What Is Imago Relationship Theory for Life Coaches

Lumia Coaching co-founders John and Noelle discuss community building and Imago relationship theory as it relates to life coaching and becoming a coach.

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

Imago Relationship Theory & Community Building

Episode Transcript

John: Hey guys, what’s up? On today’s episode Noelle and I are going to talk about the concept of community building and imago? What is that Noelle?

Noelle: Imago, imago.

John: I was like is that a Japanese SUV? What exactly is that?

Noelle: No. Let’s pull the wool back a little bit and—thanks for joining me today, this is a really fun topic. I’ve been thinking about community building a lot, and writing about it in relationship to imago relationship therapy. Imago has a concept that when people are attracted to each other—it’s based on relationship theory, but I kind of want to expand it to really talk about all relationships, not just romantic relationships.

John: Mhmm.

Noelle: The theory is that you seek out other people because they give you something that you didn’t receive in childhood, and something that you might want for yourself.

John: Right. And this is usually a subconscious thing that sometimes we’re not aware of? Or are we?

Noelle: Yeah, well I think it is something we’re aware of. I think people have a type. I think people know what they look for in a partner. I think that they may not be totally conscious of why. The imago theory is that you’re either trying to heal past hurts and get something that you didn’t have, or to replicate something that was really good that you want in your life.

John: Yeah that makes sense. It’s either being attracted to people that smell familiar because it’s what you’re used to from growing up, or filling holes of things that you didn’t get.

Noelle: Exactly, and this theory is so great to look at because it’s understanding yourself from lots of different lenses. So the three lenses that I tend to look at in my own coaching work, as a feminist coach, I look through the feminist lens, and then I look through the relationship lens, and then I look through the community lens, as far as our organization and what we do. And this is a really good example for coaches of how you can take a single theory and apply different lenses to it in your work. So, if I’m working with a woman on this concept, and I’m coming from a feminist perspective—here you have to think about women as a colonized minority—that women grow up learning that the world is unsafe, that women grow up learning that they need a man to give them access to certain spaces.

So using the imago theory, say there’s a woman who is looking at the world and saying “I want to travel. I want to go to concerts. I want to access all of these spaces that the world has told me aren’t safe for me by myself,” she might find a male partner in order to gain those things. And then looking at it through the lens of relationships—a lot of times people fall into a relationship because they see something in their partner that they want for themselves—whether it’s a social group, or even a clothing style, or a way of being. Usually what happens is the partners either grow together, or they split.

John: Right.

Noelle: And then looking at it from a community perspective—it’s your friends, it’s who you surround yourself with. And I think that this is kind of the new piece that I’d like to introduce, and do some work around for my own research and writing—what does it mean to apply the imago theory to community building? And how can you consciously use this phenomenon to benefit yourself in life, and to build people around you in a way that give you things that you either need, that you want, or that you need to heal?

John: Yeah, I love the idea of engaging with people to carry you. And I don’t mean carry you like you’re not gonna do any work, but this idea of creating a space and that space becomes the engine that’s either gonna sharpen and promote your growth, or stunt it.

Noelle: 100%, 100%.

John: Because then that means you don’t have to carry all the weight, you know?

Noelle: Well it’s really impossible to carry all the weight. And we’re seeing in society right now, there are so many different things happening—isolation is a really big problem. It’s physical isolation, it’s social isolation. And even though people are more connected than ever via technology, that doesn’t mean there are real relationships, that doesn’t mean it’s somebody who you can actually call if you need something.

John: Yeah it seems like there’s a lot of fast, sugar connection—hits of dopamine—but not a lot of deeper interpersonal connection.

Noelle: Exactly. And when you have deeper interpersonal connection, the hits of dopamine are then followed through with serotonin, which is a regulator. And so if you leave a night with some great friends or your soul was fed, you’re feeling really recharged and if you spend the night by yourself on Facebook, you’ll feel really depleted and kind of jacked up a little bit.

John: Yeah, yeah. Let me ask you this—can it change?

Noelle: Can what change?

John: The concept. So, can what you seek in community—because you didn’t have that growing up, or because it actually smells familiar or whatever—can that change throughout life? Can it—

Noelle: Oh it does change throughout life. That’s one of the main reasons why relationships end and communities shift.

John: So when it changes in communities—so in relationships, yeah when there’s that change and people either start growing apart or toward, that happens all the time—but in communities, what do you do when you have built a solid community and you find yourself now swaying, or changing, or craving something different?

Noelle: You find a new one.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: I mean were the people you were hanging out with 10 years ago the same as the people you’re hanging out with now?

John: No. I mean they’re still in my life, but not as much.

Noelle: Not as much.

John: Right.

Noelle: So you got what you needed from a core friend group to resolve your expectations for company and identity, and now 10 years later, it’s different.

John: Yeah. I get this all the time from clients, especially clients my age, craving community, but it’s so difficult when you’re in your 30’s and 40’s to actually go out and find friends.

Noelle: It really is. I talked about this with a client yesterday, she’s an entrepreneur and she’s the primary bread winner in her family, and very few people understand what that’s like to have the entrepreneurial crush—which is very different from having a normal job—and then also to have the entire weight of responsibility for your family on your shoulders. So seeking friendships, it would be really important for her to find other people who can see her clearly. And this—I think it’s Maslow right?—being seen, heard and understood?

John: Yeah.

Noelle: It’s the most important thing for humans. So, coming from this choosing your community perspective, what choosing a community does for you—and if you’re listening, if you’re seeking and you’re thinking “well how the hell do I do this?”—it’s finding people that you can be unmasked with. People who can see you authentically, and fully, who can understand you in the context of your life, and who can do it in a shame-free, judgement-free environment. And I know that sounds like a fairytale, but it’s really, really not if you do the work.

John: The paragraph you just said, as you were saying that reminded me of what we’re building in our community.

Noelle: That’s exactly what we’re building in our community. And that’s why we’re building it in our community—because so few people have the space to be themselves, and to be themselves fully. And when we hit on that note and people started responding, it was like “Oh, hell yeah, this is what authentic love feels like.” The concept of Valentine’s Day just passed—so let’s talk about the concept of love, and how it plays into it. From a neurobiological perspective, what love actually is requires two things: it requires eye contact with another human—or dog—and it requires an agreement in that moment for mutual care. What people don’t realize about love, neurobiologically, is that it only takes a micro moment for it to exist. It can be your Uber driver that you have a really nice conversation with, it can be the person that hands you your coffee at Starbucks, it can be your mom, it can be your dog, it can be your neighbor, it can be your best friend—and you don’t have to define love in a binary. So what if we blow the doors off and say, “Oh my gosh, let’s do it in community.”

John: Right. So I fall in love with people every day then.

Noelle: Me too. Every day.

John: I love that definition of love. It really brings it into moments and takes away the pressure of love being this big commitment and this complicated thing. Instead, this idea that you can actually experience love with anyone each day, and all different types of people.

Noelle: Each day. And I think the most beautiful aspect of it is an agreement for mutual care—how easy.

John: Yeah, right. And you define what that looks like.

Noelle: Exactly, you define what that looks like. 100%.

John: It could be opening a door at Starbucks, that’s an agreement of mutual care. Or it could be making love physically.

Noelle: Yep, totally. And as we’re talking about imago, it’s important to understand that just like anything, it can be negative or positive. So, you want to be aware when you’re looking at friends, when you’re looking at partners, when you’re looking at community that you could be feeding yourself in unhealthy ways for unmet needs. Or you could be doing it in healthy ways for things that you want to grow and change with. So it can be both. And I think we see that in toxic friend groups—the phenomenon of—there’s a really interesting phenomenon called fat talk. Have you ever heard of that?

John: No, what’s that?

Noelle: So fat talk goes along with social contagion theory. And if a person joins a group where the people in that group continuously put their own bodies down, or pick their own bodies apart, or pick apart the bodies of other people, individual #1 will not only start doing it too, but will also start to feel poorly about his or her own body where that negativity may not have existed. So that’s a really good example of how joining a group can be detrimental.

John: Yeah and I’ve also experienced in fitness, the way that I push myself and the joy that I get from a workout when I’m working out in a group or with my friends is exponentially higher than if I’m by myself working out at home.

Noelle: That’s so interesting. What do you think it is about the group that makes you happy?

John: Part of it is a social thing. The other part of it is them making you accountable. So when you are with a group, you push yourself more because you are going with the current of the group. So if they go harder, you go harder—whether you’re catching up or being competitive, it doesn’t really matter—using the community almost as a vehicle.

Noelle: That’s a really great example of an agreement for mutual care.

John: Oh yes absolutely. And it’s also a way that now—whether we’re talking about fitness, yoga, any kind of class, because classes are so predominant in our culture now—it’s a way for us to bring back the concept of a tribe.

Noelle: Yes, it is. And I think what we’re talking about here is in-person exchange.

John: Yeah and what’s interesting is I feel like—and I don’t know if it’s happened yet, or you may disagree—I feel like we’re gonna come full circle. I feel like if we keep craving and putting effort into building communities and spending time with other people—and also the definition of love like you just said, eye contact and an agreement for mutual care—it’s like we’re bringing back tribes and tribal communities, and how we used to live before the Industrial Revolution.

Noelle: 100%. And it’s so scary for people to think about what it’s like to put themselves out there in community. I’m sure you experienced this on your book tour. What was it like for you to be meeting people from our community that you may have known virtually, or they have known you virtually and then to bring it into the real life?

John: Fear of rejection.

Noelle: Mhmm.

John: Fear of disappointing them. So the other layer is, because of the Internet and the way that we portray ourselves—whether we do it on purpose or not—it may not match who you are in person. So for me, because I write a lot and people read my words, there’s a lot of room for them to imagine me a certain way or a certain type of person, certain personality. And then I always fear that when I meet them in real life that I’m gonna disappoint them.

Noelle: Did that happen? Did you have that experience? What actually happened? Because those were your fears, but then what happened?

John: What actually happened was—well and then the greatest fear was that no one would show up. What happened was everyone showed up more than I thought, and it was extremely meaningful, and there was tons of eye contact and hugs, and it was lovely. I didn’t have any—so I actually jumped into a lot of micro-communities—whether they be CrossFit, boxers, or book signings—and they were all lovely.

Noelle: It was awesome.

John: It was awesome, just real people. We were killing time and I was at a pub, and even like on my Instagram stories I was like “if anyone’s around, jump in”, and someone did come in—just straight up stranger off the street and we had a lovely, amazing conversation and she was an acupuncturist. Things like that, it was really surprising at how now the Internet—it’s not like you just meet someone online and you think they’re a weirdo—it’s just kind of become the norm.

Noelle: Yeah, and that’s super awesome. And I think it’s super important to model this kind of behavior—being fearless and getting out into community. I’m gonna start doing it next month in April for our company JRNI and the Catalyst Life Coaching Intensive and bopping around the country to meet Catalysts and anyone whose interested in our program. I’m gonna be in Atlanta April 3rd-7th, and then in June we’ll be in Stratton, Vermont, and then in August we’ll be in Denver, and in September we’ll be in Brooklyn. So if you guys are listening, get in touch. I’d love to see you. I’d love to have coffee, and hang out, and talk about life, and break the virtual barrier.

John: Yeah you know what, the idea of this having a personal tour—like you don’t just have to be a band, you know? You could actually meet people who you have some kind of exchange with on the Internet, and bop around the country and that’s its own thing.

Noelle: 100%. I mean I’m going to see our coaches, I’m going because I’ll be on tour with Wanderlust for JRNI Coaching. But it’s pretty cool. Those personal connections are so important.

John: Yeah and I gotta say, just this last year we were doing that, and I was in Vermont, and we were in Palm Springs. It’s a whole new level of our company and our community that I’m now finding so valuable. It’s a whole different layer.

Noelle: Yeah, and it’s new. It’s an old concept—living in tribe, living in community—but this concept of really being intentional with it and almost using it to your benefit—because there are so many layers. Just even in this brief time we’ve been talking, we touched on so many different theories of human development—we touched on imago, we touched on the neurobiological definition of love, and we touched on pre-Industrial Revolution society formation. And we can look at it through all of these academic lenses and say this is why we have empirical study. Because we’re doing it, and you and I are noticing that it’s making a really big difference in people’s lives. And then trying to figure it out and saying, “Well what’s the theory? How does it work psychologically?” And then as coaches, we’re all about the future focus, “How do you harness goodness and bring it forward with you into the future? What’s the recipe for this stuff?”

John: Right. Well guys, if you’re listening, and I don’t know where you’re at in your life, or if you feel lonely and isolated and you’re thirsty for community, we encourage you to join our community. Use the Internet as a tool and build support, build foundation, build soil. If not, you’re going to go the other way, because the Internet can also keep us isolated and alone in our bedrooms.

Noelle: 100%.

John: And meet Noelle on the Noelle Cordeaux Tour that’s coming up. She is 10 times better in person than just audio.

Noelle: Thanks John.

John: Alright guys, be well. Thanks for listening.

Noelle: Talk to you soon.

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