Are you sticking your head in the sand?

Our new columnist, award-winning coach Kim Morgan, helps a client who is in denial about debt


Are you sticking your head in the sand?

Coaching session 1: How are you, really?

When I saw Tina walking towards my office I noticed how glamorous she was. I hastily applied some lipstick before she came in.

Tina told me that in every way she wanted to be ‘Simply the Best’ – like the song by her namesake. She had decided to indulge herself in some coaching to achieve her goals.

I asked Tina to talk to me about her life, what was currently going well and what could be better. She described all areas of her life as wonderful. We talked about what would make her life even better. She came up with a couple of small health and fitness goals to work on next time.

I gave Tina a question for homework: If you could wave a magic wand, what one thing would you change about your life?

Meeting with my supervisor later in the week, I confessed. ‘Something doesn’t add up. It’s all too good to be true’. I experienced a nagging feeling that we hadn’t got to why Tina was really there. We seemed to be playing at coaching.

To my surprise, my supervisor challenged me, ‘Why does everything have to have a dark side for you? Is there a chance that you are a bit envious of this client? She seems to have it all. What is that provoking in you?’

There are two people in every coaching session. The coach and client each bring their beliefs, values and personal histories.

The supervisor’s role is to challenge the coach about whether their personal history is affecting the coaching process. I had to admit that I had found Tina to be a bit smug and that maybe I was envious of her life? I resolved to keep a more open mind.

Coaching Session 2: Coming out of denial

Tina was in tears as she gave me the answer to her ‘homework’ question, ‘I would not be in debt.’

My initial instincts had been right. There was an underlying issue that Tina had not felt able to share in our first meeting. Tina told me that her wardrobe was full of more clothes than she could ever wear. Credit card statements remained unopened and stuffed in a cupboard.

‘I don’t even know how much I owe, I have been afraid to look. I feel sick with fear and I have been pretending everything is ok,’ she said.

Avoidance behaviours work as a momentary escape from uncomfortable feelings. It is normal to try to hide from the things we fear but avoidance does not work as a long-term strategy. Not facing up to things compounds the original problem, which causes further stress and anxiety and the situation continues to worsen. The longer you bury your head in the sand, the more you stand to lose.

Tina and I talked about how she had learned this habit in childhood. Her well-meaning parents had encouraged her to avoid uncomfortable situations and she was still doing it.

I congratulated her for taking the first, brave step of getting her head out of the sand and facing up to reality. This is the first stage of any change because you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

Coaching Session 3: Facing the consequences

I once saw a very overweight woman who, when asked ‘How did you get this way?’ responded, ‘Very slowly’. I told Tina this story to highlight the danger of ignoring everyday choices, because all our choices have long-term consequences.

I encouraged Tina to imagine where she would be in 3 years’ time if she didn’t address her situation. She found it painful to picture herself penniless, destitute and unhappy. Sometimes facing the painful consequences of current behaviours can motivate change.

Tina and I agreed that every time she felt the desire to spend money or hide her bank statements, she would ask herself, ‘Is this behaviour taking me closer to being penniless and unhappy or closer to being ‘Simply the Best’?’

After our three coaching sessions Tina had acquired the motivation and courage to change her ingrained avoidance habits.

Dealing with the financial aspects of her situation was outside my area of expertise and I referred her to a financial specialist, confident that she was now ready to tackle her situation with eyes wide open.

Do it Yourself: Try this Two Alternative Futures exercise

Step One. Sit with two empty chairs facing you. Think about a behaviour you want to change but have not succeeded in changing so far.

Step Two. Imagine that three years have passed and you have still not made any changes. Choose one of the two empty chairs and imagine that you can see yourself there in three years’ time.

Notice the following about your future self:

  • How does she look?
  • What is she saying?
  • What do you think and feel about her?
  • What impact has her behaviour had on her life?

Step Three. Imagine that three years have passed and you have made all the changes you want to make. Look at the other chair and imagine you can see that successful, future version of yourself.

Notice the following about your successful future self:

  • How does she look?
  • What is she saying?
  • What do you think and feel about her?
  • What impact has her behaviour change had on her life?

Now go and sit in that chair. You are now the successful future version of you. From that perspective, write down some words of advice for yourself today:

  • The first steps you need to take are…
  • The benefits of making changes are….
  • I know you can do it because you……

Face Your FABs (Favourite Avoidance Behaviours)

Bringing your habits into conscious awareness is a first step towards changing behaviours.

You know deep down what your FABs are, so make a list of them! They may include:

Not answering the phone, not checking bank statements, not getting on the scales, downplaying the importance of what you need to do, keeping busy, making excuses, delaying or cancelling, pretending everything is ok.

Share your FABs with someone you really trust and ask them to challenge you whenever they notice you using any of them.

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Photograph: iStock