Do as I say, not as I do: the struggle to follow your own advice

From a cardiologist with a penchant for snacks to a life coach coping with burnout, five professional advice-givers share their difficulties walking the talk

It’s easy to imagine the professionals we turn to for help are paragons of virtue. That doctors eat their apples; that personal trainers never skip leg day.

But those we charge with giving advice could very well be going through, or have gone through, the same challenges we turn to them for.

Sometimes, this dissonance has provided them with a kick in the pants to change their own habits, but just as often, it’s a reminder we’re all just human.

‘I live by my advice but there are times I won’t’

Debbie Rivers, relationship coach, Perth

After the breakdown of my 21-year marriage, I started a dating and relationship coaching business.

When I was talking to women who were stuck in a trap of spending all that time with a guy that was never going to give them what they want, I was doing the same thing.

I was coaching a lady, who was trying to pick between the guy who wanted the commitment over the guy who didn’t want it.

I remember saying to her, “here are the signs, if they’re not making you a part of their life, if they’re not doing this, it’s not going to lead anywhere”. At the time I was myself dating someone who didn’t want the same commitment I wanted. It kind of made me realise, I’m not taking that advice myself, I’m settling for crumbs from someone who doesn’t want to commit to me. I felt like a hypocrite.

Dating coach, Debbie Rivers at her home in Perth, WA.
Dating coach, Debbie Rivers at her home in Perth, WA. Illustration: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

As a dating coach for the past 10 years, I’ve seen women, and myself, ignoring these signs time and time again – with the same outcome. That definitely makes me good at what I do. I’ve got a lot of training, but I’ve also gone through some shitty dating experiences so you don’t have to.

I live by my advice, but there are times I won’t. I might teach them something, but then I’m not doing it and I realise I’m falling into that trap because we get caught in the same patterns. So, it’s a good mirror.

‘I ignored my signs and I could absolutely see them’

Kirsten Brumby, life coach, Bathurst

I’m a highly experienced life coach of over 16 years. I coach people through taking notice of the signs of burnout, and how to bring more balance into your life.

I suffered from burnout myself about ten years ago. After I dropped my daughter off to school, and to this day I still don’t know how, I just drove straight into the basketball hoop! I had a brain blank. I rang my husband crying, saying “I think I need to stop work, I just can’t do it, I’ve just ran into a basketball hoop pole”. That day I resigned my work contract immediately and said to the boss, “I’m burnt out.” So that was my time.

Because of the lived experience, it changed the advice I give, from not just keeping life balance, but also recognising signs and symptoms when you’re in serious risk of burnout. Your body will tell you and you need to pay attention.

But then, last year, during the first Covid wave I got a full time contract – which I hadn’t done for a long time – and during that I worked very, very hard. I got sucked into the whole working from home trap, not taking breaks, working from sun up to sun down.

As I started coming out of that contract, I realised I wasn’t sleeping well, I was tired, overwhelmed and I just thought, “Oh you idiot.” I knew the signs of burnout and I’d done it anyway. I ignored my own signs – and I could absolutely see them. Signs I talk about all the time.

Taking my own medicine, practicing what I preach, and doing those things that I know would help, took a long time to force myself to do.

I had to not start work at 6.30am just because it was there. I forced myself to go outside and eat lunch outside, not at the desk. I had to force myself to do extra exercise, another walk in the afternoon. And I forced myself into a regular meditation routine. Just a couple of minutes, a couple of times a day.

I started a new to-do list regimen, where I put less on a daily to do list, to stop myself from getting upset by not having done 40 things in one day.

I talk a lot about recharging your batteries, and everyone’s are charged differently. So I forced myself to do more activities that I know recharge me. I had to give myself permission to do that.

‘I find that something always has to give’

Fidel Martinez, cardiologist, Syracuse, US

I am a cardiologist, helping patients to prevent or help manage coronary conditions.

I advise my patients to sleep and eat well, yet I don’t do a lot of these things. I often sleep five to six hours. If I don’t bring fruit to work and I’m rushed, I find myself picking up whatever I can get my hands on, even if it’s unhealthy.

I’m not getting enough time to exercise for the 75 minutes a week that I prescribe to my patients because I’m “busy” – but all my patients have the same pressures.

If I get up early to exercise, then I lose sleep. I find that something always has to give and it makes me more empathetic to people who can’t do it all, as we all have the same challenges of juggling jobs, kids etc.

I refer my clients to dieticians, and it does make me wonder if I need to go and see one myself, but I haven’t taken that step yet. Because I’m not obese – yet!

Seeing my patients daily, I am always reminded of the things I need to do to be healthy.

Eugenie Pepper is a psychotherapist based out of Randwick, Sydney.
Eugenie Pepper is a psychotherapist based out of Randwick, Sydney. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

‘I wake up thinking I am going to quit coffee but never do’

Eugenie Pepper, psychotherapist, Sydney

I work daily with people to quit their bad habits, mostly with things like smoking, alcohol and sugar.

However I am not perfect and when it comes to coffee, I am drinking too much and addicted. Every day I wake up thinking I am going to quit coffee but never do.

I have an overactive thyroid and it is one of the things that can worsen the condition. I know what I am supposed to be doing however, in this area I just don’t practise what I preach.

There’s a part of me that loves it so much, and just does not think it is that bad, even though I know quitting will benefit my health. So I succumb to the craving.

This is very common, so it does give me a better understanding of my clients.

I had several clients come to me to cut back on their alcohol. I thought “if I can’t do this myself, I can’t expect them to do it”. So it was definitely a trigger for me. I decided, “I’m going to do exactly my own program on myself”. So I did it, and I managed to reduce my alcohol intake. Since lockdown started on 16 June, I’ve only had three drinks.

One of my mantras, that worked in this instance, was that I must practice what I preach.

I think I will quit coffee, when I’m ready. I’m just not ready.

‘I think every coach needs a coach’

Pam Li, personal trainer, Melbourne

Pam Li, with her own trainer Matt Nicholson, preparing for the powerlifting word championships.
Pam Li, with her own trainer Matt Nicholson, preparing for the powerlifting word championships. Photograph: Supplied

As a personal trainer, I empower people to be the fittest version of themselves, and to replace the word “I can’t” with “I can, I will”.

When I injured my back four years ago, my mindset was not in the right space, I spiralled out of control. I went into depression. I couldn’t move at all, so the mindset just went, “I can’t move, I can’t do this”.

The words “I can’t, I can’t”, kept repeating themselves. It was something I teach my clients, but I couldn’t do it myself.

What helped me through was talking to my friends, to my powerlifting coach, and I took up yoga. I went on to win the powerlifting world championship in April of this year.

I think that’s why my clients stay with me, because they saw me get through that struggle. I think every coach needs a coach. I don’t know everything, but you learn on the way.

Tracey Cheung

The GuardianTramp

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