Through a post on LinkedIN I became aware of the work of Michiel van der Pols, who, as a former marine, focuses on guiding people who get stuck in the high-risk sector. He does this in his role as a ‘breakthrough coach’, in which he works with people to find out where the behavioural patterns that are currently obstructive once originated. Over time he has discovered clear patterns in this and in his book ‘Ik zweer trouw – Jezelf zijn in een uniforme wereld’ (‘I swear allegiance – Being yourself in a uniform world’), he explains in detail those patterns, which he calls ‘red threads’, in nine solid chapters. After a hesitant start, I was quite fascinated and quickly finished the 300-page book, published in the spring of 2023.
After the foreword by the commander of the Marine Corps, Michiel explains in five introductory pages what led him to write his book. In it he is immediately very open about how he had suppressed all kinds of emotions within himself for years, which eventually came out forcefully: “As a child I felt little room for my own opinion (…) I did not talk about my own problems (…) and in the Marine Corps I just continued this behavior” (p. 17,18). In the sessions he gives, such old family dynamics turn out to have a major influence on current beliefs and behaviour patterns for many people. These are often so deeply ingrained that it proves difficult to get rid of them, but “Growth within a comfort zone is only possible to a very limited extent” (p.21) and so change takes a lot of courage. The rest of the book is essentially about the underlying mechanisms and the steps needed for change. The book is rich in candid stories of people in the high-risk sector who, together with Michiel, have taken on the challenge of change and thus restored the emotional connection to themselves.
From page 27, Michiel explains the core of his ideas in eight pages. Children are born with basic needs and develop ways to get them met; the child “protects itself against what is experienced as unpleasant” (p.27). The closer the child can remain to their authentic core, the healthier and happier they will be. If the child becomes disconnected from itself and becomes alienated from that authenticity, then we speak of trauma. The more adjustments the child makes, the more compromises it makes, however subtle and invisible they may be to the outside world, the more the inner balance will be disturbed, with all possible long-term problems: “If you adapt yourself for a long time and are not true to what you need, the body will react to it. The imbalance will manifest itself in burnout, depression, addiction, PTSD, cheating or entering into unhealthy relationships” (p. 29,30). An adapted identity is created, as it were, which is confused with one’s own identity.
Relationships and work environments are selected in accordance with that adapted identity and the high-risk sector can then be attractive: it provides a strong identity and encourages adapted, (literally and figuratively) uniform behaviour. In other words, the culture in many high-risk organisations is such that people who have learned to adapt can apparently function well for a long time. The suppression of emotions in particular (needed to be able to do the demanding, often dangerous work) ultimately, however, very often leads to the emotional bucket filling up and overflowing.
In Chapter 1 Michiel tells his personal life story. He looks back on how he unconsciously learned to shut down and block his emotions at home, how he got used to doing everything alone and relying only on himself, how his role as a marine gave him something to hold on to and an opportunity to show that he mattered, how individualistic thinking was skilfully converted into collective thinking, and how he realised at one point that by taking the military oath he had promised obedience and submission to a system that could also punish him if he did not (properly) comply ( p.51). Many of his motivations were inauthentic; they were choices made from a sense of emptiness, where he gave up much of his authenticity in the quest for safety.
Due to various events, he became aware that he could show more of himself, because in doing so he also got to see more of the other person and could build much deeper connections with others (p.64). The meeting with his current wife, whom he recognised before he knew her, opened his heart completely and made it clear to him how much he had hidden himself for years. His attention shifted from focus on the judgment of the outside world to loving attention to his own inner world. He embarked on an intensive personal healing journey and this also gave rise to the courage to choose a different course professionally. That is how he became a breakthrough coach: his experiential expertise became the basis for guiding others who are looking to reconnect with their authentic selves.
Michiel felt a deep urge to shape his new profession as a coach in such a way that he remained true to himself: “In a no-nonsense and impactful way, I wanted to help others to break through their blocks on their emotional world and to face their fears of ‘just’ being themselves. (…) If I don’t do that myself, how can I help someone else?” (p.70).
The breakthrough he grants his interlocutors is that through the timelines he works with, they find their way back from thinking with the head, from analysing, rationalising, complicating and minimising what lives inside of them, to feeling with the heart, to tolerating, validating, accepting and integrating – the way we start our lives as babies. As a result, space can arise to grow towards true knowing from the source, towards realising and manifesting, towards sensitivity that, as humans, connects us with the divine.
The second part of this book review will follow later this week, in which I will discuss the ‘red threads’ that Michiel has found, in addition to a number of theoretical points that are discussed in the book. I also had a wonderful podcast conversation with him, which will be online in between these two blog parts. Keep an eye on the socials!