All About Coaching

Coaching Midlife Women
by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.

In the shadow of the approaching Millenium, I have turned my attention to other, more personally significant milestones. I imagine that being mid-career and mid-life is a condition with which many of you can identify. This spring I will turn 48; it will be 19 years since I earned my Ph.D. in psychology and more than two decades that I have been working as a psychologist, counting three internships and two academic positions before defending my dissertation.

Having an independent practice had always been my dream. I'd almost kept myself from getting accepted into graduate school by confessing this in interviews. Then I became genuinely interested in the research I convinced myself I was supposed to want to do. But the vision of independent practice remained vivid and compelling through years of teaching, research and then clinical work in public settings.

When I went into full-time private practice in my 30s, I imagined myself at midlife enjoying a thriving practice, doing a variety of interventions and being a generalist. Too many things interested me to specialize. I loved the autonomy of self-employment; toward that goal, I'd left a position in a clinic with a 12-session limit and a controlling director.

The years ahead seemed to offer infinite opportunities to learn, to develop my skills, then later to supervise and teach. There would even be time for research. I thought my 40s would be the decade when my accumulated experience and knowledge would transform me into one of the clinicians I'd admired years earlier, the ones with full practices and full lives, who had come to our case conferences so calm and filled with wisdom. What a wonderful future to envision.

For a few years, reality seemed to match my fantasy. I had a full and diverse practice. I'd worked in enough settings to build a collegial network sufficient to make unnecessary the marketing I found so aversive. I awoke each morning just as the career books say you should: happy to be going to work, thrilled that I could actually make a good living doing what I most loved.

Then managed care rode into town. Now instead of a 12-session limit, there might be no authorization at all. Rather than my work being directed by a psychologist-micromanager whom I respected, I was forced to repeat my clients' stories over the phone to nurses and MBAs about whom I knew nothing - and who knew little if anything about my clients. As I entered midlife, the professional scene bore little resemblance to what I'd imagined years earlier. At the supposed peak of my career, I found myself working more hours and earning less income than I had five years earlier.

Managed care had changed the psychotherapy client population. Only crisis and severe cases were considered worthy of "medically necessary" treatment. I'd always seen many "complicated" cases, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to find ways to restore my depleted personal resources. The difficult cases, the paperwork, the ethical dilemmas, fighting compromised treatment, lowered fees, denials of sessions - this was not the midlife career pinnacle I'd dreamed of.

Some time in 1997, I was discussing a case with a psychiatrist-colleague of mine. As I bemoaned the managed care obstacles in the case on which we were collaborating, he commented that professional and personal coaching would suit me perfectly. Coaching? Though I assumed this was some New Age fad, I wrote down the name and number he offered me, and gave it little thought until I received a notice from a local psychological association offering a one-day workshop in coaching. It was marketed as a way to "break free of managed care."

What did I have to lose? It wasn't very expensive. So I enrolled, albeit with great skepticism. Yet I will be forever grateful that I chose to attend. That workshop opened a window, just as I was watching the proverbial door of my professional dreams close.

I'd expected coaching to be either the kind of sales-intensive motivational speaking I wanted nothing to do with, or to require skills alien to me both professionally and personally. But I was shocked to discover I was quite mistaken. I was the lone cognitive behaviorist in a coaching workshop filled with psychodynamic therapists. While our coach/instructor was describing coaching interventions as things "we'd never do as therapists," I was thinking how similar they were to things I did every day. His examples were entirely consistent with the typical work of a cognitive behavior therapist - focus on strengths, teaching skills, problem solving, cognitive restructuring.Gradually I began to realize how well-suited I was to becoming a coach. I have always loved being a student, so having a reason to "retrain" was welcome. I didn't need to acquire the clinical skills that other non- mental -health professionals becoming coaches needed to learn. But I did need to explore the "virtual" delivery system of coaching since it's often conducted via phone, with E-mail and fax back-up. As an inveterate Luddite, I'd always shunned computers in favor of my pen and paper. But computer-literacy was necessary. And to my surprise, it expanded my horizons almost instantly. Instead of thinking of my local community as my potential market, I had to begin thinking about communicating to a potentially global market.

One of the more difficult aspects of developing a coaching practice has been the fact that few people know what coaching is or for whom it is appropriate. As a result, I've had to learn how to market the field as well as my own particular services. I've also had to learn how to quickly and carefully assess, usually over the phone, whether my potential client is really appropriate for coaching or would be better served by psychotherapy (which I only do in person). In my experience, there are clear distinctions.

When you coach someone, you are facilitating a non-symptomatic individual's efforts to accomplish an important life goal. Coaching is "treatment" for what we used to call the "YAVIS" client. My sense is that many coaching clients are the kinds of high-functioning individuals therapists used to love to have in their practices.

I'd always wondered whether solution-focused therapists ever saw cases like mine. When I'd asked in workshops, I'd usually been told, "we see those kinds of cases longer." Now I've found an excellent application for those solution-focused interventions so inappropriate for most of my clinical cases: coaching. Coaching clients provide wonderful answers to "the miracle question."

The challenges of beginning a virtual coaching practice at times seemed daunting. But the possibility of re-enlivening my midlife dream, regaining autonomy in my clinical practice, and working with high functioning, highly motivated clients to balance the demands of complex clinical cases, gave me the incentive I needed to approach these challenges.

Just as clinicians are urged to specialize, coaches too are encouraged to focus on a "niche." Criteria: a group in need of assistance, motivated, high-functioning, discretionary income, Internet accessible. As I watched media advertising focus increasingly on baby boomers, it occurred to me that others like myself might be at a point in their development where they were particularly open to, and in need of, opportunities to re-envision their lives - the very opportunities managed care does not allow.

Many of you are familiar with the MIDMAC project, described in the APA Monitor (11/96) and very recently in the New York Times (2/16/99). A 10-year study of midlife Americans, MIDMAC has offered the first empirically-based descriptions of the midlife experience. Researchers like Joan Ostrove and Abigail Stewart have identified cohort-specific experiences of midlife women. It seems that midlife is indeed a time of reflection and, optimally, course correction. For the majority, it is not a time of "crisis," as we clinicians use the term. In fact, in general, it is a time of good health, marital stability, lowered incidence of depression, and re-evaluation.

It is this reflection and re-evaluation, prompted by the awareness of mortality, that makes the potential for transformative change so great among people in midlife. I chose to focus my coaching practice on midlife women because, for baby boomers in particular, this is a unique generation. Many (psychologists included) pursued careers before families and became parents at an older age than prior generations of women. The experiences of the Vietnam War protest and the Civil Rights movement made an indelible mark on their sense of self and purpose. It has been an exciting adventure. Although there is still little about my computer that I truly understand, I have a website at which is the "storefront" for my coaching practice.

In coaching, potential clients get to know you via your E-mail newsletter. This provides them an opportunity to get a feel for what you know and how you work, especially since most potential clients live at great distances from you.

Writing and publishing my E-mail newsletter, MIDLIFE PASSAGE™ has been an extraordinary learning experience. It has propelled me into the research and clinical literature in a number of areas with which I was only minimally familiar before. What has been even more exciting is the way in which it has made the concept of a "global community" real for me. I have subscribers from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and throughout the United States. I have coached women in California, Texas, New York, Virginia and many places in-between. Every one of them has accomplished the goals they had when they began coaching, a testimonial to their own determination and resourcefulness.

It's also been an incredibly gratifying experience for me. At the end of March I'm scheduled to be a "guest expert" on midlife career change for one of the largest women's websites, serving 1.2 million subscribers. This is truly beyond my wildest midlife dreams.

Recently I conducted a teleconference inviting midlife women to discuss the issues of particular concern to them at this point in their lives. Participants came from all over the U.S. (My European newsletter subscribers emailed me that the long-distance phone costs would be prohibitive.) The women ranged in age from 40 to 68. Some were newly-wed, many had young (3-9 year old) children, all had been successful in their "first adulthoods" and all were struggling to "re-invent themselves." They were bright, articulate, remarkably open and self-disclosing (the absence of visual contact seems to foster this), and creative. They all spoke about how comforting it was to hear the "universality" of the experiences expressed on the call. They described wanting help with balancing multiple roles, changing careers, bodily changes associated with aging. These are not the concerns managed care considers necessitating "medical" treatment. But the choices midlife women make in addressing these concerns will effect not only their own lives, but those of their aging parents, their young and adult children, and people at work everywhere.

Midlife women are the largest single group entering the workforce today. By the year 2000 their numbers will be large enough to have the potential to alter the workplace. They have lived as long as their grandmothers ever hoped to live and collected 40-60 years of experience and wisdom. They have more years of health and well-being ahead of them than any prior generation and more opportunities than they ever imagined. Many have raised their children. They are ready to re-enter the workforce or re-energize their careers. They have no models; their mothers lived very different lives. They grew up with the idealism of the 60s when youth defined the culture and no one over 30 was to be trusted.

And now they - we- are looking for someone to trust. Coaching is a way to facilitate interconnections, to help midlife women see the possibilities, to teach them the skills to balance time demands their mothers never imagined. The finiteness of life provides the very motivation for change that the time-limits of managed care undermine. Coaching can enable midlife women to use their hard-won experience and wisdom to craft a life that satisfies their most important longings.

And it is a way for a midlife independent practitioner to re-invent her own life.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. does virtual coaching in her Midlife Mentor practice and traditional psychotherapy in her Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care practice. The addresses are: 8811 Colesville Rd., Suite 104, Silver Spring, MD 20190, phone 301-585-5539, website:,


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