Coaching And The Meaning of Life
By Noelle Cordeaux, Lumia Coaching CEO
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between coaching and the meaning of life. I recognize that this is a broad topic, so hang tight with me as I explain!
Let’s begin by narrowing down to some specifics. Right now in the United States, we're seeing unprecedented levels of violence. We're also seeing a rise in interpersonal conflict and disengagement within the workforce.
All that discontent and despair naturally flows from the individual to a collective experience, creating ripples across society that are becoming a tsunami. So much of the analysis that I've heard around recent economic reports points to those broader impacts, including:
- Historic drops in productivity
- Widespread mental health concerns
- A growing epidemic of loneliness and depression
When I look at these symptoms of unrest, what strikes me most profoundly is that we’re not just witnessing the emotional aftershocks of a global pandemic as some might suggest. What we're seeing is the sickness that inevitably arises from a culture that breeds toxic individualism.
(To give you an idea of where I'm coming from on this, my thinking is shaped both by objectification theory and Mia Birdsong’s powerful book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community.)
The Impact of Toxic Individualism
Toxic individualism is a concept that sprang up out of the capitalist movement, born of the industrial revolution. And it caught fire, especially in America where capitalism as we now know it really took hold.
The media arm of early capitalism is itself responsible for many of the cultural ideals we hold today. Those efforts at shaping our collective beliefs and desires were calculated and deliberate, spearheaded by none other than Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays. (“The Manipulation of the American Mind”, The Conversation, July 5, 2015.)
In the early part of the last century, Bernays took the tools of wartime propaganda and applied them to the marketplace, forging an indelible link between consumerism and manipulation of the unconscious mind.
Add to this the American ideal of rugged individualism, and you’ve got a recipe brewing for disenchantment, disconnection and despair.
How many of us take as truth the idea that we must make our own way in the world? That it’s our responsibility to set off on our own, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and become a self made human?
How did we see that ideal playing out during the pandemic? Isolated, and expected to figure out how to make working from home, childcare, school, and life function without meaningful social or institutional support?
This notion that we can - and should - do it all alone is a fictional concept.
That's not actually the way that life worked for the majority of human history. Not so very long ago, if someone struck out on their own, they wouldn’t be riding into the sunset like the Marlboro Man. They'd be dead.
Humans have for millennia existed most successfully in community with others, where everyone shared their unique talents in the interest of mutual survival.
What we know from the science is that our brains and bodies weren’t designed to do life alone. But thanks to cultural ideals that have become deeply entrenched in our psyches by capitalism and consumerism, the majority of us have developed a false idea of what it means to succeed in life.
In the farthest corners of our subconscious, such ingrained beliefs start to sound like this:
- “If I'm not able to accomplish things by and for myself, then I'm a failure. I must be doing it wrong.”
- “If I’m lonely, it’s because I’m unlovable.”
- “It’s my own fault that I can’t ever seem to get ahead.”
Let’s take it a step further now.
What are the things that people want to accomplish, and why do they want to accomplish them?
In the dominant culture, there's this idea that your life is worthwhile if you have the right “things.” Namely, a great career and a lot of money. And in much the same way that consumerism has influenced our ideas of what success entails, it’s also influenced our standards of beauty.
Whiteness and wealth, wealth and whiteness. This is the unconscious refrain playing in the background of our lives, defining what success looks like.
From the moment we’re born, we’re immersed in distorted ideas about what it actually means to be human.
So what does coaching have to do with this?
Coaching as a discipline is unique because it asks the bigger human questions: who are you, what are your strengths, and how do you define your authentic self?
If that authentic self were allowed to truly exist in the way that you were meant to on this planet, what would your life look like?
Coaching turns the entire paradigm of false expectation, the lie of toxic individualism, and the grip of capitalism on its head.
It does not ask us to strive toward unrealistic and impossible standards that the majority of the world cannot achieve. Instead, coaching and the field of positive psychology help us to ask better questions.
The tools of coaching teach us how to take a look at individual truths, and source contentment and self-worth from something other than the lies that consumerism has sold us.
In coaching, we ask:
- What would create contentment?
- What would create durable, supportive relationships?
- What would create connection, what would create community?
- What would create joy?
- What would create flourishing?
Flourishing is the operative word in the coaching construct. It comes to us from Martin Seligman. If Frued’s nephew was the father of public relations, then Seligman is the undisputed godfather of positive psychology.
In his research on human wellbeing, Seligman replaced the word “happiness” as the goal to aspire to with “flourishing.” That’s because when we’re flourishing, we might not necessarily experience feelings of happiness all the time.
According to PositivePsychology.com, flourishing is “a multi-dimensional construct, meaning it’s made up of several important parts, and maximum flourishing can only happen when a person experiences a healthy level of each dimension or component.”
We actually have access to 500 sets of emotions at any given time. Feeling happy is literally just one. There could be contentment. There could be joy. There could be curiosity, interest, love, or fascination. There could be triumph.
There are so many flavors, but all of these positive emotions have one thing in common. They lead us to a different mental state, one in which we are primed for flourishing.
As I reflect on the world and what’s needed in this moment, my mind turns to coaching as the singular modality that can help us shift out of these spaces of isolation, frustration, loneliness and despair into something more expansive. Something that offers a wider range of possibilities than the losing game we’re being set up by society to play.
Coaching invites people to ask the questions that help uncover what their authentic self truly needs in order to flourish.
From this lens, becoming a coach is a noble profession because coaching is itself the discipline of hope.
It is the discipline that can create real, lasting and sustainable change in our time. It looks at factors that other disciplines have overlooked. It supports us in making a genuine connection to others, stimulates positive engagement with life, and reframes our ideals around achievement and success.
Coaching helps people get unstuck from the isolated spaces in their lives where they feel like they simply can't exist if they don't fit societal norms. It does so by unearthing our cognitive distortions, false beliefs, and inner points of shame.
It is this feeling like we can't exist, that we aren’t good enough exactly as we are, that’s causing the cognitive dissonance that is leading to the breakdown of our society.
The good news is there’s something we can do about it.
Coaching can help and if we work together, we can fix what’s breaking. The systems, structures, norms and ideals that never worked to begin with. In their place, we can build something better.
Unlike what advertising would have us believe, the meaning of life won’t be found in a new car, tropical vacation, or can of Coke. The more energy we expend chasing these things, the further we get from the truth.
Humans are adaptable, resilient and expansive. We weren’t just made to survive - we have the tools within us that are required to thrive.
More than a new house or landing that big promotion at work, a coaching conversation has the power to bring us closer to the truth of who we really are. The work of coaching points us toward what matters most, and how we can bring more of the emotions and experiences that are associated with contentment and wellbeing into our lives.
Ready to Become A Coach?
One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our life coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like a partner in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.