We are feeling creatures that think, not thinking creatures that feel.
The Gry-LaViolette (1981) scientific research, which integrated psychology and neurophysiology, articulated that feelings organise thoughts and that thoughts are filed in our memory bank according to the various “shades” of feelings associated with them. The conclusion of this work is that the mind, with its thoughts, is driven by those feelings. Each feeling is the cumulative derivative of many thousands of thoughts and each time the feeling is felt, it can trigger a multitude of thoughts, time after time after time, potentially for many years or even throughout our lifetime. For example, consider one life event, many years ago that was perhaps painful or regretful. That one event, with its associated feeling or feelings, can create years and years of thoughts.
What is noteworthy, is that the thoughts themselves are not necessarily painful or difficult, it is the feeling that triggered them that hold the pain or discomfort. Therefore, when we let go of the feelings, we free ourselves from the associated thoughts.
Let go of the feelings and free yourself from the thoughts.
A simple idea perhaps, however we aren’t necessarily so good at this and we often carry around with us an enormous reservoir of accumulated negative feelings, attitudes and beliefs. The burden of carrying these feelings can lead to many problems and illnesses, both psychological and physical. So, why do we do this? Why just carry them around with us? Well, that is simpler to explain: having certain feelings is not pleasant and so it is our natural instinct to try and escape from them, get rid of them, ignore them or simply try not have them! We therefore try to “do” something with those feelings in order to feel better. In his book, Letting Go, Dr. David Hawkins describes three ways that we typically handle our feelings.
Suppression or Repression
This is positioned as the most common way of handling feelings, with suppression being a conscious process and repression being unconscious. Suppressed feelings can give rise to a wide range of somatic responses and reactions. Repressed feelings, given that they must be kept out of consciousness, are often linked to denial and projection. Denial is a way to block the feeling and projection is way to deny the feeling within ourselves by projecting it onto other things or people, i.e., blame. Projection can also be at heart of much unrest, be it social breakdown or even violence.
Expression is when we vent, verbalise, state or show in our body language our feelings. Expression can also be when feelings are acted out in a form of group demonstration or protest. What is often experienced however, is that only just enough of the feeling is expressed to release some of the pressure, and the rest is repressed. Expression in itself therefore does not necessarily free us from the feeling. In fact, expression can even propagate the feeling, with the rest staying repressed.
Hawkins proposes that Freud and psychoanalysis was misunderstood. Freud stated that repression was unhealthy, and this became interpreted as expression being perceived therefore as the cure all for difficult feelings. Freud actually said that repressed feelings needed to be neutralised, socialised and channelled into love, productivity and creativity.
We escape feelings by avoidance through diversion. Entertainment, drugs, alcohol, sex, work are all examples of diversions that can also be addictions to stay unconscious to the feelings. We can engage in endless activities to avoid the feelings. A lot of energy can be required to keep some feelings down. This pressure can result in a loss of energy, growth, interest and a sense of isolation, even depression.
Given the less-than-ideal impact of suppression/repression, expression and escape, letting go of our difficult feelings can hold many physiological and psychological benefits.
Rather than stress being caused by external factors, it is more associated with feelings the feelings triggered by those factors. When what we hold inside is triggered, it informs and colours our experience, our thoughts, our attitudes, beliefs and perceptions and potentially our whole world. When this cycle is repeated, which it often is, it can lead to confirmation bias when we come to expect, predict and even attract those factors which trigger the feelings again and again. Difficult and negative feelings also have a significant physiological impact resulting in a potential 50% loss of muscle strength as well as narrowed vision. As our stress response is closely linked to reactivity, many stress relief programmes focus on reducing the effects of the stress rather than the addressing its source.
How does this relate to coaching?
It is clear that some feelings and their roots are related to matters that are much better and more appropriately addressed in a therapeutic setting rather than through coaching. As coaches, it is indeed also our ethical responsibility to be mindful of when it is more appropriate to explore referring our client to a different professional service rather than continue to offer coaching. However, our updated ICF Core Competency Model also makes several references to how coaching is about exploring client feelings and emotions in service of cultivating a trusting relationship, actively listening and evoking awareness. Moreover, the model also references a focus on how we are with our own emotions in order to embody a coaching mindset and maintain presence with our clients. Here are just a few examples of how feelings play a role in the coaching process:
Updated ICF Core Competency Model and Feelings
- Competency 2: Embodies a coaching Mindset: sub-competency 6: Develops and maintains the ability to regulate one’s emotions.
- Competency 4: Cultivates Trust and Safety: sub-competency 5: Acknowledges and supports client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions.
- Competency 5: Maintains Presence: sub-competency 3: Manages one’s emotions to stay present with the client.
- Competency 6: Listens Actively: definition: “…fully understand what the client is communicating…to support client self-expression”.
- Competency 6: Listens Actively: sub-competency 3: Recognises and inquires when there is more to what the client is communicating.
- Competency 6: Listens Actively: sub-competency 4: Notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviours.
- Competency 7: Evokes Awareness: sub-competency 11: Shares observations, insights and feelings, without attachment, that have the potential to create new learning for the client.
How might this information inform how you regulate and manage your feelings and emotions and how you work most effectively with the feelings and emotions of your clients?
Reference: Hawkins, D. R. (2014), Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender (2nd ed.) Hay House UK
Tracy Sinclair, MCC is co-founder and CEO of Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair. She co-authored Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (2020) and hosts the Coaching in Conversation podcast. In 2020, she founded Coaching with Conscience to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching.
Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community and has served in both local and global boards and workgroups for the International Coaching Federation. She was also named one of the Leading Global Coaches of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards (2019, 2021) and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award (2021). She is also a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100Coaches and a trained coaching supervisor, mentor coach and ICF assessor.
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