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coaching and the toxic positivity tango

As you might have guessed by now, I'm not one of "those" life coaches. You know, the ones who are selling a proprietary program for "elevating your mindset" that will enable you to own a Greek island in 6 months or something else along those lines. That type of coach is more aptly described as a luxury lifestyle coach, and are frequently found to be part of or orchestrating a pyramid scheme. For coaches who have undergone accredited training, certification, and those who practice an adherence to a code of ethics, being lumped in with that crowd is a major bummer. I also come into coaching with a social work background and license, which ingrained me with systems-thinking, calling bullshit on mindset being the "only thing standing in your way" to the financial gain life of your dreams.

What gets tricky though, is that as someone who feels aligned with the role of co-imaginer with my clients, mindset and perspective work are important parts of our imagination so they can't be written off totally. We understandably have to live in this shared economic and social reality, and we know there are mass inequities therein, and that often surviving in this shared reality can take up the vast majority of our time and energy, especially for those who have been systematically excluded from accessing resources or obtaining assets, wealth, or even a basic income. And so that becomes the argument against the coaching posture for imaginative perspective or mindset work: what use is this kind of engagement when we are focused on surviving? It's not a great answer, but the only one I have is this: it is of use because we deserve to imagine something different. All of us deserve that. We deserve a space, even if it exists only in our own minds, where we can be more than units of productivity. Where we can be more than survivors of this system, always just getting through.

So for me this has meant a difficulty with balancing the support needed to survive in this reality with the empowerment needed to imagine a different reality AND create micro-movements and gestures toward that reality in both our inner-dialogues and actual lives. Exploring self-care becomes central. And not the self-care that gets hawked as a product, but self-care in the tradition of Aude Lorde. Self-care as in how gently are you speaking to and about yourself. Self-care as in how are you finding and cultivating peaceful, joyful, and pleasurable time that does not meet any standard of "productivity." Self-care as in deep curiosity and openness. Self-care as in how are you finding even the tiniest pathways to move forward. Self-care as in sometimes having to pick the least worst option and radically accept it.

I've had challenging and straight up rocky situations with clients in this area and they have taught me so much. Clients who were in jobs they hated, in housing that sucked, and the options in front of them were rough for a variety of reasons. And the coaching stalled out. We came to an impasse. My approach above wasn't right for them in that moment. Some needed more validation about the injustice of the system and their experience in it, and needed to stay in that space and be seen. Some needed counseling, and directive advice. I kept looking for doors we could open or mouseholes we could peep into. In these instances, it is understandable that these clients might have perceived my approach as entering the territory of toxic positivity. I could have done a much better job of providing validation and affirming their experience AND with their consent, continuing to search for ways and pockets to resist and create what we can for ourselves in this one quick and precious life we get.

And that's really the point. It's trite but this is it. Our one life. And I refuse to believe that it needs to be spent living inside the cruel confines of capitalism's narrow and inhuman imagination. I want to make my own, and I want others to make their own. It's my heart's hope that enough people imagining and creating their own reality and finding their community of imaginers doing the same will band together to co-create something wild and weird and more just for us all. So I will keep walking this line in humble gratitude.

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