A Research Paper By Synnøve Thue, Transformational Coach, NORWAY
Perspectives on the Unconscious
“Today I HAVE to tell you about this dream I had last night! I have a feeling it is trying to tell me something.”
My client was holding her journal in front of the web camera, her eyes sparkling and her whole body language jittery with excitement.
We were four weeks into a three-month coaching contract to work on her confidence and identity as she stepped into her new role as CEO of the thriving company she had built up from scratch. I had already partnered with her to work through her role with all the immediate people in her life – work colleagues, husband, friends, and parents, rewriting stories, reestablishing boundaries, and restructuring large parts of her daily life to support her.
The journal she was holding turned out to be her long-used dream journal, and this trusting invitation led to two months of deep-diving into reflections, dreams, and intuitions.
Was I right to follow her into this personal dreamland, or was this getting too close to therapy?
Unconscious: The Problem of Definitions
While it is generally agreed that the realm of the lower unconscious belongs to those trained in counselling and psychotherapy, the super-conscious is very much the domain of transpersonal coaching. (Whitmore & Einzig, 2010: 138)
The classic split between the “unconscious”, the “conscious”, and the “super-conscious” heralds from the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) that were part of his psychoanalytic approach. Freud proposed that the unconscious mind contains thoughts, memories, and desires that are outside of conscious awareness. The conscious mind is what we experience on a daily basis and is aware of our external environment and our internal thoughts. The super-conscious refers to a higher level of consciousness beyond the conscious and unconscious minds, which is said to contain spiritual or metaphysical understanding.
However, Freud`s theory of the mind was not limited to the field of therapy alone, but a holistic model, and is also the theoretical basis of an established framework in coaching.
The Psychodynamic Approach to Coaching
The psychodynamic approach to coaching has been around for many years and is still an effective tool for helping people to grow their awareness in a deeply meaningful way. It is based on the theories of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who believed that unconscious thoughts and feelings influence our behavior. This approach can be used to help clients identify and modify unconscious drives and motivations, leading to greater self-awareness and personal growth. By understanding how the past affects the present, the psychodynamic approach can help clients to understand the reasons behind their current behavior and to make positive changes. It can also help clients develop insight into their own personalities, allowing them to make better decisions and move forward with their life more meaningfully. With the proper understanding and professional approach to differentiate between coaching and therapy, the psychodynamic approach can be a potent tool for personal growth and transformation.
A dynamic relationship between various parts of the mind is at the center of the psychodynamic model, which focuses on unconscious processes in human behavior. Since Freud’s (1922) description of psychoanalysis, there have been many alterations, some of which have built on Freud’s ideas and his focus on instinctual drives, while others have offered drastically different conclusions. Jung (1956) split off to form ‘analytical psychology’ in which the Self and archetypes play a major role, resulting in a split between Jungian and Freudian approaches.
Melanie Klein (1882-1960) altered the focus on early childhood fantasy to its function in development. In addition to Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) and other object relations theorists, the relationship between the mother and her baby became crucial to mental development. John Bowlby (1907-1990)focused on the importance of parents in enabling babies to develop a secure attachment, sparking research into attachment theory. (Lee, 2018).
The Four Fundamental Assumptions of a Psychodynamic Coaching Approach:
- In accordance with this perspective, human activity is strongly influenced by innate drives that are frequently hidden or obscured; as such, the coach is always seeking to discover what may be hidden or overlooked by the client.
- The coach is always interested in what the client says about his or her previous experiences and how they relate to present situations. Because much of human behavior is unconsciously influenced by previous experiences, the coach is likely to ask the client to discuss them and assess their contemporary relevance.
- The coach notices apparent inconsistencies in what the client says or does and encourages her or him to become conscious of mixed or conflicting feelings.
- People may communicate with one another without realizing it; unconscious communication may occur between individuals. The coach periodically draws attention to her or his own bodily sensations and emotions as possible clues to the client’s subconscious communications (countertransference).
But how can we use it in practice? Some main areas of focus during a coaching session include:
Partnering With the Client to Make the Unconscious Conscious
Focus on the unconscious is a major goal of the coaching process. This approach also assumes that clients have a relatively fixed identity that has been unconsciously formed over time. The unconscious also includes emotions that have been kept out of the client’s awareness.
Creating a Holding Environment
According to Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), a ‘holding environment’ refers to a physical and psychological space where coachees feel comfortable sharing their feelings and thoughts. The concept of a mother responding sensitively to and administering her baby is known as ‘holding.’ In psychodynamic coaching, ‘holding’ is the act of being in tune with the client’s underlying emotional needs and using active listening that attunes to the client.
Focus on Emotions
Psychodynamic theorists believe that much of human behavior is motivated by an unconscious attempt to regulate emotions.
Freud described the dynamic unconscious as the engine of unconscious processes for regulating our emotions and establishing a sense of Self. These unconscious processes are the engine of the dynamic unconscious.
Analyzing and describing an individual’s inner world of emotions can be transformational because what was once unconscious has been brought into consciousness. By creating a space in which people can express their emotions in words, they become phenomena that can be observed and understood. The transformation occurs when what was once an inner world of disconnected emotions is turned into a pattern of experience with meaning.
Understanding the Role of Defense Mechanisms
Our defenses are unconsciously developed in childhood and then used to regulate our emotions when others are not able to or if our emotions are perceived as socially unacceptable. Defense mechanisms, which are unconscious emotional regulation patterns through repression, denial, and projection, avoid or minimize unpleasant emotions. The goal of coaching is not to identify particular defense mechanisms but to note when the client is unconsciously regulating their emotions.
As a result, the coach will slowly gain an understanding of the underlying emotional agenda and will be able to partner with the client to explore its nature.
Being Aware of Transference and Countertransference
An implicit assumption based on previous experiences is known as transference. The coach’s unconscious feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts, and behaviors are unconsciously evoked by the client.
The client’s unconscious feelings, sensations, thoughts, and actions that are unconsciously activated in the coach are known as countertransference. According to projective identification, a person’s unconscious feelings are transferred to a person’s unconscious via subtle behaviors such as facial expressions and modulations in the pace, tone, and rhythm of the voice.
The coach’s ability to tune in to bodily feelings and sensations allows him or her to perceive the client’s unspoken cues, which in turn allows the coach to lean into curiosity about the client’s hidden inner landscape (Lee, 2018).
Implications for Coaching:
The psychodynamic approach brings great depth and understanding to coaching. It is best for contexts where clients want to examine the origins of their meaning-making behavior. According to Lee, Leadership, development, and team, coaching is particularly suitable for the psychodynamic approach(Lee, 2018, p. 35).
Although the particular focus on meaning-making and bringing the unconscious to conscious awareness is also central to the larger frame of transformational coaching in general.
It is, however, important to differentiate between the psychodynamic therapeutic role with a pathological approach and the client-focused coaching approach (Beck, 2014, p. 42). Although Freud’s theory of personality was concerned with pathology, it also described the structure, dynamics, and functioning of the normal mind.
According to Freud, conscious mental activity was only the tip of the mental iceberg, and the unconscious provides the mental background. The tip is so small that the iceberg can be considered to be dominated by the unconscious. (Norman, 2010, p. 193).
In addition, the classic split between the “unconscious” and the “conscious” has recently been modified through neurological and cognitive psychological research.
Firstly, consciousness as a whole is defined as “our moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment” (Passer&Smith,2019, p. 171).
Consciousness is also highly subjective and personal. Nobody else can directly grasp what reality is for you, nor can you enter into their experience directly. It is a continuous flow of mental activity. Our awareness shifts between several states throughout the day. Although the stimuli we observe constantly alter, consciousness is envisioned as a continuous flow of mental activity rather than as disconnected perceptions and thoughts. It is a self-reflective and critical aspect of our identity. Moreover, Passer & Smith (2019) state that consciousness and the act of selective attention are intrinsically linked. Selective attention involves concentrating on some stimuli while ignoring others.
Furthermore, cognitive psychologists disagree with the idea that an unconscious mind controls instinctive urges and repressed conflicts. Instead, they view conscious and unconscious mental processes as complementary information-processing systems that work harmoniously together.
Basic cognitive processes have been studied for their implications for understanding consciousness. The distinctiveness between ‘fully conscious’ and ‘fully unconscious’ is often blurred when multiple awareness measures are used. Unconscious processing should be viewed as a more graduated concept than wholly distinct from conscious processing due to research on emotion, motivation, decision-making, and attitudes. (Norman, 2010: 198).
Understanding that consciousness is a wider, common experience than the rigid and outdated “lower” and “super”-consciousness frees us up to explore human potential.
Simply think about when you sleep and have a vivid dream, go into semi-automatic states when watching tv or brushing your teeth, or drift into an enticing daydream. Or what about how you can shift when listening to music?
Who are we in these different states? And are they really so vastly different, or are all parts of us as dynamic and shifting whole beings?
The implications for coaching are immense.
Suppose we can build on established theoretical frameworks and updated scientific research. In that case, we can approach the vast specter of human consciousness as a source of inspiration, creativity, intuition, and new possibilities.
The distinction between the “lower” and “higher” Self is blurred. Instead of avoiding shadowy fears, we can explore the full specter of consciousness in a client-led journey of discovery without judgment. The concept that “pain is seen as a gift, something to lean into and given safe quarters to be expressed” (VanderPol, 2019, p. 220) becomes just one of many gateways into our deeper Self.
If we are to truly “do good” instead of simply “avoiding bad” and honor our clients as the expert “in his/her life and work, believing that every client is creative, resourceful, and whole” (ICF, 2022) then expanding our approach to include new research, as well as challenging old assumptions, should also be a vital way forward. And perhaps most importantly, forging new approaches to evidence-based coaching to strengthen our practice.
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