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INTEGRATING WHAT IS BROKEN IN US

NOVEMBER 7, 2017

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We are all broken.

In some circles, this is a radical thing to say (“Hey, some of us are doing just fine, thank you!”); for others, it’s a downer (“That’s a pretty negative view of people”).

But for me, this is an uplifting truth and a fundamental tenant for coaching.

For most of my youth, I experienced life as something that unfolded for me just the way I wanted it to—all according to plan. Sure, I had some romantic heartbreak and some disappointments, but overall things were good. I had two loving parents, a stable, middle-class upbringing, and went to a great high school and four-year college. I got a great job out of college and moved to NYC to live that big life I’d always dreamed of. I moved up the ladder within my chosen profession and eventually moved to San Francisco, where I met and married my husband and we had a child.

Then everything fell apart. When my son was born, I experienced crushing post-partum depression. I was brutal with myself about it, sure that I was a terrible mother who couldn’t love her son. When he was a year old, my reproductive system shut down and I discovered I couldn’t have more children. I struggled with motherhood and my crazy work hours and felt I wasn’t doing either one well, so I stepped down and took a new job with no big title or compensation package.   Eventually, my husband and I separated and divorced.

Failing?

During this time, I felt all these experiences as “failures.” I felt sadness and loss and pain. Eventually, I came to see that my old life and my old self were actually dying, and I was grieving the loss. I had constructed a life based on what I thought I was supposed to do and want—what was supposed to make me and others happy. I had constructed a sense of self that was based on ideas of achieving and succeeding and getting everything just right. The truth is that, even before my post-partum depression, I was really pretty miserable. My work didn’t have much meaning and I didn’t have much time for relationships or much ability to really be present with others.

Loving what's broken

Many of these realizations began when I entered the Professional Coaching Course at New Ventures West. I came into the class hoping to learn “how to be a coach” so that I could make a career transition. What I learned is that coaching is really not about helping people solve their problems or get their next promotion. In fact, coaching is incredibly powerful because both coach and client can learn to face and love what’s broken in all of us. Without judgment or shame. We can see how we might be living in ways that have us close off parts of ourselves—that have us deny truths or constrict our hearts or bodies. Loving our broken parts helps us to breathe more life into our selves, our endeavors and our relationships.

At this time in our history, it’s quite easy to allow and even to nurture feelings of rage and horror, grief and despair about the state of the world. But what helps me right now is to return to this teaching. There is much brokenness on display in the world. Can we love it and love those who show it to us? Can we look at our culture, our leaders and our decaying systems without judgment or shame? When we do this, can we see the truth of how we are living and face our own contributions to this reality? Most importantly, can we see opportunities to bring our own unique gifts in support of healing?
To me, this is the invitation—no, the promise—of integral coaching. Join us on the path.

You can engage in this kind of inquiry into your own life in our new two-day course, The Integral Path

Melinda is a New Ventures West faculty member and owner of the coaching and consulting firm Impact Leadership. 

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BALANCING JUDGEMENT AND MERCY

OCTOBER 4, 2017

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Whatever we say we’re most committed to, a great many of us live as if judgement were the primary human value, judging ourselves mercilessly and without respite. And, when we live in the stream of harsh judgement, no effort is enough, no achievement worth much, and our efforts to help seem to us nothing but disguised selfishness. In this relentless stream we find that the only way to bring ourselves to the world with the care and commitment we wish for is to fight an endless battle in which parts of ourselves – our essential goodness and our inner criticism – are pitched against one another.

In a battle there’s really never any time to rest. We live in state of vigilance, braced and ready for the blows that can come at any moment: for the offhand critical comment from a loved one or colleague, for the figures on our latest bank statement, for a tweet or instagram post that reminds us of all the ways we’re falling short.

And we find ourselves mounting all kinds of pre-emptive defence: doing our best to look good (which we’ll do even at great emotional, spiritual or financial expense), tuning out from our lives with distractions (so as not to feel the difficulty we’re in), shaming ourselves (to avoid the pain of being shamed in other ways) or deflating and collapsing (as if hiding from the world will save us).

Perhaps the worst of all of this is the way we hide the very battle we’re fighting, as if we are the only ones, as if nobody else has it this way. We become convinced that life has to be a battle. And that is our lot to live a life of inner harshness that only adds to whatever harshness and struggle we already experience in the world around us.

Nearly all of us are doing this – whether we’re teachers or CEOs, politicians or parents, artists or activists or accountants. And the more we live this way, the more exhausted we become, and the fewer of our gifts – the gifts we each have that the world needs from us – we get to bring.

All the while that we’re caught up in harsh self-judgement (which easily and also becomes harsh judgement of others) we’ve forgotten that judgement isn’t the same as discernment, and that discernment only becomes possible when judgement is balanced by a stream of mercy. I say ‘balanced’ here, but it seems to me much more the case that true discernment (the kind that can be life-giving, truthful and contributory) only comes into being when judgement is thoroughly infused with mercy – when judgement and mercy pour into one another, illuminate one another, become a single river.

And what is mercy? It’s a commitment to not turning away. It’s dignifying our anguish and confusion, the transience and unpredictability of our lives and the difficulties we’ve all had to face, and reaching for the essential goodness that is present in all of us. Mercy is indeed our turning towards life itself with a fiercely kind and loving embrace. It’s a commitment to see the beauty in our very unfinishedness, to cherish and honour both our inevitable falling-short and our capacity to improve things.

Most of us haven’t practiced mercy towards ourselves with anything approaching the diligence with which we practice harsh self-judgement.  But until mercy can become a serious part of our constellation of virtues, until we practice it as much as we long for it, we’ll struggle with more difficulty than we’re due and we’ll doubtless bring more difficulty to others than we intend.

Justin Wise is a New Ventures West senior faculty member based in London. You can read more of his beautiful writing on his blog

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HOW WE MAKE HUMANS INTO MONSTERS

FEBRUARY 15, 2017

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As our culture becomes more polarized, it becomes more tempting to label those who disagree with us as “monsters.” But what do we really mean when we say someone is being monstrous? And how willing are we to see our own monstrous tendencies?

To explore this, I’m going to go where monsters originally came from: the land of storytelling.

In the book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker lays out his theory that the core purpose of stories is to help humans learn to release the grip of an overactive ego.

Let’s look at how this is so in stories that adhere to this original purpose…

In stories with happy endings, the main character defeats an antagonist who is trying to control something or someone for selfish gains. As a result, the community is better off at the end—i.e. more integrated and full of life in some way. For example, in The Princess Bride, a farm boy becomes a hero when he saves a princess by displaying greater willpower over a prince who was trying to force her to marry him—Prince Humperdinck attempts to control the bride he has chosen for himself.

On the flipside, in stories with tragic endings, the main character is trying to control someone or something and won’t let it go. In those stories, the community is worse off—i.e. there is more disintegration as life is squeezed out. For example, in The Great Gatsby, an eccentric playboy lost in a fantasy tries to reunite with a former crush who is married, leading to loss of life in the community, including his own. Gatsby’s unrealistic and obsessive longing leads to his own demise.

In either case, a monster appears:

  • In happy endings, the monster is someone opposing the main character.
  • In tragic endings, the monster is the main character, at least by the end of the story.

The character we call the “monster” in stories still has human qualities—such as being passionate but unsympathetic, or intelligent but manipulative, or strong but oppressive. But beyond their humanity, it’s the overactive ego that pushes them into the realm of monster as they endanger themselves and others around them.

Here’s another way to frame the core lesson that purposeful stories give us for living: finding alternatives to behaving like a monster leads to the development and integration of the mature self and community.

This makes being able to identify monstrous behavior important, primarily in ourselves.

When we act as monsters, according to Booker, we are displaying one of three monster archetypes: the Predator, the Holdfast and the Avenger.

Let’s look at each one from the story angle and how they can appear in us today…

The Predator causes us to say, “I want that now—at all costs.” (oriented to the future)

We can recognize this archetype in us when we’re myopically focused on getting the thing we desire, with no concern for any collateral damage that may occur. Such as the cyborg in The Terminator who had one mission: kill Sarah Connor, no matter how many police officers, civilians, and factories get destroyed in the process.

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Spreading a false claim in order to damage the reputation of someone seeking the same job as you (“it should be my job”).
  • Running a marketing campaign that leverages fear in order to get as many sales as possible (“it should be my income”).
  • Spending over 20 minutes trying to log into a glitchy website so you can order socks, while ignoring your need to eat breakfast (“those should be my socks”).

The Holdfast in us says, “I must keep this—and nobody else can have it.” (oriented to the present)

We are so committed to holding onto this thing that if it appears we may lose it to someone else, we feel justified in using any manner of force against them or destroying it. For example, in The Hobbit, the dragon, Smaug, hoards gold in his cave and defends it to the death. Smaug and his gold are inseparable.

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Going to great lengths to ensure your intellectual property is protected, so much so that you never share it with anyone (“it’s my idea”).
  • Seeing others as competition for your customers, even if there is plenty of need for multiple organizations to fill (“they are my customers”).
  • Guarding your giant plate of french fries from your spouse and children (“they are my french fries”).

The Avenger causes us to say, “I want that back—I have been wronged.” (oriented to the past)

We become fixated on a loss and claim the right to exert our power in order to balance the scales of justice. But unlike lawful justice, the Avenger feels no concern for the wellbeing of others, including the dignity of the one/s they believe created that loss for them. For example, in Nightmare on Elm Street a troubled child molester is burned to death by an angry mob and comes back to haunt and kill them in their dreams. The monster, Freddy Krueger, is seeking revenge for his loss of dignity and life.

(Author’s note: What does it say about a culture’s developmental stage when so many movies feature ‘avenging’ protagonists with an ego gone wild that we’re encouraged to root for?)

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Publicly shaming a manager who you think tried to take control of your meeting (“it was my meeting”).
  • Attacking an organization through your advertising as a response to being mocked in one of their ad campaigns (“it was my reputation”).
  • Refusing to speak to your spouse for a whole evening after they finished off the last of your favorite ice cream (“it was my ice cream”).

All of the archetypes have one thing in common—they all encourage us to see through the lens of ownership with no regard for people around us, including ourselves.

This ownership lens can be distilled to a one-word sentiment: “Mine!

Notice how when you see this controlling behavior in others, you might activate a controlling part of yourself, beginning with using the label of “monster.” If they are the monster, that means you are the hero and your actions and words to control them are justified.

And this is how a society disintegrates. One monstrous act begets another, one ego triggering another’s ego, while everyone is thinking themselves to be the hero. This pattern only stops inside the individual who chooses to address it—through our own discipline and maturation process.

If we wish to respond to egoic behavior in a way that shifts the pattern, we must be sure not to respond from our ego. In other words, when we seek dignity for the one acting like a monster, we consciously deviate from the narrative that otherwise leads to a community where things are worse off.

It begins by not allowing the label to hold—i.e. not labeling others as “monsters” or attacking their character, but instead condemning their actions. When we criticize character, we seek to humiliate and nobody benefits. When we criticize actions, there is room for reconciliation and dignity for all involved.

In order to take the mature story lesson to heart, rather than focusing on controlling those around you, try understanding more about these controlling monster archetypes in yourself.

Here are some self-observations to get you started.

The next time you read a story or watch a movie with a monster character, see if you can identify which archetype is playing through them (Predator, Holdfast, Avenger). And then observe yourself, while the monster is most overactive in their ego. In that moment, grab a pen and paper to write down your responses to these questions:

  1. What do I notice in my own body?
  2. What thoughts appear in response to the monster’s actions?

And then later go back and reflect:

  1. What do my reactions tell me about myself?
  2. How have I behaved through that same archetype in my life before?
  3. What is the relationship between my past behavior and my reaction to that character?
  4. Given what I notice, what action/s will I take?

Another way is to observe yourself in daily life by writing down responses to these questions:

  1. In my day, how did any one of the monster archetypes (Predator, Holdfast, Avenger) appear to influence my behavior? (even if only in a subtle way)
  2. How could I tell they were active in me?
  3. What was going on in my body while being influenced?
  4. What thoughts appeared while being influenced?
  5. How could I tell that I had little regard for others around me (or myself)?
  6. What was the relationship between my intention and the monster archetype?
  7. Given what I notice, what action/s will I take?

Matt is a graduate of the Professional Coaching Course and co-founder of the brand strategy firm Soulful Brand. More of his writing can be found on his blog

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WE HAVE TO FIND A WAY TO LOVE OUR BROKENNESS

JANUARY 11, 2017

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We have to find a way to love our brokenness

No, not loving ourselves in spite of our failings
But loving the brokenness itself

We have to love all the ways we’re late
And all the ways we missed the point

We have to love that we were scared
And that we were ashamed to say it

We have to love that we didn’t get it all done
And love that we imagined it was doable in the first place

We have to love that we’re such a glorious mess
And how we struggle to meet our own standards

We have to learn to love, in short,
all the ways we fall short

Because our grace, courage and capacity to stand
Our care of what’s broken in the world around us

Is strongest when we’re carried
by that which we’ve learned to cherish

And not when we’re mired
in that which we’ve chosen to hate.

Justin is a senior faculty member based in London. More of his writing can be found at justinwise.co.uk

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