I am sorry to start this blog by being pedantic. Covid-19 isn’t a trauma, circumstances never are. The trauma, as many of you will know, is the lasting impact on our neuro-physiology of the flight, fight, freeze and collapse response of the nervous system to our life being in danger. It is a body based response. Of course, for some, the virus and the policy responses to it, may reawaken old trauma pathways, and present as intensified anxiety and survival strategies. Re-emergence or intensification of previously diagnosed mental health conditions may present; and some people may need to seek help for the first time for intensive anxiety states and depression. These symptoms are not so readily helped by coaching other than in facilitating thinking about what action is needed to re-establish emotional well-being. That action may be medical or therapeutic.
However, for many, what we are experiencing are the stresses and anxiety which are normal in relation to the major upheavals to our lives and the risk to our health (felt more by some than others). For those who have a close relative who has died, their grief will be compounded by not being able to be with the person, and by the impact on funeral arrangements. Some days we might feel things more intensively that others, feelings move through us like waves in the sea. I wouldn’t want these to be gathered up under a heading of ‘mental illness’. They might get us down, and we might be helped by coaching and counselling to process these emotions, reassess actual risk or danger, challenge negative thoughts and identify what is possible to change this internal experience. I have felt depressed over a few of the weeks, but I don’t label myself as mentally ill. I know it will shift, and it has. Other days I can feel my anxiety levels have risen, and I do what I can to bring more calmness.
I know some people are enjoying the changes in circumstances, the different pace, and maybe more time with the family. We shouldn’t assume that it is negative for everyone.
Coaches as well as our clients are all affected by this context. The place to start is always with ourselves. Attending to our own emotional wellbeing means we are better able to be present with our clients and respond appropriately to their emotional disclosures. So, a few questions for you –
Where are you getting your support and space to talk? How would you assess your levels of anxiety, stress, mood? What would help you most, right now? Are you getting enough relaxation, fun and enjoyment? If not, what might be possible given the circumstances? What negative thoughts, if any, are you having? What needs to happen for you to change those?
It is possible that the range and intensity of the emotional states of our clients will have changed due to Covid-19. Clients may need to talk more about what they are experiencing and how it affects them. We need to be to be comfortable hearing and responding to different levels of emotional disclosure. We need a sensitivity to these emotional disclosures. For example, grief, sadness, loss need to be felt; depression, compulsive behaviour and high levels of anxiety (for example, when someone is in flight or flight mode[i]) tend to be less responsive to coaching and require other interventions. We are not diagnosticians so are guided by our clients and what they identify is needed. We can offer our observations and concerns, if we have them.
Giving more space to emotions doesn’t mean that we stop coaching or become passive. We can continue to ask powerful questions, to invite clients to challenge patterns of thinking or behaving, or negative thoughts. Remember, clients are resourceful, and the coaching space is somewhere they can be helped to reflect, think, and imagine what they may be able to do to change their internal experience. What we must avoid is moving into our survival strategies and rescuing the client, or being directive, or controlling of the process.
Compassion fatigue is an exhaustion from listening, compassionately, to suffering. It means that we struggle to feel compassion, we can feel overwhelmed or helpless hearing of others’ emotional pain. It is not something that is often linked with coaching. However, it might be that some coaches find the amount of emotional disclosure from our clients to be overwhelming or feel concerned or helpless about how we are responding clients. The important thing is to notice those feelings, including repeated desires to rescue or identify with clients, talk with our supervisor, set up peer groups to share experience, think about reducing the time we spend coaching, take care of ourselves and spend enough time with people who are not talking to you in the same way.
Julia Vaughan Smith
Those in hyper-anxious states will be agitated, have shallow breathing, feel very fearful or angry. They may report not sleeping and being unable to relax at all. In this state they have less access to their resources for reflective thinking, for assessing the actual danger they are in, and taking action to reduce their level of fear. Some may respond to coaching interventions, some may not but they can be helped to access other interventions.
I am an advocate for supervision as a space to reflect, learn and be encouraged in our work; and as a process for protecting me and my clients (from me). However, I received a paper recently from a colleague entitled ‘harmful supervision’, and while I like to think this is rare, I asked myself whether it might be more prevalent. The paper ‘Harmful supervision: A commentary’ by Liz Beddoe[i], focuses on the weekly supervision of social work trainees. This supervisory relationship is different to coaching in that other than in training, coaches select the supervisor they wish to work with, they pay them and can leave at any time. Supervision is also optional, whereas it tends to be mandatory within social work. While most accrediting bodies require a supervisor’s report as part of reaccreditation, it isn’t clear how much weight that has, or if supervisors would be in a position to give a negative report. More likely the supervisory relationship would have ended before that stage.
However, while the contexts are different, the power relationships between the supervisee and trainees can be replicated in coaching, as can situations in which supervisees are in awe of their supervisor or the supervisor assumes a position of power over their client.
Supervision is harmful if it undermines the supervisee’s self-confidence and esteem in any way, or contains micro-aggressive interventions, or is insulting. This might include negative comments about practice or about the individual, including racism and relating to gender. It is also harmful if the supervisor doesn’t maintain the appropriate boundaries for the work. For example, making sexual comments to the supervisee, or using the supervision for personal gain in some way.
It can also be harmful, in a slightly different way, if the supervisor gives inappropriate or wrong guidance to the supervisee which has a knock-on effect on them and their clients. This is about the competence of the supervisor and the basis for their practice. It is also unhelpful, and potentially harmful, if the supervisor tries to double guess what the client of the supervisor might be feeling or experiencing and operates on those assumptions.
Supervisors who lack competence and confidence may try to cover their shame or anxiety by their micro-aggressions and other transgressions in the relationship.
When I thought about this topic, I recalled a few incidents that supervisees had reported to me. One supervisee told me about a supervisor she had, who during one session said ‘I want to show you a new venue I have found’ and ushered her out of the room and outside for a few blocks to the new venue. The supervisee could have said ‘oh no you don’t’ but was in awe of his power and position. Another supervisee talked of her supervisor accusing her to motives that she didn’t have, and implied that she was half-hearted in her commitment to her practice. This wasn’t said in a way to explore with her any pressures or difficulties, but to blame her for her failings. I have also been told of a situation where physical boundaries were breached by the supervisor, in the spirt of being ‘friendly’.
The harm comes from the power differential that is used by the supervisor, and from the supervisee feeling dependent on that supervisor. Harmful supervision is a perpetrator-victim dynamic, possibly passive-aggressive or just aggressive, and is a survival entanglement between the supervisor and supervisee as long as the supervisee keeps the relationship going. Like all bullying, it is hard to speak up and in an institutional setting it might be even harder. Supervisees may not be able to recognise perpetrators because of their history and may feel they have to ‘go along with it’ as disconnecting from the supervisor feels emotionally difficult.
Supervisors in survival may also inappropriately take up a parental attitude to the supervisee, which is also about a power-dynamic, and seeks to entangle the supervisee and put them in the place of ‘the child’.
How many supervisees who have experienced racial, gender, or sexually orientated aggressions have spoken up? How many have experienced other micro-aggressions or entanglements? Maybe it is rare, but I suspect those who have, have kept silent.
Julia Vaughan Smith
Harmful Supervision: A commentary by Liz Beddoe The Clinical Supervisor 2017, Vol 36, No 1, 88-101