The email started like this:
Could you do me a solid?
I need someone to supervise my nutrition.
Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous.
Frankly, it felt ridiculous.
Here I was, Dr. Krista, gentle creator and longtime tender of Stumptuous.com, coach to hundreds of women as part of the Lean Eating program, emailing my buddy Kyle to ask — really sort of beg — him to check whether I was eating my spinach. Luckily for me, Kyle wasn’t just some random dude, but an awesome nutritionist and a helluva nice guy.
Still. I mean, c’mon. What’s up with this?
Excellent question. One that I tried to answer for months and months. Given that I was the “expert”, what the hell was I doing when I took second helpings at dinner? When I got slack about skipping the odd workout now and again, or having a little extra hit of frozen banana? (God I love that shit.) When, in the vortex of a hormonal tornado like a befuddled airborne cow whirling across an Iowa cornfield, I ate the bag of Xmas gift chocolate in one go? (DO NOT ADVISE REPEAT DO NOT ADVISE.)
Well, as it turns out, self control and “willpower” is a limited resource. Use it up on other stuff, and you’ll find it a lot harder to keep things together as the day progresses. It dawned on me that I was expending so much intellectual and emotional energy monitoring all my little ducklings that I ran out of it for myself.
I discovered that this was, in fact, not unusual among my fitness industry peers. I found strength coaches and personal trainers who hadn’t trained in ages. I found nutritionists who counseled clients by day and binged by night. I found life coaches who secretly angsted about their own life choices. (Same deal in academia, by the way: I remember profs who were so busy teaching that they’d barely even cracked the spine on a trashy novel since VC Andrews was popular.)
Sure, you could say this makes us all hypocritical assholes, but a more charitable interpretation — and one that’s borne out by talking to these folks — is that they’re utterly worn out and exhausted by giving and giving and giving to their clients.
A good coach, trainer, teacher, or nutritionist, you see, gives a shit. We really do. I have literally lain awake at nights, worrying about So-and-so: will her shoulder get better? will he quit smoking? will she have another overeating episode and beat herself up? I truly care whether you are eating your vegetables, and every time a client does her first pullup, an angel gets its wings.
All this organizing and fretting and reminding — all this caring — seems to take its toll. We care about our clients and end up caring less about ourselves.
It’s not that we end up like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, wandering around supermarkets late at night in a bathrobe looking for the makings of a White Russian. “Not eating well” for us might mean 5 servings of veggies a day instead of the usual 25. “Not working out much” may mean we’re still more active than the average North American. (But then again, a corpse may theoretically be more active than the average North American.)
Yet we do find less energy to supervise our own nutrition and fitness journeys.
It’s not that we don’t care. In fact, every day that goes by and our hard-won abs recede into our doughy flesh like eroding sand dunes in a flab desert, or we start to debate substituting frozen banana for hot romance, our image of ourselves as superninjas dies a little bit more.
It’s more that we run out of gas to manage. We exhort our charges to eat more kale, over and over and over, and when we get home — fuck it! No goddamned kale!
(Actually I love kale, and believe it or not I even crave it. If you’re in Toronto, check out Live‘s rainbow kale salad; it is the shizzle! I’m eating kale as I type this! My body is alive with antioxidants!)
Just because you can do something yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
I can make pretty, extremely OCD spreadsheets, but I have an accountant. I can use a shovel but I prefer to pay a nice young man to hack the dying cedars out of my lawn. I scrub a mean bathtub, but I consider hiring a cleaning person to be some of the best money I ever spent. (I’ll ask my accountant if I can write this off as “mental health costs”. Feminist labour theorists, rest assured that I pay an excellent, equitable wage and treat the occupation of cleaning with the immense respect it deserves.)
The first thing KB said to me nearly made me cry. I was waiting for him to berate me for being such a loser, such a hypocrite, such a screwup. I was waiting for him to lecture me about eating too many carbs at the wrong time of day, loving chicken pate in the Biblical way, or my attachment to chilled fruit. I was waiting for him to say Yeah, I noticed, chunky monkey. Instead, he said: Forgive yourself.
Wow. *sound of far-off gong*
This guy is good.
You see, despite a strong eco-friendly deodorant, apparently I was radiating the stench of “I’m a classic Type A middle-class white overachieving disordered-eating self-critical perfectionist stress case” for several kilometres around me. In my earnest enthusiasm to be All That I Could Be, my increasingly strident pursuit of self-control had simply worn me out. It hadn’t made me any better or smarter or well-behaved.
At that point I kind of dissolved into a puddle of pent-up self-flagellation. Upon receiving the command to forgive myself, the puddle slowly evaporated into a noxious vapour, which then dissipated molecule by acrid molecule… until after a few weeks, it disappeared altogether. I was reborn. Relieved. Re-invigorated.
It dawned on me that everyone needs a coach. Even coaches.
We cannot see ourselves from all angles. While we should be mindful of a need to seek approval or validation from others at any cost, there is tremendous value in seeking external feedback — if that feedback is honest, compassionate, informed, and caring. We need a kind friend to tell us gently, “He’s just not that into you.” We need mirrors to tell us our skirts are tucked into our pantyhose. We cannot know ourselves in totality simply via self-analysis, even though we think we can.
I don’t know whether it’s the Protestant work ethic or liberal individualism, but we have this stupid idea that we all have to be martyrs, soldiering on bravely and alone, handling our bidness valiantly by ourselves. But think about it — when the state realllly wants to punish criminals, what does it do? Locks up them by themselves. We are social beings. We need social engagement to thrive. And part of that social engagement is, as I have come to realize, accepting guidance from others — even in areas where we are supposedly “experts”.
Upon receiving my marching orders from KB, I got to work immediately, feeling enormously relieved. Managing this was now someone else’s job. All I had to do was follow instructions and accept correction where necessary. Every week, I’ve nailed it. I no longer had to expend energy in excessive self-administration; I could simply follow the program. I didn’t need a drill sergeant or hand-holding. I didn’t need a shrink. I just needed someone else to care.
And guess what? I feel great. My pants are getting loose. I’m kicking ass in my workouts. Most importantly, I don’t feel like a screwup. I feel like a normal human being who just needed a bit of support.
I’m a DIY type by nature, and I don’t like to make a fuss. Asking for help was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But — along with hiring a cleaning person — it was also one of the smartest.
By the way, if you’re in the same boat, KB can probably get you to forgive yourself too. Check it out — Kyle Byron Nutrition. Tell him Stumptuous sent you.
Tips for working with a coach, teacher, and/or trainer
I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, as I’ve said, as part of my own practice and the Lean Eating program. Here are the tips on being a good “coachee” that I’ve gleaned by observing which clients succeed and which don’t.
- Find someone with good credentials and experience. (See here on how to choose a personal trainer.)
- Make sure they’re a good “fit” for you in terms of their personality and approach. You don’t always have to love them, but you should respect them and understand what they’re talking about.
- Shut the hell up and listen. Do not tell them all the reasons you cannot do what they ask. Entertain the possibility that they probably know what they are talking about (if you successfully did #1.).
- Remember that what you were doing before was not working. If what you were doing was working, it would have worked. If they suggest you do something other than what you were doing (remember, the thing that didn’t work?), try that new something.
- Give things time to work. Be patient and persistent.
- Ask questions where you need to. Get informed. Understand. But don’t second-guess.
- Follow instructions. If you’re in physical therapy, do your rehab exercises. If you’re being coached, do the exercises. Follow the meal plan your nutritionist gives you, or the exercise program your trainer gives you. I know! Crazy! It works!
- Do not bullshit us with excuses or crap justifications for not doing stuff. Either you want to do this or you do not. If you do not, that’s fine, just don’t waste both our time. If you do want to do this, then see #3 and #7.
- Recognize that a good coach will push you outside your comfort zone. This is necessary for growth. Sure, you might not need a drill sergeant screaming in your face, but you should occasionally feel a little bit insecure and apprehensive.
- Look for the evidence in your results and experience, not your assumptions. Work with your coach to decide on measures of observable progress.
- Allow yourself to feel foolish, even stupid. Then get over it. Don’t become defensive or ashamed. Your coach, if s/he has experience (see #1) has probably seen everything. If not, s/he knows better than to laugh openly at you. If you can get over your fear of looking and feeling stupid, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. Be open to the learning process by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, rather than putting up egocentric barriers to ensure your apparent coolness.
- Once you both agree on an outcome, then forget about the outcome and focus on the quality of your process. The outcome will arrive on its own time. You are responsible for your process, though.
- Be a mature adult. Don’t act like a rebellious teenager, passive aggressive debutante, or whiny baby. Don’t turn the coaching relationship into some Freudian melodrama. Accept responsibility, grow up, and be an active, engaged participant in your own change.