Life Coach: What Can You Learn from a Lobster?

By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

A lobster? Really? Hang in with me here. We’re going to get somewhere with this.

LOBSTERS NEVER STOP GROWING. They spend their lives in a continual cycle of developing and shedding their hard, inflexible shell to accommodate their expanding size. At each stage of growth, when they shed their confining, smaller shell, they are ex­posed and vulnerable, as their soft underlying shell goes through the process of hardening.

During this growth stretch, the lobster has to find a safe place to be because the soft shell increases its vul­nerability to predators. At the same time, the lobster is also doing things to harden the new shell, like eating some of the old shell (for the calcium) and absorbing water.

Now let’s think about what it might be like if hu­mans took a similar, practical approach to the stress of shedding and growing. What if we were able to ac­knowledge the stress of this continual cycle and prac­tice self-care—to sit quietly with our stress to recover and grow?

Instead most of us find stress difficult to sit with. We want the uncomfortable feelings gone—and the faster the better. Instead of dealing with the underlying issue, a common tactic is ignoring, minimizing, or suppress­ing it. While this approach works in the short term, feelings that aren’t dealt with have a way of coming back later in a more intense, unpredictable way—some­times in the form of physical illness.

Here is where a shift in perspective might be worth exploring. Let’s look at what might be possible if we deal with our feelings like a lobster. When the shell no longer fits, the lobster takes that information and figures out what to do next.

To put this to work in your own life, think about a stressor you’re confronting. Ask yourself where you need to shift, grow, or change. What information is the stress giving you? What is in your power to change? We have no control of what happens to us, but we have a choice about how we deal with it.

Let’s explore a scenario: Your boss, whom you really like and get along with well, was promoted, and you now have a new boss who seems aloof. This is creating stress for you. You don’t like coming to work the way you used to. Explore your feelings around this. Get to the root of the issue. Are you projecting your feeling of loss and disappointment onto the new boss? Will you hold on to the feelings of wishing that your old boss was back and adopt the feeling that the new person doesn’t like you because she is not friendly? If so, you will be restricted by the inflexibility of that “shell.”

Or will you shed the confines of that old shell, wel­come the new person, and, perhaps, try to put yourself in her place? Be conscious of how you are choosing to act around her. Your actions are the building blocks of your new relationship. What kind of foundation do you want to establish? How are your actions and reac­tions showing her how to treat you? How do you want it to be? While shedding the old, comfortable shell of your past relationship with your former boss and the work environment she created might be uncomfortable at first, allowing yourself to sit with the vulnerability of a new relationship and develop a positive connec­tion with your new boss will allow for a much happier, healthier long-term scenario.

Sometimes the cause of stress is not so easy to pin­point. Our metaphorical shell might not present itself to us so directly. If that’s the case for you, keep think­ing about what information the stress is giving you to find the root cause of your stress. There are some pro­active steps you can engage in to help you identify the cause of your stress:

  • Journaling can be very helpful and revealing. Grab a notebook and simply allow yourself to write with­out considering grammar and structure; get your thoughts and worries and emotions down on paper. Take a look at what you’ve written and see if the act of putting pen to paper has provided release or revealed any causes of stress from which you might be able to learn.
  • Exercise can work well, too. Many people report having an aha moment during a run or swim.
  • Creative expression can also be helpful. This does not have to be complicated. Grab a box of crayons and some paper. Start drawing whatever comes to mind. The drawing is for you—you don’t have to show it to anyone. Take a look at what you drew. What colors did you use? What is the drawing say­ing about what you are feeling and what needs to change?

During this process, take some time to create your “safe place.” Where will you feel secure and comfort­able as your new shell is hardening? This might be a physical place, or maybe it is a place in your mind that you can access when you need to. What tools do you need to put in place to keep yourself safe? Does medita­tion or using positive affirmations work for you?

And, finally, what do you need to do to harden your new shell? Give some thought to the self-care that will allow you to feel strong and resilient during this period of transition. Pay attention to the foods that nourish you, to the movement you can do to release physical stress, and to any other nurturing activities you can engage in during this time. Ask yourself, What is essential for me now to become stronger?

Congratulations. You are on your way. Be aware that you are trying something new. Be kind to yourself. When you have a setback, instead of beating yourself up, ask yourself, How can I do it differently next time? Understand that this is just one transition in a life of continual growth and know that you are just where you need to be.


Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a cer­tified coach and mediator. Denise creates and facilitates workshops for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe. Her areas of ex­pertise include social and emotional intelligence and relationship coaching. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life, from the international business executive to the stay-at-home parent. She received her MSW de­gree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clin­ic in New York. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at dkgcoaching.com.