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My Daily Musings

Responsibility is pretty much the backbone of coaching. Coaching doesn't give people a magic wand to change others or the world around them, but it can help one change oneself. That, in turn, can help one make different choices and influence the world in ways that were inaccessible before.

Now, onto the claim that might raise a few eyebrows: everything in our lives stems from our choices. This feels unsettling at first glance. However, when we start unpacking it, we see its truth. Our careers, relationships, and where we live all trace back to the decisions we've made. Sometimes, these decisions don't feel like choices because they're influenced by external factors, like family expectations or societal pressures. But at the end of the day, we are the ones who choose to surrender to these influences — consciously or not. For example, some may feel that their parents convinced them to select a specific career. But, of course, they chose to be convinced and not go through the trouble of pushing back. Others may feel that they did not know their willingly chosen career would be so dull. But every day they come to work, they continue to choose it. These choices are often unconscious. Coaching helps make them conscious.

Choosing our values and meaning is perhaps one of our most significant choices. As we discussed before, while reality does exist out there, meaning does not. We create it based on what we decide to prioritize and value. If our chosen values lead to dissatisfaction, it's on us. For instance, if you choose to value money and prestige but at the same time desperately want to work as a teacher, then your own choices are incompatible with happiness. If you chose to believe that women must be thin to be worthy, but you (a woman) cannot maintain your desired weight, you doomed yourself to unhappiness. This is where the concept of responsibility really kicks in.

The good news is that responsibility has its limits. We are not responsible for the actions of others. What we do have power over is how we respond to the situations life throws at us. If you got hit by a drunk driver, the accident is not your responsibility, but how you choose to move forward is. You may decide that your life is not worth living with the very real limitations that you now have. Alternatively, you may decide that your life goes on and define a new meaning. Reality gives us limits and boundaries (if your legs are broken, they are broken), but you can still decide what to make of it. The limitation on responsibility works the other way around, too: we are not responsible for other people's reactions to us.

People mistakingly conflate responsibility and guilt, and it is important to separate the two. Guilt is a moral concept. It implies that something you did was bad and wrong. In contrast, responsibility is a matter of fact; it is a law of cause and effect. There is no moral judgment in it. Accepting responsibility means simply recognizing your role in what is happening (your role in causing it, not changing it, or going along with it).

Embracing responsibility can be downright terrifying. As Yalom (1980) points out, responsibility is the child of existential freedom, and this freedom is overwhelming and scary. We're free to choose our actions, our values, and, ultimately, the direction of our lives. And because we are free, we are doomed to responsibility. We have to choose. There is no other option. This freedom and the burden of responsibility confront us with the realization that we are fundamentally alone in our own pursuit of happiness.

Avoiding responsibility can seem like an easier path. We might let others make decisions for us—parents, friends, partners, you name it. But this is a mere illusion of relinquishing control. In reality, by allowing others to dictate our lives, we're still making a choice. We're choosing to give away our power. Thus, we are still responsible.

However, the flip side of this daunting reality is empowerment. Recognizing that you have the power to shape your life, to stick with or change the things you're not happy with, is liberating. Acknowledging that you chose your path for reasons that made sense to you at the time can bring a sense of peace. For example, when you are mindful of having chosen the job that you now hate in favor of financial security, it is easier to live with it. It still does not make you like the job, but you know that you chose your best option — in your own system of values. You are free to change it, too — with that system of values.

Coaching helps make these unconscious choices conscious. Clarity and mindfulness, in turn, help make better choices.

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.

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