Bullish: Be Your Own Life Coach – Define Your Problems, Ask the Right Questions

As much as I love alliteration, here are two words that really shouldn’t go together, at least in the same day: “breakup” and “biopsy.”

The last couple of weeks of my life have been difficult, but that turned into, I think, a helpful column last week: Bullish: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness (and also Bullish Life: Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It). And maybe it’ll turn into a helpful column today.

During these suboptimal days, I found myself, um, reading my own advice in old columns (awkward!), and then thinking about how different it is to see your own problems and to live within your own problems.

Part of the point of having a life coach is to have an objective view of your travails. Ever read a news account about someone who committed suicide? In most cases, it’s pretty easy to put the stranger’s problems in perspective: “A lot of people fail the bar exam,” “She would’ve gotten over it and found a new boyfriend later,” or, “Wow, it sucks to lose your job, house, car, and spouse, but … what a great time to join the Peace Corps.” The people who committed suicide couldn’t see beyond their own bubble of misery, and couldn’t envision a radically different future that would make those problems irrelevant.

As I commented last week, I’d like to start an organization that deposits suicidal people in exciting foreign countries, thus making all their problems seem trivially specific and escapable in retrospect. (I think this might also have the effect of making most world religions seem impossibly provincial, but that’s another topic.)

Note: I don’t mean to make light of mental illness. You can’t solve someone’s mental illness by taking them to Mauritania. But kids who kill themselves because of bullying? People who freak out because they didn’t get into med school? Yes, those people need a change of scenery.

So, since the people who most need life coaches are often the people who can least afford them — and because I spent four months in an intensive executive coach training program! — here’s a short column about being your own life coach.

Problems? Define those problems and separate them from yourself.

A friend of mine is in grad school for counseling, where what she calls “person-with” language is used deliberately and exclusively: she does not work with alcoholics and drug addicts, but with “people with alcoholism” and “people with narcotics addictions.” As a lover of language, I once had a hard time getting used to this, but I am now a true believer. If you say that your company has hired an epileptic, it sort of sounds — to some — like a madhouse over there; if you say that your company has hired a person with epilepsy, it sounds like you have an appropriately inclusive work environment.

I mention this because being “depressed” is rather disempowering and makes it sound like whatever is bad in your life is going to kind of poison everything.

Alternately, being a “person who has some depression” puts it in perspective, and points out that this is not your permanent condition. It’s more like … psoriasis. It comes and goes. It’s not really fundamental to your personhood. Similarly, you are “a person with financial issues” or “a person with a career setback.” You wouldn’t call a stranger a “failure” (I hope), so don’t do it to yourself.

To keep a problem in perspective, imagine a little form listing all the areas of a person’s life — perhaps family, friends, romance, work, education, hobbies, health and fitness, spirituality or philosophy, altruism, civics. Maybe actually copy down that list and make notes for each area. If you have the ability, resources, and inclination to be reading Bullish right now, there’s just no way your problems bleed over into all of those areas. It’s the difference between your kid insisting he’s “stupid,” and finding out that, actually, he’s getting a D in Spanish.

Defining problems makes them solvable, or at least appropriately contained.

Ask non-judgmental questions.

According to The Coaching Manual, here are some “controlling” questions that “narrow down options, imply judgment, or create pressure”:

“What made you act in such a hostile manner towards her?”
“What could you do to completely resolve the situation for everyone affected?”
“What is it about Kathy you aren’t able to deal with?”

Here are some non-judgmental questions:

“What was behind the way you acted towards her?”
“What could you do to improve things now?”
“What is it about Kathy’s behavior that’s important to you?”

Here’s another good one:

“What do you want to happen now?”

Most other questions either become unimportant in comparison (“Why poor little me?”), or else get wrapped into that grand query (“Why did yet another job turn out like this?”) — reflection on our failures is so much more palatable when performed in the service of “What do you want to happen now?”

Feeling a little zoned out? Be personal assistant to your future self.

One open-minded coaching question is, “What are some of your options?”

If you feel miserable, zoned-out, numb, fragile, or a million other things that keep you from charging full-speed ahead, that’s okay for now; there are cycles to human achievement and momentum. But don’t do nothing; instead of doing high-level work, be a personal assistant to your future self. (See Bullish: Breaking Free From Terrible Situations for more on the idea of your “future self.”)

That is, you could certainly channel your unpleasant emotions into starting a company (see Bullish: You Can Start A Business By Tuesday and Bullish: In Praise of Anger.) That’s one option.

Or, you could imagine your future-self becoming that kickass CEO, and your current self getting all the mindless crap out of the way for her so she can do her job. Get your desk nice and clean. Finally switch to Gmail. Take out the smelly recycling pile. Fill out any bullshit paperwork you’ve been putting off. Make all those doctor and dentist appointments. Take your pets to the vet. Call your credit card company and ask for a lower APR (it’s very possible that you could use your anger, crying, or irritability as negotiating tools).

All that shit that’s kind of a waste of your time when you’re on your game? Do it when you’re feeling like a hollowed-out robot. Badass-future-CEO will be back, and she will need a clean desk and an available credit line.

That is, right now: YOU ARE THE BLACK SWAN.

Incidentally, I wrote this column on a day on which I counted “eating an orange” as an accomplishment twice — once for feeding myself, and once for eating fruit before it goes bad. (When I was stressed out in high school, I would often add, “Breathe air” to my to-do list just to cross it off.)

Six months ago, I privately told my best friend (see Bullish: How Talking About Money Can Make You More of It) that my biggest life problem was trying not to become smug. So, hey look, bad things happen to everyone! Including me.

We can always choose our response to these events. To do so wisely, invite yourself into your own life coaching session — perhaps performed alone at an uncrowded bar, contemplating your bourbon — in which you define problems, ask non-judgmental questions, and accept and redeem even the suck-ass stages of life by doing what you’re best at when things suck.

I’ll bet the Swedes will soon get around to giving everyone free life coaches. For now, there is no reason you cannot grant yourself the same regard that a compassionate professional would; even better, you’re operating with more information, and thus more power to make better things happen next.

Photo from Depression: Part Two, on Hyperbole and a Half

Article originally published on The Gloss

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