As a health coach, at times I’ve thought, How can I be an effective coach right now when my own life is such a mess? Isn’t that hypocritical?

Or maybe you’ve heard about “imposter syndrome”—the feeling that you don’t measure up to other coaches and don’t know enough. You might think, Who am I to think I can coach other people?

If you are a health coach, newly certified or with years of experience behind you, chances are you have experienced one or both situations at some point in your coaching career. You might even be feeling like that right now.

“The more I dove into working with people, getting to know other coaches, and the more ‘no’s’ I got [from potential clients], the more I felt like an imposter,” admits Barbara Gehm-Jordan, a certified health coach. “I didn’t want to be out there taking people’s hard-earned money to give them what they should have a natural born right to—health, life and nutrition. What if I charged and they didn’t get results?”

None of this is uncommon, assures Aureen Monteiro, author of Rise Higher. “Almost 15 years ago, when I became a coach for the team [at the company I was working for], I was supercharged and excited as my career had just begun. However, when I walked into the office on day one, the ‘welcoming’ sight was not what I had expected it to be.”

Monteiro went home that night, questioning her abilities and thinking, “Who am I to coach them? I was younger than the entire team I was supposed to be coaching. But then I realized that I was selected [for this role] and I should honor their selection and not doubt my capabilities as a coach.”

Did You Know…?

Imposter syndrome, also referred to as imposter phenomenon, isn’t just some Urban Dictionary term. First coined in the 1970s by researchers Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, the term “is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” Since then, other studies have shown that men, too, can struggle with imposter syndrome, and that imposter syndrome and perfectionism tend to go hand-in-hand. Imposter syndrome can lead to anxiety, self-doubt and self-handicapping behaviors. A wide range of approaches have been developed for overcoming imposter syndrome including identifying negative self-talk and limiting beliefs, as well as confronting the perfectionist in you. 

A little technique Monteiro uses to help quiet the imposter chatter in her head is a mantra that says, I do not know everything, but what I know, I know it best. In other words, it is O.K. to not know it all. Build on what you do know, and the rest will come with time and experience.

The comparison trap—comparing yourself to other, more experienced coaches—exaggerates the imposter syndrome even more. But for Gehm-Jordan, it was waking up to the realization that she was called to be a health coach, and as such, had a responsibility to share her message and skills.

“The first thing I learned to do was to realize that all those other coaches are great—and so am I! There are enough people that need help in the world, and we need lots and lots of coaches. There’s someone for everyone. It is our duty to share and help others, because we have the knowledge.”

In trainings that I’ve taken over the last few years with successful coaches in the field, perhaps the biggest wake-up call for me was when one of the instructors essentially said, “Who are you to keep what you know to yourself? You were called to serve. Now serve!” It has become a sort of mantra for me when I feel myself slipping into imposter syndrome or starting to question my effectiveness as a coach.

Your Struggles May Be Your Superpower

There’s another benefit to having gone through struggles and messes in life: it makes you more relatable to your clientele. 

“I have been told repeatedly that the reason others want to work with me is because I don’t pretend to be perfect,” confers Jazmin Rochestie, a certified health coach. “I think we all learn from experience, and by sharing my ups and downs, I hope to help other people.”

“It’s as simple as ‘we are all human’,” agrees Karen Maxwell, senior master instructor for CycleBar. We ultimately find our strength when we find our vulnerability.”

Maxwell goes on to say that when she became open about her life, not just as a health and exercise professional, but as a wife and mom, and started sharing her wins and failures, she noticed some shifts taking place. “I noticed a deeper connection and an abundance of people coming to my classes,” she recalls. “It’s not because I look like a ripped fit pro that someone would aspire to look like; it’s because I am real with my clients when I teach a class. That, in turn, allows them to show up to their workouts unarmored and vulnerable.”

And when you stop trying to prove yourself, says Gehm-Jordan, things fall into place, regardless of how “messy” your life is. “When I stopped trying to prove myself and just started ‘doing,’” she says, “the imposter syndrome subsided. When I stopped trying to be perfect and was my true authentic self, I started doing my best work.”

“Messy” Can Breed Empathy and Trust

When you go through struggles in your life, it can engender more empathy and compassion in you toward other people, including your clients; living through struggles allows you to lean in and relate on some level when your clients are struggling (and you know they’re struggling in some areas, because they’ve hired you to coach them!). This, in turn, can help increase your effectiveness as a coach.

“Empathy helps us learn what is really on people’s minds by seeking to understand their needs and emotions,” Joan Pagano, owner of Joan Pagano Fitness in NYC and author of Strength Training Exercises for Women. “It is psychological identification: When we see the world through their eyes and understand their perspective, people naturally trust us more, because they believe that we have their best interest at heart.”

Ryan Halvorson, a writer, editor and fitness-industry consultant, believes that the most effective coaches have a deep well of empathy from which they can draw to help their clients. “So much of affecting change and truly helping someone progress toward reasonable, realistic goals has to do with the mind and emotional state. The best pros have an empathy that helps them better understand what their clients go through and how to adjust—sometimes on a dime—what happens within the session. Great coaches learn to read clients’ body language, facial expressions and language choices, so that they can sense if something is off. They also know how to adjust their own language choices and motivational style to fit the personalities of each individual or group.” 

So yes, going through life’s messes can make you more relatable and build trust between you and your clients when they know that you understand where they’re coming from. However, this doesn’t mean you must stay in your messes to continue to build trust and empathy. Restoring a level of harmony in your own life is essential, because the stress of always being a “hot mess” will inevitably catch up to you with its own set of health issues.

One tool that is used by coaches to help assess what areas of life need some attention is The Wheel of Life (Figure 1). This tool has been around since the 1960s and is attributed to Paul J. Meyer, founder of the Success Motivation Institute. 

Figure 1. The Wheel of Life


The concept is simple. The wheel has several different segments that name various life areas, including money and finances, spirituality, career and work, health and fitness, partner and love, personal growth and learning, family and friends, fun and recreation, environment, and community. You simply rate your satisfaction level for each area on a scale of 1 to 10 (circle the number or color in the space). This gives you or your clients an immediate snapshot of areas that could use some attention. It can also highlight areas of dissatisfaction or lack of fulfillment.

Ultimately, The Wheel of Life could be called The Wheel of Self-care. True holistic self-care takes place on every level, which is every category of The Wheel. Although some may try to compartmentalize areas of their life, at least in the short-term, they’re all interrelated, and neglecting one area will affect the other areas. 

For example, dissatisfaction with your relationship with family and friends is inevitably linked to a lack of a sense of community, which will negatively impact your opportunities for fun and recreation. On the other hand, improving in the area of personal growth and learning may lead to more satisfaction with your career and work, which may lead to improvements in your finances. In other words, enhancing yourself in one area often leads to unforeseen improvements in others, while neglecting a certain element of The Wheel of Life may cause other elements to suffer over time. As with most things in life, balance is key.

So, coach, if you feel your life is a mess right now, know that it’s O.K. Use your struggles and setbacks to build empathy toward your clients. Feeling like an imposter? Remember that you were called to do this work and to serve others. You have a story that can help others, which is really what this work is all about.

Tips for Building Confidence and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome