Can a life coach tell us more than our own 50-plus years of experience? With a few areas she wanted to look at, High50's Celia Dodd meets Elaine Slater and embarks on an unexpected journey
I'm sipping Christmas soup in a Pret A Manger, waiting for Elaine to enter. I'm early because I'm nervous.
Seeing a life coach seemed such a good idea when I made this appointment. I wanted objective, professional help with the new directions my career was taking. It felt like time to bat off the familiar demons I felt were holding me back: lack of confidence, fear of rejection, procrastination. More generally I wanted to get back something of the pre-motherhood me. But now I'm here the old doubts return: won't a life coach just tell me what I already know?
Won't she set impossibly scary goals?
Session 1: Prioritizing And Career
26 November. As soon as I sink into Elaine's sofa I stop worrying. While she is almost dauntingly glamorous (she's the British Fashion Council's resident psychologist and life coach during Fashion Week) it's reassuring to learn that she's been through a massive career change herself, from fashion to psychotherapy.
It feels like a happy coincidence that her favorite mantra is the same as mine: "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong."
Different Kinds Of Life Coaching
There are many different kinds of life coach, from those who specialize in a particular profession to those who take a more holistic approach. Elaine's mission is to help clients to reach their full potential in all areas of their lives. So when I blurt out that I only need help with my career she smiles patiently and says: "I think we need to step back and take a 360 degree look."
She's reluctant to predict how many sessions I'm going to need -- at least six. Clients who come for psychotherapy may see her for two years or more.
She asks how I feel about different areas of my work. I tell her I love writing articles but I also want to develop various new opportunities that have arisen in the three years since my book about the empty nest was published, chiefly broadcasting and public speaking. I'm also ghosting the biography of an armed robber, and I've written two radio plays but have yet to find outlets for them.
She points out that I've said "I should" five times in the first five minutes. She suggests -- very gently -- that I might think about dropping projects I "should" do. My homework is to reflect on what really makes my spine tingle, as then we can work on developing the support and structure to "manifest" it.
Session 2: Restructuring My Day
10 December. Today, Elaine starts by asking about my routine and the people who support me. I explain that for years I've worked flexibly around my three kids, meeting deadlines by working in the evenings and at weekends, and that my work still has a habit of leaking into leisure time.
Elaine recommends that I establish a new structure, sticking to 9-5 and working at weekends only when an urgent deadline looms. She gives me a breathing exercise to start my day, to establish my commute-free transition from bed to cuppa to desk. She also has these four tips to boost my energy and get more productive
1. Do this simple exercise to reflect and focus: breathe in through the nose to a count of four, down past your clavicle. Hold for two breaths in the belly. Then breathe out through your mouth, as if blowing out a candle. Repeat three or four times.
2. Take regular breaks from your computer screen.
3. Refuel with water and fresh air before you feel depleted. Just opening a window can renew your energy.
4. Boost confidence by making a list every morning and ticking off everything you achieve.
How to build self-confidence
To boost my confidence she urges me to keep the momentum up after a hectic deadline. It's important, she says, to move straight on to more challenging projects while still riding the crest of confidence. I'm to make two lists: one for admin, one for creative projects, and to tick things off when they're done.
I blush when she asks me to describe my office. It's in my son's old bedroom, with Tintin on the shelves and Bob Marley posters on the walls. People wander in to use my printer. Elaine is shocked.
"It's important to value yourself and recognize what you deserve," she says, "from your physical surroundings to the people who support you."
Thrillingly, she gives me permission to create my own private haven, a zone purely for work, with inspiring pictures, beautiful flowers and delicious smells. I'm already dreaming of an open fire.
My homework is to reflect on my energy, will and ambition before motherhood. What is it I want to get back; what were the unresolved issues?
Session 3: Self-Esteem
7 January: Elaine seems pleased with my progress. Over the Christmas break things have already started to move on, almost of their own accord (or so it seems). Unprompted, my husband decorated my workroom, just in time for the New Year. Could it be that just deciding to see a life coach, and taking an objective look, creates a shift in itself?
Fear Of Rejection
So now it's time to tackle those demons of self-confidence and fear of rejection. It would help, Elaine says, to take my writing less personally, recognizing its value in the world as an almost separate 'product'. Judgements about it would then have far less impact on my personal self-esteem.
This leads on to an idea that's central to Elaine's philosophy. She believes that if we value what we do, and feel passionate about it, the "will-energy" needed to make things happen, and overcome obstacles, flows automatically.
She explains that at the moment I am getting regular fixes of "will-energy" from short-term commissions. My task now is to find the same will for projects without the accountability of deadlines, and with little feedback.
That feels like a big ask when you're writing something that might never see the light of day. Elaine insists self-expression has intrinsic value, but I'm yet to be convinced.
She suggests introducing my own accountability by setting deadlines with consequences: if I don't meet them, I have to give up that particular project.
Elaine doesn't expect me to make changes alone. She's keen that I build up a network of support. This is music to my ears, because working from home -- the perfect solution when the kids were at home -- feels increasingly isolated.
I leave the third session with my most daunting task yet: to set up a meeting with a publicist. And to draw a spectrum of my 'talent'. As I make the call the following day I'm aware of a new sense of purpose. I then book a course about marketing yourself in the digital age and update my website and blog. Elaine didn't suggest these things; they just feel part and parcel of moving forward. Or as she might say, "will in action".
When I reflect on where I was six weeks ago, this is progress indeed. I'm even looking forward to what the next few weeks will uncover. Watch this space, as I will be posting an update here.
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