You may be familiar with professional coaching, which has been well established for some time now in the executive and leadership space. Coaching standards are high and we have an international body to regulate the quality, ethics, and professional standard of coaching (as well as coach training programs.) I myself am a professional coach and I often write this blog from the perspective of a coach (on maternity leave of course!)
There are many facets of coaching – life, executive, leadership, athletics. Though the context differs, and the names for each coaching tool vary according to the discipline, it is steeped in achieving a global shift in the way we see the world, act within our world, and define/get results.
Health coaching is a relatively new specialty and is rapidly gaining traction in North America. It is growing as an occupational field and is being increasingly employed by primary care centres. I am very excited about this, because it is a profound tool and there’s such a need for it. I’ll get into that later.
A brief review of research reveals that health coaching is receiving increased attention as a tool for patients, particularly in the realm of chronic diseases, behaviour modification and lifestyle change. I listen to a fair number of podcasts and it comes up a ton in the auto-immune disease and chronic pain space as well. This is where I really think health coaching is a game changer for people.
For today’s post, I wanted to write about health coaching from the perspective of a patient, to explain in easy-to-understand terms how health coaching has the potential to transform us. I use a lot of coaching techniques on myself (which obviously is not as effective as hiring a coach) but I think by telling these stories, it can help give you a feel for what coaching is like, and ultimately I want to share with you some tools to make your maternity leave a time of wonderful growth & life elevation.
That’s always been my mission with The Great Maternity Leave blog.
So this whole coaching thing, let’s get started. First, there’s a lot out there. It’s everywhere. And I wanted to speak a little to what it is not.
It is definitely not what you see being sold on all of the facebook and instagram ads. Many of them are qualified, fully certified coaches, but the majority of marketing approaches do give a shallow impression of coaching. I call this au-courant marketing strategy “end-point marketing.” What do I mean by that?
You probably know the ads: The pretty life coach skipping through the streets of Paris, umbrella in hand, talking about how she had no income a year ago and now she’s bringing in six figures – or the male “life hacker” coach, sitting with his laptop in after a workout, bring in passive income and clients, telling you how you, too can achieve this lifestyle design and reach this end point? That to me, is end point marketing, which looks suspiciously like setting a lifestyle goal and achieving it. The problem is, it does work, material displays of success are captured in an ad, but it’s harder to capture internal displays of success.
Unfortunately, the ads you see for coaches do not give anyone an understanding of how it works. Coaching is a specific set of tools that you gain through working with a someone qualified. You learn to use them and employ in your life with the coaches’ guidance. With practice and insight you are then able to shift your entire life with your new perspective, mindset and behaviours.
There are many coaching tools, and they are all designed help you to understand why you see things the way you do, how you can shift the way you see the world, and in turn make better choices and get different results in your life. Coaching is all about gaining a deeper awareness, achieving permanent shifts in your world view, and becoming equipped with the ability continue this process throughout your life.
That leads to elevation of your life.
I also see a change in the goals that clients bring to the table. A good coach will light a fire of potential in a client and once they throw off self-limiting beliefs and self-imposed restrictions, they realize the scope of their potential. All of a sudden their old goals seem small and limited, and they reach for the stars with new goals that truly fit the person they see themselves becoming. Everything elevates. Let me tell you, that is fun to see as a coach.
But all of this is pretty much impossible to capture in a 30 second Instagram video, or image on a Facebook boosted post.
I feel like endpoint marketing of coaching services doesn’t work. Why? You don’t help people by climbing up a mountain, and then waving at everybody else at the bottom and yelling ” you can be me!” Personally, speaking, I’d be much more motivated by that coach who is grinding up the mountain alongside me, asking damn good questions that deepen my awareness of what is happening and offering me a fresh perspective that renews my resolve. I’ve never hired a coach off of an ad, but I have hired a coach off of following them for a few years, understanding their insights and deep inner workings of their mind. The coaching process is so internal, that an external ad simply can’t capture that.
The journey of personal wellness and evolution in health is a deeply personal one that is not about your coach, and you wanting to get where your coach is – it’s about you.
So, now that we’ve established the difficulty of marketing coaching, and the impression that it currently gives in the social media marketplace, let’s take the opportunity to dive in and examine it in real-life.
For this article, I wanted to give a deeper understanding of the dots that health coaching connects, and what it can offer to someone looking to change their health. I am going to write it in the context of my third maternity leave, which was about healing and regaining vitality and health. Let me tell you, there were a lot of things in my body that needed fixing up after 3 babies in 4 years.
The Third Maternity Leave
Each of my three maternity leaves, I have assigned a theme or an overall goal. Maternity leave was first and foremost about my family and the beautiful new addition to our home, but I am also a passionate goal setter and advocate of ongoing personal growth and evolution, particularly for mothers.
My first maternity leave was embracing motherhood.
My second, embracing creativity.
My third maternity leave from 2017-2018 has been about repairing my body in the journey back to vitality and physical wellness.
Once I had recovered from childbirth and taken 8 weeks to settle into our new rhythm with 3 children (3, 2 and a newborn) I began to take stock of my overall wellness. I believe if you are going to take up growth and challenge in one area, it is good to make sure first that you have stability, and routine in another.
When you read about what a health coach does, there is often mention that a coach helps a client understand and set goals for themselves. Personally, I think that this is only a sampling of the coaching process. In my first coaching session with a client, it is about getting to know them, understanding their perspective, the way they see the world, and how they frame their current situation. Simply through their dialogue, body language and way they answer questions I can gain an understanding of their grander narratives, world view and perspective. We move into a discussion of goals and ideally, move to very specific goals, that are connected to very powerful and clear “whys.”
This is where coaching really gets going. This is when we start going deeper.
Now, on mat leave I didn’t have a health coach but being one myself, I used my own techniques on me, and instead of having a coach asking me questions, I bought a journal and it became my coach. If you cannot afford a coach, this is absolutely something that you should do!
Invest in a nice journal and a nice pen, because in these pages you are going to write an entirely new chapter of your life.
In the absence of a coach, one of the first things I did was a free-writing session. I listed out how I was feeling, and everything that was bothering me. It was an hour-long stream of consciousness that was barely legible. If you haven’t tried free-writng or stream-of-consciousness writing, don’t be intimidated by it! I took 5 years to finally try it and I was surprised that after 10 minutes of forced journalling, the words starting flowing easily and fast onto the paper. It’s quite cool to do.
I had to take the time (and physical space) to be in a quiet room, enter my own body, listen to it and really connect with the discomfort. I had to describe in detail the pain or symptoms. It’s an unpleasant process, but I to enact lasting change, and connect with deep motivation, you must take time to connect with the pain and discomfort in your body, and make direct contact with your own suffering.
People often speak about needing to hit rock bottom, or that place where they decide they cannot suffer anymore. This is very true. Wanting to change doesn’t happen on a mental level. You can’t decide to change. You also need to have a “that’s it!” moment in your body on a somatic level. Carve out some time in your day to go inside your own body.
Coming out of third childbirth there were a list of things I wanted to address, and just how much they were bothering me became quickly evident in my free writing journal entry.
-Pelvic organ prolapse & abdominal muscle separation
-Ongoing chronic backpain, severe fatigue, sciatica and digestive troubles (possible auto-immune condition)
-Large breasts causing issues with trail running (my passion!) and back pain.
-Nerve pain in foot
The next part of this process was understanding the mental layering that happens on top of the physical discomfort.
The outside perspective of a coach is very helpful, because they can offer observations of patterns or themes that they are hearing or picking up in your dialogue.
We need to understand that we attach meaning to our symptoms. By noticing them, we shed light on the fears, stress and disempowering beliefs that we carry.
What came up for me?
Symptom: Nerve pain in foot.
Messaging: Trail running is my passion and what if this doesn’t go away? What if I can’t run? This is the key to my mental health and I don’t enjoy anything else as much as I enjoy running. I don’t want to find another sport. I’ve been so irresponsible with stretching, it’s probably my fault, I always have issues with my body, it seems like I just get injured when I run.
Symptom: Chronic back pain and auto immune issues.
Messaging: What if I can’t be a mom to my kids because I am too exhausted and need to sleep all of the time? Is my back going to get worse? My pain levels are already really bad every day, I can’t handle more than this. I don’t want to become disabled. I have housework to do!I Hate this housework! (cue deep feelings of resentment and victimhood)
Ick. It’s hard just writing those down. I can feel my chest get tight just engaging with those messages and typing them on the screen here. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I do. not. like. feeling. this. way.
By taking the time to engage with the internal chatter that is activated by our pain and symptoms, we can begin to separate the two out and regain control.
Pain is simply a message from our body that something is off and needs to be fixed. That is all it is. It is a message running through our nervous system.
However as humans, (oh, the joy of being human!) we have a multitude of ways of interpreting that pain message – in effective ways, but also in terribly ineffective ways. We have all sorts of internal chatter and stories and excuses that we add to that sore back or grouchy joint.
We humans take those simple pain messages and then filter them through layers and layers of life experiences, social and cultural conditioning, past experiences, cognitive biases, personality and our own internal dialogues. Most of them are irrelevant, or outdated or not even true! Yet they completely influence and shape us.
Our pain comes out the other end looking much more complicated than “my Psoas muscle is tight and sore.” There’s a deeper story about a victim mindset you have, or perhaps, a grand narrative that you are separate from your body and it is something to beat into submission (when it should be your ally.) .
This is one of the first things a coach can (and will) do. They will carve the space, and time, in a session, for you to undertake a deeper examination of what is going on underneath those pain cues and symptoms. When you book a session with a coach, the act of carving that tie out and paying for the session is a statement that this is sacred, and worth it. That you are worth it.
What is your internal messaging? What influences it? Under the careful guidance of a coach, you will also have the opportunity to explore your fears, why you want to change, and if you feel up to it, you can go down the “what if?” road to truly develop deep and lasting motivation because that road leads into our deepest fears.
In our deepest fears live our deepest “whys.”
A coach has to be skilled in ensuring that a client is grounded (often through a meditation or guided visualization exercise) and that a safe space is created through conversation. The client embarks on their own journey, but the coach acts as a guide, walking gently behind, asking effective and powerful questions, perhaps offering observations, and gently supporting as the client walks into their pain.
Equally important is the process of guiding a client out of the dark places, and then unraveling the disempowering beliefs. Together, as partners, coach and client discredit them and build new, empowering ones in their stead. This is another stage of the coaching process I’ll definitely go into in a later post.
This process is so, so important in the realm of our health, and I think this is why health coaches have huge potential as an ally and resource in primary care networks.
Many, many people go to a doctor with the best intentions to fix their health problems and address their symptoms. In primary care, medicine can be administered and brief conversation ensues regarding the issue and potential resources to help the patient. However, all too often with a diagnosis, or with a health problem, there is the big question of what happens after the appointment. And, what is happening inside the patient after that appointment?
I catch myself wondering about this all the time. There is an awful lot that happens between a first appointment with the doctor, and the follow up. At that first appointment for example, you get a diagnosis, possibly medication, possibly requisitions for further testing, and a list of things to do to improve your health.
What happens in that space between that appointment and the follow up? So much. So much that explains why so many people don’t just go home and do what they are supposed to. Why they are not motivated. Why they have access to all of the information they need, but don’t act on it.
There is a big gap between the part of our lives the health professionals can touch, and the part of our lives that we ourselves can touch, and that bridge is coaching.
Too many people go down the “what if?” thinking with their health problems after that first appointment and get stuck there. They don’t climb out of the scary future scenarios and they don’t have the tools to make it a powerful motivator.
I saw so many people like this at the chronic pain clinic when I went through some of the worst times with my back. I felt myself going down that tunnel too. I was in the vacuum of time outside of appointments. I sat with my symptoms and internal dialogue that really was not making things better. Disempowering beliefs began to take hold. That things won’t get better. That this affects everything. That it’s my fault. That they don’t believe me. These are all common disempowering beliefs of a chronic pain patient. Did you know one of the most meaningful things a chronic pain patient experiences at a chronic pain clinic is the simple statement “we believe you.”
Patients begin to see what is going wrong, don’t have the tools to loosen the hold of their deeply held beliefs connected to, (and probably accelerating) what is going wrong. They can’t identify where these beliefs originally came from, why they are not grounded in evidence, or how they can replace them. Add into that physical pain, and the emotion of fear and it is a difficult place to climb out of.
Could you see how I was going down this tunnel in my own journal entries?
Did you notice that I kept writing “What if?” I was stressing myself out based on “what if” scenarios, not even (real) scenarios. And I was expanding those scenarios to “what if it affects my whole life.” All of a sudden back pain became a question of not being able to be a parent. Wtf!
This right here is an “ah hah” moment or an insight. In coaching, we call these “distinctions” – but I do like the Oprah sounding “ah hah” moment.
The moment of insight is so, so important.
As I read through my symptoms and the disempowering thoughts that they activated, I realized that I tended to focus on a few things: That the problem was permanent, pervasive, global (in the words of Tony Robbins) – by global I mean I had a tendency of expanding the issue to broader areas of my life.
BAM. That friends, is a coaching insight, a distinction, an “ah hah” moment. My perception has shifted and I have a new way of seeing the issue at hand that instantly discredited my old thinking patterns.
When I am working with a client as a coach and this happens, they often go quiet, break eye contact, retreat inside themselves and more often than not, lean back in their chair and look upward. Behind these physical cues is some fascinating neuroscience.
On a functional MRI scan, when a coaching client has an insight or “ah hah” moment, their brain lights up like a christmas tree. Did you know that? As a coach we are trained to recognize that moment and help deepen that moment of insight – but with practice anyone can. It shows up in someone’s body. Their posture shifts, they sit back, and look away, breaking eye contact in order to go ‘inside’ and engage with that insight.
What’s happening? When a person has a moment of insight, the brain produces a burst of alpha waves and the part that undertakes abstract, creative thinking kicks into high gear. Connections are made where there were no connections before, and the client will permanently see something in a different way.
Simultaneously, there is a reduction in the amount of visual information passed from visual processing areas to these higher creative areas of the brain, that perform more abstract thinking and problem solving. it is exactly why, when asked a difficult question, we all have to take a moment and look away or break eye contact. Or when a character in a movie has a profound moment of realization, they look away with a far-away look. their brain is changing.
If you’d like to read more about the science behind this process, check out this journal article from the Association of Psychological Science.
What was my ah-hah moment from the process of examining my pain, thoughts and beliefs with a coaching perspective?
I now know that when I experience pain, it is a simple message that something needs to be adjusted. What it is not is a harbringer of doom. It is not going to ruin my life, or motherhood. All I have to do in that moment is just deal with the symptom. I do not engage with the old disempowering dialogue that is frankly, lacking evidence and totally unhelpful because it activates more stress, making the pain worse. Don’t get my wrong, it still happens, but now I can sit back and observe it coming, like a runaway car, but I don’t get into that car.
When I had that insight, I could feel something different firing in my brain. A new neural connection.
Each time I feel pain now, instead of engaging with my old dialogues and immediately worsening the symptoms and my own stress, I can step back and see my thoughts occuring – but not engage with them, because I know they are unhelpful, untrue, irrelevant and no longer serve my goals.
I’m not caught in a cycle of fear around my future, my ability to pick up my kids or a host of other thoughts, that will completely take over and make me forget about picking up the resistance band.
I am more motivated to go and do a corrective exercise if my back is sore, because that’s all it is. I can gently honour my old dialogues, see them for what they are – old and outdated and inaccurate – and continue onward with different insight, behaviour and actions (which include picking up that resistance band and doing the exercise.)