Aspiring to new values: Coaching the self-development process
One of the reasons why clients come to coaching is because they feel stuck. Stuck between a set of values that no longer feel relevant, and a desire for new values that can support who they want to be.
This is often experienced by those who have been successful in their life and career, by those who have done everything ‘right’, and yet feel an intractable sense of dissatisfaction. A dissatisfaction experienced as an absence of meaning, or a niggling sense that the life they are living is somehow not their own. They may not be able to articulate why they feel this way, or what may be driving these feelings; but they hear an un-ignorable call toward something else, even if they aren’t sure of what that something is.
The widening hole punched by this perceived inauthenticity drains the motivating drive of previous success, a drain that is felt as a distressing slump. It is in this slump, with its accompanying distress and despair that a search for new values begins – a search that is aspirational.
Aspiration and Becoming
The root of the word aspire is ‘to breathe’. Philosopher at the University of Chicago Agnes Callard describes aspiration as an active engagement in the acquisition of new values. In Callard’s description, aspiration is a participation in doing and trying that begins to change us, subsequently allowing us to do more of what we are changing into. It is the psychological equivalent of taking a breath of fresh air.
Callard's book responds to the philosophical question of how can a self change it-self? How can we step outside of our own perspective and begin a process of transformation? Is change really possible?
The problem lies in the fact that who we aspire to be is often a mental image or ideal of the future, whereas our current lived experience is the embodied reality of how we currently live and act. The difficulty of any change is felt at the beginning of the process, where we feel like imposters or intruders, as though we are pretending or feel outside of the activity due to its foreignness. The difficulty at this point for the aspiring person is that they are stuck between a mental image of what they could, or wish to be, and an embodied reality of who they currently are.
This embodied reality includes all the habits, competencies and familiarity that makes someone feel competent, comfortable, and valued. A reality that anchors us against the constantly changing world, but also requires a great effort to change. It is in the sticky reality of habits where the slow steps of self-development begin.
The process of aspiration according to Callard is one that takes place through a process called habituation. Habituation is a term that goes all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and speaks of what is called a "virtuous spiral of self-development."
The Virtuous Spiral of Self-Development
Note: Diagram denotes how my disposition (VD1) is trasnformed by my action (VA1) leading to a new disposition (VD2) and new action (VA2)
The virtuous spiral is a basic diagram of evolution. It begins with a particular disposition, shaping certain actions that subtly change that disposition, in turn leading to slightly different actions. Change becomes possible through a dynamic relationship between how we are disposed to the world and how we act within it.
To illustrate this let’s say I decide I want to become someone that practices yoga. I might have heard that yoga is great for flexibility, or for fitness, but primarily I just want to try this activity because I value it as worthwhile. My first yoga class is likely to be an awkward one. I may not know where to put my mat, or how to warm up, I am unlikely to know the names of the Asana’s or how to move in line with the teacher’s instructions. It is often a self-conscious beginning where the activity itself feels foreign to me. However, as time goes on and as I stick with the practice, I begin to apprehend and embody the value of practicing by doing the practice. As my competence increases and the activity begins to feel less foreign, my disposition toward practicing also shifts and I am more open (i.e. disposed) to practicing.
This new value of doing yoga then begins to influence my future priorities and activities, for example I may prefer to go to bed early on Friday night so I can rise early to practice. Over time I eventually become someone that values yoga, a value that shapes other aspects of my life.
What this example shows is that the process of aspiration is a process of embodiment. It is not just a collating of knowledge or a development of belief, it is a messy engagement with the world that ultimately changes how we view and how we are disposed to the world itself. In a previous article I wrote of the importance of attunement in the change process and how our attunement to the world is the foundation for our disposition to act. How we see the world frames what kind of values seek. A way of explaining this further is to look at the difference in how someone approaches life, depending on whether they are aspirational or ambitious.
The difference between Aspiration and Ambition
An aspiring person, according to Callard, is one who aims at the intrinsic reward of acquiring new value(s), whereas the ambitious person squeezes more from a value they already have.
To illustrate this, Callard uses the example of two people deciding to study medicine. The ambitious person studies medicine to satisfy a value they already hold, that of gaining parental approval. The ambitious person is focused on satisfying this value and so approaches their medical training as a means to achieve this end. For the ambitious student it is about attaining a certain response from their parents that satisfies their existing value of gaining approval.
The aspirational person decides to go to medical school because they want to physically help others by becoming a doctor. Whilst they may be aware and even excited by the prospect of the status inherent in this position, it is the reward of becoming a doctor in and of itself that serves as the basis for their commitment. This person has chosen the new value of practicing medicine for its own sake, even though they can’t predict what outcome may flow from this choice.
This isn’t necessarily to say that one approach is better than the other; everyone has different reasons for doing what they do. Whilst it may feel as though the doctor who has chosen their profession for the love of it may be a better doctor, we don’t know how much the ambitious persons motivation for parental approval may in fact drive them to brilliance. It is also true that the aspirational person still enjoys or is motivated by ambitious outcomes, such as status or money.
This is also not to say that developmental coaching doesn’t apply to the ambitious. However, if someone is happy with their values, then they are probably less likely to seek developmental coaching in the first place. Developmental coaching works with those who are at a crossroads and who aspire toward a new direction in life.
My approach to coaching is centred around the concept of Aletheia, which means a process of un-concealing or dis-covering truth. In order to do this a person needs to be attuned to who they already are. It is only through this attunement, that a person can begin to realise the values they have been living from and the ones they would like to live from in the future.
We can’t aspire on our own
This isn’t a process that can be done in isolation. Our reasoning and understanding of ourselves is significantly enhanced when reflected or challenged by another. One of the philosophical problems mentioned at the start of this article was, how can a self change itself? I believe the answer, which is the foundation of all therapy and coaching, is that there needs to be someone we are in relationship with that reflects a need for change and who can subsequently guide us through that change.
It is not enough to hear the call toward something else, we need to translate this call through a conversation with someone we trust. We need an advocate to catalyse this unfoldment by relating to and meeting what self-psychology describes as our primary psychological needs:
The 7 Primary Psychological Needs of Self-Psychology
1. Mirroring, the need to feel seen, valued and heard
2. Idealisation, the need to see the positive qualities we aspire to in others
3. Kinship, feeling and seeing a likeness of ourselves in another
4. Efficacy, feeling as though you can achieve your goals
5. Supportive adversaries, a trusted person that can supportively challenge your thinking
6. Delineation, help from others to assist you in expressing what you perceive, feel and think
7. Validation, having your subjective experience (how you feel) validated by another.
The role of the developmental coach
The role of the coach is to advocate for the client and act as a kind of surrogate to aid them in meeting these needs as a starting point for their self-development.
It is important to note that aspiration is not a single decision to change. It is not just a leap of faith, although a leap of faith may at times be required. Nor is it just a belief of how someone thinks they should be, although a belief that change is possible will be required. The decision to leap is one of many choices that continually need to be made and re-made throughout a process of ongoing development, a process that gradually builds an embodied new reality of who that person is.
The developmental coach’s role is to advocate for the client’s aspiration to change, supporting them through the inevitable ups-and-downs of what can be a confusing, isolating, but also energising time.