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Hair Trigger (ITWS#18)

I had my hair cut just a day or two before going into Lockdown in March this year. It was the usual thing. Number 2 all over, tapered at the back and, now that I am a certain age, the positive response to the question of ‘and would you like me to trim those pesky eyebrows sir….and perhaps those hairs on your ears too ?!’ Bish, bash, bosh and all done in about 5 minutes, thank you very much. Little did I know how over the next few months hair would become one of the more visible traits of a country in lockdown. Beards, flowing tresses, floppy fringes, extreme head shaving, closed hair dressers, all became familiar sights!

It all made me think about an uncomfortable experience for me from more thirty years ago. At the time I worked for a pharmaceutical company who also manufactured a wide range of health-related products, including a range of shampoos. From time to time my employer would ask for healthy volunteers to test products not yet on the market. When it came to testing actual prospective medicines I tended not to put my hat in the ring as, for me, the financial incentive did not compensate for what I saw as the risk. However, when the chance to get £50 for testing a shampoo came up I went for it. A fine free day out just for scrubbing my hair in a new formulation of an existing product. It felt like ‘money for old rope’.

So, I duly washed my hair, then reasonably abundant, using the shampoo. It had a pleasing smell, colour and texture and apparently did the washing bit okay over the three months I used it. There were no adverse effects at all at the time. I really did get a free day out although I have not recollection of what I did. I suspect that instead the money underwrote a few evenings down the pub at a time when a pint could be bought with a single coin (I feel obliged to say; ‘those were the days!’).

I must be clear and say that what happened a year later may have had nothing to do at all with using this shampoo, but I can’t help but make a cause and effect connection, however false or irrelevant it is. What did happen was that I developed a nasty dry skin problem in areas of my scalp that proved not to respond to any number of medicated shampoos. It was incredibly itchy and no amount of discipline was going to stop me from scratching, leading to a bleeding scalp and super-scale dandruff (I really hate that word. I actually feel mildly nauseous just writing it!).

The physical symptoms were unpleasant but what was far more significant was the effect on my behaviour arising from being hyper-aware of this flaking skin. I stopped wearing dark clothes. I was perpetually brushing fragments from my shoulders, whether they were there or not. I tried to stretch my peripheral vision so I could look directly at someone while still monitoring my shoulder situation. Give it a try, it’s actually painful after a while!

What was going on beneath the surface was extraordinary too. I felt that people would judge me even though there was not a shred of evidence for this. I felt that people were looking at my shoulders with a sense of revulsion. Although I have never been vain I did become a little obsessed with this element of my appearance. I felt a sense of shame about my appearance, perhaps a sense of inadequacy. There was guilt about the ridiculous concern that I had for my situation when considered in relation to the much more significant problems being experienced by others. How selfish can you be?!

These are big emotions which, at the time, I did my best to package up and hide away. Not an approach to be recommended to anyone, however right it might have felt at the time. I should say that at the time (as now I hope!) I was an otherwise sensible and balanced bloke getting on with my life perfectly successfully. Even s,o the stimulus of the itchy scalp, the behaviours I choose to activate, my emotions, and the feelings they caused did occupy a lot of my thinking. I guess it is no surprise that they are all bundled up in my memory, waiting to be triggered.

Before going on with the hair trigger memory story, here is a short light-hearted diversion. Perhaps I require one after so much self-disclosure! While on this trip down memory lane I remembered a colleague, LP, who was less risk averse that me and who did volunteer for some early stage clinical trials. These were not without risk, had a larger financial inducement, and did place some rather challenging demands on the volunteer. One such was the need to collect, how to put his delicately, all his personal waste products. Suitable containers were provided along with a refrigerated box in which to store them for transport between home and work.

After a couple of £1 beers LP would tell the story of being stopped for speeding by the police who took the opportunity to have a look over his car and its contents. On opening the boot the refrigerated container came into view and the officers on the scene asked what was inside. LP, who I guess did not have too much respect for authority, said something like ‘you really don’t want to know’. Of course, this ensured that they really did want to know, so they opened it and pulled out a container of the more solid material. To their now direct enquiry of ‘what’s this?’ LP replied ‘my sh*t’. I can’t recall whether, at the time, this word had the multiple meanings it now does. Regardless as to meaning, his answer was taken as either an act of aggression or admission of some sort of guilt. As a result the container, box, car and LP were all hauled down to the station. It took a number of phone calls to establish the what and the why and eventually all was forgiven, apart from the speeding. My memory of this is amazingly detailed. I did not know LP all that well but have a clear picture of him talking as if it were yesterday. I wonder what the hook was for ensuring this memory stayed in place. Perhaps something as simple as it made me laugh?

Anyway, back to the hair trigger narrative. Fast forward to late 2019, at least 25 years after my ‘itchy scalp period’. There I was arriving for a coaching session with a client I did not know particularly well. The session was at his workplace so I was dressed accordingly including a dark pullover under my trusty Lowe Alpine coat (other rainwear products are available), necessary as it was pouring with rain. I got into the office, took my coat off, glanced down on my shoulder as I was doing so and was horrified to see stuff all over them, whiteish particulate stuff.

Somewhere a hair trigger activated and the memory of that itchy scalp period flooded back, activating behaviours and feelings. It all happened within a split second; there was no personal choice involved, or at least it felt like that. My scalp actually started itching and I had a moment where I felt unwell and I really had to shake myself up to concentrate my mind on the client and not myself. Looking back I know that I did this very well by making a conscious choice in relation to my actions rather than allowing that memory to drive me towards an instinctive response. Even so I was really struck by the power that memory, once activated, exerted over me (more on that in a moment).

Over the next couple of weeks the wet weather persisted and I needed to wear my coat to all appointments. I now had a permanent itchiness and every time I took my coat off the evidence was there to see that I had been scratching. I adopted a more mature approach than my younger self but still there was an impact on my self-esteem, even my self-image. I eventually talked to my wife about it, feeling a little embarrassed even though we had lived together through my original itchy scalp period and ever since then. It was still a difficult subject to talk about – how crazy is that?

After those two weeks the weather dried up. Although it remained cold, I stopped wearing my coat as I don’t like wearing one if I don’t have to (a residual behaviour from the first itchy scalp period perhaps). Immediately, the ‘shoulder deposits’ stopped, although the itchiness remained and the occasional scratching continued. When I wore my coat again the dandruff came back.

You are most probably way ahead of me here. Do you have any idea how I felt when I shook my coat and found that white stuff scattered everywhere from the coat’s lining that was degrading with age? The sense of relief was extraordinary! My emotions and feelings immediately rebalanced although interestingly the physical itchy feeling persisted for a while.

Extraordinary things memories! My experience caused me to reflect on how careful one needs to be as a coach when inviting someone to think and feel in a way that might access a difficult memory. Here was I, triggered in a behavioural and emotional way by something that was, in the overall scheme of things, rather trivial. What might be the consequences of inadvertently encouraging a coachee to think about something in the past if it unearths a difficult memory? Should a coach even be going into the past with their coachee?

My sense is that it’s rare that meaningful coaching can be done by projecting straight into the future without some exploration of past. This is of course only appropriate if it is in the service of the coachee and with their conscious permission to do so. Having gained that permission there is still a need to check in regularly with the coachee that they feel secure in the thinking and feeling they are doing about their past experience. For the coach it is important that they equally regularly check in with themselves to test whether they might be overstepping their mark into therapeutic territory.

There are two assumptions that come from the field of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider and others) that have guided my own coaching practice. The first relates to how people prefer to navigate change – ‘people have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known)’. Part of a coaching conversation is often about teasing out those parts of the past to carry forward with purpose and those, which might be thought of as limiting beliefs or behaviours, to leave behind. The second assumption encourages this exploration and sifting of past experiences in saying ‘if we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.’

So here we are in August and I am basking in the afterglow of my most recent number 2 head shave at the barbers. Some more memories are stored away of a period where I could actually run my fingers through rather than over my hair. There was a day where I actually had a ponytail tied in place for the first time in my life. Anyone who knows me will appreciate just how absurd that would have looked!

Now, at least in relation to hair style, things have returned to normal. The experiences of the last few months and the memories that capture the actions, thoughts, and emotions associated with them will have changed me. What was normal, no longer is. I am not better or worse, just different.