"Yeah, the warmth factor," I reflect. This is a moment in the therapy I've been waiting for. David's sadness about his children is a heightened appreciation for the negative consequence of his selfishness, a break from his grandiose inattention. We are, for a moment, on the same page. This is the mature part of David I want to form an alliance with.
"You know David," I say, "we have to stop this. If this were to go on, you'd be one of those guys who, you know, the kids call up and say, 'Hi, Dad. Lemme talk to Mom."
"You don't get it," he tells me, looking suddenly deflated, all the bellicosity knocked out of him. "I already am that guy. It's already happened." Tears fill his eyes.
David has entered a state I call "hyperlearning" For just this moment, he sees it all so clearly, like waking from a dark spell, a dream. His usual stance isn't so much resolved as dissolved. He's coming into connection, into relationality. People have argued that therapeutic coaching is merely cognitive, and that, for real change to occur, the client needs to have an emotional experience. But as David shows us, the kind of deep learning I'm shooting for is highly emotional.
Through the years, I've found that supplying clients with an emotional experience isn't enough on its own. The emotion must lead to learning; there must be a paradigm shift. Others have argued that coaching is merely a band-aid--that while David may "white-knuckle" some changes in his behavior through force of will, he must deal directly with his underlying trauma before any meaningful transformation can occur.
I see it the other way around. Because being relational is at the core of who we are as human beings, immersing someone like David in the sustained experience of increased relationality has the power to transform his old wounds and profoundly reshape his character.
With clients like David, I typically offer myself up as a mentor. As a therapistâ€“coach, I believe it's therapeutically negligent to call clients out on their dysfunction without then offering a vision of what functional looks like.
"David," I say, "like a lot of men, you've been sold a bill of goods. I know this one well from my own life. We're taught to think that only by being perfect are we worthy of love. But it's a load of crap. In real life, we connect to each other through our vulnerabilities. It's precisely our imperfections that draw people in through compassion and sharing--that's what creates the bond you've been looking for."
"That's really hard to believe," he tells me.
In their next session, two weeks later, the couple informs me that David has gone through a shocking transformation--and it isn't for the good. David left my office at our last session full of pushback--this relationality stuff, yeah, maybe; then again, maybe not. But once he set foot outside, something got to him. He sank, day by day, more and more deeply into depression. He couldn't sleep, had trouble eating, cried unexpectedly.
"Are we playing games here?" he sticks his head out toward me, furious. "This is my life."
"What part got to you?" I ask him.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come on, David," I tell him, "you're the one who said no games. What part of the last session got to you?"
"The thing is," he says, "It's like, OK, if I'm not perfect, then screw me, what am I?"
"Well, you're. . . ."
"And screw you, too--no offense. What am I? Some middle-aged guy, who's losing his hair, who's got a little belly, who's not as smart in business as he pretends? What the fuck am I?" And now Sarah cries.
"Why are you crying?" David asks her.
Turning to her husband, Sarah says, "You're lovable, you stupid lunk. That's what you are. You've never been so lovable!"
The work I was doing with David we call "reconnecting the blatant"--bringing the blatant in from the cold, out of grandiosity, and into connection. This process can be an almost spiritual experience, like watching someone being born.
"Great," David muses, wiping his face with the back of his hand. "I've never felt like such shit and you two are throwing a party." I hold out a tissue box for him.
"Welcome to the real world," I say.
David's depression announces that our work together has entered its next phase. Both empowering the latent and reconnecting the blatant usually entail intense affective shifts in the clients. If you're used to leading with big, angry emotions, the shift usually involves opening your heart. If you're used to leading with small, helpless, feelings, it typically means discovering your spine. The weak need to learn how stand up, and the mighty how to melt. Like many of the men I see, David is belatedly and reluctantly beginning the work of identifying his feelings, particularly his painful, sad, frightened feelings, and sharing them with his wife. While he still functions in his day-to-day life, his depression feels oppressive and crippling to him.