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Confessions of a Health Coach: When Good Intentions Go Too Far

By Contributing Editor for Health & Wellness Kathy Whelan

During my training to be an Integrative Health Coach, I learned that part of my job would be serving as a “humble role model:” walking my talk and modeling, without being boastful, the attributes of health, fitness and wellness that I would help clients develop in their lives.

I took this obligation seriously, as I have all my responsibilities for as long as I can remember. When I was a Brownie and Girl Scout (in the “olden days,” as my four-year-old granddaughter says), I recited the promise “to do my best.” Since it carved out no exceptions, I took the scout promise literally and applied it to everything.

It became part of me, and throughout my childhood I was surprised by how much slack others cut themselves even as I cut myself so little. When inevitable lapses of judgment occurred as I grew older, I met them with self-criticism and shame, and my parents added harsh disapproval since they too had come to expect my best at all times.

Fast forward to my health coaching years, and I worked diligently on every area of my health, hoping to be an excellent role model. Scarcely a day went by that I didn’t exercise and meditate, and I became more and more intentional about what I ate.

Then the pandemic hit, and like so many others, I worried that my immune system might not be up to the job. I doubled down. I began avoiding restaurant food due to my suspicion that it contained fats and grains of lower quality, as well as more salt and sugar, than I would use in cooking. My grains had to be 100% whole grains, and I almost never ate butter or unhealthy oils. I thought less and less about what I wanted to eat and more about what I should eat at every meal.

In this “healthy eating” mindset, I was caught off guard when I read about a condition that is gaining recognition as a form of disordered eating. In orthorexia nervosa, I learned, the aim to eat healthfully becomes unhealthy. I was horrified to read stories of obsessions strong enough to cause mental distress, social isolation, even malnutrition.

A time.com article led me to a self-assessment tool developed by Dr. Steven Bratman, who named this condition in the late 1990s. Of the six behaviors he identifies, even one of which can signal a problem, I found three that described me: steadily eliminating more foods and adding to food rules; having trouble relaxing rules on special occasions; and having my happiness, self-esteem and safety tied to the “rightness” of what I eat. I needed to understand my behavior before it went too far.

I began to see that my eating habits had helped me feel in control. We all experience anxiety at a time like this, and healthy eating was a way to keep my anxiety in check. It had started as a useful tool, but excellence was becoming perfectionism, and my stressful thoughts around eating were probably cancelling out some of the health benefits I was seeking.

And this, I have decided, amounts to a lack of humility of sorts. While I have not been boastful, I have been attempting to overcome the sense of vulnerability that is part of being human. Serving as a humble role model, I have now concluded, involves keeping in touch with that vulnerability. This requires the self-compassion I try to help clients develop but have withheld from myself.

What does this mean for my future eating habits? I want to see the big picture of my eating instead of focusing on every micronutrient in every meal, to think in terms of guidelines instead of hard-and-fast rules. I want to enjoy eating more and dwell on it less, to allow myself a treat from time to time. As I think about it now, I might even consider having a few Girl Scout cookies this year.

Massachusetts-based Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach. She is now, in addition, a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including Thrive Global and The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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Jerri Newman
Jerri Newman
3 years ago

I see myself in so much of what you wrote! Thank you for this gentle yet rigorous examination of perfectionism.

Kathy Whelan
3 years ago
Reply to  Jerri Newman

Thanks for your note, Jerri. I’m glad it was helpful! Kathy

3 years ago

What better treat could one find than girl scout cookies! You give yourself a break and do good at the same time.

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