Do you need to rewrite the equations which you currently live by?

This question was asked by Joshua Rothman in his article The Art of Decision Making published in The New Yorker in January this year. I have only read it now in December as I am reflecting on the year past and planning for the one to come, 2020. As a coach of doctors I am particularly interested in what helps a doctor decide to rewrite his or her equation, given the numbers of doctors who are burnt out and otherwise distressed. I was thinking about this in the context of Rothman’s article when I went to yoga this morning.

For a decade I have neglected my physical wellbeing in favour of my mind. Perhaps the norm for a psychologist, or ironic in light of psychology being the study of behaviour! This past decade I have studied coaching and mindfulness and taught others about the power of the mind, teaching about neuroscience, psychology, motivation. Above all else, I have been practicing mindfulness, including meditation. I have new qualifications to prove it, qualifications that have involved more hard graft than I could have ever anticipated. It’s the actual practice though that has been transformative not the certificates. Wasn’t it just sitting peacefully? Turns out there was much more to it and I am now in quite a different place, living differently with a new equation that I expect will change many more times yet. Everything is temporary.

Back to my physical wellbeing… I’ve made my return to yoga and it is hard. This much older, out of shape body doesn’t respond like it used to. Gravity seems to apply to me more than I want it to and I hear myself making the usual lament, where has my core gone? As one of my meditation teachers, Richard Miller says “if you fight with reality, you will lose”. So it is time to commit seriously to my physical wellbeing, work with reality rather than trying to ignore it, it’s not going to get any better from here without more hard graft. Like the mental work I have been doing, I am again uncomfortable, in public and sweating!

How could something so natural, moving my body slowly, make me feel so vulnerable? In a class before Christmas I felt so vulnerable as the teacher fixed my posture I thought I might cry. I welcomed her coaching, I had taken myself there voluntarily… even so, I felt sooo uncomfortable. Why did it matter that other’s could see me being corrected? What did I expect, to know how to do it automatically? I was grateful I could tame my mind and regulate my emotions in the moment. Thank you mindfulness, all that practice has strengthened my skill and capacity and each time it is tested I build my confidence. Skills first, confidence second. In taming my mind and emotions I could stay the course and learn.

This is what coaching in general is like. Sometimes it’s public – someone else is watching or listening, there is nowhere to hide. Even when it is just you and the coach, another person is witnessing the struggle, the lack of clarity or unconscious bias. The person being coached is voluntarily involved, they are choosing to learn or develop their skills. They are taking risks because they want to improve or gain insight (learn). The person being coached is not in the role of expert, rather they are in the role of learner, or more accurately, explorer. This means being exposed or vulnerable. Doctors tell me repeatedly they do not like the territory of I don’t know, I don’t understand or I need help. Neither do I, it’s often much easier to be in the role of expert. In this role though, ego is highly engaged and learning is relegated. In vulnerability we are more likely to be open, qualities like courage and curiosity are required and very often these experiences grow our empathy and compassion. Qualities people value in doctors (and psychologists).

In the yoga class I noticed that others were also being helped to correct their posture and that the yoga teacher, together with each person, worked in partnership with that particular body and mind. Some people laughed, some were quite earnest and some resisted. I can’t tell you more than that or I might have fallen over!

Coaching is like this too, sometimes the partnership works well and sometimes there is resistance. The coaches’ role is to manage the process to help the person find their best way, to help them be ready, to warm up to the challenges and to celebrate the transformations. The person being coached brings their own content – goals, fears, history, personality, mindset and confusions. Whatever the coachee brings to the coaching, the coach guides the process. In partnership the two set the intention for coaching and work towards it. Most times other intentions emerge too and the Coach helps the Coachee prioritise. Gradually the life or work equations are clarified.

I meet two groups of doctors who decide to engage in coaching. Those who have met a particular challenge in their life that needs addressing in a timely way. For example, I am seeking a place on a training program or a promotion and have not yet been successful, or I am in a new management role and do not have the leadership skills I need. Coaching in this situation provides a clear structure, a plan to address a named problem.

The second group come to coaching for more nebulous reasons such as, I think I am at risk of burnout, I have imposter syndrome, I am not enjoying my work like I thought I would, I had some feedback I don’t understand. These doctors are looking for safe ground to explore their internal and external terrain, a place where they can test and understand their own experience, to seek perspective and find joy or fulfilment in their life, through medicine or otherwise. They are making a proactive decision in the same way I am by going to yoga. They are not sure what they will discover, they are willing to feel uncomfortable, to be a learner rather than a know it all, in the service of a different equation for life. Coaching is one of the tools they will use to rewrite the equation. For some their mindset will need strengthening, for others it will need to be stretched for more flexibility, others will feel muscles they didn’t know they had and for some, they will decide they prefer the gym.

It is in the practice, the doing of coaching that the doctor being coached will learn what it is and how it helps. I can not experience all that yoga brings me personally by reading about it in a book. Being in the room is where the learning is at, where I remember that I am outside my comfort zone, testing my mind and body in real time, testing if my life equation is right or needs some reconfiguring.

Leadership teacher Simon Sinek thinks that courage comes from the support we feel from others. He says that we can be courageous because we know others have our back. This is such a lovely way to think of coaching. Your coach has your back, they are on your team and stand ready to help you be courageous enough to look deeply, gently and bravely at your own equations of life and to make the changes you need. I know I would not continue yoga without the lovely community in the room and I would not get the most out of the postures without the teacher helping me. That’s why I go to class instead of watching a yoga video at home.

Sometimes coaching helps doctors achieve their vision. Sometimes it helps them create the vision – see it. Coaching is a process. It is not therapy, though it is often therapeutic as people embrace their reality and configure their response to be more effective. Coaching can be transformative, leaving an old self behind and discovering something new, a whole new equation for life might emerge. Other times coaching is a safe and useful way to reconnect with the existing equation that was ignored while you tended to something else.

So what helps a doctor to decide to rewrite the equation by which they are living their life? There are of course as many answers as there are doctors. Doctors are humans first. It is the human condition that has us avoid, resist, ignore what is important. It is also our humanness that has us focus and try again.

I wish you well for 2020 whatever equation you are living your life by. May you find all the courage and curiosity you need.

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This post was written by Sharee Johnson