Clara is turning 40. She’s feeling stuck, in a city, a job, a life that feel acquired rather than chosen. She’s at a crossroads once again, caught between two options, neither of which feel terribly exciting. She wants clarity over what she’s doing, to get more aligned with her values, with where she wants to be.
“I’m in a place where I feel no real joy,” she says. “My job is fairly dull. It’s ok, but...” she trails off. She has no ties to her current home, having moved there to be near someone who subsequently moved away. Her career choices feel cramped, ill fitting for the intelligence that she clearly brings. Her view of herself the same, uncomfortably small. It’s like the real Clara is compressed inside a shell of low expectations. “I used to feel alive,” she says. “I want to feel alive.”
We talk about what she is passionate about, where she wants to be. The joy she felt as a child, her delight in activities of expression and creativity, before she got trammelled into more traditional routes. “I get excited about these courses that I could do,” she says. “For the last few years I’ve been trying to get myself stable first, in a job that I don’t hate, so I can do that. But I’m realising maybe I need to stop waiting.”
Throughout our conversation, although the words are descriptive, Clara’s emotion feels remote, hard to access. We talk about this later, how she struggles to express how she’s genuinely feeling – struggles, often, even to know. “It’s really difficult,” she says, when we do an exercise to help her connect. “It feels so caught up with expectations, trying to fit into some idea of what I should be doing, what’s acceptable to other people.” Her feelings have been so squashed, for so long, that their route to expression has been lost.
That becomes very clear at one point, when her emotion, unable to surface in her, comes flooding out through me instead.
She’s telling me about a course she’s seen, something she’d love to do. We’re working by phone, as I do for much of my coaching, but although Clara’s voice stays even, as she describes it I’m overcome by a wave of emotion. It feels like some part of Clara’s spirit is howling at me, in the spaces between her matter of fact words: ‘This! I want this!’. Tears start rolling down my cheeks and I’m struggling not to start sobbing with the power of it.
As a coach, from time to time topics will come up that touch on emotional triggers in my personal life. I’m generally good at spotting them, at holding my own emotion apart or naming my personal investment if I’m not sure I can. This wasn’t that. The emotion pouring out of me didn’t feel like it was mine, so much as it was there and it needed to be expressed - somehow, overwhelmingly.
“What’s going on for you?” I ask, when I can speak again. “This isn’t about me, this is about you. And it feels really important.”
There’s a pause.
“It’s funny,” Clara says. “Of all the things I’ve been thinking about in the last few months, all the people I’ve been talking to, trying to sort things through, I’ve not told anyone about that. And it’s the thing that most feels that it’s something I want to do.”
Emotion is central to coaching. Getting clear on what we really value, what aligns or clashes with who we are at our core, these are vital for creating a life of fulfilment, drive and action. Our emotions are our compass.
For many of us though, identifying and acting upon how we really feel is difficult, bred out of us by years of socialisation and messaging about who we ‘should’ be, what we ‘should’ want or do in the world. We have a certain capacity to follow that, to compress who we really are into a more externally sanctioned form, but it’s limited. That’s why mid-life often brings a revolution, either an internal collapse under the weight of constraint, or an outward eruption against its strictures.
What of yourself have you compressed and boxed away? What emotions are you ignoring? They’re part of you, they’re valuable and they're not going anywhere. Your choice is between trying to hear them, or one day regretting that you never listened.
Produced with full client permission, names changed.
Most professionals work too much and live too little. I help people to reset, reenergise and take action, so they reach the goals and fulfilment they really want, in life and at work.
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Photo credit: Jens Johnsson @jens_johnsson