We like to say that a coach listens to a person’s story and helps them to realize that they are not their story.
For the health-challenged client, their illness, conditions, or health experience is a huge part of their story. “I am a diabetic.” While this is true, how strongly does the person now see themselves through this lens? What effect could it have on someone’s confidence that they can regain their health? How hopeless do they feel if they have framed their health challenge like a prison sentence instead of a challenge to be overcome? How different it might be if the same person could say “I’m a person challenged by diabetes.”
Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental psychologist who coined the term ‘identity crisis’, viewed identity “as the degree to which an individual integrates different self-assets into a coherent sense of self, and such a coherent sense of self translates itself into daily life and guides choices and values.” (Oris, 2018) When we think about a sense of self-guiding choices and values and apply this to making lifestyle choices, illness identity could play a huge role.
What happens to that coherent sense of self when a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness? What happens when that person may not only label themselves according to their health challenge, but is labeled by treatment professionals and even friends and family?
“Although most patients succeed in adjusting to their illness, some patients experience difficulties, which can negatively affect their physical and psychosocial functioning.” (Morea, 2008) Much of that difficulty comes when a client has over-identified with their health challenge.
As health & wellness coaches we know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. Each of our clients will react to their health challenge in their own unique way, but it may be very helpful for the coach to understand how these reactions or responses may be seen in terms of different dimensions or states of identification with the person’s illness.
Let’s look at keys to understanding and coaching strategy around client identification with their illness.
Key Number One: Understand the degree to which chronic illness dominates the client’s identity and daily life.
In 2016 an international team of scientists sought to understand this concept more deeply. Their work with adolescents dealing with Type One diabetes led this team to develop the Illness Identity Questionnaire and identify four illness identity dimensions or states: engulfment, (Oris, 2018) rejection, acceptance, and enrichment. (L.Oris, 2016)
Think of the term engulfment. Your client may be completely engulfed by their illness. “Individuals completely define themselves in terms of their illness, which invades all domains of life, at the expense of other important self-assets (Morea, 2008).” They may be experiencing continual physical reminders of their condition as symptoms of their illness manifest. If your client feels in the grip of such an illness, how hopeful are they? How disempowered do they feel that they can do anything about it? They may experience great fear that they will never get better. They may just not know what the future holds, but their illness has taken over their lives. It is quite likely that such a client may be in the Precontemplation Stage of Behavior Change when it comes to lifestyle improvement efforts.
Key Number Two: Meet your ‘engulfed’ client where they are at with compassionate understanding.
A client experiencing their illness this way may feel overwhelmed and helpless. The illness is so figural in their life that they seem to process their entire life through the filter of their health challenge. We want to convey sincere empathy but be prepared to have it either well or poorly received. Our client may feel like nobody else could understand what they are going through. Use your process coaching skills to help your client to work through some of the emotional load they are carrying. Slow down on setting up ‘what to do about it’ strategies. Your client is far from the Action Stage.
If your client has been stuck in this stage for months after their diagnosis or health event, consider what else might be going on. They could be experiencing some secondary gain. That is, they may be receiving some kind of reinforcing experience for staying stuck where they are. Family and others could be treating them with such extra kindness that it makes their overidentification rewarding. Be careful how you approach this subject as clients may feel accused and judged if you are too forthright about this. You might instead approach their situation from the angle of nurturing hope.
Part of what can increase hope is learning more about their illness and their prognosis and potentially what they can do about it. Inquire what they know about their health challenge. Share with them the information that patients who know more about their illness and treatments have better outcomes. Let them know that lifestyle improvement may not cure their illness, but it can significantly affect the course of that illness.
Key Number Three: Understand the Rejection Dimension of Illness Identification
While some clients embrace an identification with their illness others do their best to reject it as much as possible. “…rejection refers to the degree to which the chronic illness is rejected as part of one’s identity and is viewed as a threat or as being unacceptable to the self.” (L.Oris, 2016) This client avoids thinking or talking about their illness and they tend to neglect it, which results in poor treatment adherence. Their approach is one of denial and/or minimization. They attempt to go on with life and business as usual to the point where their biometric markers (e.g. blood sugar levels, blood pressure, etc.) worsen.
Attempting to persuade such a person to follow their doctor’s orders and begin improving their lifestyle will almost certainly go nowhere. If you are given the opportunity to coach such a person, instead take a holistic explorer approach. Have them tell you the story of life before their illness and what led up to their diagnosis. Ask them what the experience of hearing that diagnosis was like. Meet them with empathic understanding. Inquire about what it feels like they have lost. Often the experience of a loss of health is central to such a response to a life-threatening illness. (See my blog post “Astonishing Non-compliance – Understanding Grief and Readiness for Change in the Health Challenged Client” https://wp.me/pUi2y-n2)
This client may be the farthest away of all from the Action Stage and firmly entrenched in Precontemplation. Refer to Changing To Thrive, by Janice and James Prochaska (https://jprochaska.com/books/changing-to-thrive-book/) for extensive guidance on how to coach someone through the stage of Precontemplation.
Key Number Four: Coach the accepting client at a higher level of readiness to change
The acceptance dimension of illness identity shows a client who is not overwhelmed by their chronic illness, does not deny it, but rather accepts that this is their reality. “Chronic illness plays a peripheral role in one’s identity, besides other personal, relational, and social self-assets, and does not pervade all life domains.” (Morea, 2008) Such a client will be trying to lead as normal a life as possible without being in denial about their illness. They, to one degree or another, are finding ways to adapt to their illness.
Explore with this client their current level of knowledge about their illness and treatment. Inquire about the lifestyle prescription that their treatment team has recommended and how successful they have been at achieving those recommended lifestyle changes. Explore their motivation that fuels their desire to deal more successfully with their illness. Help them create a fully integrated Wellness Plan for how to move forward and affect the course of their illness in a positive way.
Key Number Five: Partner with the possibility of transformation
The fourth illness identity dimension, enrichment, provides the coach with a unique situation. Here the client has developed to where they frame their illness as an opportunity for growth and transformation. They see positive changes in themselves having taken place as a result of these negative developments in their health. “Such positive changes manifest themselves in different ways, including an increased appreciation for life, changed life priorities, increased personal strength, and more positive interpersonal relationships.” (Tedeschi, 2004) Coaching with a client who has reached this state of identity with their illness would be a delight. Here the focus might be more upon maintaining good self-care and treatment adherence, and possibly upon continued improvement in health. Such a client might be motivated to work on disease reversal through lifestyle improvement such as we see with programs like that of Dean Ornish. (https://www.ornish.com)
Content for the blog has come from Dr. Arloski’s forthcoming book Masterful Health & Wellness Coaching: Deepening Your Craft, published by Whole Person Associates, Inc., and is fully copyrighted.
Stay informed about the book’s publication at https://wholeperson.com/store/masterful-health-and-wellness-coaching.html
L.Oris, J. S. (2016). Illness Identity in Adolescents and Emerging Adults With Type 1 Diabetes: Introducing the Illness Identity Questionnaire. Diabetes Care, 757-763.
Morea, J. M. (2008). Conceptualizing and measuring illness self‐concept: 571 a comparison with self‐esteem and optimism in predicting fibromyalgia adjustment. Research in Nursing and Health, 563-575.
Oris, L. L. (2018). Illness Identity in Adults with a Chronic Illness. Journal of Clinical Psychology Medical Settings, 429-440.
Tedeschi, R. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical 604 evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 1-18.
Michael Arloski, Ph.D., PCC, NBC-HWC is CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness (https://realbalance.com) a premier health & wellness coach training organization that has trained thousands of coaches around the world.