A Coaching Power Tool Created by Claire Hornsby
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
We have so many tools at our disposal today to enable our avoidance of psychological discomfort and pain yet these are the very things we need to pay attention to and learn from if we are to understand what we can change in our lives to improve our wellbeing.
Acceptance of all parts of ourselves, with compassion and without judgment, will enable us to access our full range of resources and move forward with authenticity towards our goals. Being willing to accept ourselves fully will also open us up to being more accepting of others so we can deepen and strengthen our social connections and create the lives we want.
How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also If I am to be whole. C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
The moment that judgement stops through acceptance of what it is, you are free of the mind. You have made room for love, for joy, for peace. Eckhart Tolle
Our brains have evolved to seek pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy. These basic drives ensure that we survive and hopefully thrive in the environment in which we find ourselves. From our earliest days, we learn which behaviours achieve these survival strategies in our own particular social setting and we adopt beliefs and values held by our families, communities and peers that reinforce these. For example, one family may reward a young girl for entertaining them by singing and dancing, whilst another family may teach the girl to be quiet and discourage any behaviour that draws attention (and threatens to bring embarrassment). To survive and thrive the girls need to adopt different behaviours and will develop very different beliefs about what it means to be good, bad and loveable. These will be the measures against which they will form judgements about themselves and others.
Whilst these drives serve an important role in our survival they can also be detrimental to our wellbeing. If we associate eating sweet food with pleasure then we may eat too much and gain weight, which could impact our physical and mental health. Conserving energy by binge-watching Netflix may get in the way of studying for an important exam. We may choose to avoid the pain of being rejected by not asking someone on a date and miss out on important social connections.
Further, as we go through life each of us will have multiple roles – friend, partner, parent, student, teacher, sibling, boss, employee etc. Each role demands something different from us and we further adapt to accommodate and respond to those needs. It is not uncommon therefore to feel one way privately whilst behaving differently in public. For example, we may share our fears with a close friend about our ability to manage a big project at work, whilst at the same time we present an outwardly confident front to our boss to secure the promotion. Our culture and social setting promote this duality by rewarding those who appear confident and powerful whilst dismissing feelings and emotions as weak or unreliable.
Guided by the 3 basic desires we can see how our experiences within our families, communities and relationships shape our thinking, our behaviours and our understanding of what is acceptable and valued and what is unacceptable and shameful. Over time we may increasingly favour the parts of ourselves that are rewarded and hide and suppress those that are not valued or that we anticipate will be rejected.
Just with the basic drives, this adaptability is necessary but can also set us up for difficulties. These suppressed parts can give rise to a sense of shame and we may come to feel there is something wrong with us because of them. Ultimately we may dissociate from them altogether and they slip out of our conscious awareness. When this happens we lose touch with an important part of ourselves and with it some of our inner wisdom and resourcefulness. In addition, we may develop behaviours to compensate, such as becoming extremely competitive and pushing ourselves to continually achieve recognition.
Keeping parts of ourselves suppressed in this way takes a large amount of energy and creates tension between the drive to conserve energy and the desire to avoid pain and discomfort. This may manifest as a feeling of stuckness, exhaustion, depression or when the pressure becomes too great to contain an experience of “acting out of character”.
So like many aspects of the interaction between human evolution and our social and cultural development we can see that essential strategy can both serve us and, if we are not aware of their influence on our behaviour, can find they are also getting in the way of our success.
It is important therefore for healthy growth and development that once we are safe to do so (ie once the defence strategies are no longer required), we seek to bring these aspects back into our awareness so that we can make clear, informed and intentional choices about our thoughts and behaviours that will better serve us and enable us to take full responsibility for our actions and their consequences. Once we achieve this awareness we can start the process of accepting and reintegrating all parts of ourselves.
Moshe Feldenkrais (Feldenkrais 2019) describes awareness as “conscious knowledge” and makes a clear distinction between this state and simple consciousness. For example, we can be conscious of walking up a flight of stairs but unless we pay attention to the individual actions such as how we move our eyes, shift our weight, contract our muscles to move our limbs, whilst engaging our brain to count the number of steps we do not have awareness of how we engaged our bodies and full appreciation of what we achieved in the movement. We may have walked the same flight of stairs for years without full awareness of how we do this since we learned to climb stairs when we were very young. However, if we injure our knee we may experience pain if we climb these stairs without awareness and will need to make conscious adjustments through trial and error to climb more comfortably. Becoming aware of the parts of an action or thought gives us access to change those parts that are no longer serving us.
The process of acceptance requires a change in our way of thinking so we can remove any judgement and fully appreciate and value parts of ourselves we may have previously suppressed. In doing so we will also release the energy we were using to suppress these, which can then be directed towards making the changes we want.
An example would be of reconnecting with the small, vulnerable child part of us that we may have hidden away to avoid being bullied or ridiculed at school. We still carry the experience of that part within us and accepting and valuing this part of ourselves may enable us to access new creative and expressive abilities and bring more joy into our adult lives. To access this internal resource, however, we will need to change our thinking to both values that vulnerable part, not see it as a weakness but a source of joy and creativity, whilst acknowledging that as an adult we can protect that part so it is free to be expressive without fear of ridicule. Furthermore, we can see that any unfavourable judgement does not diminish us and is most likely a reflection of some insecurity of the person judging us.
When a suppressed part of ourselves comes back into our awareness there will be a natural tendency towards unfavourable judgement and a desire to distance from this as quickly as possible to avoid discomfort. However, acceptance is crucial to the reintegration of these parts if we are to value them and the resources they hold for us. If in our self-reflective practice we find there is a common theme underlying the issues we face it may well be because we have not yet learned to accept and value that part of us that we are trying to suppress or escape from.
There are many different theoretical approaches to this idea of different parts of self from Freud (id, ego and superego) & Jung (shadow/archetypes) through Transactional Analysis (parent/adult/child) to more recent works informed by neuroscience research such as Iain McGilchrist’s theories of a dualistic brain. Suggestions for further reading are included in the references below.
One way in which we seek to avoid pain is by avoiding unpleasant feelings. When we consider that the same part of the brain is activated by both physical and emotional pain of social disconnection (Brown, 2020) this would appear to be a wise strategy and we will go to great lengths to avoid that discomfort. For example, we may choose not to ask a question in a class because we don’t want to feel embarrassed, or we ignore our dreams of starting a new business because we don’t want to feel shame or disappointment if we fail. However, by protecting ourselves in this way we also hold ourselves back and deny ourselves the opportunity to grow and learn and experience more success.
As unpleasant as some of these feelings are, they actually pass through our bodies quickly and if they last longer than a few minutes it is because of the thoughts we have about the situation and the meaning we make of it (Bacon, 2020). If we were embarrassed by something that happened in front of our peers we may obsess over what others think of us, long after they have forgotten the incident.
If instead of avoiding discomfort, we accept that we may experience unpleasant emotions, allow them to come and trust that we won’t be overwhelmed by them we can free ourselves from the fear that keeps us from moving forward and taking risks (Castillo 2014). If we can explore the thoughts that we have and identify what we fear we can also choose to change the thoughts to something that will serve us better. For example, if I make an offer to someone for a date and they choose not to accept I can see that it just means they didn’t accept my offer, not make it mean that I am unattractive, or unlovable, or will never find a partner and am doomed to live a sad and lonely life (Bacon 2021).
Acceptance vs Avoidance
When we accept our emotions we can begin to use them for their intended purpose – to inform our actions. If we feel sad, instead of choosing action to avoid the unpleasant feeling, such as eating junk food, we can choose to lean into the sadness and accept that we are sad, we can then ask ourselves what we are really sad about. This may require us to suspend judgement and treat ourselves with compassion so we can articulate the true cause of our sadness. Then from a place of clear understanding, we can take intentional and informed actions to bring about the changes we desire.
An example of this can be seen where we may have a belief that being angry is bad (perhaps unsafe or destructive, particularly when the emotion is confused with a particular behaviour and not seen as a separate concept) so we suppress any anger to not feel bad about ourselves. The anger however doesn’t go away and may leave us with a constant sense of irritability which can lead to angry outbursts unleashed on someone who did not trigger the initial feeling but is perhaps an easier target. Alternatively, it may lead to passive-aggressive behaviour, which appears to be cooperative on the surface but has underlying motivations from anger or resentment. By not acknowledging the initial feeling of anger and understanding our thoughts that initiated the feeling, then we are not empowering ourselves to be authentic and address the issue effectively (assuming this would be safe to do so).
Our family of origin is very influential on our understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and what we believe that means about who we are. If for example as a child we were continually criticised for being untidy and compared unfavourably to a tidier sibling we may form the belief that we are untidy therefore we are bad, untidy people are bad, tidy people are good and are liked more and get rewarded. These beliefs may then influence how we judge and treat ourselves and others. We may find that we have an internal voice that repeats the beliefs … “see your apartment is such a mess, you can’t find your keys, you are going to be late again, you will lose your job and end up on the streets because you are a bad person”. These thoughts can raise anxiety levels and make it even harder to think clearly and remember where you put your keys…. a sure way to ensure you will be late!
We may adopt the value of being tidy and become obsessive about cleaning and get anxious if things are out of place or exhaust ourselves picking up after others. We may avoid inviting friends over if we think our home isn’t perfect and they will judge us poorly because we haven’t dusted. Whether we have a clean home or not has no bearing on the person we are. The thoughts we have about what it means will influence how we feel and the action we choose to take.
One approach to building your own awareness is to reflect on what behaviours were valued in your home, school or community, and consider how these influence your thoughts and beliefs about what makes a person “good” or “bad”. How does this relate to your sense of your inherent goodness/badness and how you judge yourself? Next time you have a sense of judging yourself harshly see if you recognise the tone of voice or style of speaking. Once you become aware of this self-judgement you may wish to replace it with some kinder words of encouragement that acknowledge what you value in yourself.
Clients will often come to coaching because they feel stuck in their lives and they are not getting the results they want. To leverage their inner wisdom to move forward, the client may first need to become aware of underlying beliefs and suppressed emotions or parts of themselves and then find a way to accept and reintegrate these parts. As coaches we provide the space and skills to facilitate the client’s exploration; our non-judgemental reflection can help to bring the client to new awareness and invite them to consider different perspectives. Gentle focus on this new awareness and consideration of how the client can use this to move forward towards their goals reinforces the learning and helps the client to appreciate its value. They can then use the new insight and resources to create the practical changes they desire in their lives.
Freud – in Basic Freud (2002) Basic Books, New York. Michael Kahn provides a good introduction to key concepts of Freud’s theories of understanding human behaviour, emotions and motivations.
Jung – a great resource for understanding Jung’s work and relevance to current issues is the podcast “This Jungian Life”: https://thisjungianlife.com/podcast/ [Accessed 2/24/2021]
In Personality Adaptations 2002, Lifespace Publishing, North Carolina. Vann Joines & Ian Stewart introduce key concepts from Transactional Analysis theories of personality adaptations which can be useful in considering how values and beliefs may develop
The Master & His Emissary, 2010. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, McGilchrist I
The Life Coach School PodCast: Brook Castillo #8: Owning Negative Emotion (6th June 2014): https://thelifecoachschool.com/podcast/8/ [Accessed 2/24/2021)
Design Your Dream Life Natalie Bacon PodCast –
Creating an Extraordinary Life (30th Dec 2020): https://nataliebacon.com/extraordinary-life-podcast/[Accessed 2/24/2021]
Failure and Rejection (Jan 13th 2021):
https://nataliebacon.com/failure-and-rejection-podcast/ [Accessed 2/24/2021]
Brené Brown Unlocking Us Podcast: Brené on Shame and Accountability (1st July 2020)
The Elusive Obvious 2019 Somatic Resources Berkeley, CA Moshe Feldenkrais
- What behaviour or trait was unacceptable in your family of origin?
- What beliefs do you hold about this?
- What part of yourself may you have hidden or suppressed to be accepted/rewarded in your family?
- What do you fear if you reveal this part of yourself?
- What would it be like to accept that part of you and feel safe to make space for it in your life now?
- What would you gain by reintegrating this part?
- What new possibilities might open up for you with this acceptance?
- What would enable you to fully accept this part?
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