Self-forgiveness: I didn’t know what I didn’t know

It is hard work coming to terms with my past. I think this is true for most people, so I’m writing this in hopes I’m not the only one.

Recently, I have had the privilege of connecting, professionally, with an organization called Graydin that seeks to build a coaching culture in schools and educational institutions around the world. Part of my foray into Graydin’s world is to observe them in action, and this week I sat in (remotely) on their foundational coaching course, The Anatomy, as it was delivered to the staff of a music school in Boston.

Graydin brought me in because of my interest in coaching and education and how that interests intersects with my skills and abilities in editing and writing. However, whatever I thought I knew about coaching needs to be thrown out the window. I know nothing. And the baby step forward is now I KNOW that I know nothing. This is simultaneously humiliating and energizing. And if there’s one thing I have learned in my life, feeling two very conflicting feelings at the same time is one sure sign that I am onto something BIG.

The humiliation: I was wrong

The humiliation I feel centers on having to backtrack on what I thought I knew. I thought I knew what coaching was. I thought I had a handle on how to do it. And I thought I had applied it pretty successfully in my personal and professional life. Somewhere, though, I lost sight of what Graydin calls the “Three Truths of Coaching”:

  • the coachee is whole and complete and does not need to be fixed
  • the coachee already knows the answers to the questions they have
  • my job as a coach is only to ask those questions and NOT to provide the answers.

All of this flies completely in the face of the problem-solving attitude I have been marinating in my entire life. From childhood through school through a career in the health sciences that morphed into freelancing as an editor and writer, I have existed to solve problems. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What’s bad is getting into other people’s business.

Coaching falls on a spectrum of instructional methods that ranges from directive to non-directive. On the surface (say, as a proofreader or light copy editor), an editor’s job is directive: We find errors and fix them. As we dig deeper into style and structure, however, we slide along the scale towards the non-directive: we help clients find the words they want to use to say what they want to say. Intuitively, I knew this, and I consider it my mandate to preserve the author’s voice when editing. However, when I am working with someone whose writing style is very different from my own, it is just WAY too easy to slip into the “here, let me say what you mean” mode, which violates the partnership agreement I want to have.

I see the same trend in my parenting style. As a parent, I always knew my children were not my own. (The same intuition surfaced in my heart when I became a step-parent, even if the circumstances are much more complex.) From infancy, I accepted my sons as gifts from the Universe that were charged to my care for only a time, and that my job was to point them in a direction and, like an arrow in a bow, release them. Again, on the surface, there are instructional responsibilities in parenting that are required to keep our kids safe and healthy: look both ways before you cross the street; vegetables are good for you; be kind to yourself and others. Just like in my profession, though, the deeper I dig, the more I slide along that scale towards the non-directive. When it comes to who they are, my children and step-children are whole and complete and need me to ASK the questions, not TELL them the answers.

The heart-damage from failing to let my kids (and their fathers, for that matter) be who they are feels far worse than failing to preserve the author’s voice, but this is useful because the one that hurts less can help me make amends for the one that hurts more. My search to preserve the author’s voice can heighten my respect for the Other in any relationship, and help me find that balance between directive and non-directive helping.

The energy: There is a way forward

The energy I feel centers on having new information with which to move forward. This is the gift of the coaching toolkit provided by Graydin’s course. The tools include

  • the three truths of coaching listed above
  • the directive–nondirective sliding scale of forms of help
  • the “start with heart” model and method of asking questions
  • the heart, head and step questions which guide a client or loved one to the answers they already have

And the very best news EVER is that coaching can be applied to the Self. In fact, I think for me it’s best applied to Self first, because only then will I be truly equipped to pay it forward. Even more good news: it’s a lifelong journey, and unlike the bow and arrow analogy, aiming and releasing happens incrementally and not all at once.

The balance: Self-forgiveness

The balance I can find in all this comes from forgiving myself for what I didn’t know, having the courage to apply what I know now, and building the momentum to keeping learning. I can see that while I may not have known much, I had some intuitive inkling of how to listen and let others find their way through. I can see that I got carried away by the often-conflicting messages we are bombarded with from all sides, every day. I can see that I already have all the answers for ME inside me, but I cannot presume those apply to any Other I encounter. I can trust myself to find my answers, and I can trust others to find theirs. I carry on with renewed hope and gratitude for the gift of this insight.


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