Therapy, coaching, or mindfulness? And why that question will become obsolete soon
I know that I need help. My problem might be anxiety, overwhelm, obsessively controlling or pleasing behaviour, addiction, or any other inner issues that make my life miserable.
It eats up my energy, makes me less productive, less sociable, less authentic, less joyful. I have read about it and tried all the self-help tricks- without much success. I am there: I know that I need help. But what kind of help do I need?
There is no shortage of promises in the fast-growing mental health market. But each raises some concerns for me:
Therapy aims to go down to the root causes underlying my issues, such as childhood trauma. But I feel some resistance to the language of “patient” with an “illness”. I am concerned it might take years to heal, and I wonder whether it will help me address my practical day-to-day challenges in the meantime.
Coaching seems to be much more pragmatic and faster, and it sounds more empowering. But as it seems to stay largely on the behavioural level, I am worried that the quick fixes turn out to be workarounds and therefore not sustainable.
Mindfulness aspires to integrate mind, heart, and body, and to increase presence through meditation and other practices. I love those peaceful images! But then, I see many who use this as “spiritual bypass”: beaming themselves away from, instead of bringing awareness to personal issues and concrete behaviour changes.
Some version of this inner conflict is what many people face today in deciding how to best do their inner work. To make things worse, practitioners from these disciplines have reinforced boundaries between them, often having little positive to say about the respective other “camps”. Many clients are ahead of their care professionals and engage across these approaches- often behind the back of their therapist or coaches.
Is there an alternative to forcing choices and tradeoffs where there could be synergies?
This question was with me when I started my coaching practice as a 3rd career in my 40s (after being a scientist and then a management consultant). Maybe my naïveté liberated me to do the obvious: Ignore dogma and integrate from across approaches what supports clients in the most effective, thorough, and personalised way.
10 years into refining an anti-orthodox approach together with like minded colleagues we call this “Deep Coaching”
It’s a catchy name for combining attributes such as trauma-informed, non-pathologizing, potential-oriented, empowering, relational, embodied and mindful.
A Deep Coaching journey
What does that mean in practice? Let’s look at Lydia. Lydia, SVP Operations, is a doer, an overachiever- and a candidate for CEO succession. What currently stands in the way of her nomination is her people leadership: she works her teams very hard and comes across as domineering.
Our deep coaching journey over the next 6 months integrates approaches from across borders organically:
Coaching: As a baseline for our work, Lydia and 14 people she chooses fill out a survey to create her “Leadership Circle Profile’’. This brilliant coaching tool developed by Bob Anderson et al. highlights her creative competencies and her reactive patterns (i.e., the limiting leadership behaviour).
In Lydia’s case, she scores high on “controlling” and “perfectionism”, and low on “mentoring” and “caring connection”. She doesn’t like her overall effectiveness score of 40%. But she knows that denial does not help and is ready to do her work.
Therapy: Staying on the coaching level, Lydia might have controlled herself to become less controlling, and perfected herself to be less perfectionist. For a few weeks, maybe….
Instead, we go deep: Using Harvard Professor Dick’s Schwartz “Internal Family System” (IFS) therapy approach, we identify her controlling and perfectionist tendencies as inner “parts”. Parts are internal programs that intend to protect us and make us feel safe.
A part is not all of me, and it is adaptive. This insight alone is liberating for Lydia. In IFS, we dialogue with our parts. Lydia learns that her protector parts came into being when she felt vulnerable as a young child, growing up with an unstable father and narcissistic mother. And she learns that her parts are still stuck in that past, protecting her in the same way that made sense when she was small and dependent.
Mindfulness: Knowing this is insightful, but not enough for healing. In order to update and relax the controlling and perfectionist parts, the past emotions. or “trauma”, needs releasing. Simply put, trauma is a way in which we can deal with strong emotions like fear, shame, anger, or sadness that would be overwhelming in the moment they occur by putting them away.
This helps to continue to function in the moment. However, the emotional memory is then stored in our body and creates symptoms- and keeps our protective system in high alertness.
“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, but the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside”
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., author of “The body keeps the score”
Through mindfulness practice, Lydia learns to sense and tolerate strong emotions in her body. She also learns to observe her feelings and thoughts, thereby dis-identifying from her reactive parts.
Therapy: Together, we create a holding space for the stored fear, anger, and shame from childhood to surface, unfold and pass by. What once got hurt in relation now heals in relation.
Coaching: Relieved from some of her trauma burden, Lydia’s controlling and perfectionist parts are now open to adapting their roles such that they serve Lydia as the strong adult she is today. Now it is time for practical changes, and for skill building.
From the coaching toolbox comes the design of a few “calculate risk experiments”. She decides to delegate and to empower her team a little more. This is followed by a regular check-in with her parts to review how this new operating mode serves Lydia- and for designing more daring experiments. We also train interpersonal skills that help Lydia become a better mentor and inspiring leader.
Mindfulness: Lydia’s observation practice makes her realise that she tends to fall back into old behaviours when she is exhausted, and when she carries over anger from one situation to another. Lydia starts to be more mindful about sleep and rest. She also starts to practice a “one-minute meditation”- 10 deep breaths with an extended exhale- after an emotionally upsetting meeting. Even if that means she is a minute late for the next one (yes, avoiding back-to-back scheduling is next on the list…).
The Deep Coaching posture
Lydia’s is one example. Every Deep Coaching journey is a bit different. What they have in common is that they support an evolutionary journey in which client and coach can be in a state of
Curiosity: No judgement, no dogma, no pathologies- instead, asking with an open mind until what seems dysfunctional makes sense.
Compassion: Receiving emotions, current and old, in the warmth of self-and relational resonance.
Courage: Just the right level of guts to lean out of one’s comfort zone, and to train out new ways of being, acting, and relating.
Deep Coaching takes from different disciplines whatever promises to work best. This requires practitioners to be flexible, creative, and to be more broadly trained. Yet, it does not mean that they must be full psychotherapists, executive coaches, and mindfulness gurus in one. As long as they know their limits.
For example, Deep Coaches not licensed as psychotherapist still work in a trauma-informed way. However, they refer clients to a specialist professional to treat clinical mental health issues when needed. Next to knowing what you don’t know, the most important may be an openness to look across disciplines, and to integrate what serves clients best on their individual healing and growth path.
So, the answer to the initial question of whether I need therapy, coaching, or mindfulness may simply be: Yes!
As more and more clients request this triple “yes”- and a new generation of open minded care professionals is arising- let’s hope that this will become an obsolete question in the near future.
Jens Riese, PhD, works as Deep Coach with individuals, teams and organisations. He is trained, amongst others, in NARM, IFS, NLP, LCP, ontological coaching, somatic and energy healing, wisdom traditions, meditation and yoga. He is a Senior Partner Alumnus with McKinsey where he served as co-dean of the Leadership Master Programs. He is also a co-founder of soulchat.co, bringing deep coaching to all employees with a low threshold formula of content, chat and coaching.