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Coming Full Circle: What I learnt about my own vertical development from doing a PhD while starting life over at the other end of the world
I’m writing this from a hotel room in Florida, where the Global Conference of the International Coaching Federation is in full swing. 1000 coaches from 60 countries have come together to learn, connect and sense into where this growing field might be heading. 70 speakers have stood up on stage to share ideas, practices, research, models and new approaches - from perspectives on trauma-informed coaching (one of my favourite sessions!) to ideas on how to better understand and coach the youth of today, who are so different from their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
I was one of a handful of Australians in this space (and likely one of a couple of Romanians). It takes a bit of grit to travel for 28 hours from the other end of the world - but it was well worth it. It felt pretty special to represent both my birth country and my beloved adoptive country as a speaker in this event - something which, only a few years ago, would have seemed only a beautiful dream.
I have been an accredited coach and member of ICF for a decade, but I could not have imagined the day would come when I would be presenting my own research in front of hundreds of coaches on a global scene. In fact, I could not have imagined I would one day be a researcher as well as a group facilitator and coach, let alone that I would end up marrying these professions in any sort of meaningful way. Nor would I have imagined I would be living across the world from my native Romania, or that this new career would come about after an incredibly painful process of starting life over - in almost every possible way.
Last of all, I could not have imagined the profound inner growth and transformation I would experience in the very process of researching the topic of human transformative growth.
I did not think of any of these things when I started my talk to ICF coaches. I was sharing my research into the ways vertical development unfolds, as a journey through disorienting dilemmas and through ‘edge’ emotions. I had come to talk about what I had learnt from my research participants and share a case study of coaching one of my clients through one of his own dilemmas. By the end of it though, it dawned on me that I was in fact talking about myself too. My own journey during the years I did my Ph.D. research mirrors that of the leaders I studied - my own struggles have been so similar to their own. Like them, I often felt confused, scared and powerless along the way. And like some of them, I found that the way OUT is THROUGH. And from that realisation, growth has emerged.
And what is this newsletter for, if not a place to explore inner growth in concrete, rather than abstract ways? So today I invite you to accompany me as I share one small case study in vertical development: my own.
While the details of the story I’m about to share are unique to me, its lessons and reflections are not. Contexts that trigger our development and the struggle of growing from the inside out hold common patterns for many of us. Hopefully, my version of the developmental narrative will prompt you to reflect on your own. As I share the twists and turns in my own story of the past few years, I invite you to consider where you are on your own journey. Perhaps some of the lessons I stumbled upon along the way will inspire interesting experiments you might want to take on yourself.
I was a child of what we call in my native Romania - ‘the transition period’ - that ‘no man’s land’ between Communism and Democracy, between no-freedom and no-boundaries. Born in the last decade of one of the harshest dictatorships in Eastern Europe, raised in the first decades of my country learning to be something else. That learning continues to this day. Like many in my generation (now in our 40’s), I worked hard to be a top student, to build a life where my passion and my competence would lead me into a safe, comfortable, but also meaningful and fulfilled life. I had forged an identity as a doer: industrious, resourceful, always learning. Hopelessness and helplessness were never part of my inner landscape.
By my mid-30s, I had been extremely lucky to have built that life. I was running a thriving leadership development, coaching and coach-training business, did work I felt made a positive difference in people’s lives, and had wonderful clients (both individuals and organisations) who trusted me and whom I saw as true partners. I had gone through a fair bit of personal hardship, heartbreak, healing and growth, had found my other half and a much-loved little girl had arrived into our lives. I had reached a happy place, where I felt I was in control of my life. I had (or so I thought) little need for external validation. I was financially secure and emotionally anchored in a small, but tight-knit and loving circle of family and friends. I guess you can already see there’s no other way this story can go but downhill :)…
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The Disorienting Dilemma
Human transformative growth always seems to start with some sort of discombobulating moment when things that used to make sense no longer do. Jack Mezirow - the father of transformative learning - called these moments “disorienting dilemmas”. There are moments when reality as we know it morphs in a way that we cannot make sense of with our old lens/worldview.
Often the disorientation comes from a big ‘slap’ from life - a tragedy, a loss. Other times, the disorienting dilemma comes dressed up as positive change.
When the opportunity arose to move to Australia, we considered it deeply. There was so much we would have to give up of the cosy life we had built in Romania. And there was also such an exciting adventure ahead: I would start a PhD on a topic I was deeply passionate about and grow my work into new directions; we would move to a wonderful little town by the ocean (the kind of slow life, anchored in nature, that I and my husband had dreamed of for a long time) and we could enrol our little girl into a beautiful Montessori school perfect for her learning needs. After much thought, we decided to take the leap.
We packed our lives into 3 suitcases and 30 boxes and off we went. It was early 2019.
Whenever our lived reality stops matching our mental maps, we experience emotions that Finnish researcher Kaisu Mälkki calls “edge emotions”. These are powerful, mostly unpleasant emotions that arise at the edge of our comfort zone. Confusion, anxiety, grief, fear, shame - can all arise right after we’ve encountered a disorienting dilemma. Mälkki suggests that these emotions, while being profoundly unsettling and even seeming threatening, can actually be opportunities, and cues for potential inner growth.
She shows that choosing, counterintuitively, to lean into these emotions, rather than following our instinct to run away from them (or deny, repress, or numb them) - can actually unlock powerful moments of reflection and lead to a new perspective.
I was aware that our move to Australia, while desired and exciting, would be disruptive for each of us and for our small family system. We did a lot of work to prepare mentally and emotionally. My husband and I talked through our expectations of our new life, and of each other in that context. We did all we could to prepare our precocious 3-year-old for the change that was coming, knowing that saying goodbye to her kindy friends and finding herself in a new country, whose language she didn’t speak, would not be easy for her. We made sure we had healthy savings to give us financial security while we laid down new roots. We openly acknowledged the anxiety, alongside the excitement.
And yet, in organising what we believed was a very conscious and deliberate move, we didn’t really (and, in hindsight, couldn’t really) imagine the ocean of edge emotions we would be thrown in over our first year in our new country.
The first couple of months were an avalanche of new starts. We had to quickly find a house. We enrolled our daughter into her new school. I started my research program. My partner strived to figure out how best to restart his career as a chef in a whole new context/culture/space. I learnt how to drive ‘on the other side’ of the road. We constantly tried to figure out all the practicalities of life and often felt clumsy, weird and incompetent.
The novelty quickly became painful. All our emotions started running wild. We found ourselves stressed, frazzled, and easily irritated with each other. Our child found herself in a new school where she was warmly welcomed but surrounded by people with whom, she was shocked to realise, she could not communicate at all. Our loquacious little girl had no words. And she was very angry with us for having robbed her of her friends and a place she had loved and felt safe in. She cried every day as I took her to school and every day I’d spend a long time holding her in my arms right outside her classroom before she was ready to go in. Every day I cried on the drive back home from school drop-off, thinking of how isolated she was feeling and furious I was so powerless to make her feel any better. My self-image as a competent mother, able to hold space for her child, crumbled.
I started my course of research and found myself reading academic articles and feeling I often could not comprehend what I was reading. I understood the words but somehow could not make meaning of the often convoluted academic language. I wondered if I’d ever be able to learn how to do research, and the prospect of completing a whole PhD seemed ever more daunting. Had I given up something I had been really good at for something I might never be able to do? My self-image as an intelligent, competent person, crumbled.
The effort of learning how do to research and the pains of being a beginner left me with no mental space to do any coaching or facilitation work - something which might have given me back some sense of self-esteem. Even if I’d had that mental space, I felt daunted by the task of finding clients in a place where I had no professional network and nobody had any idea of what I could do. I had come from a place where people were seeking my help, where I was invested with trust by clients who appreciated the value I could bring and business was coming my way organically. Here my inbox was empty and my phone was silent. My self-image as a confident professional, who (had naively believed) needed no external validation to feel good about herself, crumbled.
The struggle of figuring out this new life pushed my relationship with my husband to the brink. We found ourselves unable to empathise with each other, falling into pits of judgement, criticism and, at times, even pettiness. Our kid, who was struggling with her own grief, picked up our chaotic energy and started having tantrums, which only added to our anxiety. Our shared image of a strong, loving, trusting relationship seemed to crumble. So did our shared image of being conscious, wise parents.
Edge emotions often seem to act like a purifying fire, tearing down all the layers of your identity you seemed so sure of, pulling the ground from under your feet and leaving you adrift in a sea of uncertainty. You are not who you thought you were. And you have absolutely no idea who you are becoming.
That was exactly how I felt a few months after the move. I wondered if we had made a mistake. I missed the comfort, clarity and balance of my previous life. I experienced hopelessness and helplessness not as transitory feelings (that I had experienced before) but as a dark pit of despair from which I could not see a way out.
Adding Gratitude | Awe | Love | Curiosity and building a Contrasting Emotions Space
While we felt so untethered, my husband and I discovered a few practices (and with them a few positive emotions) that seemed to always drag us out from our pits of despair (sometimes multiple times per day).
The first one we stumbled on was gratitude. We lived in a beautiful place, where a natural space - like the beach or a trail through the bush - was always no more than 10 minutes away. There was (and, almost 5 years later, still is) no day when we didn’t feel grateful for all the natural beauty around us. People were kind and helpful wherever we went - another reason for gratitude. Our daughter’s teachers were kind and patient as she transitioned into her new classroom - every day I thanked them for that. After every tense moment between any of the three of us, we apologised to each other. I made apologies to my husband and daughter more in those few months than I had ever had to do before and every time I was so grateful to receive their forgiveness. Somehow gratitude was like a soothing balm that calmed my nerves and helped me start over every day.
We made a habit of walking out in nature and seeking places we could marvel at. Awe became an emotion which, alongside gratitude, nourished and sustained us. A sunset. A Saturday morning playing in the waves. A small waterfall hidden deep in the forest. The first day I came to pick up my child from school and I heard her speak in English to one of her friends. Awe in the face of some little miracle. I clung to these moments of awe like deep breaths of fresh air and felt how they helped lessen the oppressive feeling of overwhelm.
Then there was love. The three of us deeply love each other, and, through our struggle, we miraculously managed to not ever lose awareness of that love. My husband making fresh coffee in the morning. The three of us cooking dinner and chatting around the table in the evening. The cosy feeling of reading a story to my wide-eyed child, feeling her little head resting on my shoulder and the softness of her hair tickling my cheek. She jumping on our bed early in the morning, asking for a ‘group hug’. I got daily reminders of how much I loved those two people in my life. And that helped me forgive them and, most importantly, forgive myself for the many moments I was a much smaller version of myself than I knew I was capable of being.
And finally, there was curiosity. While I was struggling with kick-starting my research and fighting my way through hundreds of academic articles that seemed to go over my head, one friend recommended a book that rocked my world: “Flowers for Algernon”. It’s the story of a cognitively impaired man, Charlie, who volunteers for a revolutionary procedure to enhance his intelligence - after the operation was deemed safe and succeeded in turning Algernon - a test rat - into a much smarter version of himself. The operation is a resounding success and Charlie documents his journey through an incredible transformation - from little awareness to hyper-awareness, from little comprehension to super-human intelligence. Charlie becomes a genius and a wise one too. Vertical development on steroids. But sadly the change is temporary. He documents his reversal back into his old impaired self with lucidity and equanimity that touched me to the core. Just as he had rejoiced in his ascension to the pinnacle of human consciousness, Charlie embraced his descent back into the space of not being able to comprehend. He finds happiness in the loss, while also feeling the grief.
That got me wondering. Could I find any hope in the loss? What could my newly acquired anxiety around learning teach me? Could I have been a little too attached to my identity as a ‘smart’ person? Could my frustration and even shame at my lack of comprehension be simply a symptom of my brain stretching into a new space? What if I embraced the shame, fear and anxiety and continued to read those heady articles and work on improving the quality of my academic writing?
As I got more curious about my own emotions, instead of trying to suppress them, I managed to draw on my curiosity about the topic of adult development - the deep passion and interest that had brought me into research in the first place - to push myself into reading one more article. And one more. I suddenly realised I was curious enough to keep trying even when I felt stupid, and with the trying my capacity to absorb started to grow.
Right about that time, my daughter told me, as I picked her up from school: “Mom, I believe my brain is magical. Do you know I’ve started to understand what my friends are saying? I think I’m learning English! My brain is growing!”. That was another day I cried - but these were happy tears.
Could my own regression into a space of hopelessness and despair be nothing but a cue that my own brain was growing, and my heart along with it? The possibility intrigued me and allowed me, for the first time in many months, to feel like I could breathe.
As I would later learn from the research of my (now) dear friend, Valerie Livesay, it is from our moments of smallness that we can grow the most. And, as I would later learn from my own research, adding a positive emotion (like gratitude, awe, love and curiosity) on top of an edge emotion doesn’t make the latter go away, but does create an inner space where discomfort can exist without being debilitating.
New perspectives, insights and many experiments
Reframing my fear, anxiety, and frustration as cues that progress was actually happening gradually changed everything not just for me, but for our family. This big insight that we weren’t broken, just growing, gave me more resources for patience. Patience with my research finally allowed me to improve. Small wins in turn gave me hope I could do this after all.
Patience also allowed me to hold more space for my husband and he found his feet. We were able to talk through our feelings in a new way. Our child, encouraged by her own progress and supported by our slow return to a place of calm and balance, stopped having tantrums and started looking forward to going to school in the morning.
We started experimenting with different ways of being and doing. We made new professional choices. My partner opened up a small restaurant. I started to work part-time as a facilitator and coach, alongside my research. I slowly found my feet again as a professional, while settling into this new academic role that was growing on me, just as I was growing in it.
The following year Covid came and we dealt with a whole new set of challenges. None of our progress was a sudden emergence into a space of no turbulence. It was incremental. It was trying things, failing, learning and trying again. It was often two steps backwards and one forward.
We lost our way so many times. I struggled to be an employee after having been self-employed for such a long time. My partner struggled to make his food business sustainable through a pandemic. Luckily for us, after finding her voice and learning English, our kid seemed to embrace all change more bravely than either one of us, grown-ups. After two big health scares in as many years, she became our teacher, often showing us what resilience, hope and optimism looked like.
I learnt that experimentation comes with a lot of freedom. When you are experimenting, there is no failure, only learning.
There’s less risk of feeling stupid when you’re just experimenting. And more room to feel playful and brave.
I was lucky to have research supervisors who were both supportive and honest. They were generous and specific with their feedback. They showed me what I was missing while trusting me to do better every time. Receiving constant feedback on my iterative progress while feeling trusted and respected as a learner taught me to embrace criticism as a gift. I learnt to appreciate the ‘truth tellers’, as I have come to call them - the people who care enough to give you the facts, even when you don’t like the facts. Every piece of feedback resulted in better work. I honed my new craft. My writing improved. My dissertation emerged.
As we walk by others we walk by ourselves
Accompanying my research participants through 6 months of transformative learning in the same year when we were all dealing with the disorientation of the pandemic was a humbling and at the same time incredible growth experience in and of itself. As I read their journal entries every week - their vulnerable shares of their own edge emotions - their fear, grief, their sense of hitting the wall of exhaustion, their struggle with not knowing what to do in a situation nobody had faced before, their deep care for their families and teams, their doubts, their hopes, their discoveries. Reading about their journeys was, in hindsight, a gift that helped me navigate my own. I later interviewed them and learnt how they each found their way through the chaos. I started seeing patterns that put my own struggles into perspective.
Vertical development is a messy process. As I dove deep into my participants’ stories, I started to see a structure in the messiness. There always seems to be a disorienting dilemma (or more). Edge emotions are ever-present. When you run away from them, you get stuck. When you lean into them with curiosity (alongside gratitude, love, awe) a whole new inner space seems to open up, which helps contain the pain - not take it away, but make it bearable. And when the pain is bearable, you are able to reflect and see what you have been missing. You are free to experiment while not feeling the pressure to get it right from the get-go. And after some time experimenting and fumbling around, you suddenly realise you are no longer the same person you were before. You’ve grown. You might find you’re a tiny bit wiser. A tiny bit more confident. A tiny bit more grounded. And quite a bit more capable of facing challenges that seemed insurmountable before.
I learnt that vertical development happens when we are able to walk through the furnace of our own pain, challenge our assumptions, open up to a new way of seeing and experiment with a new way of being.
There were many milestones to celebrate along the way. The day I received two favourable reviews from two independent examiners, both international experts in adult development. Up to that point, I had not dared call myself a researcher. The day I stood in front of my academic committee and defended my dissertation. The day I received the award of my doctoral degree. The day I officially launched the Vertical Development Institute, with the intention to make developmental work accessible to more people, help normalise our growth pains as humans and bring my little bit to fostering a more conscious world.
In pivotal moments, I often expected to feel joy and all I felt was relief. I’ve learnt to stop expecting to feel one emotion at a time and allow myself to hold space for multitudes - of emotions and of selves. Sometimes two, or three, or more emotions are present at the same time: hope, anxiety, enthusiasm, fear, stress, gratitude, joy, exhaustion. Multiple versions of me clash with each other as often as they complement each other. That can be confusing. But it also feels so profoundly human - part of the experience of being alive.
Coming full circle
As I stood up on that stage at ICF Converge, inviting fellow coaches from around the world into an exploration of their own disorienting dilemmas and edge emotions, watching people’s faces as they were tapping into the wondrousness (and discomfort) of their own inner process - I felt a mixture of fierce passion, introverted anxiety from being in the spotlight, pride that I get to share this work with so many other professionals who in turn are impacting the growth of thousands of people and, above all, sheer amazement that I actually made it to this point in my journey.
This is a beautiful moment. And I am deeply aware it is just that: a moment in time. Things will change again. Other disorienting dilemmas are waiting to emerge. More edge emotions are waiting to be faced. Countless experiments, failures and learnings are waiting to be experienced. I feel slightly better equipped to lean into the messiness than I was 5 years ago. My biggest gain from this adventure has been not running away from the darkness, nor hoping that the light can last forever. I guess that too might be counted as a sign of vertical development.