Proper way of coaching the young and anxious

I’m sure that like me you have been hearing about the increasing number of young people who feel anxious and depressed, even suicidal. And this is not just the poor and the unqualified. It includes many of the brightest and the best, the most educated and affluent.

In a BBC programme the other day there was a feature on the increasing number of suicides in Kenya, and later an interview with a life coach who talked about helping her clients to stop indulging in “negative self-talk”. Then I read an article on the BBC website about “insecure over-achievers”, and another on why young Germans are pessimistic.

What a gloomy collection.

I related all too closely to each of these items, as in the last few weeks I have been coaching several young graduates, all extremely bright and multi-talented, all with extraordinary academic as well as non-academic achievements behind them… yet all so anxious about themselves and their futures.

In addition to excelling in their studies they had experienced success in sports and the arts, they’d been chosen for leadership positions, and had contributed as volunteers in their communities.

Despite all their talents and achievements though, despite possessing the needed energy, confidence and boldness to have performed as they did, they felt deeply unsure about themselves. They spoke of lofty aspirations to make the world a better place, yet lacked a sense of where and how to proceed. “I feel quite lost,” one of these super-achievers admitted to me.

So what does a coach like me do? What, as someone who is currently training to become a coach asked me recently, is my “coaching model”? First, I ask my clients to tell me about themselves – which most find it surprisingly awkward to do. When I asked one to tell me which of her many achievements she was proudest of she fumbled, confessing she had never considered the question.

As I have observed such awkwardness over the years I have deduced that a common cause is not wishing to “brag”. Some of my clients worried they would come across as “impostors”, indeed saw themselves as such, leading them to lose their self-assuredness when talking about themselves.

So accepting this is how they feel, the next step is to have them talk about their achievements as if they were a disengaged outsider straightforwardly examining the evidence, with neither hype nor understatement – as stated in their CVs, yet embarrassing to articulate.

I press gently, knowing it will be hard for them, helping them to shed unwanted baggage accumulated over the years.

I express my admiration for them, urging them to relax and share my enthusiasm, to accept, enjoy… celebrate.

I also help them create the missing link between their achievements and the strengths that explain them with the self-esteem to which they have earned the right. It should be easy and obvious, but it is not, neither for them nor for countless other over-achievers. I adopt a light touch, teasing them with their refusal to link how wonderful they are with how they see themselves.

They begin to relax and shed their self-inflicted burdens, allowing us to explore how what they have shown they offer to the world, what they enjoy doing and are good at, can be matched with what the world is looking for. Now they are ready work on a much higher impact version of their CVs – their sales brochure, and then launch a confident sales campaign to promote a product of which they are proud.

Before I close, let me say how pleased I am that the Ministry of Education has at last decided that all universities must have offices for careers services. Forty years ago, through AIESEC and Rotaract, I began running self-exploration workshops at universities to prepare students for the workplace.

Then and now, at both secondary and tertiary levels, such support is virtually absent. No wonder therefore that so many of our most talented graduates feel confused and directionless. There is much work to be done. But it goes way beyond outlining career options. The process must start by going deep within the individual psyche.

What to do when mounting sense of frustration hits

By coincidence, last week not one but two of my coaching clients asked me to take time with them so they could do a better job of handling growing feelings of frustration.

As a result they were becoming unduly irritable and sometimes downright angry; they were more intolerant, even shouting at those who did not deserve their wrath.

As I prepared for my sessions with them I immediately thought about the need for emotional intelligence, in which those who rate highly first acknowledge their own emotions and feelings. They then manage them, and next carefully assess how those with whom they interact are feeling and hence behaving, before working at building positive relationships with them.

My clients were having to deal with an unusual number of people who were acting unreliably, disrespectfully and unethically. But despite how they felt about the unfortunate way they were being treated, their emotional intelligence challenge was to find the strength to separate their feelings from their behaviour, aware of the negative consequences of not doing so.

For those with emotional intelligence remain calm and disengaged enough to evaluate what behaviour will work most effectively in making difficult situations better, rather than to stagnate or degenerate further. They try to empathise with their awkward others despite how they are behaving, figuring out what lies behind their unhelpful posture. (Maybe how they are confronting them is disconnected from the root cause of their behaviour.)

How can a non-performer, an antagonist, be won over to deliver what is wanted, to become an ally? How can we use our negotiating skills, our powers of persuasion, a lightness of touch, to get to some adequate win-win resolution of an issue? What can we offer to make it easier for the other party to reciprocate with their own reaching out, responding positively to our requests? Imagine how a mediator would approach the situation, going back and forth till both sides feel adequately satisfied.

At times it may feel good to give vent to our frustrations, to allow ourselves to ‘lose it’, knowing that’s what the other deserves. But the immediate sense of gratification is quite likely to make the situation yet worse, and yet more difficult to recover from.

Not always, mind you, and in particular if we have been allowing ourselves to be taken for granted. Then it may be just what’s needed. Better still if we actually had not lost control but had actively decided that showing our frustration was what was needed.

Another option is to pull back and disengage, having assessed the chances of being able to move forward as slim: there’s no point wasting emotional energy for nothing, right? It’s why we are advised to choose our battles carefully.
Over the years I have been running workshops on stress management, in which I advise participants to divide their sources of stress into three categories. The first is where the possibility exists to change something that will immediately and completely remove the source of stress. The second is an intermediate position, where over time some progress may be possible. And the third is one where there’s nothing we can do to change what’s happening and so we must just live with it – while seeking to migrate to happier environments, at least for some of our time.

As a way of detaching myself from those who are frustrating me I console myself by writing about the issue – often in my journal, and if I am really upset through hammering out an angry poem. It’s very therapeutic. Certainly sharing frustrations with a family member, a friend or a colleague is helpful, and if possible combining with others to pursue a common cause.

In search of solace and inspiration many turn to prayer, and some to meditation. Exercise is helpful too, as are hobbies – anything to occupy our minds and our bodies in uplifting ways. All this we know.

The challenge is that when frustrations mount, we must not wait too long before we pray or run or write or do whatever helps us cope. So breathe deeply and smoothly, friends, and this too shall pass.