About a year ago, my son was reading Bertrand Russell and came to me with this quote: “Too little liberty brings stagnation and too much brings chaos.” According to Russell, all political systems swing from one extreme to the other — chaos and rigidity — in cycles. We were both struck by the simple brilliance of this, and started to find similar themes everywhere — Noah in his reading of the great philosophers, and me in neuroscience. Chaos and rigidity not only in politics and human endeavor, but in our very brains themselves. A theme as old as recorded human history (Noah says it’s apparent even the early Greek philosophers understood this, but I’ll let him argue that in his own blog sometime).

The place I have seen this best explained and expanded upon in terms of neuroscience is in Daniel Siegel’s groundbreaking book Mindsight. Here, Siegel argues that the healthy human brain flows between the banks of chaos on one side and rigidity on the other. This state of flowing in the middle he calls integration or coherence. Moving too far to one bank or the other puts us in a state of dis-integration, where we are cut off from important aspects of our own selves.

For example, someone who has drifted too far to the side of chaos will tend to feel overwhelmed by their emotions. Their stories can be full of jumbled details because they are being flooded with unpleasant memories and emotions in the moment of sharing. In this case, a client might tell me they just got passed over for a promotion, and it could sound like this “Yeah, I didn’t get it, it’s ok, I mean, um, yeah, I’m sort of upset, it doesn’t seem fair, but you know, um, it’s all good, I don’t know….” They are awash in their feelings and can’t get out from under so that they can move forward.

Or if they have gone too far towards rigidity, their stories are often factually accurate yet cut off from any sense or mention of feelings. In this case, the client might sound more like this: “I didn’t get the promotion. I’m fine. I am just focusing on the future now. Let’s talk about something else.” They are cut off from their feelings, unable to connect so that they can understand what happened and what it means, which can (and probably should) inform how they move forward. (Note: these two examples are perhaps overly dramatic, but it is my experience as a coach, and ever-evolving human, that we all have times we move too far to one bank or the other, even if it is in subtle ways.)

Interestingly, the right hemisphere of the brain tends to handle autobiographical memory, while the left brain deals with facts. When we are integrated, we can draw on both sides in a coherent way. The left hemisphere helps us deal rationally with what happened so that the emotions don’t overwhelm us, while the right brings in emotional resonance and meaning. As coaches, we want our clients to have that full experience of life not because one aspect is more right than another, but because it is much more effective to draw on our full brain.

Many — if not most — of the tools we use in coaching do a beautiful job of helping our clients move toward integration. One example is when we take them through the process of trying new perspectives. We help them be present to their feelings, but we give them a structured and safe container so that these feelings don’t become overwhelming (after all, it’s just a perspective). Another is using metaphor. My client may not be able to tell me what they are feeling either because they are too far to chaos and overwhelmed, or too far to rigidity and disconnected. The use of metaphor grabs information from the right hemisphere and snags it for use by the left, thus bringing the full brain, the full self, to the table.

I could go on and on with examples of ways we help our clients become more integrated, more coherent, and more effective, and I am sure I will in future blog posts. 🙂  For now, let me say that I have become convinced that our job, more than anything, is to help  our clients integrate the many aspects of themselves. To feel themselves in that beautiful unfolding flow of the river of life.