The aim of this Post is to share an example of the difficulty a young person can face when trying to build confidence and a more positive identity. It will also demonstrate how we can try to help them to succeed in this through the Strengths-Focused Coaching (SFC) approach.
At times, I will use ‘YP’ for ‘young person/people’.
Tia: ‘That’s Not Me’
Due to the abuse that she had suffered (as a victim of Child Sexual Exploitation), Tia’s mind had become stuck in a set of beliefs promoting an identity of worthlessness and shame, frequently exhibiting as anger.
Through the SFC ‘Self Survey’ and chatting to me about herself, Tia had started to inadvertently reveal a number of positive personal qualities and strengths. So I had asked if we could start to log these on paper. We had started a ‘Strengths Mind Map’. No fuss. No fanfares. Just evidencing the here and now.
But Tia became sad and less focused. She had previously identified that she would like to improve her confidence. I showed her a diagram depicting the stages of achieving healthy self-esteem. She pointed to the section labelled: ‘understanding of self’ and said: ‘I need to work on that’.
I felt for Tia. There was such conflict within her. Our relationship was developing well and she clearly wanted to move forward, hence her willingness to start the Strengths Map. Yet when she looked at it, it was alien to her. She didn’t feel strong enough to believe anything positive about herself. It is like trying to argue with an overwhelmingly powerful entity that is too exhausting and difficult to defeat; like pushing against a wall that is constantly moving against you. Although she never spoke to me about the abuse (she had a specialist team working with her and her mum), I wondered whether the words and voices of her abusers were still dominating her mind.
During her sessions, Tia would sometimes allude to past events that were impacting her, but she chose not to discuss it in our sessions. Sometimes, brief empathic eye contact, a nod, a verbal or a silent, “I’m here next to you to support you” is enough.
Tia had also revealed that one of her characteristics was stubbornness and she was using it now. Despite undisputed evidence that Tia possessed positive qualities, when she looked at the Strengths Map, she could not budge from those three words: ‘that’s not me’. We hit the wall.
In the words of my Supervisor and experienced Counsellor, Joy:
Those brick walls are very common and need to be respected. We should not remove them until we have something stronger to put in their place.
Trust the Relationship
It is at this point that, as coaches, advisers, supporters, we may feel quite daunted: “I’m not a therapist or a counsellor. What can I do?” We may feel that such work is out of our remit. As I mentioned in Post 6, it is correct to be aware of our boundaries and expertise and to seek advice and support when we need to. But have faith in the developing relationship of trust. As we did at the end of Post 6, step back and appreciate what we have achieved.
As outlined in previous Posts: we are allowing the YP to own the process; we are being open, empathic, curious, but not probing; the young person has control over the activities; be mindful of where they are starting from.
Much can be enjoyed and achieved.
Respect and Reassure
When a YP hits a ‘wall’, they may cry, become angry, storm off or stop attending their sessions. To try to prevent the latter – from the beginning, regularly reassure them along lines such as:
- there are no right or wrong answers in these activities
- if you start to feel uncomfortable, sad, angry – it’s ok, we will stop
- if an activity doesn’t suit you, we won’t continue with it
- you may experience difficult feelings, but please know that you have my support and I will help you
- you are not on your own
Would you add anything else to this? You could have these points written down and visible each session, so that the YP could just point to one if it arises.
I find using a simple scale (numbered 1-10 or 1-5) helpful too, in assisting YP to demonstrate the impact of a feeling, rather than trying to explain ‘how’ they feel in words.
Building Something Strong
So Tia and I acknowledged that she found it hard to accept her positive traits. ‘Would you like to talk to me about why you find it hard, Tia?’ I asked. (Why do you think this question was preferable to: ‘tell me why you find it hard, Tia’?)
Tia didn’t want to talk about ‘why’. I offered her further SFC activities. She was happy for us to further explore and add to her ‘World’ chart: her friends, her pets, her family, her tastes in films and music, some of which we checked out on ‘youtube’. We laughed at the daft animal clips that Tia liked watching and we talked about how doing this can help to lift our moods, divert us, make us laugh, thus restoring emotional control at times.
Tia had started to attend a gym with her friend and was enjoying the ‘buzz’ that exercise gave her. She told me that in the previous summer, she had attended a National Citizenship camp, where she had initially known no-one, but enjoyed rock climbing, pot holing, team work, friendships.
I subtly revealed my genuine admiration and appreciation – curious about how she overcame any difficulties. We discreetly added words to her Strengths Map – she was okay with that, with it being on the table, to one side, rather than right in front of her.
Owning and Learning: ‘What Matters to Me?’
Tia was also okay with the question: ‘what matters to you right now? What is important to you?’ This is a powerful interactive SFC activity (one of my favourites). Through this she learnt what her current values are and that they were all positive:
getting on with others
There followed much discussion about how her values related to each other, about how possessing values can trigger reactions such as anger, for example, if someone was dishonest with her. She learnt how they relate to her life now and to her strengths. She seemed more comfortable looking at her Strengths Map alongside her Values list and her ‘My World’ chart. Why do you think that might that be?
The damaged identity – the delicate gossamer threads beneath her angry exterior were beginning to strengthen and re-form as her brain ‘re-wired’. The visual evidence of her values, created by Tia, using simple cards that she moved around the table was igniting new thoughts and thus new feelings. I sensed a growing determination in her, as if she was reaching and climbing, just as she had those rocks last summer.
Three Little Words
So respecting Tia’s wall and gently walking together, around it, we had reduced it’s impact, it’s size. We had arrived at a significant place and, for now, would not venture any further.
Eventually, Tia looked at the various colourful pieces of work in front of her: the evidence about herself that she had created. She slid her eyes to the Strengths map at the side of the table.
“Do you recognise that person?” I asked.
Yes, that’s me.
Three little words borne from tenacity, bravery, patience and the activation of a key strength of Tia’s; a word that had been sitting on her Strengths Map from day one: stubbornness.
Next time: Post 9: Confidence? What is it? The return of Ned.
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