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Education Opinion

Strategies for Managing the Emotional Fatigue of Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — April 26, 2015 5 min read
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Last week I received this question from a coach: “At the end of the day, after a day of intense coaching and high emotion, what do I do with those feelings and take care of myself? This is very hard for me.”

This question speaks to what I’m most interested in these days and that is how we can cultivate emotional resilience and take care of the many sides of our selves as we engage in work that can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. My experiences and learning over the last twenty years working in education keep leading me back to these questions--and to the awareness that unless we attend to ourselves, we can’t do transformational work.

Here are some strategies that might help:

1. Name the feelings. Give words to what you’re experiencing. Naming things helps us to understand them better. Sometimes at the end of a day of coaching, I feel sad--I hear the people I coach describing extremely difficult situations and I empathize deeply. Sometimes I also feel angry--that the people I coach are in such difficult situations. When I sit down with my emotions and give them names, I usually find a whole slew of them that I hadn’t noticed in varying degrees of intensity. Just naming them can feel like a relief.

2. Talk or write about the feelings. Sometimes I talk to a trusted colleague or I write and describe what I’m feeling so that I can get it out and name it. This helps tremendously--I can get some healthy distance and can get them “out” of me. When I name them and describe them, I’m careful not to feel as if I need to change them. I practice accepting them, but recognizing that they aren’t me--they aren’t my essence. I recognize that they are like weather patterns that come and go and I imagine that I’m a tree that is flexible during a storm but doesn’t break.

3. Explore the feelings. Sometimes it helps me to understand where my feelings are coming from and what might have triggered the intense ones. Understanding the stories behind the emotions helps me recognize what is past and what is present.

4. Sit with the feelings. This is hard because what I’m suggesting is that you don’t try to change them, you just notice them and feel them but not try to do anything directly about them. See how they manifest in your body. Notice the courses that they wander. But don’t try to make them go away.

5. Move your body. You can “sit with the feelings” while moving! I favor fast and quiet walks--sometimes this is the only thing that seems to shake out that heavy feeling at the end of a day. I let the feelings come with me but they often seem to disappear somewhere along mile three and by the time I’m home they’ve faded.

6. Sleep. I’ve found that one of the ways to build up a strong foundation so that the feelings don’t wipe me out is to ensure that I’m doing all the proactive things I know that set me up to manage the emotional stress of coaching. I prioritize sleep above all else in my life (I’m not joking--I really do!) and I always sleep 8 or 9 hours a night.

7. Meditate. This is another preventative measure that makes all the difference in the world for me. You can see a tremendous impact in just six weeks of meditating daily for 20 minutes. The emotions become less clingy--they come and go quicker, they don’t adhere as firmly as they once did. Simple mindfulness mediation--watching the breath come and go--does wonders, as well as some of the other meditative practices.

8. Engage in something creative. Make music, sing, or listen to music. Get your hands into some clay or around a crayon or on a camera. Find something that stirs your creative juices and explore. Accessing the creative, visual, musical, artistic sides of ourselves (that every human being has) can be cathartic as well as expanding.

9. Connect with others. While reflective time alone is valuable, many of us need the company of others and a truly trusting professional community. Sometimes I experience things that only another coach can understand--and that’s who I need to talk to. I don’t need advice from another coach, I just need them to listen and empathize. As I frequently say, coaches need coaches--if only as colleagues. This is hard, hard work and we need the companionship of others in this same boat.

10. Attend to your spirit. What makes you feel connected to something beyond yourself? For some people, this might be spending time in nature, for others it might be listening to music, and for others it might be praying or gathering with others who share similar beliefs. There is an abundance of great wisdom and insight into our human predicament that we can access to help us at the end of a challenging day.

I realize that I rarely talk about 80% of the work I do as a coach--this “work” is the way I attend to my heart, spirit, and body so that I can be fully present emotionally for my clients and so that I have fewer days when I’m wiped out at the end. I sleep a lot, eat tons of leafy green veggies, walk and do Pilates and go to acupuncture, meditate every morning, listen to my favorite music as I drive to coaching sessions, and spend as much time as possible on the weekends in the redwoods or on the beach. I am selective about the other humans that I spend time with but also get a great deal of nourishment from furry friends. I take long stretches of time off (a good five or six weeks in the summer and a couple weeks in the winter). I disconnect from email on Saturdays. I’ve spent years figuring out what I need in order to be my best self and not be beaten down by the emotional fatigue of this work, but of course like everyone, I still have days when I’m wiped out. Now I know that they’ll pass and they happen less frequently.

I hope you all have a reserve of strategies to support you emotionally, physically and spiritually in coaching--because you can’t take care of others until you can take care of yourself. And we can do both--we can take care of ourselves and serve others. It can be a long learning journey, but it’s a worthwhile one to take. And you deserve it.

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