How a Health Coach's Struggle with Perfectionism Helps Her Lead with Empathy

How a Health Coach's Struggle with Perfectionism Helps Her Lead with Empathy

Whether she’s breaking down the complexities of data from continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), or offering tips on how to find time for exercise in a busy schedule, One Drop health coach, Lindsay Vettleson, RD, CDCES, dedicates her time to helping people—and that’s what she finds most rewarding about her job.

But, according to Vettleson, the truth is that she initially became interested in wellness “for all the wrong reasons.”

“In my senior year of high school, I developed an eating disorder,” she shares.

Back then, the North Dakota native was a self-described “type A” student. “I was involved in so many activities. It consumed all of my time,” she explains. Vettleson spent her days juggling class, basketball, volleyball, track and field, choir, band, the school yearbook and the school newspaper, student council, school musicals—you name an extracurricular, and she was probably part of it.

With so many responsibilities to balance and people to please, Vettleson says she began to look at food as one detail among few in her life that she could “control.”

“There’s more to an eating disorder than just the food aspect,” she explains. For many people who struggle with disordered eating (including Vettleson), the desire for control can be a key factor in their food choices. In Vettleson’s case, “it really had nothing to do with nutrition,” she explains. Rather, “trying to be perfect” at everything from school and sports to band and student council left her searching for something simple that she could “completely control to a T.”

“It was obviously very detrimental to my health, and it led to extreme body image issues that I still struggle with today,” she shares.

In overcoming her eating disorder, Vettleson says she felt driven to do more than just educate people about nutrition; she wanted to empower others to feel confident and motivated to make healthy choices. To help her reach that goal, she studied dietetics in college and became a registered dietitian. A couple years later, she incorporated her love of fitness into her work by becoming a certified personal trainer. “I’ve always been a giver,” she explains. “I know this is what I needed to do, and here I am.”

After several years of working in nutrition and personal training, Vettleson moved away from her home of North Dakota to take a job as a registered dietitian at a small hospital in Kansas, where she discovered her passion for diabetes care. The hospital offered a three-day, hands-on course to teach health professionals how to use their skills to help people with diabetes manage their condition. Vettleson enrolled in the course, and while she admits that she “never thought” she’d find herself in the world of diabetes management, she immediately fell in love with the work. “It was so rewarding for me as I made an impact on those people during those three days,” she shares. “They left that course much more confident than on the first day.”

That impact includes more than just helping people manage a chronic condition. For many folks with diabetes, perfectionism is a constant struggle—one that Vettleson knows all too well from her experience with disordered eating. While she zeroed in on food as a means of control, people with diabetes often feel pressured to hyper-focus on “fixing” everything from their weight and blood sugar to their blood pressure and cholesterol levels (and their eating habits). In fact, it’s estimated that people with diabetes make, on average, about 300 health-related decisions alone every single day (among the hundreds of other non-diabetes-related decisions that go into a typical person’s day-to-day), Howard Wolpert, MD, vice president of medical innovation the Lilly Innovation Center, said during a talk hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“That’s exhausting!” Vettleson says of the statistic. Considering everything a person with diabetes probably has on their mind at any given moment, “they don’t need a physician, certified diabetes care and education specialist, or nurse belittling them about why their blood sugar isn’t in range, or why they aren’t exercising enough, or making the right food choices,” she continues. “These people are trying."

"We have to realize that this chronic condition is not all about perfectionism. It's about balance, and not letting diabetes completely take over your life. How can we live with this condition and manage it, without letting it drive us batty and mad?”

These days, as a certified diabetes care and education specialist and health coach at One Drop, Vettleson says one of the most important skills she’s learned is empathy. “Over the years of working with people with diabetes, I’ve really learned to be non-judgmental,” she explains. “I wasn’t always that person before.” But now, she constantly challenges herself to consider others’ perspectives. “Having diabetes is a lot of work,” says Vettleson. “And I don’t even know about the journey someone’s been on before I’ve met them, which has probably been really hard, too.”

Regardless of where someone is in their health journey, though, Vettleson always approaches the situation from a place of compassion rather than judgment. “Step back, be empathetic, and put yourself in their shoes,” she says. “That’s what I try to do every day.”

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Allie Strickler
May 17, 2021

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