Episode 18: Coaching Through Sadness

When we experience difficult emotions like sadness, they can block our path to change, and that makes it increasingly difficult for us to want to take action in our lives. So as coaches, it's imperative that we know how to support our clients when they are experiencing challenging emotions, like sadness.
Coach with Clarity Podcast - Coaching Through Sadness

18: Coaching Through Sadness

Right now, there is so much going on in the world and I'm so honored that you would carve time out of your day to spend with me, listening to this show. Thank you so much, it means a great deal to me.

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Show Notes

Right now, there is so much going on in the world and I’m so honored that you would carve time out of your day to spend with me, listening to this show. Thank you so much, it means a great deal to me.

With all that is going on in the world right now, I’ve found both in coaching sessions, and with the members of the Coach with Clarity membership, lots of difficult and unwanted emotions are regularly surfacing. I believe every emotion serves a purpose and that whatever we are feeling is okay, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's an emotion that we want to experience. To help us to process these emotions for ourselves and with our clients, I thought it would be helpful to explore them over the course of a few separate episodes, starting with sadness.

So when you're ready, I want you to take a deep breath, buckle up, and let's spend a little time exploring the emotion of sadness, what it is, what it means, how it can potentially serve us, and then as coaches how we can work with our clients to help them break through their sadness, and allow it to inspire action.

Topics covered

  • Why I don’t believe emotions are positive or negative
  • The unwanted emotions I’ve been dealing with recently
  • How unwanted emotions show up in our coaching practices
  • Why difficult emotions sometimes block our path to change
  • Differentiating between therapy and coaching
  • When to consider referring your client to a therapist
  • What is sadness?
  • Red flags that suggest depression versus sadness
  • The gift behind sadness
  • Common environmental and personal triggers for sadness
  • Four steps you should take when clients present with sadness
  • How to hold space for clients to emotionally express their sadness
  • Partnering with your clients to figure out what further action, if any, is needed
  • Creating a self-care plan for you to use after sessions


Resources mentioned

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Hey there, friend. Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough, and I'm so honored that you are joining me here today because I know right now there is a lot going on in the world. And so the fact that you would carve time out of your day to spend it with me listening to this show means a great deal. So I want to open simply by saying thank you. Thank you for joining me. 

And because there is a lot going on in the world right now, I am finding that in the coaching I'm conducting with my clients and with the members of the Coach with Clarity membership, there are some difficult and unwanted emotions that are regularly surfacing. I've noticed that my clients have been experiencing emotions that many of us might call negative. 

I prefer to call them unwanted or maybe difficult, because truly, I don't believe that an emotion is good or bad, or positive or negative. I believe every emotion serves a purpose, and that whatever it is we are feeling, it's understandable and it's okay. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it feels pleasant or that it's an emotion that we want to experience. So rather than calling them negative emotions, I prefer to call them unwanted emotions or sometimes difficult emotions.

And my goodness, we are experiencing so many of those emotions right now, as we look around our world and we see the consequences of systemic racism and racial injustice showing up. Truly, the murder of George Floyd, I think, was the match that lit the powder keg of racism and injustice that has been building for centuries. And now as a society, we are coming to terms with what that means for us and the kind of people that we want to be. 

And many of us who are devoted to living and working and relating to others from an anti racist perspective are struggling with emotions, of sadness, of anger, of guilt, and that inevitably is going to emerge in the coaching that we do. So many of our clients may be experiencing those emotions. Many of us as coaches may be experiencing those emotions. And so I thought it would be helpful to explore these difficult or unwanted emotions over the course of a few separate podcasts. 

And when I connected with my own emotional health and thought about where I would want to begin, what would support me in my journey as a coach, I felt a strong pull towards exploring the emotion of sadness. When I think about the predominant, unwanted emotion that has been showing up for me, there has been a great deal of sadness, certainly by what I'm seeing in the world, and how we are seeing the results of systemic racism play out in our world. 

I'm also experiencing sadness witnessing what is happening as a result of the Coronavirus. As I record this, it's June 2020, and here in the United States, we are still experiencing a surge of Coronavirus and I'm sad to report that it has affected my family directly. A few weeks ago we lost my grandmother to Coronavirus, and so I am feeling the effects of it from a global perspective but also a personal perspective as well. 

So it's natural that sadness would emerge as an emotion that I'm experiencing, but moreover, it's one that I'm seeing amongst my clients as well. And so for this first episode in what may become a series of exploring difficult or unwanted emotions, I wanted to start with sadness. Also because, I think, when we explore other unwanted emotions like anger, like shame, sadness often comes up in conjunction with them. So it makes sense for us then to start our exploration of difficult or unwanted emotions with sadness. 

As coaches it is particularly important that we feel comfortable and competent guiding our clients through these difficult emotions like sadness, because as coaches, our responsibility is to support our clients as they create the change that they want in their lives. And as we know, change comes through action. We can't think our way or even feel our way to a different experience, we have to take action in our lives that will then result in the change that we want to achieve. 

But when we are experiencing these difficult emotions, it can block our path to change. It can make it increasingly difficult for us to want to take action in our lives. And so as coaches, it's imperative that we know how to support our clients when they are experiencing these challenging emotions. So when you're ready, I want you to take a deep breath, buckle up, and today let's spend a little time exploring the emotion of sadness: what it is, what it means, how it can potentially serve us, and then, as coaches, how we can work with our clients to help them break through their sadness, and allow it to inspire action. 

Before we dive in, though, I do want to address the question of whether or not we are encroaching on the territory of therapy. I know many of my listeners are therapists themselves, or have had personal experience as a therapy client, and so when we're talking about difficult emotions, it's natural to ask the question, “Well, wait a second, aren't we kind of encroaching on that therapeutic territory?” 

As a licensed clinical social worker and as an ICF-credentialed coach, I'm very much tuned into this issue of where is that line between therapy and coaching. Therapy is mental health care, and yes, difficult emotions, including sadness, can be a part of a cluster of other symptoms that might indicate a mental health diagnosis. 

But merely experiencing a difficult or unwanted emotion does not necessarily mean that someone needs therapy. In fact, these different emotions are a part of our human existence. It is normal and natural to feel sadness or anger or shame in response to a given event. There's nothing pathological about that. That's part of what makes us human. 

However, sometimes those feelings, especially when paired with other symptoms, can indicate a more systemic problem that would better be addressed through therapy. So what I want to suggest to you right now is that as coaches, it is entirely appropriate for us to support our clients when they are experiencing a difficult emotion, it does not necessarily mean that they need therapy. However, we do need to be sensitive to when a client would be better served by a therapist, or at least when it's appropriate for us to consider referring them to a therapist. 

So for example, if this feeling of sadness or anger is persistent, if they're experiencing it long term, if it's directly affecting their ability to function on a day-to-day level, then we need to engage our client in a conversation about whether pursuing therapy might best serve them. But I don't want us to make the leap that just because a client feels sad or angry, they need to be referred to a therapist. That's not always the case. 

Certainly if sadness is accompanied by any other depression symptoms, loss of interest in day-to-day activities, weight gain or weight loss, impaired sleeping, hopeless, helpless feelings, and certainly if there are any thoughts or actions that suggest an inclination for self harm, we need to have a serious conversation with our client about referring them to a mental health provider.

The International coaching Federation, or ICF, has a whitepaper on when coaches should refer their clients to a mental health provider, so I will make sure that there is a link to that white paper in the show notes. But that is a great document to refer to when you're seeking guidance on when and how to make a referral for one of your clients. 

But for many of our clients, a therapy referral may not be necessary, yet they still require support as they work through the challenging emotions they're encountering. And that's where we as coaches can stand and support them. And so in today's episode, we're going to talk about what that looks like when our client exhibits sadness, what sadness is, what it might indicate, and then how we can partner with our clients to help them work through it. 

As an emotion, sadness tends to be linked to a specific causal factor, so something has happened to the person or in their life that would lead them to feel sad. It tends to be a temporary emotion so that we feel sad, then we work through it and we return to our baseline emotional state. And oftentimes, there is a huge sense of relief that a client experiences when they are able to fully express their sadness. So having that expression of the sadness leads them to feel better. 

In the end. I think that may also be a helpful way for us to differentiate between sadness and depression. A feeling of sadness is certainly part of a person's depressive experience, but talking about that sadness, expressing that sadness, does not necessarily lead to feeling better. In some cases, it may even feel worse when we are working with someone who has depression. So when you are coaching a client and you're partnering with them to help them express their sadness, if that doesn't lead to some sense of relief, that's definitely something to be aware of as a possible indicator that this client may require mental health services beyond coaching. 

So when a client is experiencing sadness, well, they tend to feel unhappy. They may feel sorrowful, some clients may describe it as feeling down, feeling blue, just kind of having the sense of feeling down that they just can't shake. And yes, for most clients feeling sad is an unwanted emotion. It doesn't feel good in their bodies. 

Physically, they might feel like they have less energy. Mentally, they may feel like they're not motivated or they can't concentrate. It's just an unpleasant state to be in, and as a result, many clients and, let's be honest, many coaches, want to rush through the sadness process –  they want to get through sadness directly to happiness. 

But when we try to rush through that, and when we don't give our sadness ample time to be expressed, we are simply practicing avoidance. And when it comes to emotional expression, we can only avoid our feelings for so long, eventually they are going to catch up with us. And so that's why, when I'm working with clients who are experiencing sadness, my goal is not to rush them into action, or rush them through that sadness, but it's actually to sit with it and to help them express it. And we'll talk a little bit more about that in a few minutes. 

But first, I want to talk about what might be the gift behind sadness. When we are feeling sad about something, whether it's something that's happened to us, something that we've witnessed, something that we see on the news or that we've heard about, that sadness is actually a data point. It gives us information about what really matters to us. 

So when we feel sadness about something, oftentimes it may indicate that one of our core values is being compromised or being threatened, and it can also suggest that we are experiencing a sense of loss. 

So let's start with the first part, that core value piece. If I'm watching the news, and I am seeing a news report about a black man who has been murdered at the hands of a white police officer, it's understandable that I would feel great sadness about that, because it violates a deeper core value I hold of justice for all, of fairness, of equality. 

So when I see something on the news that makes me sad, it forces me to go inside and ask myself, what value is being compromised here? What does this shine a light on that's not okay? Because when I can connect it to a value, then oftentimes that can give me direction about the actions I want to take next, after I've worked through my sadness. So if my sadness is in response to the value of justice being compromised, what actions can I take in my life to promote racial justice? So sometimes sadness can really shine a light on the core value in our life that's important to us, and that maybe we have not been able to express to its fullest. 

Other times, or maybe in conjunction with that, sadness may be related to a sense of loss, and that loss may be a real loss or a perceived loss. So in my case, I certainly experienced profound sadness following the death of my grandmother from Coronavirus. This is a person who I love deeply who's no longer in my life, and so naturally, I would have some sadness around that because that is a real and deep loss for me. 

But there are times where we may also experience sadness because of a perceived loss, where we are afraid that we may lose something. When we see images of violence on the news, we may get sad because we're concerned that that violence may happen against us or against someone we love or care about. 

There's also senses of loss that come not necessarily through death, but through not being able to access things that we were once able to. Coronavirus has been a loss experience for many of us. I look at my children who initially, I'll be honest with you, weren't all that disappointed about not having to go to school every day, but over time, they started to realize that they weren't able to connect with their friends, they weren't able to see their teachers that they really liked, and they were missing out on a lot of the benefits that came from being in a group of people connecting with each other. They were experiencing a loss there, and that led to some sadness.  So again, there's myriad ways that we can experience loss, and sadness is a natural emotional response to that loss. 

Now, as I mentioned before, sometimes sadness is not linked to a direct event. And in those cases, we may need to examine what's behind the sadness and whether there is cause to refer our client to a healthcare professional, whether it's due to a chemical imbalance or underlying medical condition, a medication that a client may be taking, hormonal imbalance, sleep disturbances, and so forth. Those may indicate that there's an underlying physical health component that is contributing to the sadness, and again, that would be outside the scope of our work as coaches to address and we may want to refer our client to a healthcare professional 

Likewise, if there's any sort of unresolved trauma that a client has experienced, or if there are other symptoms going on that suggest a depressive episode, again, we may want to consider referring our client to a mental health provider. 

We also want to make sure that as coaches we are sensitive to the social and environmental factors that may contribute to a client's sadness. For example, studies have shown that people who hold a minority status experience more social pain, and that social pain may lead them to be feeling a sense of sadness. Sadness can also be influenced by where you live, and your level of access to necessary resources. There's a lot of factors that can contribute to the extent to which someone feels sadness and the degree to which someone feels sadness. So as coaches we need to be sensitive to that as well, and make sure that we are really taking a holistic look at our clients experience and understanding why they may be feeling the type of sadness they're feeling and the level to which they're feeling it as well. 

Okay, so far we have explored what sadness is, when it might happen, what it could potentially point to, and we've also spent some time differentiating sadness from other deeper mental health disorders that may require a referral to a healthcare specialist. But as a coach, if you are working with a client, and they are presenting in their session with sadness, what should you do? 

Well, there are four steps that I would suggest that you take as a coach. Step number one: your job is to provide space for the client to express that emotion, and so we do that by partnering with our client by creating an environment of mutual respect and safety. We ensure that if the client needs or wants space to express that sadness, we are here to support them. 

Now, sometimes a client will be aware that they're feeling that sadness, and they'll be vocal about it. You know, they may say in session, I'm feeling really sad about this thing that just happened to me, and in that case, we can follow the client's lead. 

But there may be times where a client is exhibiting sadness, but they are not fully aware of it or they're not sharing that with us verbally. And in that case, as coaches it might be appropriate for us to neutrally share our observations with the client. So for example, we might reflect back any physical cues that we're picking up on, or if there's any sort of indication in what they've said or how they've said it, that might indicate that there's sadness. 

So that might look like saying to our client, “You know, I noticed when you just said that, your shoulders kind of hunched in, and your gaze kind of fell to the floor. And I also kind of picked up on the sense that there, there might be some sadness underneath that. How does that resonate with you?” 

So what we're doing then is, we are linking our kind of intuitive hit of “I think this client may be experiencing sadness,” and we're connecting it with our observations of their physical self. So again, the shoulders caving in, the gaze coming downwards. And then we're ending that with an opportunity for the client to either agree with our assessment or to reject it, because we might be wrong. It may not be sadness that the client is feeling, it may be an entirely different emotion. But we want to make sure that we always give the client an opportunity to comment on the observation that we've made, and to either accept it or reject it. 

Once we are clear with a client about what they're experiencing emotionally, then our job is simply to confirm and affirm what they're sharing. So we're not at a stage where it's time to fix a problem or come up with a solution. Right now we are simply creating space for the client to express their emotions, and our job is to confirm and affirm. So what that means is that we are confirming that we hear what they're saying, so we're reflecting back what we've heard so that they know that we're understanding them. And then we are affirming what they're saying. We're normalizing that feeling of sadness, we're letting them know that it's perfectly understandable that they might be feeling sadness based on what's happened, and even going so far as to say that anyone who was experiencing what they were might also feel sad too.

We want to make sure that our clients understand that it is totally normal and appropriate that they are feeling what they feel, that there's nothing wrong with feeling sad, even though it may not feel pleasant or welcome. The fact that they are feeling sadness is understandable. So we are creating that space where it's safe for them to share and explore that feeling. 

And while we're doing that, we want to make sure that we are really following the energy, and we are allowing the client to lead. I find oftentimes, this is where leaving space and having silence can be especially powerful. So as a client is sitting with and engaging with that emotion, giving them the time and the space to do so, not rushing to fill the silence with words of comfort or with suggestions or activities. We are sitting with them in their sadness, in their grief. We are normalizing their responses. We're just being a quiet, stable sense of support for them. 

For some clients as they are expressing their sadness, it might lead to some tears. And some clients are perfectly comfortable crying, and they see that as a normal expression of their sadness, which it is. Other clients might feel a little uncomfortable about crying, and I've had many clients say in session, “I can't believe I'm crying,” or “Wow, I wasn't expecting these tears to come,” or even “I never cry. I don't know why I'm crying right now.” And again, as a coach, we can simply normalize this response. 

A lot of times I'll say to my clients, “You know what, these are truth tears coming out. Tears sometimes suggest that we are really tapping into the vein of truth for you. So that's what this is, we're tapping into something true and real and these tears are merely confirmation that we're getting to something important here.” 

So again, we can normalize the experience – crying or becoming tearful – and just sit with that emotion with the client. So that is step number one, we are providing space for the client's emotional expression, we are confirming and affirming their response. And we are staying present in the moment with them every step of the way. 

Once they've had an opportunity to fully express that sadness, then we can move into step two, which is asking the client what that sadness might signal for them. And this is where the ICF Core Competency of Powerful Questioning really comes into play. We want to construct some questions that will allow our clients to examine their sadness as a signal, and again, we talked about this earlier about how it may indicate a core value that's being threatened, or it may indicate a loss that they're experiencing. 

So when I'm working with my clients, oftentimes I will bring the sadness out and treat it as something separate from the client. So I will ask the client, “What is sadness trying to tell you right now? What does your sadness want you to know?” It's almost as if I'm personifying fatness. I'm creating it as a separate being from the client so that we can look at it objectively. And we can ask it to inform us about the client's experiences or what really matters most to them. 

So step two, is asking the client to reflect on their sadness, and engage with it in a way where it can give us information about what matters most to the client, and perhaps where they want to go next. So that is step two, but I really want to stress that we only move into step two, where we ask what sadness may be signaling, after we have allowed ample time for the client to move through step one, which is the emotional expression of that sadness. If we rush into step two, if we try to make meaning, or make sense of an emotion before a client has fully expressed and resolved it, then we may be rushing the process. 

And so understand that if in a given session with the client, you spend the entire session on step one, that's okay. You haven't done anything wrong as a coach, you're not running behind. Sometimes sadness needs time to be fully expressed. Don't feel like you have to rush your clients through all of these steps. Sometimes step one is enough. But step two is a natural follow-on after the client has had sufficient time to express their sadness. Then we're going to ask them to reflect on their sadness, and to talk about what it might indicate for them.

Once they've kind of had that awareness, then step three is to put the client in the driver's seat regarding what actions they want to take next. So they've processed the sadness, they've experienced some relief from it, they have an understanding of what the sadness is pointing them to. Now we can ask the client questions about how they want to move forward now that they have this awareness of how sadness is showing up for them, and what it means. How do they want that to inform the next steps that they take? 

So for some clients, it's possible that confirming and affirming the emotion was sufficient. They may not need to do anything more than simply receive that affirmation. And to understand that,
“Yep, no, I'm good. I just needed to kind of express the sadness and now I can kind of come back to the other things that I want to talk about.” 

But for other clients, they may need to create an action plan to channel that sadness into action. So for example, if you're working with a client who's grieving the loss of a loved one, they may want to channel that sadness into a way to honor that person's life, they may want to channel that sadness into creating a compassionate self care plan. So again, depending on the client, and the reason for the sadness, they may want to take further action after and so that's where you as the coach can partner with them. And that's step three. 

So step one is fully processing the emotion. Step two is clarifying what that emotion is pointing them towards in terms of what matters to them or what their values are. And then step three is helping the client take action from a values-aligned place so that that sadness that they're experiencing can inform their next steps. 

Now, step four is for you, the coach, and that is to Note how the sadness might be affecting you, and to ensure that you have a self-care plan that you can enact after the session is done. So when we are connecting with our clients in session, it is going to be about them and their needs. But for many of us coaches, especially those of us who would describe ourselves as empathic, it's not surprising that we may take on some of that client sadness as our own during the session. As coaches we’re able to create a holding space for that emotion, but we need to make sure that at the end of the session, we return the sadness back to the client because it's theirs, not ours, and that after the session, we are taking steps to ensure that we are providing for our own self care, so that if a particular client session has been emotionally difficult for you, you have structures in place that you can call on to do your own work, whether that's with your own coach, whether that's through self coaching, or whether that's through a plan of self care. 

But don't miss step four, that is an important part of the process so that you can continue to show up and serve your clients powerfully. And with that, I'd like to move into this week's Clarity in Action moment. 

So for this week's Clarity in Action moment, I'm going to ask you to walk yourself through the four steps I've just described. Because as a coach, I never asked my clients to engage in something that I'm not willing to do myself, or that I haven't already done myself. And so in the spirit of that, I'm going to ask you to walk yourself through these four steps. 

So if you are not currently experiencing the feeling of sadness, I'm going to ask you to remember a time when you did feel sad. And for step one, I'm going to ask you to think about how that sadness showed up for you. So what physical signs or cues were present when you were feeling sad? Mentally, what thoughts were you having when you were sad? Emotionally, what did sadness feel like for you? And also where did you feel it in your body? And then spiritually, how did it affect your ability to connect with your inner wisdom, with your intuition, with God? However you practice your spirituality, in what ways did sadness influence it? So for you, step one is going to be really thinking about the ways that sadness shows up for you and influences your ability to connect with yourself and others. 

Step two, then, is to take a look at what that sadness was pointing to, what was it signaling. So perhaps the sadness emerged because you had experienced a loss or had the perception of a loss. Maybe that sadness showed up because there was a core value that was being compromised. But I want you to give a few minutes to reflect on why that sadness was showing up and what it was signaling. 

Then step three is to ask yourself what, if any, action you need or needed to take as a result of that sadness. And sometimes the answer will be no action at all. It's simply noticing the emotion, understanding it, and then moving forward. But in other cases, that sadness may indicate that it's time for you to make a change or to take significant action in your life. So that is step three, really assessing the extent to which the sadness can inform the next steps you take in your life. 

And then finally, step four is to ensure that you have a self-care plan in place so that when sadness comes up, you know what you can do to help alleviate some of the uncomfortable or unwanted results of that sadness. So whether that looks like journaling, self-coaching, scheduling a session with your coach, taking a hot bath, listening to some music, meditating, exercising, again, we could do a whole list of self-care activities. I want you selecting the ones that are going to serve you best as you navigate your way through the landscape of sadness. 

So, my friend, I want to thank you for spending this time with me today because I know it is not easy to dive into challenging emotions such as sadness. And again, if this episode has brought up feelings of sadness for you, that's totally understandable. And now you have a four-step strategy that you can use to work through your own emotions, and you'll be better equipped to support your clients as they work through their own sadness in session with you. 

So I hope that you have found this session helpful, and I would love to hear from you what insights or “a ha!” moments you've had as a result. So you can come find me on Instagram @coachwithclarity, and let me know what moments really resonated with you from today's episode. You are also welcome to reach out to me via email. My email address is info@coachwithclarity.com, and I would love to hear more from you there. 

You can also join us over at the Coach with Clarity Facebook group, and let us know what action steps you'll be taking as a result of today's episode. Just head to https://www.coachwithclarity.com/facebookgroup to join and learn more. 

All right, my friend, take good good care of yourself this week. I will be back in your podcast feed with another episode next Monday. But until then, I am encouraging you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity. 

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