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Cul de sac Paradigms

An In Balance original article

I'm trying to get to my destination but I don't know exactly how to get there, so I turn down a street that's pointed in the right direction and continue for some time before I come to a dead end. It's a cul de sac, and I have to turn around and return to the start before I can try an alternate route. It's frustrating, isn't it? And all too often in this busy modern world we're in a hurry to get there, so any delay is doubly frustrating. But there is nothing we can do but try, and try again.

Cul de sac literally means "bottom of the bag" in the Catalan dialect of Spanish. We have all run into literal cul de sacs when we are driving in our cars. But we also encounter figurative cul de sacs in our daily lives, too. It is built into the nature of life: trial and error. We try to do something one way, and if it doesn't work out we start again and try it a different way. It doesn't mean we did it wrong; it only means we have not yet done it right.

So the first lesson from travelling down a cul de sac is to hold ourselves lightly. We need to learn to forgive ourselves if our first attempt - or even our second and third attempts - does not bring us the success we were expecting. It is simply the way the world is wired. To paraphrase a line from Hamlet, "the fault lies not in ourselves, but in the stars." But, you ask, what has this to do with coaching?

In a word: depression. Our world is currently experiencing more stress and fear than ever before in our lifetime, and clinical depression is on the rise. The number of people suffering from psychological disorders has doubled in size over the last 20 years. While sometimes helpful, all too often, antidepressants are prescribed too freely for any symptom ranging from insomnia to mild stress to full-blown pull-the-covers-over-your-head depression. And all too often we hear reports of people feeling suicidal from the very medications intended to help them feel better. We need to recognize that antidepressant medication is a cul de sac that takes us nowhere. We may need to pull out of that dead end and try another avenue. (BTW, you should always work with a knowledgeable health professional when making any changes with prescription medications.)

The alternative that has proven very successful in multiple clinical trials is cognitive behavioral therapy. In cognitive behavioral therapy a coach helps a client think through emotional patterns and work to change them so as to avoid fear and depression. This method has been shown to provide longer lasting benefits to people who suffer from depression than antidepressant medication, and has also proven effective for treating addiction, bulimia, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, these sessions are "scientifically plausible" - that is, they are a good fit with our knowledge about how the brain works. In a typical session a coach leads his or her client through a variety of thought models, suggested by clues revealed by the client in the course of their prior conversations. By listening closely, and drawing upon both experience and training, the coach recognizes certain areas that may require further exploration. They verbally wander down those mental "streets" until they encounter a "cul de sac." This cul de sac is one of many thought models clients use to navigate their way through the world. A thought model is a map, but it may not always be a reliable map. It may be a model that supports a healthy ability to adapt to the situations in the real world, or it may be a model that inhibits and obstructs the client's ability to deal successfully in the real world.

For example, a lifetime of belief that money is the root of all evil, and rich people are spoiled and selfish, that rich people are unworthy and undeserving of their good fortune, and only hard work will earn you financial rewards - when such a paradigm is revealed, it is obvious to the coach that no amount of positive affirmation is going to bring prosperity to this client. Vision boards and positive reinforcements and habits have their place, but success is that much harder if at odds with long-held inner paradigms.

A coach first helps you recognize that you are in a cul de sac; and once you accept that, you realize you are presented with a choice and not a forgone conclusion. From here, if you desire it, your coach can help you take this opportunity to turn yourself around and find a different way of getting to your destination.

In our example above, the coach may explore how these assumptions came into being in the first place. This process may reveal a negative experience that can be confronted and unblocked. The coach may then suggest an alternative thought model, such as: prosperity is like rain, needed by and nourishing all, and it is the client's right and just due to hold out her bucket and let it be filled. With the client's prior assumption shown to be suspect (money is evil), and a new model suggested (there is plenty for all and I have a right to my share), the client may begin to take effective steps to obtaining the goal she truly desires: financial security. The coach can then proceed to reinforce this thought model through small daily adjustments ("baby steps") and mental reinforcement.

We all experience cul de sacs in our lives, and there is no shame in this whatsoever. The only shame, if shame is the right word, is not trying to get anywhere at all, or settling for so much less than we desire. It is natural to try new, unknown roads, and see where they lead. Sometimes the most delightful discoveries are found along the way. And if you find yourself at a dead end, you simply turn around and try a different way. There is no failure in this. It is simply how we learn; it is inherent in the human condition.

But sometimes a coach can help make our journey more comfortable, and speed us along the way. Explore your cul de sacs with a safe and reliable companion: your coach. Go ahead, don't be afraid to try… and live your life to the fullest.


Disclaimer: As a Health Coach, I will never attempt to diagnose, treat, make claims, prevent or cure any disease or condition. I advise my clients that Health Coaching is not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a qualified licensed health care professional.