Fly on the Wall: Inside a Recent Coaching Session

Today I’m sharing a snapshot of a coaching session. (Client’s name is changed and permission has been given to share this.)

Veronica was feeling dissatisfied and judgmental about her daughter, and also about herself for being judgmental. 

“My daughter is doing it all wrong- how she is living her life, how she treats her husband. She’s not going to get what she wants. I can’t help her- when I try, or rather, when I can’t stop myself from trying to control or fix her- I make everything worse. I do it all wrong, and she pushes me away. That’s really frustrating.”

We talked about this and Veronica noticed that when she is focused on the idea that her daughter is “doing it all wrong” she feels compelled to insert herself into her daughter’s life- and then ends up “doing it all wrong” herself. 

We considered whether her daughter really is doing it all wrong. Is it true? And can we know that the daughter is not going to get what she wants? Is it possible that how she is with her husband is the way it needs to be for her, for them, right now? 

It’s okay that Veronica has judgmental and worried thoughts; she’s a mom, she cares about her kids, and sometimes thoughts like these pop up. But it is also worthwhile to question them, and ask what comes out of focusing on them. In this case, frustration, judgment of herself and her daughter, and ultimately, her daughter pushing her away.

I asked if there are other thoughts Veronica has about her daughter that we could put out on the table and look at.  “Sure,” she said. “She has a good job, plus she manages her ranch and all the animals… she is actually doing a good job at doing her life. And, I only hear what she chooses to tell me, I don’t really know what happens inside her marriage.”

It’s clear that Veronica has a variety of thoughts about her daughter. Some positive, some negative, some neutral. All of them are believable and available thoughts that she can chose to focus on.

I asked: when you choose to think “she is doing a good job at doing her life,” how does that feel?  Veronica: “I admire her. I  don’t feel the need to fix anything. I can listen to her concerns and be supportive and empathetic. That feels so much better, and is the kind of mom I want to be to her.”

And that is the kind of mom Veronica is becoming, day by day, thought by thought.

OMG I Can’t Say That!

Have you ever had an opinion that you know you don’t want to say out loud to your adult kid, something like “you’re clearly not gonna get that job you’re counting on” or “that guy you’re seeing is a loser”? You don’t want the job or the guy to come up, so you ramble on about anything else with great animation, your voice getting all high pitched and weird sounding.

You love your kid, you know their business is their business, and you want to be the kind of parent who knows when to keep her mouth shut.

When you hang up the phone, having dodged that bullet, you are relieved… for a moment. But then, the wondering sets in: did s/he notice how lame and awkward you were? Does s/he now wonder what’s wrong? And, how long can you keep this up when there is always something that is gonna feel taboo? How will you ever be close and feel connected if you have to censure everything so carefully?

Notice that when you resist and try to hide your thoughts, and judge yourself for having them, the thoughts themselves can take on outsized power. They become the elephant in the room. You may resent feeling judged, even if it is yourself doing the judging. When you don’t accept or feel good about our own thoughts and feelings, its difficult to have a clean, clear relationship with yourself. And when you’re working so hard to censure and hide your thoughts, its pretty impossible to feel comfortable and connected with others. 

So what to do?

First, don’t judge the thought or yourself for having it. Thoughts arise unbidden and we get to decide what to do with them.

Minimize the energy behind the thought. Don’t turn away from it- take a look, be curious. 

Question the thought. Ask: is it true? Am I in a position to see the full picture? Could I be wrong? What else do I think? What do I want to think? What do I want to communicate to my kid? 

Decide what thoughts you do want to think about your son or daughter. The thoughts should be believable to you and support how you want to show up for your kid.

Take the initiative to communicate that to your son or daughter. That could sound something like:

“I’ll probably always have my own ideas and thoughts about your life, sometimes based on feeling protective of you, or on my own experiences, fears, challenges, my desires or regrets about my own life. But I know this is your life to live your way, and I just want to be here to love you and support you. That’s what I am working on- bear with me if I fumble sometimes.”

When you figure out what you want to say, you don’t have to worry so much about what you might say.

III. What’s a Grumpy Mom to Do?

Irritation happens. What to do?

In the moment: we feel a flare up of irritation.

Acknowledging and allowing the emotion, we say to ourself “I feel irritated, and that’s okay.”

We take a moment to focus on our breath, saying the words to ourself: “breathing in, breathing out.” This slows us down, calms our nervous system and restores a sense of control. Placing a hand on our heart adds warmth and safety; letting our exhale be an audible sigh releases tension.

Breathing in, we imagine calm and compassion for ourself, our kids and the situation, whatever it may be. Breathing out, we let go of irritation for the burned bacon, parking ticket, or bowl of oatmeal upturned onto the carpet. 

All this may take 20-30 seconds.

Of course, we take care of our child and address whatever needs attention. When we can do so while calm rather than irritated, we are much more kindly, clearheaded and effective.

What if irritation sticks around? Well, irritation, grumpiness, actually all emotions arise out of what’s going on in our brain- our thoughts. So, we can pay attention to what we are thinking. We may be spinning some thoughts over and over: “That kid! It’s a no parking zone! Doesn’t he pay attention? Does he think I’m gonna pay for the ticket?” 

Can you see how thinking those thoughts would cause agitation? And when agitated, how would we likely handle the situation? Probably in an angry and accusative way, without clear thought, without firm grounding.

So, when we notice we are spinning in thoughts, making ourself agitated, fueling actions that aren’t helpful, we can ask ourself: 

 How else can I look at this?

 Is there another way to think about it? 

 What are the basic facts of the situation? 

 Is it helpful to be angry at him? 

 What was it like to get my first ticket?

 How do I want to feel toward him?

 Could this be an opportunity for my son to take responsibility for his actions?

 Can I be firm about that and also compassionate as he deals with his first parking ticket?

In this case, the irritation sticking around was an opportunity to notice and take responsibility for our thoughts. To look inward and redirect our brain. We became mindful of the adult responsibilities he has now that he is driving. We have an opportunity to help him negotiate the system, perhaps discuss how he will earn the money to pay for it, and of course, learn to pay better attention in future.

In this scenario, we redirected our thoughts, and transformed irritation into clarity, resolution and connection. 

In the first scenario, we borrowed wisdom from meditation traditions and neuroscience to turn irritation into kindness and calm.

In each way we find opportunity to learn and grow as parents, and as human beings.

II. Some Good Things To Know

Attention, Moms! Whether your kids are babes in arms, are almost old enough to join the Army or maybe even have their own army of kids, sometimes you get grumpy with them. Irritated, frustrated, impatient, angry, resentful.

You will probably think the reason you are grumpy is something like: your little one dumped her oatmeal on the carpet, your son got a parking ticket or the bacon burned.

But your grumpiness isn’t caused by the oatmeal, ticket, bacon or anything your kids do or say. You are grumpy because of what you are thinking about, for example, your daughter dumping the oatmeal. Perhaps that she shouldn’t have done that, or now you’ll be late for work, or she did that out of spite, or clumsiness, or whatever. 

How do I know this? Because no matter what happens, you get to choose how you respond to it. What you make it mean. You can choose what to think about the oatmeal or anything else. How you feel will depend on what you think.

That said, let’s say you are irritated about the oatmeal. You might feel like slamming a door and yelling at your little one. 

If you are able to stop yourself from acting out of irritation, from speaking unkind words, is that the end of it? What then happens with your negative feelings, with your negative thoughts?

Irritation or anger that is turned inward will eventually make its way out, perhaps as a slow drip, perhaps in a outburst. The thought that caused the irritation also still remains, unexamined and unprocessed. How we behave with our kids is important, but so too is how we feel and what we think. 

I have read that our brains produce 60 thousand thoughts a day, and 80% of those thoughts tend to be negative. This is because our brain is constantly looking for problems, alerting us, protecting us from danger.

So, when negative thoughts pop up, we can remind ourselves that nothing has gone wrong, that our brain is just doing its job. 

We can remind ourselves that no matter what happens with oatmeal, bacon, tickets or our kids, we can choose what we want to think about it. 

We can learn healthy ways to deal with negative emotions.

Next week we’ll get into specifics. See you back here for III. What’s a Mom to Actually Do?

I. Confessions of a Harried Mom

When I had my first kid, in my twenties, I didn’t have much of a filter. I said what came to mind and mopped up any messes later.

When I had my second kid I was in my thirties, and I had learned my lesson. Or had I? I didn’t want to be a mean mom. I had learned enough to (usually) hold my tongue when I was angry or frustrated. But I hadn’t learned what to do with those unlaunched, unkind thoughts. 

Those thoughts like:

You should know this by now.

Why do you make it so hard?

Can’t you see I’m doing something right now? 

I was surprised when this second son said to me, years later: You do this passive aggressive thing, Mom.

But it makes sense to me now, looking back. There must have been tons of times when I didn’t actually say unkind words out loud to him, but the irritation behind the words would find their way out through my tone of voice or the look on my face. 

So what is the solution? Moms are human. Even the loviest moms get irritated and impatient sometimes. What can we do with those grumpy thoughts that rise up unbidden? 

Turns out, there is a lot you can do. 

So this is gonna be a three-parter. Check back to this space for upcoming parts II and III:

II. Some Really Good Things To Know

III. What’s a Mom to Actually Do?

Want a Better Relationship with Your Adult Kid?

Do you wish you had a better relationship with your adult kid? 

What would it take to make it better?

If you answered something like: 

If she would be nicer to me, if he would call more often, if they would make better choices or settle down or work harder or drink less or or or… then I would feel better about them, then we could have a better relationship.

A lot of people will agree with you, and commiserate with you… because you are powerless to do anything, the relationship is out of your hands. You are at the mercy of your kid’s behavior. It is a very painful place to be. 

But is that the way it has to be? 

Here is what I believe is true: 

You, and I, and everyone, cannot make other people behave differently than they do. Even our kids.

People get to be and do what they choose.

When we set rules, expectations, “shoulds” for others, we often end up feeling disappointed, angry or hurt.

How we feel is because of how we are thinking. We think we feel hurt because our son didn’t call, but if it wasn’t for our thought “he should call” we wouldn’t be feeling hurt. 

It seems like a nice thought, a reasonable expectation: my son should call. A kid should call his mother. 

But let’s look at the reality: when we have that thought about our kid, we feel disappointed and hurt, and then how do we behave? Most likely we complain, we pout, we decide to “show him” by not calling him, or maybe we call and chew him out… And what is the result of all that?

Can you see where that reasonable thought turns out to be a kind of poison? 

So what can we do differently? 

We can start trying out different ways of thinking about our kid. So he’s not big on calling- what if we worked on making that okay. Not making it mean he is selfish or doesn’t love us. Or that we are a bad mom or have a bad relationship. But maybe instead, thinking, he is living his life, as we all are. What else? Busy, doing things, taking care of stuff, minding his business, being a grownup, just being himself. I’ve raised an independent man, living his own life.

Can you feel the relief, the easing off? 

Ultimately, our relationships with our kids are based on what we choose to think about them. Our thoughts, the emotions they generate, and the way we behave are what end up creating the relationship. 

So… what kind of relationship will you create?

Real Life Coaching

I have a client I’ll call Lora, who has an adult son I’ll call Chad. (Note: My coaching sessions are always confidential. Express permission has been given by this client to use the following, with some details changed in addition to the names.)

Lora had always worried Chad wasn’t capable of taking care of himself, of being responsible, of making good choices. They had a pattern: Chad would call and tell Lora his problems, Lora would rush in to fix the problems and rescue Chad, and then he would end up being mad at her.

At some point, awhile back, Lora had recognized the futility of this. She decided to stop “helping” Chad in this way, and to instead trust that he knew best how to live his life.

Last weekend Chad called and told Lora he’d just spent the last of his money. Lora knew not to try to rescue Chad, and she knew she didn’t want to criticize or scold him. Bit she felt frustrated and upset, got off the phone quickly, and felt depressed for the next few days. She had a lot of “noise in her head” with thoughts like:

Chad’s not managing his money and his life

Chad’s in trouble, and I want to help him but I can’t

Lora had successfully avoided taking on Chad’s work. Now she was ready to take on her own work, and consciously look at what was going on within herself. Lora had worked through much of her relationship with her son over the past couple of years, so this session was mostly about remembering and realigning with the conscious decisions she had made for herself.

As we talked about her recent conversation with Chad, here is a look at how her thoughts developed:

I know how stuck he feels and how bad that feels

This is his life, it was always supposed to be his life

It’s okay if it’s hard for me, if I feel sad

I understand that it’s hard for Chad

I love him

I want to believe in him

I want to believe he is capable, that he can handle his life

I can hold space for him to be himself

I was struck by how beautifully Lora came around to discover for herself what she now could offer Chad. When she stops viewing him as unable and incapable, there is nothing to fix, no one to rescue.

I want to be clear: it isn’t necessary for Lora to see evidence of Chad’s success at financial planning, for example, in order to believe in him, to believe he is capable, to believe that he can handle his life, on his own terms. 

Like all humans, Chad is learning life by living it. On the job training. He may be struggling with one or more of life’s issues now, and maybe he will his whole life, but it is his life to work with all these things we have to deal with on planet Earth. 

And Lora gets to love him, enjoy him, practice holding space for him, practice believing in him and his amazing unique existence. She gets to support and appreciate and be interested in how he figures it out. She gets to feel the relief of letting go of judgement and frustration, of the need to fix and rescue.

She gets to just love her son.

When Your Brain Enters the Scene

It’s not what happens TO us, it’s what happens IN OUR BRAIN that determines how we feel, what we do and all the results we ultimately end up with in our life.

How does this work? Let’s say you get this text from your son in college: he has quit school. 

Now, I want to make a point here: that message from your son is a circumstance. Whether he quit school is a circumstance. All circumstances are neutral. Neither good nor bad. They just are.

But you read the text, and your brain enters the scene. You have a thought.

Here’s the second point I want to make: we have a choice about what we think. There are unlimited thoughts to think in any circumstance. We may not realize we have a choice, probably nobody ever taught us that, but we always do.

Let’s look at some thoughts you might be thinking (and the emotion that thought probably would generate in you):

No @%!#ing way! He can’t just up and decide that! (in denial)

What the @%!#? After all we’ve done to get him in, all the money we’ve spent…I’m gonna wring his neck! (furious)

Whoa! I wonder what’s going on with him, what’s happened. (concerned)

Okay, third point: our emotions fuel our actions. So, in each of the examples above- feeling in denial or furious or concerned- what do you think you would do? Would you call your son? Your spouse? The college? What would the first words out of your mouth be? Would there likely be a showdown, a conversation, an edict given? How about your relationship with your son? 

Imagine all you would do and say in each case, and what might result from that. 

Here is a way to diagram the elements and relationships we have been discussing here:

A CIRCUMSTANCE is outside you, is always neutral, until you have a…

THOUGHT (or opinion, belief) which is always a choice whether conscious or not, where you give meaning to the circumstance, which generates a… 

FEELING or emotional/bodily reaction, that fuels…

ACTION all that you do, don’t do, say, don’t say, and that brings a…

RESULT in your life, initiated by your thought above.

Simply called “The Model,” this is a tool developed by Brooke Castillo, founder of The Life Coach School. We use a blank form- the five elements of the Model with blanks to fill in- to separate out and fill in all the parts of a situation in order to understand it better. 

Curiosity and self compassion need always be our guides in this work. As a coach, I ask both myself and my clients: By thinking this thought, what result am I creating in my life? Are there other thoughts I can think about this circumstance instead? To feel better about my job, my relationships, my life, what kinds of thoughts would I need to think?

Paying attention to our lives and making conscious choices are not new ideas. Socrates famously said: the unexamined life is not worth living. The Serenity Prayer says: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. We find this echoed in all the great spiritual teachings and inspired works, across every tradition and culture.

We have so much more power in our lives than most of us ever take up. Power to choose our thoughts, to feel good about our lives, to act in ways that create the life we aspire to.

What Strange New Creature?

Remember returning home from college, so full of all your new ideas and experiences? 

In one of my holiday memories from that time, apparently fresh from a full body dive into feminist theory, I remember lecturing my mom and her best friend Peedie on how they threw away the best years of their lives on marriage and raising kids. Still makes me cringe. 

Are you wondering what strange new creature will arrive on your doorstep soon, after months away at university? And how you’re supposed to know how to parent this newly semi-adult, semi-independent kid of yours?

You actually don’t have to know; s/he will probably come home knowing enough for several people. I am joking… kind of. Seriously, just be open and curious. Not creepy and interrogational; just show interest. Conversationally ask questions. And not (just) about grades, class sizes, whether they liked a class or not. Avoid yes/no questions, as they can be showstoppers. 

Think of open ended, leading questions to get them talking. What are they finding most interesting about their classes? surprising about being in college? What were some of their favorite assignments, and why? If you hit on something that gets them to open up, keep it going: “oh yeah? hmmm… how so?”

This is how the strange creature will become less strange (or at least less unknown.)

And if s/he starts lecturing you on some particular socio-economic-cultural-gender privilege, or spouting esoteric theory… be gentle. To be passionate about new ideas is a wonderful thing. Even if you don’t love the idea, love the passion, appreciate the intellectual exercise. 

Try to stay calm and unruffled. Don’t take it personally. And try not to judge. As you calmly say, “oh yeah? mmm… how so?” visualize reminding them of this conversation in forty years. 

You chuckling, s/he cringing… so worth it!