Flexibility: One Self, Multiple Roles

Coaching

A Coaching Model By Milagros Echecopar, Evolution Coach, PERU

There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself. Hermann Hesse,Steppenwolf

I have been what people call a devoted and surrogate caregiving daughter. I have also been a loving mother, a successful international executive, a supporting wife, and some more, all at the same time. And I can tell, it’s demanding, very demanding, to a point where I lost sight of who I was. To deal with all that was required of me, to be the best I could in each role, I unconsciously started to tamper down certain aspects of my personality, and disregard feelings I thought were not serving me. Thinking I was being clever, doing the right thing, excelling in all my roles, I was so wrong. I might have looked smart, I might have looked like I was doing a great job, but I could have done much better because I was failing in being ME (funny how those are my initials, although MEK is what many people call me).

We tend to live putting labels on ourselves and to others: I’m a daughter, I’m a mother, I’m an executive, I’m a coach, you are a teacher, you are a grandfather, you are an artist, etc. It’s fine to have those labels, they help us identify the roles we are performing and provide information about ourselves, but they do not define us. The titles we accumulate during our lives can be enriching, bring us joy and fulfillment, but they can also become planks that, one after the other, build a wall, a box, that hides our true selves from us, from others. And they can become heavy, hiding our inner self, and constricting, limiting the space for personal traits that we think, feel do not serve us to be at our bests while performing the roles those titles entail.

And therein lies my problem with those labels, when they start to define who we are, when we, or others, use them to put us in a particular box. Those labels define the role we are performing but do not constitute a definition of our core, our inner self.  When the way we live our lives is determined by those labels, by the boxes in which we or others have put ourselves, we live in stress. In stress between what is required from us to fulfill those roles and who we are, what drives us, what we need to feel whole, at peace with the way we live our lives, and at peace with the roles we are performing at that moment.

I started this journey with my mother in mind, but along the way, I’ve found it has been for me too, and for all who face the challenge of performing at their best different roles, especially working caregivers. So many of us are daughters, mothers, wives, workers, and caregivers, all at the same time. The paradox is that even though we are the same person in each of those roles, we are not. While performing those roles, we tend to show only the sides of ourselves that we consider serve us better for said roles; and we, and the people around us, get used to that representation of ourselves. We and they are oblivious of the different traits of our personalities that can be of so much value, but that we only bring in when performing other roles, if they have not been wholly disregarded. What is worst is that we and they are not conscious of the demands that the accumulation of titles puts on us. People forget a human being is performing that role and see only the executive, the father, the son, but not the whole person.

Initially, I had thought about focusing primarily on informal caregivers because I have seen and experienced the challenges one faces when performing that role. Of course, I still would like to work with them. But now, looking back at my own experience and my coaching journey so far, I realize that the challenges caregivers face can be similar to those faced by people who find themselves defined by their titles and do not integrate their whole selves in the different roles they are performing.

Life sometimes throughs at us roles we did not ask for, we did not foresee, we do not want, as in the case of caregivers, but we feel we must take them on. Life also sometimes takes away from the roles we were attached to, we liked, we felt proud of, as when we are laid off. When either of those happens, many different feelings can arise within us: frustration, anger, despair, fear, insecurity. We might feel that something is not entirely right within ourselves but can’t put the finger on it. And since we must keep performing our other roles, we disregard those feelings and focus on what “serves” us to keep going.

That’s what happens when a loved one suddenly is diagnosed with an impairing illness, and we are put in the role of caregivers. It’s so unexpected that some of us do not even recognize ourselves as caregivers, despite its impact on our lives, and we just go on doing what is expected of us as good daughters, mothers, wives, husbands. Roberts&Donahue (1994) indicate that caretaking has adverse effects on the well-being of the caretaker and that it can be impacting the satisfaction they feel about the role they associate with caregiving. They found that was the case of middle-aged women who associated their role as daughters with caregiving. It’s also what happens when someone is promoted and is now the manager of her/his previous partners. The new title comes with an array of expectations from us and from others, not only about our performance but also about the way we conduct ourselves. Or when we are laid off and find ourselves without the title that we and others identified as what defines us.

As contradictory as it might sound to all I’ve exposed so far about titles, not recognizing that being a caregiver is a different role from being a daughter, a husband, a mother adds an unnecessary layer of difficulty to our role. Not being conscious of what might change in the way people interact with us after a promotion makes the transition harder. Not being truly aware that we are much more than the roles we play can leave us mourning for a phase that is no longer going to come back and missing all the opportunities to create new paths for ourselves.

Because it is not about disregarding the roles we are performing, it’s about embracing them and making them our own without losing sight that they do not define us. If we are not conscious of the differences between our various roles and the diverse traits of our personalities that go beyond those roles, we cannot determine what within our vast array of personal resources we can use and where we will need help.

Fleeson and colleagues’ research, as cited in Wundrack et al. (2018), suggests that everyone will eventually express the entire range of possible personality state levels but that there are individual differences in the frequency with which the different state levels occur in everyday life. Furthermore, Hung Kit Fok et al.(2007) suggest that personality serves as a vital factor in orchestrating the organization of the ”if-then” associations between situational factors and endorsement of different display rules. If we are conditioned by the titles we carry, the way we display our different personality state levels is also conditioned. Thus, the more conscious we are of what influences that display, the more in command we will be, and the better equipped we will be to dig into the richness of our personalities to perform our roles.

What if we were to acknowledge the new roles, the demands they entail, and embrace them? What if we were to acknowledge that that phase of our life is gone? What if we were to acknowledge that, despite those changes, we are still the US with all the good and “bad”? What if we were to acknowledge our whole selves and bring it in our different roles and stages in our lives?

That’s what drives me as a coach, partnering with people who want to embrace who they are at that moment in their lives, uncover the richness of their inner selves, bring their whole being in their different roles, and realize how much fulfilling their lives can be when they do so. It’s like composing a piece of music; sometimes, one instrument, or a group of instruments, will take center stage while others play at different levels. Still, they are all integrated to produce that unique and beautiful piece of music. If one instrument is missing, the music might still sound good, but it can be more beautiful if all of them are playing at their proper time. And it doesn’t have to be a rigid composition; it can be like jazz, flexible, adapting to the context, the mood, and the musicians’ abilities.

How is this connected to coaching? I propose that by partnering with a coach, clients can move from a place where they are disregarding different aspects of their personalities and disregarding their need to tend to themselves to a place where they acknowledge and integrate those aspects in the way they live, they perform their different roles and interact with their loved ones, families, friends, colleagues, etc. Clients can become more flexible, be able to find better ways to integrate their different personality traits while transitioning through diverse roles and evolve.

Flexibility: One Self, Multiple Roles Coaching Model

Coaching provides a safe space for clients to stand on their vulnerability and tackle the complex task of understanding their mental state in real life, which requires considerations of their circumstances, beliefs, knowledge, feelings, intentions, and personality (Wundrack et al., 2018). Coaching is also about partnering with clients and supporting them in finding ways to move forward. But, if their process is conditioned by their titles and clients are unaware of it, how can they genuinely understand themselves? How can they be conscious of what is holding them back and of all the resources they could use to move in the direction they desire?

Thus, some of the questions I would endeavor to help clients find their answers to would be: what are the belief, value that anchors their current perspective, and the role they are performing? How can they take perspective and let go of that anchor and/or their unconscious bias? What would it take for them to move into action to shorten the distance between who they are, who they can be, and how they are perceived by themselves and others? How can they find a more satisfactory way to perform their roles? Because, as Roberts&Donahue (1994) note, the similarity between descriptions of any given social role and who we are (our general self) could be related to the degree to which we feel committed to and satisfied with that role.

We would work with clients to help them let go of anchors that keep them stuck and inflexible; accept and acknowledge the multiple options and perspectives available to them and integrate their whole selves and roles, building a different relationship with them and making transition processes smoother and more fulfilling.

For that to happen, we consider that a Sense of Coherence (SOC), as defined by Antonovsky (1979)as cited in Eyzaguirre (2018), is needed. SOC is the global orientation one has towards life and the ability to perceive it in a dynamic, lasting, and confident way. According to Eyzaguirre (2018), the three dimensions of SOC are:

  • Comprehensibility: ability to understand and explain the situation faced, becoming predictable by the person;
  • Manageability: having the own internal resources that are available in the person to be able to face the situation and be able to control it; and
  • Emotional sense: the situation has a meaning for the person and is therefore considered as a commitment capable of challenging and facing.

Antonovsky (1993), as cited in Eyzaguirre (2018), sustains that the more developed and strengthened the SOC is, the greater the willingness to perceive life events as less stressful and with greater control and meaning over them. For example, in the case of caregivers, they found that the greater their SOC, the more balanced and positive care they would provide. They sustain that this is because SOC as a resource allows them to see the patient’s disease as less threatening and, instead, perceive reality from the healthiest.

Moreover, according to Eyzaguirre (2018), Antonovsky (1994) indicated that successful coping with stressful events brings positive health consequences and is therefore expected to influence satisfaction, happiness, and positive affect. Thus, “the development of a strong SOC in the face of the burden and the stressful stimulus, allows to reinforce and improve the health of the person, by the cognitive and emotional capacity to identify the dimensions of the problem as probabilities and as challenges that can be explained and overcome by the internal resources themselves” (Antonovsky, 1979as cited in Eyzaguirre, 2018).

Based on the benefits that a highly developed SOC can bring to our clients, we propose working with them on growing and strengthen their SOC.  To create a process that can contribute to a fruitful journey, we have considered models like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Relational Frame Theory (RFT), and Hulbert-Williams et al.’s (2016)Contextual Behavioral Coaching (CBC).

As per the description provided by Han et al. (2021), citing Hayes et al.(2012), ACT is based on a psychological flexibility model, and some of the aspects covered when applying this model are:

  • cognitive defusion (i.e., stepping back or detaching from unhelpful thoughts and emotions to reduce their dominance over behaviors);
  • self-as-context (i.e., observing thoughts and emotions without judgment);
  • values (identifying and connecting values to behaviors for a meaningful life); and
  • committed action (making efforts to establish patterns of actions/behaviors to live a meaningful life aligned with values).

Grounded in contextual behavioral science, relational frame theory (RFT) explores language and thoughts’ origins and philosophical connotations (PsycInfo Database Record, 2020). Building on that, Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016) take both ACT and RFT and incorporate Contextual Behavioural Science concepts to propose a third approach which they call Contextual Behavioural Coaching (CBC).

Integrating the concepts and tools provided by ACT, RFT, and CBC, we would partner with our clients to develop and strengthen their SOC to find inner balance and satisfaction in the different roles they perform.

The stages we would cover throughout our work with our clients would be exploration, identify anchors, take perspective, flexibility, and action.

Exploration

This aspect of the coaching process will aim to deepen client’s self-understanding and increase their acceptance of challenges.

In a study conducted by Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016), they worked with a patient to help her contact her feelings of stuckness and the accompanying thoughts of failure. Then, they traced how she would numb these feelings with busyness (and occasionally, wine); and identified that such behaviors seemed to be serving the function of experiential avoidance. By exploring her feelings, she deepened the understanding of herself and what was driving her behavior.

In the case of caregivers, Han et al. (2021) cite Brodaty&Donki (2009), found that accepting the losses of relatives’ abilities and care demands assists family caregivers to better adapt.

Identify Anchors

When we look at identifying anchors, we will partner with clients to find what they are fused to; what stories they are telling themselves that bring rigidity to the way they undertake their different roles in life.

AsHulbert-Williams et al. (2016) indicate, being fused to specific stories we tell ourselves leads to fixed patterns of behavior which can be unworkable in the context of client values and desired goals. In a state of fusion, it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts.

Looking back at what we initially described as how we can be conditioned by specific roles, Hayes et al. (1986), as cited in Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016), found that rule-governed behavior is inflexible. That is, in the presence of unwritten rules, human behavior can often fail to respond to other contingencies of reinforcement.

Working with our clients on identifying and acknowledging those anchors and rule-governed behaviors will contribute to channel their energy in more positive, productive, and flexible ways.

Take Perspective

We propose taking perspective as providing psychological space between self and thoughts for clients to challenge their current view and raise awareness that their perspective is transient.

Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016) propose that techniques which encourage defusion can be helpful, especially when clients describe feeling stuck in a given pattern of behavior. Such techniques help clients move from a place where they try to battle with those behaviors, and the associated thoughts, to a place where they notice them and are curious about them – ‘defusing’ from them to provide a bit of psychological breathing space between themselves and their thoughts.

To take perspective, the previous step, identifying anchors, is required, as perspective-taking involves two processes: anchoring and adjustment (Wundrack et al., 2018). We need to establish the initial anchoring perspective, the person’s perspective, from which clients start, so clients find ways to challenge it and raise awareness that said perspective is temporal, transient. Being aware that their current perspective is transient and only one of many possible perspectives undermines the significance of their point of view as an anchor when considering other perspectives. Therefore, clients may be more able or willing to deviate from their perspectives and may be open to making more adjustments (Wundrack et al., 2018).

Broadening the number of possible perspectives, incorporating how thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and circumstances fit together in their lives, can help clients build a richer repertoire of plausible, self-experienced perspectives that facilitates adjustment (Wundrack et al., 2018). This process, called perspective-pooling, builds on the increased growth in diverse experiences over time. In other words, perspective-pooling builds on the increased growth in diverse self-knowledge for people high in state variability (Wundrack et al., 2018).

Flexibility

This diverse self-knowledge will be a stepping stone for clients to view themselves as containers of different selves and develop a more flexible sense of self with realism. That means incorporating their context and what they want and can do about it, how they want to conduct themselves given the reality of their current circumstances.

In Hulbert-Williams et al.’s (2016)study, their client had lots of ‘I am’ stories that helped her make sense of the world but were not always helpful in terms of functioning effectively. Thus, we will work with clients on considering their many different selves, so they can see that they are the container for all of these ‘selves and, thus, behave more flexibly.

Flexibility is fundamental to our client’s success in dealing with the challenges they are facing. Greater psychological flexibility has been associated with a higher quality of life, emotional well-being, community participation, and resilience (Butler & Ciarrochi, 2007, as cited in Han et al.,2021). In the case of family caregivers, studies found psychological flexibility as a significant buffer against psychological distress (i.e., depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress) (Jansen et al., 2017, as cited in Han et al., 2021)

It’s interesting to note that, according to Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016, P. 12):

 “In the work setting, psychological flexibility is predictive of job performance (Bond & Flaxman, 2006), attitudes toward learning new skills (ibid.), job satisfaction (Donaldso-Feilder & Bond, 2004), and lower absenteeism (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008). In intervention studies, ACT has successfully improved acceptance and engagement with a work redesign intervention (Bond et al., 2008), and has reduced both workplace stress (Flaxman & Bond, 2010b; 2010a) and burnout (Vilardaga et al., 2011).”

Action

For this process to work and impact our clients’ lives, they will need to act, take small steps to build a different relationship with their ‘self’, and build muscle to adjust and incorporate diverse perspectives. As Hulbert-Williams et al. (2016) share, by broadening their client’s horizons, by contacting the parts of her ‘self’ that had been neglected, and by taking small steps of committed action, a new person emerged. 

The goal is to partner with clients, so they take action and build a different relationship with themselves by acknowledging distressing thoughts and feelings, by acknowledging their anchors and looking at them from different perspectives, by acknowledging and embracing the diversity of their inner selves. And thus, incorporating them in the roles they perform in a more balanced and satisfactory way, therefore living a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

It will be such an enriching experience to share with my clients their journeys of self-discovery and witness how they find within themselves what they need to transition through their different roles and evolve and grow.

References

Eyzaguirre, Valeria Mariel. Sobrecarga del cuidador y sentido de coherencia en padres de adolescentes con cáncer (Caregiveroverload and sense of coherence inparentsofadolescentswithcancer).http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12404/12871.

Han, Areum & Yuen, Hon & Jenkins, Jeremy Acceptance and commitment therapy for family caregivers: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology. 26. 82-102. 10.1177/1359105320941217.

Hulbert-Williams, Lee & Hochard, Kevin & Hulbert-Williams, Nick & Archer, Rob & Nicholls, Wendy & Wilson, Kelly Contextual behavioral coaching: An evidence-based model for supporting behavior change. International Coaching Psychology Review. 11. 30-42.

Hung Kit Fok, Chin Ming Hui, Michael Harris Bond, David Matsumoto, Seung Hee Yoo. Integrating personality, context, relationship, and emotion type into a model of display rules. 

PsycInfo Database Record (2020). Abstract of Dymond, S., & Roche, B. (Eds.). Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-07435-000

Roberts, B. W.& Donahue, E. M. One personality, multiple selves: Integrating personality and social roles. Journal of Personality, 62(2), 199–218. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00291.x

Skews, Rachael & Palmer, Stephen. Acceptance and commitment coaching: making the case for an ACT-based approach to coaching, published in https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephen-Palmer-6/publication/316455754_Acceptance_and_commitment_coaching_Making_the_case_for_an_ACT-based_approach_to_coaching

Wundrack, Richard & Prager, Julia & Asselmann, Eva & O’Connell, Garret & Specht, Jule. Does Intraindividual Variability of Personality States Improve Perspective-Taking? An Ecological Approach Integrating Personality and Social Cognition. Journal of Intelligence. 6. 50. 10.3390/jintelligence6040050.

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