The Art of Coaching (Case Study #1): Old and Depressed

Case Study #1:  Old and Depressed by David Colarossi, Ph.D.

“What’s next?” With this simple question, Adam Johnson had me stumped. At 58 years of age, the pharmaceutical sales director believed he had climbed every mountain in life, and none felt worth it. “I have spent my whole life looking at the horizon. Thinking, ‘If I accomplish this, or that, I will finally feel satisfied.’ Now, looking at my life, I realize that I am sliding to the grave and have nothing to look forward to, nothing to feel proud of, and nothing to enjoy.”

Adam was no slouch.

The first of three children born to a single mother, Adam’s life was difficult at the start. His mother tried to support the family, working two jobs, but was never quite able to make ends meet. As a child, Adam vividly remembers regularly caring for his siblings while his mother worked but failed to earn enough to put food on the table. As a child, Adam learned to sneak food from school and steal from the local grocery store to provide for his siblings. At age 16, Adam made the decision to live on his own. He dropped out of high school and supported himself by working at a nearby golf course. At the age of 18, Adam earned his GED and started working as a commission-only salesman at a large department store. Adam remembers being extremely driven by the fantasy of having the wealth of the store’s regular customers. Adam felt like a “loser” with no skills and no power.

Adam was extremely proactive about resolving his sense of inferiority. He worked tirelessly to learn the fashion industry and sales techniques. His efforts quickly paid off as Adam developed into a very skilled sales professional, with outstanding relationships with each of his top customers. Year after year, Adam’s sales numbers grew. At age 27, Adam was earning approximately 150K annually. While this financial status initially felt freeing, it quickly became unremarkable. Adam continued to struggle with a sense of worthlessness and inferiority.

Believing his emotional distress would be diminished with a more impressive professional life and a full romantic life, Adam pursued both intensely. He quit his sales job and joined an ex-customer in the start-up of a small software company. He also intentionally advanced his dating life. Adam passionately pursed a range of women. Within two years of co-founding the software company, Adam was earning 500K annually and was married with a child. With a thriving business and a growing family, Adam had everything he’d ever wanted. But yet again, he felt insignificant and useless.

This pattern repeated itself over and over again.

Adam could not seem to deal with his internal distress in any other way. At the age of 58, he had transitioned through six jobs, suffered through two divorces, didn’t talk to his siblings, and had almost no relationship with his child. As always, Adam felt worthless and alone. In his late fifties, Adam began struggling with an awareness of his progressing age. He had worked tirelessly to achieve at a high level throughout his life. And yet, at age 58, none of it held any value.
At the time, Adam held a sales director position with a large pharmaceutical company. He was very successful in his role until he became demoralized by his persistent sense of worthlessness. For the first time in his life, Adam’s psychological well-being had a negative impact on his performance at work. He stopped pushing, trying, and developing. His direct employees noticed, market share in his territory dropped dramatically, and underserviced physicians made complaints. In a last-ditch effort to get Adam’s work performance back on track, his employer bought Adam a six-month executive coaching program….

I started my work with Adam wondering what it would have been like to leave home at the age of 16. Because Adam’s mother was unable to support the family, Adam felt responsible for his siblings at a young age. Then, at the age of 16, he made the decision to go out on his own, effectively abandoning the children he supported. Adam was not responsible for his siblings, but I believed a child in Adam’s position would feel a major sense of obligation.

I wondered what it would have been like to make that decision. Did he do it for them? Were they better off with one less mouth to feed, etc.? Was Adam happy with the decision long term? Did he regret the choice? Did he miss his family?  When conceptualizing Adam, I believed his decision to strike out on his own was very important.  Instead of paying attention to the distress caused by his emotional ties to home, he learned to focus on achieving tangible markers of success.  From the age of 16 he was rewarded for pushing his emotion and his vulnerabilities aside.  Goal accomplishments became the most important and temporarily rewarding aspect of his life.  Instead of worrying about his next meal, Adam was making more money than 96% of the U.S. population.

The negative impact of this attitude was Adam’s inability or unwillingness to truly connect with another person. I believe he approached his personal relationships as strategic tasks, just as he approached his job duties. In his late 50’s, when Adam and I began our work together, he had no ability to truly connect with me.

Based on my conceptualization, I focused the first stages of our coaching on relationship development. Specifically, I focused on my relationship with him. This meant spending much of our time discussing my experience of him, in the moment, in our meetings. I worked to model true relationship development and true vulnerability. I believed that if I could help him find purpose and meaning in our relationship, I could help him find purpose and meaning in his external relationships, past accomplishments, and current job duties.

As his coach, how would you work with Adam?  What would you do differently?


2 Responses to “The Art of Coaching (Case Study #1): Old and Depressed”

  • What a fascinating scenario and yes, my curiosity is piqued, too. I would have done as you did, establish a working relationship with him and if I could help him identify what was RIGHT about him first. ID his talents, character strengths, and virtues. I would ‘notice” them and see if I was spot on or not.

    And what is his capacity to engage with depth? What is the fear? Anger? Resentment. I would ask him to take the SEIP when he was ready, after we had established rapport. That might take a while. But what fun we would have with the 26 competencies. I use humor respectively often, and I find this really opens door for us not to take ourselves so seriously. I love ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Techniques, too. Poeple need to be mindful. to breathe, To be willing to be flexible and stretch to become more open. To learn their values and then make action plans to deal with their inner critic in an ACCEPTING way. Even love it up!

    I love working with challenging folks. Many have already been to see several therapists before they get to me for coaching.

    Thanks Laura and David. I may not be able to access wifi as I am off to India tomorrow to give a keynote and then on to Nepal. But I will look forward to these discussions. This one is fascinating.

  • I also would approach Adam and his relationship connections or lack of. I would ask questions to the means of getting an emotional reaction from him , of any kind. Who in his life did he like? What was it about this person that he felt some form of connection, even if it was a distant feeling? At some other point in time (not all at the same time) What would he consider are the important traits in a close relationship? What did he feel when he met a woman (prior to his getting married)? What was it about them that made him want to marry them? Was it strictly a physical attraction? This question can be so effective for all of us as we don’t always pick a romantic partner for the right reasons. How would he describe his child (children)? I would ask some of the above questions specifically about personal relationships and then work related relationships. I do believe that some of us just don’t pick the best people to befriend and we have not choice about who we work with. And that also goes for our children. I have met many people who say they love their children/siblings but personality wise they don’t get along. So who’s to say he has the right people in his life. If he focused on the type of people he would like to associate with, then he would get more of them in his life. I will leave it at this for now as I could go on and on…