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What's the place of reality in coaching? If the client's perception is shaped by their early experiences and clashes with reality, causing distress, how can they find reality as it is? And should they?

Different schools of thought answer this question differently.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists and coaches

CBT therapists and most coaches would say that 

  1. the client must find reality because cognitive distortions lead to distress

  2. the therapist/coach can give them an objective view of the world.

Sounds authoritarian, doesn't it? That's because it is. 

Say a client holds a belief that wealth equals freedom. As a result, the client is overlooking the freedom he has now and occupies all his time with work to make more money. A CBT coach/therapist will label this belief "dysfunctional" and offer a belief that reflects reality better from their point of view (e.g., "freedom comes from choices, not just money"). Many clients, apparently, view the therapist/coach as an expert in life and readily accept the offered new belief. Success! 

Therapists of these schools of thought even agree that, indeed, they are experts! What gives them expertise, you ask? They studied psychology! I don't know about you, but that does not convince me. How do 4-6 years of studying psychology make you an expert in other people's life?

So, let's keep on looking.


Postmodern thinkers and Rogerian therapists 

As David Bell discusses in his paper, postmodernists would argue that one cannot know objective reality, and it is a mere illusion. They would celebrate the plurality of realities that people live in due to their unique lenses shaped by their upbringing, cultural background, ethnicity, gender, social class, and so forth. This view is familiar to all of us today, as it reflects the zeitgeist. Contemporary thinkers reexamine history, commonly accepted beliefs, and even scientific discoveries and question whether what was claimed to be true represents only a specific point of view. For example, psychologists today are questioning whether what we believed to be true about all human behavior applied only to the types of people we sampled in our research, i.e., WEIRD people - White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Likewise, sociologists question whether what we thought to be true was only a perspective supporting the needs of dominant groups.

Taken to the extreme, this train of thought questions all universal truth and limits the relevancy of any observations to the observer himself. As Bell discusses in his paper, it is fundamentally unclear where to draw the line of relevancy: should we say that something observed by a white academic in England is only relevant for white, educated, middle-class English men? Or should we also consider their specific location, marital status, literary preferences, and blood pressure? Eventually, this logic leaves each individual with a reality that is only true for one person - himself. Every person has their own truth.

This position accepts the inevitable human predicament of experiencing one's life subjectively. Indeed, from the humanistic perspective, every person is unique, with their individual values and potential. Every person spends his life realizing that potential, i.e., becoming himself. Life, then, is a creative endeavor. The client is an artist who paints a picture of his own world. The coach/therapist has no right to impose his view of the world upon the client — who is he to do that? All he can do is help the client explore the intricacies of his (client's) own worldview, identifying its benefits, limitations, and nature. 

Here, the goal of coaching/therapy is not to remove one's subjective lens to see the world clearly but to choose a more convenient lens. Therefore, if we take transcripts of Carl Rogers' sessions, we won't find any attempts to challenge the client's point of view. Rogers focuses on understanding the client empathetically, helping him to clarify his views and feelings more and more. Having been accepted and understood, the client gains more freedom to redesign his worldview. Redesign it! This means creating a new painting — NOT replacing watercolors with a microscope!

There are great benefits of this position in coaching/therapy. For one, it is undoubtedly a step up from the authoritarian stance of CBT. Coaching/therapy becomes a conversation between two equal parties, where the coach/therapist is not trying to fix the client but to help him understand himself and express himself creatively through his own life.

However, as Bell points out, if I accept that I live in a unique, subjective world, I lose the opportunity to be challenged and proven wrong. There is a certain degree of arrogance in that. If the client keeps running into a wall while wearing his VR glasses, he may just need to take the glasses off. 

Psychoanalysts and existential therapists/coaches

These practitioners, while embracing the notion of subjectivity, don't reject reality.

Freud demonstrated people's tendency to have cognitive distortions, which serve some deeply held needs. However, as Bell points out, he never suggested keeping it this way! On the contrary, his technique aimed to help people uncover the nature of these distortions and break free from them. Psychoanalysts believe that exploring our personal distortions of reality allows us to get closer to the truth. They argue that, while we experience reality subjectively and it is important to understand the nature of our perceptive lenses, reality exists out there, objectively, and there are certain things we cannot argue with.

So, how do we continue to respect the client's subjective perspective while honoring the reality, too? It is helpful to separate objective facts from the meaning one creates from them. 

Knowing reality as it is allows you to get better at making meaning. It is useful to know that this is green and this is blue — but it is still up to you what art to make with all these colors. 

Let's take the example from above again. A person believes that money means freedom. She grew up poor and saw rich people only on TV and social media. Those people look free, while she does not feel free. Hence the conclusion: money buys freedom. As a result, this person tries to make all the money in the world to reach freedom. At the same time, she overlooks the real degrees of freedom she has now and may lose by making more money. 

In this example, the objective reality is the actual lifestyle that money can give, with its benefits, limitations, and risks. That is our watercolor set. Yet, what to make of it remains open-ended and subjective. What ought to be does not follow from what is. You can create an infinite number of paintings with the same watercolor set.

The therapist/coach and the client see the world through different lenses (their parents fucked them up differently, if you will), and their views may contradict each other. Examining the differences between their lenses allows them to get closer to seeing the world as it is.

Thus, in this form of therapy/coaching, both parties are equal in their search for truth. However, once the truth is found, the therapist/coach merely supports the client in his (client's) act of self-expression. Now that we have found all the colors, the client will decide what to paint.

(Some may wonder why I placed existentialists with analysts instead of Rogerian (humanistic) therapists. Unlike Rogerian therapists, existentialists do not withhold from challenging the client's view of reality, which we can see by reading Yalom or Bugental)

So, what's the conclusion?

Let's return to our original questions: 

  1. Should the client find reality in coaching?

  2. If so, what helps them do that?

Answering the first question, I believe that being able to see reality is necessary when VR starts to clash with the real world. Otherwise, there is no need to take one's VR glasses off.

How do you find reality in coaching or therapy? Those who believe that a therapist/coach is an expert in life can stick with a CBT practitioner's version of reality. Others (like myself) are left with the approach of psychoanalysts and existentialists: exploring what the world looks like through different lenses and forming a theory about its real nature.

Psychoanalysis (and some other forms of therapy) has a bad rap for its interest in the past. “They are trying to fix the past,” “They want to blame parents for everything,” “It only makes one feel worse.” Mainstream coaching (as the International Coaching Federation defines it) even distinguishes itself from therapy by exclusive focus on the future. Because that is obviously better! 

Although “your mom” jokes are undoubtedly funny, psychoanalysts (and other reasonable practitioners) look at the past for a different reason. They do it to help you see what shaped your current views so that you can recognize that they are not absolute and gain an opportunity to change them. Let’s break it down.

Helping you see what shaped your views

People usually don’t analyze where their beliefs came from. They just view them as truth. “If you don’t read one book a month, you are a piece of shit,” “Money means freedom,” “If people like me, I am safe.” People in therapy and coaching make such statements with absolute confidence - their world just IS this way. 

Some of these beliefs are easy to trace back to either something explicitly taught or implicitly communicated by their parents. For, if your parents try to earn all the money in the world, it is easy to make a conclusion that it must mean something - for example, freedom. 

Other beliefs are harder to pin down. They are not articulated beliefs; they are raw but strong feelings about the world. For example, a feeling that the world is a cold, hostile place. Or that people are distant and guarded. These “beliefs” (again, not really consciously held or articulated) result from early childhood experience rather than from explicit teaching or modeling. As Louis CK joked, you can tell a baby “Fuck you” to its face every day, and it won’t remember anything but will grow up with general sadness inside (, starting at 13 minutes). Yes, it is THAT form of “belief.”

Thus, people go through life with a specific lens in front of their eyes and without acknowledging that the lens exists. 

Therapists and coaches (the ones who dare not to subscribe to the ICF definition) not only help clients trace the origins of these beliefs; they help clients see how their past continues to show up in the present, including right here and now. E.g., they may help you notice that you are seeing your parents in your coach when you expect the coach to blame you for your lack of progress (like your parents did). In other words, the coach can help you see that the past is not just a story — it is ever-present in all your perceptions.

Recognizing that your beliefs are not absolute

Of course, we all “know” that our beliefs are not absolute. But this knowledge remains theoretical until we start seeing again and again how our past creates this lens in front of our eyes. This experience is akin to explaining how a magic trick works; the explanation sets you free of the magical illusion. 

Some coaches and therapists try to debunk “dysfunctional” beliefs with logic, but this process is more challenging: we may logically understand that something is untrue but still hold on to it because it feels so true. 

That is especially the case because all such beliefs are adaptations; they serve us in critical ways. Hence, the quotation marks around “dysfunctional” — these views are very much functional, although limiting. Hence, it is hopeless to argue with a client to change their views: you will lose the argument. Because the client’s attachment to ideas that served them and were a part of their identity (!) is stronger than your attachment to logic.

Yet, noticing the lens of the past in front of you again and again helps you recognize your views as relative. Which opens a possibility for alternatives.

Forming new beliefs

Now that the old lens appears more tentative, the client is more free to ask themselves what reality is actually like and form new beliefs. Easier said than done! Sometimes, it requires acting in new ways to elicit a different response from the world (that’s a scary thing to do!). Other times, one needs to consider what other people are saying when they look through their own messed-up lenses.

However, the process of finding reality through coaching or therapy deserves its own post. For now, though, we (hopefully) understand why therapists and coaches look at the past: to help the client unsee it in the present.


N reached out to me because he wanted to continue to grow in his well-established tech career. He worked for a prestigious Bay Area tech company and wanted to get promoted to the next level.

Our work immediately started off in a problem-solving fashion: during our calls, N would create a detailed table to analyze his projects and identify practical steps to advance his career. Many people can indeed benefit from simply being more intentional — nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I did feel a bit insecure because I wasn’t sure if this format would allow N and I to form a real relationship and deepen the conversation.

N’s disappointment

After several weeks, N was less enthusiastic about planning his next steps at work. He shared that while his work was giving him much of what he needed, it often did not fulfill his needs for intellectual stimulation and creativity. Hence, he wanted to work on some personal projects to fill that gap. Thus, our conversations focused on different projects but kept the same format as before.

However, a few weeks later, N was frustrated: neither work nor his personal projects were giving him energy at the moment, and he did not feel like he was making progress. He wondered if coaching was even working: he had hoped that a coach would hold him accountable and help him be more persistent in his interests, but that was not happening.

Of course, I was curious about N’s expectations: why did he want me to push him to do things he didn’t feel like doing?

N found it hard to commit to one interest for a long time. He felt that his interests were too fleeting. As an example, he mentioned how he decided not to build a career in philosophy, which he had studied in college, and pivoted to technology. And now, he continued, he couldn’t stick with one project long enough. These tendencies (which some would find quite normal) led N to question whether he was dysfunctional in some way. Although he had a successful career, a thriving social life, and a happy marriage, he saw the fleetingness of his interests as a problem.

Every time he lost interest in something, he disappointed himself. Perhaps that disappointment now transferred to me. I did not fulfill N’s expectations of himself.

Working through

N and I analyzed why it was important for him to hold himself accountable for goals that had lost meaning. It was essential to be productive (i.e., create artifacts representing him and his interests) and be recognized for his work. If N was just interested in something, explored it to satisfy his curiosity, but did not create anything, he felt unsettled (“as if neither his interest nor he ever existed,” I thought, but kept it to myself, as it felt like a step too far).

N associated this need for productivity with his upbringing (an Indian family where education and professional achievement were paramount) and his educational and professional peer groups, which prized high achievement and status. He said, “That is just who I am as a person.” Of course, there is a whole world to explore behind this statement, and it would have been helpful for N to see what framed his view of himself, recognize it as non-absolute, and gain the freedom to change it. But at that moment, I took it to mean that he didn’t want to explore the history behind it yet. I accepted it.

Instead, I highlighted N’s current view of himself as a factory: he seemingly views himself as a factory that exists to produce goods; when it is not producing, it’s nothing but a bad factory. Nobody cares about the factory’s feelings and desires. This interpretation appeared to have some resonance.

Testing insights against reality

For the subsequent few sessions, N seemed to be less preoccupied with the idea of accountability, and we were able to discuss what work and hobbies gave to him - as opposed to how he served them.

Of course, it would be false to claim that N was changed forever. No. Coaching is not magic, and fundamental views of the world never change in an instant. People test new insights against reality and cautiously integrate them more and more over time.

In this process of integration, old views, and stories came up in sessions, inviting re-examination. Thus, in some of these sessions, we discussed N’s supposed dysfunction and how it interferes with productivity. We also discovered that for N, being truly productive meant creating something that touched many people’s lives (even if only tangentially) and that it somehow felt more meaningful than touching a few lives profoundly. N’s idea of productivity was also associated with the realization of his potential; this connection allowed us to explore what his potential truly was. I am not giving answers to these questions here – N’s openness to explore these questions mattered more than the answers we found. As David Bell (the psychoanalyst, not the football player) said in one of his lectures, “The answer is the disease of the question.”

At the end of our coaching engagement, which lasted about eight months, N was more fluid in the topics that he would bring to sessions. Some of these topics were about relationships with specific people, some were about work, some about hobbies. What was significant was that N did not see that as a problem anymore. He appeared to be on the path of accepting himself as a living person and not a machine: a person whose life is about the process of living instead of a quota of produced goods.

My reflection

To me, N’s story is about reconnecting with one’s subjective inner experience - as opposed to judging oneself from the point of view of an objective observer. We live our lives from within and have nowhere to escape from our subjective experience. External objective achievements — no matter how good they look on a tombstone — do not have any correlation with an enjoyable life. They fade away as soon as they are attained, making us pile up new ones to maintain the feeling that our life has meaning.

James Bugental unpacked these ideas better than I even can.

A strong, subtle influence making us less sensitive to our inner life is a Western society’s long affair with the objective. We have come to think that subjective is an adjective with flavor rather closely akin to overly sentimental, undependable, or inconsiderate. As a result, we try to rid ourselves of the taint of being who we are — inwardly experiencing persons — and set about treating ourselves as products of some Detroit assembly line, largely interchangeable and having little value in whatever uniqueness slipped the inspection.

In our short journey together, N moved one step closer to making his choices based on his subjective experience: being driven by what was interesting to him at the time (no matter how fleeting it was) rather than creating some representation of his talents and his being. If, in earlier conversations, N was afraid that when left to his own devices, he would just eat ice cream, at the end of our engagement, he started to trust that while sometimes he may want ice cream, at other times he just as genuinely wants to read, learn, build, etc. He started to trust the living part in himself.

And I cannot resist to quote Bugental again:

If I allow my identity to become bound up with objective thing-ness, then I am exceedingly vulnerable to circumstances and contingencies. Identity based on what I have done, how I have been seen, and what others think of me, is past-bound identity. It can lead to staleness and repetitiousness in living. Only true process identity is alive at the moment and free to change and evolve with the flow of my life.

My coaching engagement with N lasted for about eight months. Quite short for bringing about a lasting change. Was coaching successful? I think it was a small step in the direction of harmony. There will likely be further setbacks, doubts, and re-examinations. Moreover, I am not even sure N sees our journey and its results the same way I do. That is just the nature of the job.

Written and published with the client's permission.

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