What are Career Coaches Afraid of?
By Greg Fall
“My armor is made of titanium!”
“It is strong!”
“I am fully protected at all times!”
“Protected from whom?”
“Protected from my adversaries at Corporate, of course.”
“Is there anyone else you are protected from?”
(thinking intently) “Perhaps from … my self?”
(Reconstructed from a conversation with a career coaching client in 2006.)
Several years ago, a light bulb went on inside my head and I realized that, just like many of my clients, an unhealthy response to anxiety was causing me to be less than authentic. My inner self was wearing an outer mask of anxiety to work most days.
The name of my anxiety was failure. It emanated from a common shadow culture which exists in the world of career coaching: the idea that a career coach’s value is directly tied to objective metrics such as how long it takes clients to land a new job or how much they negotiated in compensation. These may be important measures of career coaching effectiveness, but they often become the sole focus of career-assisting organizations under pressure to perform. We want our services to be defined as relationships, but they are increasingly defined as commodities. Although I was still considering the emotional needs of my clients, the pendulum had swung. I invested more energy in helping with clients’ marketing activities. I invested less energy assisting with the inner feeling and healing work they required. I had been unaware of my mask’s slow development over the years. My practice had developed a level of “isolation from … human wholeness” (Remen, 1999, p. 35).
From Protective Persona to Calcified Mask
I believe that masks of anxiety are developed one layer at a time, perhaps over a number of years, as a protective mechanism. Many of us have workplace-related anxieties about some topic, such as being liked by peers, satisfying customers, or just keeping our jobs in this economy. If our position or industry is not a perfect fit for our particular personality, we often develop an outward professional persona to fit in culturally and feel safe, allowing us to concentrate on being productive. However, when shadow cultures in an organization (or in society, family, or other social units) are strong, we are at risk of this persona becoming a hardened mask. That is what happened to me, in response to increasing pressure to perform by the numbers. I was “out of harmony with (my) inner life” (Palmer, 1998, p. 167), my inner humanness.
Taking off the Mask
Before taking off a mask and starting to heal, name the anxiety which caused it and choose a course of action. In reflecting on my own journey, I decided to create some simple self-awareness tools to assist others with the process. The “Masks of Anxiety” tool is an illustration of the exercises which might be created. [Click here for a detailed description of this exercise.]
Caring for Self before Caring for Others
“Helping others to help themselves” is common ground shared by many of us as a central reason for being career coaches. In order to engage fully with clients and realize maximum effectiveness, we should first ask ourselves if we are wearing a mask of anxiety and, if so, name it and take it off. Once the mask is off, we are able to heal by engaging with our inner self and to more clearly identify the shadow cultures which caused us to build our mask in the first place.
Should you ever find yourself wearing a mask of anxiety, you might consider creating your own tools of self help. Living with the “protection” of a mask may seem easier, but it will take more of your energy, limit your choices, and hide the beauty and gifts of your true self from the persons who need your help, including yourself.
Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dirkx, J. M. (2001). “The Power of Feelings: Emotion, Imagination, and the Construction of Meaning in Adult Learning.” In S. B. Merriam (ed.), The New Update on Adult Learning Theory. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Remen, R. N. (1999). “Educating for Mission, Meaning, and Compassion.” In S. Glazer (ed.), The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education. NY, Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin.
Greg Fall is the President of Career Choices Consulting and concurrently serves as CMA/Career Management Associates head of coaching, leadership development, and career transition services through both individual and group learning processes. Greg holds an AB Degree from Bowdoin College, a Masters in Adult and Higher Education from the University of Southern Maine, and completed 32 credits at the University of Maine School of Law. His forthcoming book, Get Hired, Stay Hired, is due out in Spring 2011. He can be reached at email@example.com