Coaching session 1 – “My last boyfriend put me down in public after I gained a few pounds”
Ellie* entered my office like a ray of sunshine. She was bubbly, considerate and positive. She spent the first 15 minutes asking me about my work, with genuine interest. I had to remind Ellie that she was paying for my time so that she could devote a few hours to talking about her life. As a coach, it is interesting to take note of how a client behaves with you, as this gives an indication of how they are with other people. If Ellie’s behaviour with me was typical, then I imagined that she spent most of her life making other people feel good about themselves. I wondered if she showed herself as much kindness and consideration.
When Ellie finally got around to talking about herself, she said that she wanted to work out why she selects unsuitable partners. ‘I have had a few relationships that have all ended with me being let down, cheated on or mistreated. My last boyfriend constantly put me down in public because I had gained a few pounds, and then dumped me by text after a serious two-year relationship. My friends say I go for “lost sheep” and try to rescue them. I’ve tried to understand where I am going wrong, but can’t work it out. I had a stable upbringing and would love to be happily married for the rest of my life like my parents.’
I commented that although Ellie was telling me about being badly hurt, she did it with a smile on her face, and I wondered what she did with her anger. She was confused by this question and immediately started to explain and excuse her previous partners’ behaviour. For homework, I gave Ellie permission to imagine being someone else looking at her past relationships and to experience what an observer might see, think and feel about how she had been treated.
Coaching session 2 – Identifying a critical truth
Ellie told me that she had found her homework difficult to do, but it had made her realise that she always saw things from other people’s points of view and never from her own. Thinking back over her relationships, Ellie realised that she had never actually chosen her partners, but had allowed herself to be picked by the wrong people, because she couldn’t say ‘no’ to them and didn’t want to hurt their feelings. ‘I know it is pathetic, but that is the truth,’ said Ellie. ‘I then put all my energy into trying to change them and, of course, never succeeded.’
I told Ellie that I had once been to a talk by a relationship expert who said, ‘Do not have relationships with people based on their potential. What you see is what you get.’
Coaching session 3 – and beyond…
Over several months, Ellie and I worked out that there were several factors that had contributed to her poor relationship history. Her protective upbringing had not prepared her for the fact that not everyone is well-intentioned, and she just expected everybody to be lovely. Ellie had also learned to put the needs of others before her own. She wanted to help people and was sure that with enough love, time and attention, she could change them.
Even our most admirable qualities, when overdone, can be weaknesses. Ellie was excessive in her optimism and care for others, without developing any ability to discern when she needed to take a different tack, such as being angry, for example.
Ellie learned to recognise her core values and which of those she was not prepared to compromise. She started to make choices based on her own needs and began saying ‘no’ to things that she didn’t want to do, so her self-esteem improved. When our sessions ended, Ellie was like a different person – still funny, warm and considerate – but also a woman with strong boundaries, who respected herself and knew what she wanted.
I don’t know whether Ellie eventually met someone new – but I feel confident that she would have entered a fresh relationship from a position of strength and high self-worth, which would give it a greater chance of success.
*Name has been changed
Illustration: Andrea De Santis