I am pleasantly surprised to see the spread of conversations on the science of health and wellbeing moving into public dialogue. With so many magazines, phone apps, websites, and webinars devoted to the subject, sometimes it seems like the whole world is obsessed with getting healthier. Yet, strangely, many still attach stigma and shame to the idea of seeking help to get healthier. For example, when I introduce myself to strangers as a psychologist, I am often met with nervous laughter and a joke about how “messed up” they are. Not only is it saddening to think that people are still so uncomfortable admitting vulnerability (spoiler alert: we are all imperfect), but this also represents a great misconception about the role of psychology in health.
Sometimes, the path towards greater wellbeing requires new tools and insights, beyond the purview of what is traditional or familiar. Perhaps something happens in life that makes it obvious that we are not making choices that are aligned with our deepest and greatest aspirations. Perhaps we encounter a “stuck” place, where we sense that we are blocked or inhibited from reaching our desired destination. Many people can clearly identify these desired goals: changing eating habits, exercising, seeking new relationships and social interactions that provide a sense of connection and support, spending more time outdoors, and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment. But the distance between where we are and where we want to be sometimes feels overwhelming and impossible to traverse. It is during these moments of pronounced challenge that it can be useful to seek the support of a trained mentor or guide. Unfortunately, too many people hesitate to seek this kind of support. As a society that endorses the ideal of individualism and a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, we tend to fear and devalue experiences of vulnerability.
Thankfully, the work of Brené Brown and colleagues shows us that vulnerability is valuable, and experiences of vulnerability can incite creativity and greater connection to others in a number of contexts, ranging from relationships to health to professional development . By acknowledging and sharing personal experiences that reveal fragility, exposing imperfections, and declaring uncertainty, people actually gain access to new perspectives and solutions. Admitting vulnerability relieves the burden of having to hide or bury the unpolished parts of ourselves. The beautiful revelation that comes from acknowledging personal vulnerability is the awareness that vulnerability is a universal experience of all living beings.
The process of accepting personal vulnerability is especially powerful when paired with the natural human instinct to seek support in times of need. When it comes to navigating vulnerability, being able to ask for and accept support can be vital. Some people are more familiar with the process and can provide additional resources to help navigate personal challenges. This is the power of a successful mentoring relationship: to reveal and optimize opportunities to learn, connect, and flourish. This explains why wellness coaches and educators are now so widely used in healthcare, ranging from boutique wellness businesses to large hospitals to Medicare . It is not easy to shift major lifestyle habits, even when the bad habits seriously endanger a life, but wellness coaching services show promise as a precious resource in this notoriously challenging undertaking.
Clearly, not all coaching services are created equal and some approaches are more effective than others. It is important to consult the research on this matter . When implemented properly, using evidenced-based practices, coaches can help to galvanize movement towards getting “unstuck.” Successful coaching relationships can promote changes in diet and nutrition, exercise, weight management, and adherence to medication . Furthermore, people who have successfully worked with a skilled coach often report increased self-efficacy, or greater confidence in their own ability to take action to meet their goals . This is to say, a good coach does not foster codependency, but empowers people to take action and control over their lives.
As a health psychologist and coach, I am enlivened by this mission and equipped with decades of research insights from the experts in my field. I am eager to facilitate this kind of relationship for those that are courageous enough to admit vulnerability and ask for support when they need it. I look forward to the day when we can say the word “psychology” without that immediate association with pathology or all that is “messed up,” but as a rich system of learning, essential to the balance, health, and flourishing of mind and body.
1. Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin.
2. Huffman, M. (2007). Health Coaching: A New and Exciting Technique to Enhance Patient Self‐Management and Improve Outcomes. Home Healthcare Now, 25(4), 271-274.
3. Butterworth, S. W., Linden, A., & McClay, W. (2007). Health coaching as an intervention in health management programs. Disease Management & Health Outcomes, 15(5), 299-307.
4. Olsen, J. M., & Nesbitt, B. J. (2010). Health coaching to improve healthy lifestyle behaviors: an integrative review. American Journal of Health Promotion, 25(1), e1-e12.
5. Linden, A., Butterworth, S. W., & Prochaska, J. O. (2010). Motivational interviewing‐based health coaching as a chronic care intervention. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 16(1), 166-174.