coaching topics, Self-reflection

Who am I? Identity, purpose and role.

Intro – I coach a lot of academics. Higher Education in the UK is going through some very tough times at the moment. Many institutions are looking at cuts across the board. If you are facing possibly not being able to “be an academic” either temporarily or longer term and are wondering how you can be “you” in other roles, I hope my experience over the past year may be useful and always happy to talk with you individually. If not, thanks for reading anyway!

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So, it’s now more than a year since I left my employed roles as an academic and HE leadership team member. There are lots of things I could talk about having learnt over that year – not least the fact that even if you plan for scenarios A to E, scenario F with a global pandemic and 3 months of home school (so far) will be the one that hits you. But one thing I worried about at the time was what would be my “identity” once not an academic? Who would my “tribe be”? Where would I fit in?

As it happens, my new tribe revealed itself fairly quickly. Thanks to a few key individuals who were already free-lancers I have found a very supportive community on Facebook, and some more local ones through meeting people in a co-working space and in some networking groups. Also a group of us who did our coaching training together are finding our way as “coaches” together. But my “identity” has been a whole different thing – and is still a work in progress. Definitely not a Hungry Caterpillar situation where you  “eat” all the courses and training, disappear into a cocoon of personal development and emerge with a fully fledged beautiful new identity.

I should say here that identity and identity politics is a fascinating and complicated discipline in its own right and can often imply very specific things as in gender, sexual orientation, politics, race and ethnicity. We also describe our identity or identities in our social media profiles “Diversity and Inclusion consultant, Coach, Parent, STEM Ambassador” etc.  What I mean here is closer to the second set, the “identity” that we use when we complete forms that ask our occupation, or introduce ourselves to someone new. The very practical and day-to-day experience as a person. And specifically my tendency  to equate “occupation”, “role” or “job” to being a significant part of my identity. I know not everyone does this (my husband would not consider his role as a local government officer as a strong part of his identity), but I do know through the people I know and work with that it’s a particularly strong association for academics, teachers, doctors, nurses and many other so-called vocational professions. (I also recognise that my tendency to do this for myself could lead to bias/assumptions in how I view others and I am ever watchful of this)

Nonetheless, a year ago I needed new words to define myself on forms and at meetings  – I still have to resist the urge to start my introduction by saying “I used to be an academic” or “I used to work at the University of Reading” which is a) defining myself by saying what I am not and b) conflating who I am with what I do. I am a little allergic to the word “consultant” due to experiences in previous organisations – though I still use it, and a lot allergic to the word Executive (as in Executive Coach). But again, I’m defining myself by things I am not.

With hindsight, I don’t think I was even asking myself the right questions. The role of “academic” or “freelancer” is only part of my identity – it’s how parts of who I am present themselves in the world where I need to earn an income and be able to fill in forms that ask for my occupation. My true identity is what is really at the core of who I am (some of it I am comfortable with, other stuff less so) and what the external expression of that is. It’s figuring out the complex relationships between who I am and what I do.

The more meaningful questions I’ve worked on are “What is my purpose?”, “What are my values?” I’ve come to realise that these are the things that are constant – to help others develop, to make the world a fairer place, generally believing the best of people at least initially, expecting perfection from myself despite being more forgiving with other people (those nearest and dearest to me may disagree with that one), kindness, authenticity, love of learning. These things ARE my identity – and that identity can be expressed in roles and job titles in many ways. As an academic, as a free-lancer, as a volunteer, and as… well I don’t know what in the future!

My coaching supervisor has been known to challenge me to stop worrying about what a coach is and just be one. While I can see her point, I do think a little thinking about who I am has been helpful. But endless reinventing and reflecting can lead me at least to procrastination and stagnation. So now it’s time to get on and BE me.

Edit / update: It has been rightly pointed out that for many people, being themselves is not possible due to systemic and institutionalised racism, homophobia or other prejudice and discrimination. I therefore recognise the role that my white privilege plays in being able to write this blog and do this work. This underlines that developing and maintaining an inclusive mindset is always a work in progress, as well as the additional importance in making sure coaching is available to ALL in academia – not just those who know how and who to ask.

 

coaching topics, Self-reflection

Using Values to Understand Behaviour and Choices

I hate shouting. I hate being shouted at and I hate it when other people are shouting at each other. It makes me feel sick and shaky. I tend to withdraw and back away both physically and emotionally. It affects the rest of my day and returns to me at night (or more likely 5am the following morning). Some would consider this an over-reaction, and I know that other people don’t react in the same way as me.

I have an extreme reaction to shouting (even when I am not directly involved) because it is in conflict with three of my Key, or Core, Values – those of “Respect”, “Kindness” and “Calm”.

After my children were born, I went through a spell of anxiety and depression, as do many. I was encouraged and supported to work through some exercises to try to understand what triggered the worst of these episodes, which is where I came across the concept of core values.

My core values are respect, integrity/authenticity, kindness, helping others, learning, reflection, curiosity, hard work, calm, and independence. The strength of any individual Value ebbs and flows, but they all tend to be there to some extent. They help my sense of identity and guide some of the choices I make. They also give me the words to explain why I make certain choices (why I became a coach for example).

Understanding my own values, and that everyone has their own values which may or may not be similar to mine, also helps me understand my response to various situations and to “dampen” down unhelpful (to me) responses. In the shouting example, I wouldn’t say I didn’t still feel horrible, but I will be telling myself “OK, this is clashing with your core values so you are going to find it horrible – it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world”. Followed by “just because to me shouting is disrespectful and unkind  – and these are things that are important to me – they may not mean the same things to those involved so they probably aren’t doing it to deliberately cause you pain”. If I were more closely involved in the situation I might say (usually afterwards): “I hear your frustration at the situation, but I really value respect and to me shouting is not respectful and therefore it makes it hard for me to listen/ understand when you are shouting”. It doesn’t always stop the shouting because my response may clash with a “self-expression” Value for someone else, but I do feel like it gives me more power over my response to the situation.

Understanding some of my other values  has helped me understand why  I get frustrated with my 10 year old – he is still very much at the stage at which Values start to form but he certainly does not currently share my “hard work” and “learning” Values – though we share more of the “kindness” and “helping others” Values. It is an open question as to how much it is advisable to try to pass on my “hard work” and “learning” Values to him on a daily basis (especially during home-learning situations) but helping narrow my frustration down to the conflict with these specific values helps me move away from feeling like I am generally frustrated with him, which in turn makes for more positive interaction the rest of the time.

Only recently have I come to realise how strong my values of “integrity” and “authenticity” can be. They have shown up in 2 big ways over the past few years.

  • I had a colleague who would say completely different things depending on who was in the room. For example they would be very supportive of my ideas 1-2-1 but when I presented the same ideas in a larger meeting, they would pick them to pieces and explain why they were wrong. This was annoying – but it gradually struck me that it wasn’t the picking apart per se that was the problem, but the change in tack from the 1-2-1 to the larger meeting. In other words the lack of authenticity in that person. I stopped valuing their opinion so much and moved to work with others whenever I could.
  • My new career relies on me building relationships with clients, both on the coaching side and the consultancy side. This includes writing content for social media. I started a bit haphazardly to write some articles from a very formal standpoint, and others from a more relaxed, personal perspective. Guess which ones brought me both more satisfaction and more engagement from others? Showing up authentically gives me energy, joy, and hopefully clients! I am working in a way that is aligned to my core Values.

Finally, a note that it isn’t always necessary to understand where those Values come from – they are usually a combination of life experiences, peer influences, cultural background. I have some idea of where some of my values come from, but I don’t focus on this (either positively or negatively) most of the time. It’s enough to name them and understand how they influence my responses and choices now and moving forwards.

If you’d like to find out more about Values and how I use them in coaching sessions, you can find that in this blog.