Provision #388: Coaching as Life Raft

Laser Provision

Do you ever have a bad attitude about life? Do you ever get depressed and discouraged about the chances of making things better? Do you ever see through the facade and the pretensions to the existential predicament of life? If you resonate with any of these questions, then read on. You’re about to be challenged by the hard-scrabble story of someone who brought all that and more to coaching, with a measure of success in the end.

LifeTrek Provision

Today’s featured client, a mother and owner-operator of a small business together with her husband, has struggled with two interconnected realities for much of her life. On the surface, she has had to contend with an eating disorder. But more profoundly, she has seen for herself what existentialist philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have long ruminated about • namely, that life is in many ways absurd and irrational.

It doesn’t follow any preordained patterns of meaningfulness. And there’s no necessary connection between effort and results. Like Sisyphus in the ancient myth, we are condemned to the unspeakable penalty of exerting our whole being toward accomplishing nothing that really matters. Why not, then, eat away our sorrows? Food has, for many, become the drug of choice.

“So who knows what I felt,” observes Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in her powerful book on food addiction, Holy Hunger, “who knows what I was really longing for, when as a child I would secretly slip a piece of bread into my pocket after lunch. I certainly can’t recall any inner voice explaining it to me. Who knows what I told myself? I had no idea what it was • a compulsion, a need, a desire, an unspoken something or other • that caused my small hand to dart out, reach for an extra slice of bread, then slip it quietly, unseen , into my pocket. A secret known only to myself, but not even to me.”

“Certainly I was not hungry for food. Perhaps it was human contact that I missed. Perhaps there moved within me a hidden yearning to speak my grief about my sad mother, a desire to express my confusion about my volatile and sometimes frightening father, a longing to share a child’s anger, wonder, sadness, and joy with another human being. But I could find no one to hear me. None of these longings could even be named. I could not have said what it was that I wanted. All I knew was that I was starving.”

Like Bullitt-Jonas, all too many people, including today’s featured client, have tried to fill that void with food. Heart-hunger, mistaken for stomach-hunger, becomes an insatiable and demanding master. We eat until we make ourselves sick, only to do it all over again another day.

Such despair and cynicism would seem to make someone an unlikely candidate for coaching. If coaching is anything, it is about the possibility that we can learn, grow, and change our lives for the better. There is an optimistic edge to coaching that flies in the face of philosophical absurdism. Yet behind every pain is the yearning for relief. And why not try coaching, when everything else has failed? Perhaps you, too, will be moved by the story this client has to tell.

Q. How did you first learn about LifeTrek Coaching?

A. You could say I literally ran into LifeTrek Coaching on October 19, 2002. I signed up for your pace team at the Baltimore Marathon, and it turned out to be one of the more fun pace groups I have experienced. You had people exchange names, you told bad jokes, and you kept people talking throughout the race. Somewhere along the way you mentioned that you were on the Web, at www.LifeTrekCoaching.com, and I remembered that after the race. So I visited your site, got your email address, and sent you a note. That was the start of my relationship with LifeTrek Coaching.

Q. How soon after that did we start coaching and what did you want to work on?

A. I wrote you the day after the race to thank you for a great experience. Baltimore was my first marathon, and it had become a goal that was, for the first time in my life, independent of my weight and everything else in life. It was the goal. And it didn’t matter if I didn’t have a perfect day or week, I still did my training runs. I still stayed on schedule. That introduced me to a whole new concept: you don’t have to be perfect to train. What a novel idea.

But after finishing Baltimore, I wasn’t running as much and one heel started acting up. My newfound training regimen, along with the structure and benefits it provided, was slipping away. So I contacted you again, about two months later, to see if you could help me get back on track. I knew that I needed a boot in the pants, or something, and that just seemed like what a coach would do.

Of course, when I called I had no idea how much we would actually end up working on or how long it would last. Running was like a thread. Once we started pulling that thread, my whole life became unraveled. I thought I just wanted to figure out why my heel hurt and to get back on track with my running. You asked me to go deeper and to think more broadly about my life.

So I quickly identified a set of goals for myself as a person, mother, wife, and small business owner. But I just as quickly dismissed those goals as being a bunch of self-help crap.

In many way, my husband and are two dysfunctional people who started a business because there was no way we could work for anyone else. We needed to do our own thing in order to find our way in the world. Fortunately, our shop has attracted a cadre of apparently similar, dysfunctional people and has been successful enough to pay the bills. It drives us crazy, but it has become our platform and anchor in the world.

All that made me pretty suspicious of coaching as being able to do anything more than to get me running again. I mean, I have been to a wide variety of therapists and programs over the years to deal with my emotional problems. And none of them worked. So why should coaching be any different? Nevertheless, since I had signed up for coaching, and was paying the money, I decided to fill out the forms, work the program, and play along. I was willing to try just about anything in order to get back into my running routine, even looking at the rest of my life.

Q. Did our holistic approach to coaching work for you? Did it make a difference?

A. Well, it didn’t convert me from being a cynical and sarcastic person, into a cheery and optimistic one, if that’s what you mean. That’s just not in me. But it did move me forward far more than I ever expected. I still see plenty of reasons to scream at life, I mean the world in general and my life in particular are both pretty screwed up. But I can now scream with more of a low, guttural tone that relaxes the body instead of the high-pitched whine that tenses the body. And that’s a good thing.

We worked together for about a year. Never, during that whole time, did I feel as though you were imposing a cookie-cutter self-improvement system on my life. Rather, it was more like we were figuring things out together. The whole process was highly personalized, highly individualized, and never “medicalized.” That made a huge difference. You never made me feel sick or ashamed about my problems. You instead treated me as a capable person who could set and reach goals, even in areas that I had been struggling with for years. That was both refreshing and empowering.

So we jumped right in, where angels fear to tread. We dealt with the issue of my working too much and not spending enough time with my daughter or in family activities. We dealt with the disorganization in my home because I don’t have time to fix everything. We dealt with my being tired and burned out at work, where people look to me for leadership. And, of course, we dealt with my life-long, roller-coaster relationship with dysfunctional eating.

It’s as though I am either all on or all off. Either I am exercising, eating right, and doing well or I am not exercising at all and eating huge amounts of junk food. As we talked, my goal for coaching became not only to flip the switch back on but more importantly to get off the roller-coaster, to stop switching back and forth, altogether. We came to focus on developing preventive strategies and taking preemptive action to avoid the triggers that get me to start spiraling out of control in the first place.

Q. That sounds like a daunting task.

A. It is daunting, but in conversation with you I came to believe • for the first time in my life • that it’s not an impossible one. And coming to that conviction, not only for people in general but also for me in particular, is itself an accomplishment. That is not the conviction of a cynical person who views the world as basically irrational. That is the conviction of someone wants to live, and to live well, both for herself and for others.

It would not be going too far to suggest that coaching gave me new reasons to live, new mechanisms to cope, and new hope for the future. And it will probably come as no surprise to your readers to discover that running and training proved to be an integral part of our discovery process. We ended up running two more marathons together in 2003, Pittsburgh, PA and Kiawah Island, SC, and we worked together for that entire year.

Our coaching got me to focus on strategies for environmental modification to support my intentions. I learned long ago that will power is not very powerful. All the will power in the world won’t keep a cocaine addict away from cocaine, at least not forever, if it’s sitting right in front of him. Similarly, I had to learn how to eliminate temptations, distractions, and annoyances from my environment in order to minimize my proclivity to obsessive-compulsive behavior.

We tried a lot of strategies, with some being more successful than others. The discovery process itself, the trial-and-correction experimentation with an external reference point, was important to learn. It became something that I could take with me, to meet future challenges and to solve future problems. But we also made discoveries as to what makes life better for me.

  • I learned the importance of having goals, written down, with due dates. I race to train, not train to race.
  • I learned the importance of having a training schedule, on my calendar. Seeing the schedule gets me going and keeps me going.
  • I learned the importance of having flexibility. Modifying the schedule is not a failure; it’s an adaptation to life.
  • I learned the importance of having backup plans. If I get injured, it throws me off, way off, unless I have Plan B already in hand.
  • I learned the importance of having good help, whether at home or at work. Trying to do everything myself gets me in trouble.
  • I learned the importance of having healthy food around. When I see junk, I eat junk, and there’s no telling where it will stop.
  • I learned the importance of having gratitude. I intentionally enjoy my good days more now than ever before.

Q. Recently, after almost a year off, you contacted us for another month of coaching. What was that about?

A. It was about being out of control, all over again, and needing another shot of coaching to get my bearings. 2004 has been a tough year, most notably because I got pregnant, with twins no less, and then suffered a miscarriage. Right before that I had trained for and successfully completed the EagleMan Half Ironman Triathlon (that’s a 1.2 mile swim followed by a 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run). I was tired and not feeling great before the event, but I finished and felt good about my time.

Then came the pregnancy and miscarriage ordeal. One died at about 8.5 weeks and then I lost the other one at the beginning of my second trimester. After that, I was having a really, really, really hard time caring about running or much of anything. The switch was flipped off again, and notwithstanding all our preventive coping mechanisms and strategies I wasn’t able to get back on track.

So I figured that talking with you might help me to recover and to regain perspective. It did more than that. You sent me your latest essay about eating, combining the Paleolithic diet literature with the anti-inflammation literature, and it has seemingly revolutionized my life. In the past month, I have not only lost 10 pounds, but I have developed a different relationship to food and eating than ever before.

It revolves around the discovery that “junk food” includes far more foods than I had heretofore realized. Just like last time, when you gave me a marathon training schedule, I have been carefully following your eating program. And I just celebrated the best holiday of my life, with no real cravings and no secret, after-hours binging. By eliminating dairy, flour products, and oil from my diet, I seem to have altered my body chemistry in dramatic and positive ways.

I aim to maintain this program through additional environmental modifications as to the food and cookware in our house as well as to the time I allot for meal preparation. Before this I had hardly cooked at all. In fact, I viewed cooking and handling food as largely disgusting. Now I see it as an opportunity to do something good for myself and for the ones I love. There’s no way to describe what a shift that is after all these years. It’s really incredible.

Q. It sounds like you made a dramatic change in very little time.

A. Yes, and that really isn’t like me. I am a very change-resistant person. And I hate it when people tell me what to do. I can honestly say that your marathon training program and your new eating program are about the only two things in my life that I have just adopted and followed without reservation. Usually, I come up with lots of objections and whatever I learn sneaks in around the edges, through the back door of my consciousness.

Your two programs, however, just made a lot of sense to me. And, of course, having tried the marathon training programs on multiple occasions • reaching my goal of running a sub-4 hour marathon in Cleveland last year • I am now a believer based upon my own experience. The eating program seems to be going the same way. You sent it to me, we talked about it, whereupon I adopted and followed it to spectacular results.

Check back with me in about a year and I’ll let you know how it’s going • hopefully with another child on the way or even in tow. I now recognize that getting pregnant and having another, healthy baby is my goal for 2005. That’s why I’m eating better, losing weight, and exercising more. It’s not to accomplish some endurance contest. It’s just to be healthy.

That is what your coaching represents for me. It is like a life raft that I can hang on to when life is swirling out of control. I no longer need to be talking with you every week. I just need to know it’s there, properly stowed and ready to go, in order to more adequately face the challenges of life. It has provided a stable foundation and is something to look forward to outside of myself, where I can go without being made to feel wrong, bad, or sucked down.

Q. What would you say to our readers who may be thinking about coaching for themselves?

A. No one could be a worse candidate for coaching than me. I have a lot of anger in me, a lot of problems, and a lot of resistance to change. I have a bad attitude when it comes to all things that smack of self-help, self-improvement, and self-development. I basically think that people do the best they can, and that’s about all they do.

But coaching has a way of sneaking up on you and calling you out of your tired old ruts. I can’t explain how it happens. I just know that in the space you create for conversation, great things for happen. If anyone thinks that coaching may work for others, but not for them, then I am living proof that they ought to give coaching a try. If it can work for me, it can work for anyone.

Coaching Inquiries: Do you have a life raft to hold on to when things swirl out of control? Do you have a bad attitude when it comes to making things better? Who would be a safe person with whom you could talk about your problems and challenges, your hopes and dreams? How could you get yourself back on track?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


Your recent Provision, Coaching as Spiritual Formation, was outstanding! I’m sharing that around the Parish Life and Leadership office here at the national offices of the United Church of Christ. Thanks!


I just got done reading your interview with that spiritual woman. God Bless her. I am much like here, except that I am also trying to be a business man on the Internet. I really would like to write articles like this last one. I 57 years young and believe I can express to other’s what I have learned on so many subjects. Your writing is a great encouragement to me. Thank You for your time!


I appreciated Erika’s story last week about her new “ionizing” hair dryer. Apparently the placebo effect works for more than just pills!


I was happy to read in Christina’s Pathway that you are pointing out to parents the importance of crucial oils to children’s diets. For those who are concerned about Mercury levels, whose kids won’t eat fish, or who don’t eat meat, there are vegetarian sources such as flax seeds and oil, walnuts, and even veggie-source DHA gel caps. The caps can be swallowed by kids that are old enough or squirted into various foods for younger kids.


Thanks for the great website, the inspiring articles, and for Erika!


Editor’s Note: You may want to look at the long and moving comment that was added to our Blog by a 23-year-old man named Tom, living abroad in the United Kingdom. It’s a Provision in itself!



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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