Paradox and Trades – Some thoughts on the Atlantic’s Interview with Stephanie Coontz

This article was originally published on a prior version of my blog.

This is fairly thought provoking interview with Stephanie Coontz on gender roles in work and marriage and the progress of feminism. What struck me most however was the ideas she discusses 1/2 way through the article, on paradoxes and trades:

“The same things that could be really helpful in constructing and sustaining a successful institution or relationship or sources of real power in your life may also set in motion dynamics that undermine it. This is a theoretical point, but it’s also personally empowering. They can look at their life or outside institutions and see that the things that make it strong can also make it weak.”

There is a lot of juice in this looking at society. I’m more interested in the personal development piece. This idea that over identifying with our personal or institutional strengths can distract us from where we may have weakness isn’t a new one. 

One of the most common challenges I’ve seen in the clients I work stems from this very issue. Its one of the places where a coach can offer real value. Consider this:

Fred at 32 decides he wants to start a family. Always successful and a hard worker he had found success by putting all his energy and available time into a project. His friends describe him as dedicated, driven and focused.  Attending to his career for so long, Fred does not have much of a social life. The extra hours he has put in toward his success have kept him isolated to a large degree. He decides to try internet dating. 

Dedicated, driven, and focused – these are all great qualities. Fred has relied on these tools and has been successful in his career. He has not however found a way to balance these qualities with some of the traits that might build great relationships. Qualities like patience.

Fred knows success through diligence and hard work. For as long as he can remember when he has felt uncertainty he has turned his attention to the things he knows he can accomplish – his work. 

While this reminds Fred of his success he has been ignoring building some essential life skills.

So how do you think our theoretical friend faired in his quest for a meaningful relationship? Yes, dedication, commitment, these are good traits to have as a partner, and in life in general. But what are the weaknesses and paradoxes? Can he balance a relationship within his driven and focused way of tending to his career? What happens when he achieves his goal of marriage and a family? Can he tend to and maintain this kind of relationship? How does he deal with conflict when it arises in these relationships?

Coaching, and particularly Integral Coaching, is designed to address these kinds of challenges – to see the paradoxes and trades we make to be strong enough to accomplish what is important to us. Working in these areas, tending to the weaknesses and trusting that our strengths are still there and still valid. Finding practices and raising our conscious awareness of ourselves and the world around us allows us to create fuller, more meaningful lives.

What challenges are you facing? How do the tools you’ve used to get you where you are fail to expand your life toward what you really want?

Book a free consultation and let’s see if we can help you find a balance, trusting your strengths and strengthening new areas that need it.


Stating the Problem

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution. – Bertrand Russell

This is one of the key benefits to using a coach, counselor, or having a friend or mentor that is skilled in these kinds of conversations.

Often when we try to approach a problem in our lives, particularly if we are too close to it or it is emotionally charged, we can struggle to find a view on the issue that is open enough to allow a solution.

Bertrand speaks of an isolated thinker. It is rare for someone to find the kind of time and solitude these days to really contemplate a difficult problem and find a resolutions, but it is possible for someone really dedicated to it. I have countless friends, clients and colleagues who I know have had problems and questions they have been trying to workout for years.

On the other hand, having another person, or network of people, with experience working through these kind problems can vastly expedite the process.

Having an outside view from an informed perspective, engaging in purposeful and meaning conversation on the problem, along with personal reflection an thought, can tease open our problems in a way that allows us to see them differently.

With new perspectives we can restate our knotted problems in new ways, which could allow for easier access to resolution.

Retreats and workshops help too…

Looking at Others

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. – Carl Jung 

This idea, which has become fairly common, isn’t meant to let others off the hook when they harm us, but rather in exploring what creates that irritation we can create a greater mastery of our own lives, our thoughts and feelings.

At work I once had a superior who, with uncanny timing, would come into my office and start a discussion on some relatively unimportant project every time I was up against a deadline. It frustrated the hell out of me. Here I am at 4:30 trying to focus on some difficult problem I needed to solve before I went home for the night and he wanted to discuss something that could wait 4 or 5 days. He would sit there for half an hour no matter how impatient I looked or how often i turned back to my work. A couple times I even blew up at him. It troubled me and I would hold onto that frustration for days.

As I came to the kind of self-examination we find in the work and conversations we have with a coach, counselor, or even our closest friend, I realized something that was tremendously freeing. I could never change his behavior. I only had control over how I was, and who I was, in those situations. When I reacted I was allowing myself to be hijacked. The frustration that arose in me created more of a distraction from my work than simply putting my work aside for 30 minutes and having the conversation that was being forced on me. As I grew in that understanding we eventually developed a good relationship, rather than the adversarial one we had previously.

But the real gift was that I developed the self-respect to simply say to him when he came in, “Hey, I’m on a deadline. Is this something we can talk about tomorrow.”

And yeah, I was so caught up in my over emotional reaction to his imposition, that I hadn’t even considered my inner desire to be seen as a good worker who did what his employer wanted was preventing me from simply asking for a reprieve.

I learned a lot about myself in that situation. I was afraid to say no. I did not have confidence in myself or my position to say “hold on a minute, I’m busy.” I learned that I allow stress in my life to get in the way of creating meaningful relationships with the people I work with. And those opened pathways to countless other little awakenings in the years since that have freed me from other misconceptions.

Today find those moments for yourself – where charged reaction to someone else is over taking your ability to manage your stress and frustration.