A Coaching Power Tool created by Jenny Magee
(Executive Coach, NEW ZEALAND)
Whether or not we realise it, much of our lives are lived unconsciously, with our values, beliefs and attitudes moulded early as we are socialised in to cultural groups.
Part of belonging to a group, means that we conform to those norms and behave in ways that are acceptable to the group. Such is the power of identity and group affiliation that we often don’t question our ‘fit’ with the group norms, until events arise that make the mismatch impossible to ignore. The unwritten rules of belonging can become velvet bonds that hold us, bound by affinity and duty.
When we realise that the role we have willingly played is not in line with who we really are, or want to be, the lid comes off the can of worms. This is well summarised in the term cognitive dissonance, coined by social psychologist, Leon Festinger, which describes the situation where our values are out of line with our actions. In such circumstances, something has to give. For some people, behaviour will change to realign with values, for others there will be a rethink of values and adoption of values that are closer to the behaviour. In either circumstance, the dissonance, the lack of congruence can be a very challenging and stressful place to exist.
If you have experienced this tension, you will immediately recognise the dichotomy. If not, then let me offer two examples from my coaching practice.
E, married for almost 25 years, with two teenage daughters, had a close and loving relationship with her husband, describing him as her best friend. She had married at age 23, following the expectations of her family, and worked to establish and maintain a strong values-based marriage. From the outside, friends regarded the family unit as one of the closest. Yet E had often privately questioned her sexuality, pushing it aside in the service of her family.
At 47, she could no longer deny that she is lesbian. The revelation and acknowledgement was surprisingly easy, like recognising an old friend. Torn between her strong sense of duty and obligation to her husband and the social norms that called upon her to put others before herself, she struggled. How could she break open such a close family unit for her own needs?
Yet how could she stay, when she was hiding an essential part of herself? Having modelled honesty and respect to her family, all their lives, E could not live a conscious lie without compromising her own integrity, and she was highly aware of the toll this would take on her physical and mental health. Nor was she willing to put her husband and children through this. Defining honesty as ‘the truth with good intent’, she said, ‘they deserve for me to be honest with them’.
In one direction lay her sense of duty to her husband, children and ageing mother, keeping their expectations of who she had been, and perceptions of her role as wife and mother. In the other direction lay her need to be true to herself. E knew that once she had let the genie out of the bottle, there could be no going back. As Joanne Fleischer wrote, in ‘Living Two Lives’, ‘It takes enormous courage to confront your sexuality as an adult, when so much is at stake: your marriage, your children, an entire way of life.’
Acknowledging her true identity was a dramatic revelation and turning point for E. She came to coaching because she needed a safe space to think through all her questions and concerns, to develop both a vision of how a newly shaped family might look and to plan steps to work her way through, honouring the past and creating her future.
D was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. With her strong faith and strict family observance, her future path was laid clearly in front of her. Family and church expected that she would marry and have children within the community, raising her children within the Catholic values and traditions. Life, though, has a habit of throwing us curve balls, and at university she met and fell in love with A. He is Muslim.
They spent hours talking and discovered in each other kindred values, even though those values were often displayed in quite different cultural behaviours. In the simplest of examples, her family showed respect with firm handshakes and direct eye contact, while he was taught to use a soft and gentle handshake.
When it came to the all-important matter of faith, they realised that each came from strongly opinionated families, where different religions were regarded with suspicions as outsiders. D and A’s own experience in the wider world had lead them to value and respect difference, and to look for common ground on which to build relationships. Both were committed to their families and religious communities and honoured the social and spiritual contract placed on them. Yet their authentic selves wanted to be together, to build connections and have a different life. Again, coaching rather than counselling helped them to find a way to balance duty and authenticity.
As with all power tools, the tension between duty and authenticity can be viewed as a continuum. There is no right or wrong answer, although sometimes other parties perceive the choices as abandonment of duty, and being true to authentic self can feel both selfish and liberating.
What does Duty mean?
Duty can be a hard taskmaster. The word itself derives from Middle English duete, from Anglo-Norman due, and is a variant of Old French deu. All words for due, or debt. Surrounded implicitly by the English modal verbs – should, shall, could, must and ought to, the sense of unchosen obligation can be overwhelmingly strong.
Without knowing, we adopt obligations to do what our culture, our community and our families expect of us. The pressure to conform is often subtle, with rewards for those for fit in, and become ‘one of us’. Those who turn away can be held up as selfish, wayward or as eccentric outcasts. Such pressures make it easier to go along with decisions to please others. We often believe that we have no options when it comes to meeting obligations, but, as Ayn Rand said, ‘It is easier to blame ‘duty’, than to accept full responsibility for your own choices and actions, and their consequences’.