misery go away. But his misery came from within.
I couldn’t make that go away. All I could do is try and stop him from doing damage and that meant trying to draw him out of his dark place and getting him to a happier place in his mind.
Can you picture me in a car on a German Autobahn as a child, a teenager, with two other children in the car, with behind the wheel a man who was flooring the pedal, threatening to kill us all? I felt so powerless, because I was not able to drive a car yet, never even realizing back then that in such a situation, nothing can be gained from grabbing the wheel.
So I talked and talked and talked and talked, and never gave up until I got him out of that place of despair in his mind. That may sound brilliant, but I didn’t really have an option. It was either that or allowing him to kill us all (and maybe whoever happened to be in surrounding cars too). I didn’t want to die. Neither did my sisters.
Isn’t that partly what coaching is about? The ability to get people to see other options and draw them out of the place they are stuck in? Also, the ability to make people see that what other people do and say isn’t necessarily intended to upset and hurt them, but can have much more to do with what’s happening with them or happened with them in the past.
Once people become aware of their emotional responses, they can also learn to master them and even choose to respond differently. You can acknowledge an emotion and then let it go. A lot of trouble seems to come from wanting to fight negative emotions, from feeling we must be “better than that”. We’re only human. All of us. That’s perfectly fine.
Am I a coach?
I am still very busy tossing this around, but I am slowly starting to feel something empowering and enlightening that used to feel like a heavy burden. There’s been more bad stuff in my life, but when it happens, I seem to throw myself into it so that I fully digest it and complain and sometimes even rage a lot for while and then get to the point that I actually start to forget about it.
(Except that one time when I completely froze and my sisters had to drag me away. The time my dad tried to set fire to me. I wanted to leave that out here, but doing that might mean that I still haven’t accepted it and still am in denial about it. Oh, the disbelief! “I can’t believe it! How on earth could he do that? How on earth could he do that to me?”)
Okay, then. Misery disclosure. I’ve also been raped, by a stranger who broke into my student flat. And I’ve been homeless, and before I lost my home, I have even collected and processed acorns to survive. I’ve also been robbed, in Florida, and successfully negotiated with the robber to get my bank passes and passport back. I negotiated with the rapist too and got him not too tie me up completely which could have had devastating consequences with one of my neighbors being deaf and the other one not at home.
I’ve also sort of fallen off a horse once or twice. (I slid off the saddle once, at speed after I lost my footing in one of the stirrups, oh how embarrassing, LOL. And the same horse had already once managed to walk so close to a little tree that one of its branches literally wiped me off the horse.)
And another horse stepped on my toes once.
(Yes, you can laugh now. And yes, I inserted that on purpose. I don’t want you to get hung up on stuff that happened to me a long long time ago. This – coaching – would not be about me and I am no longer very interested in the past as such. The past, however, can be a rich resource for me, I now realize. For instance, I had not been aware until now that it was disbelief that made me freeze once. That enables me to recognize when it happens to others. Disbelief.)
So what does this make me? A coach?
No, my life has not given me 20/20 vision and I am far from perfect.
That said, I always thought I had to be strong and capable all the time. But maybe all I have to do is… be as soft and gentle and vulnerable as I want to be whenever I want to be or need to be.
Does that make me a coach?
What fascinates me in this context and what forces me to consider this is that I feel a strength when I consider this (yes, also with some slight trepidation, but that isn’t surprising). Is this because it would enable me to turn what was a burden in the past into a rich resource?
Am I a coach? If so, for whom?