Holding Difficult Things As A Coach, Without Getting Overwhelmed

Practical strategies for life coaches to maintain healthy detatchment, develop good boundaries with your clients, and maintain a sense of work-life balance.

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How to Hold Difficult Things As A Coach (Without the Overwhelm)

Whenever we’re working closely with other human beings, it's inevitable that we’ll pick up on difficult feelings that necessarily don’t belong to us. As coaches, some of the difficult things we find ourselves holding for our clients include:

  • Moving through a relationship ending or divorce
  • Regret and shame
  • Pressure, anxiety and stress
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Challenging new ideas and perspectives that the client hasn’t grappled with before

It is a gift to feel and care deeply for the people we serve. And for helping professionals, all this might also feel like a lot to carry at times. For those who identify as highly sensitive or empathic, navigating these waters can be particularly overwhelming if we're not maintaining strong energetic boundaries.

As coaches and stewards of the hopes and dreams of our clients, it’s important to understand how hanging onto difficult things impacts us and our clients:

  • Occupational stress leads to an estimated 120,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone. 
  • Those who struggle to find a balance between home and work are four times more likely to show signs of burnout. 
  • With more people than ever working remotely, it has become very difficult to “switch off” and leave the stresses of work behind when we have literally moved it into our house.

It is possible to maintain your energetic boundaries, showing up for your clients fully without having these difficult things stay with you after the session is complete. Doing so successfully requires three things:

  1. Managing the way you experience your emotions
  2. Giving yourself enough time to process
  3. Sorting out what isn’t yours to carry

Another way of thinking about this is that as coaches, our role is to hold space for our client’s experience, rather than holding the person

So how do we do that? 

Psychological Detachment

If you regularly find yourself lying awake at night thinking about a client’s situation, grappling with anxiety about how to find new clients, feeling pressured to keep “cranking out content,” or just never feel that you can completely turn your work-brain off and take a real break… cultivating your capacity to detach will help. 

But isn’t our job as coaches to connect and relate? 

You bet it is! 

When we hear the word “detached”, it’s often equated with cold or unfeeling. But as you might imagine, that’s not at all what we mean! Psychological detachment refers to an “individual's sense of being away from the work situation” (Sonnentag et al., 2010).

You can remain caring, compassionate, and engaged without taking on someone else’s stuff. 

The ability to mentally detach assists us in recovery from work-related stress, reducing burnout and emotional exhaustion. Using detachment as a tool is shown to improve overall well-being, job satisfaction and goal achievement. Strong utilization of psychological detachment also enhances relationships outside of work and reduces conflict between the demands of work and family. 

At the organizational level, a healthy work-life balance reduces employee turnover, improves performance, and lowers the incidences of lateness and absenteeism. In our view, this is something that managers and leaders need to be paying more attention to. Leaders take note! You must not only hold healthy detachment as a standard for yourself, but also give permission and encouragement to your team members to take steps to truly create separation between their work and home life too.

As coaches, it’s important to be aware that the majority of our clients struggle with maintaining healthy detachment. 

But it’s not just them! We need to recognize that we ourselves are not immune. In fact, we may be even more susceptible to the risks of imbalance and burnout. Why? Because as coaches we are tasked with holding space for the difficult things that our client’s bring to us in addition to navigating our own challenges in life.

How to Detach

As we move into the “how to” of psychological detachment, it is essential to identify the behaviors, beliefs, and conditions that create metaphorical “holes” in our work-life barrier. The first step is to simply listen to what your body is telling you. Pay attention to the level of suffering or discomfort that you’re actually experiencing.

The behaviors that create overlap between work life and home life must be brought to the forefront of our consciousness for consideration before we can effectively work with them.

Ask yourself: What behaviors cause you to get stuck in "work mode"?

Need an example? Actions like not taking sufficient breaks, or believing you must be available around the clock for work-related issues, will puncture holes in your barrier. In this case, you might want to consider questions like:

  • What is your relationship like with taking breaks?  
  • What’s your work culture and norms around 24/7 availability?

Reflection Exercise

A simple exercise you can use to explore this for yourself or your client is grab a pen and paper and reflect. Consider what punctures holes in the barrier between your work and personal life in the following areas:

  • Behaviors (the things you do)
  • Beliefs (what you think is true)
  • Conditions (your circumstances) 

Make a list to help draw these things into your awareness.

Next, turn to reflection around your home life. What behaviors, beliefs, and conditions at home create holes in your barrier between work and personal time? 

Turning Insight into Action

As coaches, we know that awareness without an action plan to course correct is an  incomplete process! It takes thought and planning to strengthen the barrier between your work, the difficult things that belong to your clients, and your private life.

Want to find ways to fill the holes so that a healthy balance can be restored? Once you have identified the behaviors, beliefs, and circumstances that puncture holes in your work-life barrier, identify potential solutions to fill them.

  • For example, a hole created by checking work-related emails at all hours can be filled by designating clear time boundaries for “work” and “home,” and turning off notifications or turning off your phone after work hours. 
  • Alternately, feeling stressed at home because of your workload will likely pierce a hole in your work-life barrier. To fill this hole, you might practice saying ‘no’ to additional communication with clients when you feel it is right to do so. 

For each solution, small steps must be created and included in your regular schedule.

For practitioners, this is a great exercise to run with your clients or work team to make sure that everyone is putting barriers in place to protect mental health. Talk about what those might be. If you are in a position of leadership, make sure that the people who report to you have clear guidance and transparency around creating work/life barriers to decrease burnout and increase satisfaction. 

As a coach, you will need to communicate these barriers to your clients and really hold yourself accountable for scheduling breaks and flipping the “off switch” in your brain. We are facing a new reality in the way that we work with and serve clients. The old model of “on-demand” productivity can become very damaging if we let it fester in our lives. By championing a different approach in our own lives, we model what's possible and offer more impactful coaching to our clients.

A few things to keep in mind along the way:

1. Work-life balance does not mean an equal balance of time spent on each area!

2. Work-life balance is not defined by hours, but by outcomes. Moreover, psychological detachment is about mentally switching off from work-related issues during your personal time; it is not about caring less about your work.

3. Ensure that you and your clients understand that there are no perfect, one-size-fits-all solutions! Work-life balance choices are different for each of us because we all have different priorities and lives.

4. The mind can be easily distracted, which is completely normal. When putting solutions into action, the mind is likely to wander back to work-related issues. The key is to acknowledge that one’s attention has shifted and then refocus on the task at hand.

5. Ritual is helpful here - we are pavlovian creatures and can set up behavioral cues in order to help shift from one mental embodiment to the next. Remember we are dealing with three sets of data: behaviors, beliefs, and real world circumstances. Some rituals that can support detachment include:

  • Designating a space for work and stepping out of it when you need to shift
  • Putting on a “shifting to home life” playlist
  • Popping a piece of gum or a mint when it is time to focus and dive into work

For more on this topic, you might like to explore Creating Boundaries Within the Coaching Relationship and The Real Impact of Burnout and Stress.

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