Here’s the scene: It’s Saturday morning. Theresa and I are standing between rows of records in a house that has been converted into a hi-fi and electric guitar shop by a man who has just given us what felt like the full semester of Music Equipment 101. He’s now standing off in a corner, his head discretely bowed, Sgt. Pepper’s playing loudly, ostensibly to demonstrate the sound quality – which it was doing – and likely also to give us some privacy for our conversation – which it was also doing.
What had brought us there was a whim that was fueled by an off-hand remark by a vinyl-loving friend and an activity in The Artist’s Way (which I’m currently working through with a small group) plus nostalgic memories of laying on the family room carpet while tethered to the stereo by the headphones cable listening to my mom’s records, directed to this store by our shop-local ethic.
This would have been a scene of pure delight except inside my head was a gremlin melee. There were stories about being frivolous and selfish, stories of needing every penny to go toward our new home, our coming wedding, and various necessities. There were also stories about desire and pleasure and the value of investing in bits of merriment. To make things more complicated, there were also stories of owing the business owner for his time, wanting to follow through on our shop-local ethic, and empathizing, as a fellow small business owner, with his immediate possibilities of either making a relatively small sale or no sale at all. There was even a story, way deep down in the chatter, about wanting to disprove stereotypes about Jewish people being stingy. Yeah, even that.
I share this experience of luxurious stress because of how often I and folks I work with want the tools of coaching (which is to say, the tools of understanding ourselves more fully and moving from reactivity to responsiveness) to head the gremlins off at the pass. We want to use the tools so well that we no longer need the tools anymore. Unfortunately, that possibility lives in the same parallel universe as exercising so well that our bodies hit stasis and are forevermore fit and healthy without ever moving another muscle.
Instead, the tools are for making these experiences as brief and productive as possible. Back to my record shop gremlin spiral where I put the tools to work:
Step one was simply noticing that I was getting reactive – that the gremlins were getting loud and closing in on all side with enough speed and intensity that my ability to think around them was rapidly disappearing.
Step two was telling Theresa what I was experiencing as directly as possible, both the nutshell version of what I was feeling and, to the best of my ability, what I needed which, at that moment, was a tidy way out of the store instead of feeling pressed to make a decision then and there. Theresa, who is both endlessly patient with me and now well-versed in my gremlin stuff, met me exactly where I was and gave me exactly what I needed to get out of there.
Steps three, four and five happened in the car. First, I reminded myself where I wanted my internal orientation to go which was to enjoy the time with Theresa on our one day off together last week. Then, I shared the stories I was hearing and accepted Theresa’s compassionate responses; in the sharing, I both shrunk feelings of shame by shining light on my inner world (shame is like vampires in that way) and was able to uncover the nuances of my own story, like the one rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes. Finally, I kept noticing what I wanted and needed and asked for it. I pulled over and asked Theresa to drive; I asked that we skip our next intended stop and instead go home for lunch.
Finally, I practiced allowing throughout this whole icky experience: Allowing that I have stories around money (as do we all). Allowing that I was having a messy array of uncomfortable feelings (as we all experience at times). Allowing that I was feeling some self-judgment around having such a privileged problem (while knowing that no amount of social comparison will relieve gremlin chatter; in fact, it’s more likely to exacerbate it).
By the time we pulled into our driveway 20 minutes later, the decision about the sound system was far from settled but the gremlins were; the mountain had shrunk back to its proper form as a mole hill and I was able to focus on enjoying my time with my sweetheart.
If you’re noting a hint of self-congratulations, I will absolutely own that. As a person who, back before I began learning all of these things, could get hijacked by her gremlins for days at a time, to deploy the tools immediately and work through it in a brief car ride was gratifying.
I share, though, to point out two main pieces:
- The tools work best when they work together. A gratitude practice (like appreciating that I was in the midst of a day off with Theresa) alone is great but not enough; gremlin work alone is great but not enough; allowing alone is great but not enough. And so on. Tennis players practice their serve over and over again, not because that’s the full measure of a winning game but because refining the serve on its own makes it easier to integrate into the other skills.
- That Theresa and I work well together during moments of discomfort (whichever of us happens to be in the thick of it at the time) is the result of lots and lots of communication, much of it messy and challenging, all of it ongoing, as we learn what it means to show up for each other thoughtfully. Turns out that, like the majority of humans, we’re terrible mind readers. We are, however, committed listeners.
Finally – and if this one pains you, know that I’m right there with you – it bears repeating ad nauseam until the end of time that this is not a journey toward no reactivity, no rough feelings, no gremlin chatter. That is, this is not a journey toward perfection.
It’s a journey toward more of your wholeness and less of your suffering.
It’s a journey toward bigger and badder.
They say those who can’t do, teach. Let me suggest that those who teach best, also do and practice and do some more. Part of the magic of coaching, in fact, is that we practice what we teach, and then we coach so that you can make these tools fully your own. If you’re ready to integrate these tools into your world, I’m ready to be your partner in the process.