We’ve all been there. The brain goes into slow mode, a fog descends, and we can’t seem to crank it up any more with our normal levers and tweaking. We’ve had enough…
Don’t think I’m referring to burnout here. As in my previous post discussing the times we just don’t feel like coaching, by homing in on the occasions we don’t even feel like thinking, I’m not including burnout. Burnout requires specific help and action that’s well beyond the scope of this blog, or of coaching itself. What I’m talking about is the kind of ‘slow processing’ the brain defaults to when we’ve just finished a project, or we’ve been firing on all cylinders for a while and need to call time out. In our usual busy ‘thinking and doing’ mode we may not recognise this, and we may start to berate ourselves or begin to worry something ‘serious’ is afoot.
How often do we fall into analysing what might be ‘wrong’, and examining ourselves for even more inadequacies than we know about already? Or look around for those nefarious culprits that we’re sure are ruining our health and lives – usually our bosses, colleagues, family members, the dripping tap that keeps us awake at night… anything that can explain this reluctant brain which appears to have gone on strike?
This kind of downward thought spiral can affect anyone. It becomes serious for coaches if it morphs into the kind of introspective self-obsession that distorts our perspective on the world ‘as it is’. We need to cultivate a reflective practice, and I’ve written about this before. But a reflective practice should not include fractious rumination, self-flagellation and the withholding of self-compassion.
If we aren’t able to see our own world ‘as it is’, how will we be able to provide the quality of listening, curiosity and reflecting back which our coachees deserve? How will we begin to make that mental leap to inhabit their world if we are unable to deal with our own?
So let’s wind back. We began this post with our brains defaulting to slow mode, with a fog descending. ‘Thinking and doing’ mode seemed just to make matters worse. So what am I suggesting we should do?
Here are 4 of my top tips for what we can try:
1. Stop struggling Sit down and take a deep breath. Our brains haven’t absented themselves just to spite us. They’re giving us a message through feelings and bodily sensations that they need a rest. So let’s give our brains a rest, to the best of our ability, bearing in mind the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. The key point is to accept the situation. Regardless of how we think our poor brains should perform, we’re being told they need a break. So why struggle?
2. Learn what refreshes your spirit How can we rest our brains? We may not be in a position to take a few days off, to regroup, to catch up on sleep, to go on holiday. The good news is that even small chunks of time used well can make the world of difference. Everyone differs in what will be effective. Some of us might take a short nap, some might go for a walk or take another form of exercise. Others might pull out the knitting, crochet, or doodling, anything that requires a kind of concentration which doesn’t engage the brain in any serious mental gymnastics. Yet others might engage in a short formal mindfulness practice which provides the inner expansiveness to leave ‘doing mode’ in favour of ‘being mode’ – becoming attuned to the bodily sensations of now rather than ruminations on a fearful future or past. Knowing a range of options that work for us to refresh our spirits, which cut through the fixations with ‘performance’ we can all be prey to, is key to dealing with mental tiredness. Without them we might fall into deeper anxiety, which makes the spiral downwards even worse.
3. Being kind to yourself We are not our own enemies. We coaches are as worthy of compassion as anyone else. Yet it’s surprising how many of us seem to have the capacity to be endlessly kind to others whilst being severe task masters with ourselves. Using reflective time to recognise this pattern and to deliberately cultivate kindness and compassion to self (as distinct from what we might call ‘self-indulgence’) will help us see ourselves as the frail human beings we really are, who need empathy and support rather than constant recrimination. Recognising with compassion and grace when that foggy brain has had enough, and allowing it to rest, is an act of kindness to self that is highly significant. If we can’t be kind to ourselves, can we be genuinely kind to others?
4. Creating a mental refuge and ‘safe space’ By this I mean the creation in our mind’s eye of a compassionate place to which we can return at times of distress or tiredness.* Using visualisation that engages all of our senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) we can create our own mental ‘safe space’ that provides us the calm, rest and support we need when times are tough. By sitting quietly, closing our eyes and imagining in detail a place where we can feel calm, peaceful and safe, we provide the means to recreate for ourselves that restful spot whenever we are over tired and our brains need a bit of time out. Engaging all the senses renders the experience more ‘real’ and the time spent there even more effective. Individuals will differ in the precise features of their ‘safe space’, but all will agree on the calming, compassionate effects of being able to take refuge in it when the need arises.
So there are my 4 tips for what we can try when our brains decide they won’t think any more. Treating ourselves with compassion can provide the respite we need. Coaches need compassion just as much as anyone else…
*I’m grateful to Chris Winson for eloquently describing the ‘compassionate place in the mind’, as well as his own personal application of the concept in a recent blog post. As he speaks from lived experience, his ‘witness’ to the efficacy of this approach is particularly powerful. Thanks Chris!
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