Coachees who come to me are often desperate to sleep better and willing to try anything. Yet, I noticed that some unconsciously love their insomnia more than their sleep. They would like to feel rested in the morning, but they are reluctant to surrender to the arms of Morpheus.
They think the lack of sleep is the main problem in their lives when, in reality, it is the smokescreen that hides the elephant in the (bed)room.
Here are the stories of Sven, Pierre, and Sophie*, three former clients whose wake-up call led to sleep.
Sven was a very habit-oriented doctor in psychology. In his first message, he said: I am trying to change several lifestyle habits to be more productive and feel better. I am quite successful at these: losing weight, avoiding alcohol, getting up at 6 AM, exercising, and taking care of my skin. However, I fail continuously at these:
- getting sleep from 10 PM,
- a short meditation (morning and evening),
- starting work at 7 AM,
- not wasting time on surfing, Facebook, etc
He narrowed down his objective to 8 hours of sleep and a mindful use of social media.
After a few days, Sven told me he was struggling with assertiveness and had difficulties setting boundaries.
As he shared more about his daily routines, his successes, and setbacks, a lot of guilt around his sleep deprivation emerged. It seemed to be the root of all evil: he felt unable to be a good husband nor a good father, he could not work as hard and make as much money as he should have.
One day, he sent me this mantra he’d been meditating on:
Relate compassionately with what you prefer to push away.
And then he said: I am exploring what happens when you tell and involve another person rather than keep it to yourself. The goals I set, and involving you in them, have spurred the learning process I am in to try to change my life, and also, myself.
There was way more than sleep on the line, so I offered to explore that.
At the end of a session focused on the tech and lifestyle adjustments he was considering, he finally confessed that he was the victim of an online emotional blackmail.
A younger woman living thousands of miles away had taken over his life. She was texting him and sending voice messages every night. He was addicted to this virtual relationship, much more intense than his twenty-plus years marriage, even if he knew it was toxic. The catfish girl had convinced him to propose to her, and he regularly sent her large amounts of money. Whenever he did not answer fast enough to her night’s messages, she would cry, tell her she missed him, and threaten to expose him.
So he barely slept. Despite all his knowledge about healthy evening habits, he was more afraid to sleep than to stay alert at night. Insomnias somehow protected him from a potential divorce and social disgrace, even though he knew they made him more vulnerable.
Recovering sleep helped him get his life back together and move on.
Pierre was a successful entrepreneur whose business kept growing very fast. He had a lot of responsibilities, worked from home but in three time zones. He knew his health was declining due to sleep deprivation, and he feared his lack of mental clarity might soon affect some tactical decisions for the company. He was on the verge of burning out.
He had a long love/hate history with insomnia. He had tried polyphasic sleep as a student, which helped him perform well, but he thought he had never fully recovered from the experiment. He was a morning person who wanted to be a night owl as well because his most creative ideas came after dark.
His wife and children got involved in his digital detox, which helped him during the day. He synchronized lunch breaks with his spouse, and his elder daughter became in charge of collecting all electronic devices before dinner.
While his family life improved, his nights remained dreadful. He was unable to disconnect in bed. He slept with one earplug in one ear, and one Airpod in the other one, linked to a YouTube documentary channel. He could see the paradox, but he had anxiety attacks just thinking about turning the IPad off.
Technology was his go-to to solve problems. It had helped his business thrive, made him rich, and offered a comfortable lifestyle to his family. Pierre wanted tech to support his nights too. He also mentioned the need to be educated before sleeping because there wasn’t much time for that during the day. He was able to stick to the evening routine, turn off notifications, read, and go to bed on time, but he needed some digital entertainment to fall asleep.
It all changed when I asked him to tell me about his relationship to silence. He smiled and said his daughter was deaf. He had learned to sign, and he was very proud of overcoming this communication obstacle. He even loved the silent mornings when everybody was signing at the breakfast table.
So, do you mean silence can make your life better?…
He realized he had all the necessary resources within himself to unplug, and that technology was not the solution to everything in his life. He even stopped monitoring his sleep for a while. Pierre admitted later that the fact he could still run his company without sleeping much also made him feel like a superhero. A tired one, but still…
Sophie introduced herself as a recent divorcee who had been heavily sleep-deprived for months. She had put on a lot of weight and did not recognize herself in many regards. She hired me to understand her sleep patterns and improve her sleep cycles. She also started a program with a nutritionist at the same time as my coaching.
Her biggest fear was to lose her job. It was the only area in her life she felt appreciated for. Her boss knew she had trouble sleeping, so he allowed her to work from home with a flexible schedule.
Sophie’s upbringing had been traumatic. Her parents were in a cult where children had to be responsible for themselves at a young age. She never felt any emotional support from her relatives, who were always busy with farm chores and church. She married in her twenties to a guy who abused her in many ways, verbally and physically during five years, including Covid-19 lockdowns.
Sophie had been seeing a therapist for years to help her deal with the trauma, but they had never tackled the sleep issue per se.
She was very eager to learn about how the brain works its way around sleep, and she asked for an extensive review of all the habits that could affect her nights. She became quite savvy on the topic and made a few significant changes.
She slept a bit more but still had difficulties turning devices off, acknowledging they were a substitute for a partner, another unhealthy one.
Things improved drastically after I asked her to give me 3 reasons why it’s a good thing not to sleep well. Here is what she came up with:
- When you’re up many nights in a row, you get to a point where you’re feeling like you’re drunk, so you just need to focus on focusing. You don’t mull over.
- Getting to sleep is easier when you’re exhausted.
- My colleagues are more understanding; they cut me some slack.
The last one was an epiphany for Sophie. As counter intuitive as it seemed, she was choosing insomnia over a good night’s sleep to preserve her special treatment as “the fragile one” at work.
She decided to talk to her boss and go to the office twice a week to resynch with the team. She understood that she could get extra attention from her coworkers just by being the funny woman she naturally was when feeling valued and safe.
Sophie also admitted that her lack of sleep was a good excuse to be late, which made her feel she had some control over her time, hence her life.
During her final assessment, to my question: What have you learned during this coaching that you will carry forward in life? Sophie said:
I understand the concept of being gentle and graceful with myself.
I think this is a fantastic starting point towards better sleep.
*names were changed for privacy matters.
Top image @Megan te Boekhorst — unsplash