Karen Nathan by Karen Nathan

As a health coach, you guide and support your clients as they work toward their goals, such as weight management or freedom from nicotine dependence. You may have noticed that some clients are naturally inclined to be tough on themselves throughout the process, mistakenly believing that critical statements will motivate them to work harder and get results faster. Common refrains include:
“I am so weak and have no self-discipline.”
“I am just lazy and can’t bring myself to start exercising.”
“I don’t deserve to feel good because I’ll never be able to lose this weight.”

For most people, this type of self-criticism is generally ineffective because it can reinforce feelings of inadequacy and erode self-confidence. Fortunately, there is plenty you can do help your clients tame their inner critics.

1. Don’t argue with your client’s self-criticisms.
You may intuitively wish to refute your clients’ harsh talk, but this may actually only serve to reinforce their beliefs. If you try to convince your client that she isn’t a failure, she may respond by offering examples of all the ways in which she is. Instead, turn to coaching skills derived from motivational interviewing, a conversational technique used to help elicit behavior change. Acknowledge that your client is struggling in some way and then redirect the dialogue to encourage the client to talk about the many reasons why he or she wants to change.

2. Remind your clients to unravel their inner critics.
The cognitive behavioral approach is another useful skill set from a coach’s toolbox that can be used to combat your client’s harsh self-talk. A key goal of this approach is to identify and challenge unhelpful assumptions. If a client declares himself to be weak or lazy, take a moment to examine the validity of his statement. Is it a fact or an opinion? You can show your client that just because he sees himself a certain way, doesn't mean it is true. Then, together, you can rewrite the script by creating more helpful responses to life’s setbacks. Instead of saying “I am bad for eating that cupcake,” the client can say, “Of course I am not a bad person. I just made one unhelpful choice and now I can get back on track.”

3. Self-compassion is an antidote to self-criticism.
Self-criticism can become a reflexive habit, and many people do not even notice how often they engage in it. Ask your client, “How helpful is it to speak so harshly to yourself? Would you speak this way to a dear friend?” Invite your clients to speak to themselves differently. For example, “I am having a tough time with this, but it is normal for people to struggle in this way. I may accept myself and be patient and strong.” I have found that when clients can respond to their challenges with caring and acceptance, they seem to have more energy and motivation to address behavior change.

4. If self-criticism stubbornly persists, consider a referral.
If a client continues to struggle with self-criticism and it is getting in the way of her desired health behavior change, as well as other parts of her life, this could be a signal that this client would benefit from a counselor or psychotherapist. Effective health coaches stay within their scope of practice and encourage clients to seek the help they need.

Clients are often hard on themselves as they work on getting healthier. Unfortunately, a harsh inner critic can interfere with motivation and make the work of health behavior change more difficult. As a health coach, you play an important role in quieting this demeaning voice. Using techniques from motivational interviewing and the cognitive behavioral model, you can help your clients relate to themselves with more kindness and acceptance.

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