Reinvent Yourself: The Conversation That Caused Her to Reinvent
Moving from psychotherapy to coaching healed Sarah Freuhling’s burnout
“All the things I loved about being a therapist got overshadowed by the pain,” says Sarah Fruehling, “I wish I actually didn’t know people were capable of treating another human being like that.” Despite a successful career as a mental health therapist that spanned over 20 years, Fruehling found herself burned out from the trauma she was exposed to through her work. At the height of her career she knew it was time for a reinvention. That was when a life changing talk with an old friend changed everything. Read on to learn how Fruehling used her entrepreneurial skills to reinvent from her private therapy practice to become a master level coach. She’ll share the tools she used to find her calling and the steps you can take to launch yourself into a successful, thriving coaching career.
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LJS: So, let’s talk about your personal reinvention, and then we’ll get into how other people can reinvent and all the tips, tricks, and knowledge that you have. First of all, where did you grow up and what did you start out doing?
SF: I have a wonderful reinvention story. I grew up in a small town in the middle of Nebraska – 25,000 people. Now I coach clients who own businesses, who have way more employees than were in my entire town. So I grew up kind of in the middle-of-nowhere or the middle-of-everywhere, depending on how you think of it.
My first career, I was a mental health therapist. I owned my own private practice. I was an entrepreneur. I loved the kind of sacredness of working with one family, one person, one couple at a time, with mental health. I did that for about two and a half decades, and then I hit that upper limit issue, and took myself through a reinvention process.
LJS: That’s very common. So was it that you just could only help so many people? Or was it financial? What was the limit?
SF: I specialized in trauma and so, actually, I think the last two years that I worked as a therapist I heard such tragic trauma stories, two in particular that I wish I hadn’t heard. I wish I actually didn’t know people were capable of treating another human being like that. It was this simultaneous combination, and your listeners may really resonate with this: I was totally burnt out, and I was also a little bored. Nothing felt fun. I didn’t feel engaged anymore. And also with the incoming change in the landscape of mental health and medical services, managed mental health had come on board. And that meant that instead of looking at price increases, [at] a lot of companies (Blue Cross Blue Shield, Midlands Choice, Medicaid, Medicare) prices were staying the same, or they were going down over ten years. The last decade I worked as a therapist, really, my income was pretty stagnant. There was no way to increase income. I made a great living and I loved my clients, but all of that, along with the weight of managemental health, what was required – more paperwork, electronic record – all the things I loved about being a therapist, got overshadowed by just the pain-in-the-tuchus work.
LJS: A lot of people have that happen because of the digital revolution and all of that stuff. So we can’t control that. But yes, a lot of people have that. So then you reinvented yourself as a coach?
The life changing talk
SF: Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, Lesley. I had this gorgeous moment, and I’ve had this happen several times in my life. I’m going to suggest it as a tool for your listeners as well. I had what I call a “portal moment.” A moment when something shows up and you just feel it intuitively, energetically. You feel like you’re aligned with your highest calling, and if you have the courage, you step through and you go up to the next level. The portal moment appeared. I actually had lunch with a really good friend of mine. He was a multimillionaire. His dad had just passed away, and he was coming back to our hometown, and he reached out and said, “Hey, could we have lunch?” So we met and we shared stories. He was really struggling with a few things in marriage and life, and I shared that I felt bored and totally burnt out. And at the end of our conversation – I bet we talked for 2 hours – he said to me, “Oh my God, Sarah, this was the best conversation I’ve had in a decade. You have got to become a professional executive.” And I thought, okay, let me look into this, because this guy’s brilliant. He has a brilliant mind. He really connects people. He can see their zone of genius. So I looked into it. I made a gorgeous business plan, as you might imagine, to be a therapist part time and a coach part time. And what happened was the coaching was so fun, I realized for years I had been in my zone of excellence. So you may have heard of this, your zone of excellence, what you’re really good at, and zone of genius, that success where work is flow? Coaching became that. And do you know, my coaching business just took off. So it led to a move. We moved from our small town when my son was a sophomore in high school.
LJS: That’s so difficult.
SF: Yeah, he was on board. Your listeners will appreciate this. I’d said to my husband, actually, before the move, because I’d been commuting back and forth from Hastings, Nebraska, this little town, to Omaha, Nebraska, the largest city where I had multiple clients. And I’d said to my husband, “I think I should get an apartment. I’m really tired.” We had good friends and I was sleeping in their guest bedroom. I felt like I knew their routine as well as our routine. That’s not normal. So I’d said, “I think I should get an apartment.” And my husband said – which has been the most glorious thing I’m so grateful for – “If you’re going to get an apartment for three years till our son graduates from high school, we should just move.” So we talked about it. My son was on board. It wasn’t easy. But for me, it was glorious. Work was incredible. I commuted back to Hastings to finish with all of my therapy clients. My husband got to do his job remotely, so that part was easy. But our son, who’d been on board when it actually happened, really said afterwards, “This might be working out for you, but it’s not for me.”
LJS: Yeah, that’s a tough change at that time in life.
SF: And the best thing that I can share is the gift of perspective with your listeners. Because at graduation and when he went to college, he actually said to us, “That was the best thing you could have ever done.”
LJS: Oh, that’s so great.
SF: But it was hard, it was scary. I felt guilty, and anybody who’s a career person with a family gets that push-pull.
LJS: As a kid, my dad was in the military, and so we were moving every two years. But that was when they didn’t think about the kids. I mean, I moved on Valentine’s Day. It’s like no one cared. The kids were like baggage. It was like, “I’m going. Baggage follows.” We don’t just suffer it out. It’s a different world in the way we treat it.
I’ve talked to a lot of people in the psychology area and therapist area who have moved over to coaching, and I think it’s really interesting. Maybe you can talk a little bit about it, because I’m sure we have a lot of listeners in that area. I’m a veteran of 25 years of psychotherapy, and one of the things that was frustrating is that it never dealt with today. It always dealt with the past, which was great. To find out what your motivations are and recognize when old patterns are holding you back or interfering or erupting. But it never moved you forward. I feel like coaching has become the missing link in mental health care. I wouldn’t say just go into coaching and don’t know your drivers, don’t know why you’re unhappy. I think it’s a two-part process. Go find out. Every family is dysfunctional. Find out what went on in yours. Even the best families are dysfunctional. Find those things out. But then, if you want to move forward, it seems to me that coaching is the missing link.
SF: Actually, Lesley, I love that you brought this up, because after being a listener and hearing you talk about this, I’ve really wanted to share this not only with you, but with your audience. So, this is how I see the difference, because people often don’t understand. Therapy is really past focused and problem focused. So it’s trauma focused. It’s healing. So if we have somebody at this level of, like, let’s pretend this is healthy functioning in therapy, we’re really working on getting somebody up to just healthy. Coaching is so different because I’m a strength-based, future focused, and appreciative-inquiry coach. It’s, “What do you want the future to look like? What works well, and how can we create a vision that’s so inspiring that you’re being pulled into the future instead of running away from the past?”
A lot of therapists sit with their clients with a lot of empathy, but they don’t actually pull them out of the trauma triangle. That’s the victim, persecutor, rescuer role. As a therapist, I was cognitive-behavioral, which is one of the best ways to pull people out of being in a victim role. It’s really about moving into the empowerment dynamic, and stepping up, taking responsibility for your life. As a coach, I’ve taken that to the next level. So I have what I love to call my dynamic duo. It’s a unique approach to coaching. Most coaches are either/or, so they’re accountability coaches. “Let’s do this. Check the box.” Or they’re insight coaches, really working on helping people create aha moments. And I personally believe ahas are gorgeous. I love them, but they’re really not worth much if you don’t do anything with it. My unique brand that I use – and I have a team of coaches that also uses this approach – we work towards the aha, but then we ask, “Okay, what are we going to do with this?” So it’s this self-awareness of, “Why am I showing up the way I’m showing up? How is that serving me? How is that affecting the people around me? Is it creating the results I want?” If so, great. How do we do more of that? If not, what are my obstacles? What’s running me underneath? And how can I create action steps to pull out of that? So that might be thinking differently, acting differently, asking your team, asking your family for feedback, for support, uncovering blind spots – there’s a whole host of things we might do.
The average coach makes $20,000 or less a year
LJS: Interesting. So, if people are listening and they’re thinking, “How do I segue into something like that?” What you did out of the mental health field or out of something else that’s adjacent to that, where do you start?
SF: If somebody’s specifically thinking about moving from the world of mental health into coaching, or [for] anybody thinking about coaching, first, you need to know that the average coach makes $20,000 or less a year.
LJS: Yeah, I think there’s a disconnect there. I think everybody has been sold that it’s going to be super lucrative very easily. I get that impression.
SF: Especially, I think coaching was one of the biggest, right after podcasting, one of the most popular things that people did during the pandemic, because people thought, “Oh, I’m burnt out on corporate, let me do something different.” And the truth is, you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to handle the business side of things and you have to be able to do the coaching side of things. It was just Thanksgiving, and I like to joke about coaching [being] the exact opposite of pumpkin pie. The best pumpkin pie you ever had, in my opinion, isn’t actually that much better than the worst piece of pumpkin pie you ever had. There’s not that much difference. In the world of coaching the gap is enormous because anybody can become a coach. I saw online the other day, “Take a two hour course and call yourself a certified coach.” There’s this huge gap. Really. Average coaches are out there. The bar for entry is incredibly low.
LJS: I say it’s the new real estate.
SF: Yeah, the International Coaching Federation is our best bar for standards in the US. That’s global. But you’re not required. You can be board certified, which I am. You sit for the board the way you might for a nursing license or a dentist license or a mental health license. So I have done that and I am a master certified coach with the ICF, which is the highest level of certification. Only 4% of certified coaches in the world are master coaches, which basically is about 4000 people in the world. And we have 2000 billionaires in the world. So I always say there’s two master coaches for each billionaire. So it’s rare. So I would say if you’re interested in that, get a really excellent, accredited program through the ICF and do the work, do the training.
LJS: So first get your certification from the right place. How long does the average certification take? What kind of investment are they looking at?
SF: It depends. The coaching program I went through was the College of Executive Coaching out of Santa Barbara. It was pre-Covid. I’m eight years into the business, so I went for a week intensive. I got a lot of things done. I think it probably took another nine months to finish my accreditation. Investment is maybe about $5,000 now to get to the MCC. Then you have a lot of hours of training. I think I had to have over 200 hours of postgraduate work. I had to have – and the ICF will know whether this is right or not – either 2500 or 5000 hours of paid work, and it’s a really rigorous application process. I think it was 27 tabs. I was totally overwhelmed. I think when I work with corporations, when I work with C-Suite leaders and founders, they often want somebody at the professional certified coach level or the master certified coach level. I think the PCCs are 13% and MCCs are 4%.
I encourage people to look into it if you really feel called, and watch for that portal. Does it feel right? Do you feel, at that intuitive level, [that you are] really called to do this? And find really good support. Often you can do that through your college so that you have people surrounding you who are also building a business at the same time.
Sarah says the biggest challenge for most coaches is finding clients
LJS: And why is the average yearly intake so low? Is it that people don’t know how to run the business or they’re not defined enough or unique enough, or they don’t hustle?
SF: Yes to all of that. I think the biggest challenge that I hear from most coaches is finding clients. I’ve got a great story, it’s a reinvention story. Can I share it?
SF: So my second year as a coach, one of my clients said, “Oh, I know this lovely woman, she’s a coach, I think she could work for you.” We had just moved to Omaha, she’s about my age (we’re both in our mid-fifties), and I kind of chuckled. We just moved to Omaha. I need friends, I don’t need a team. So I invited this woman out for lunch and I bet we went to lunch for a year. She’s delightful. And I think it was about this time, it was probably seven years ago and she said, “Sarah, that’s it. I’m breaking up with business, I can’t get any clients. I’m done.” She was working as an administrative assistant in a school system. She said, “I’m done. I’ve had it trying to be a coach. I am going to go back, I’m going to get my teaching certificate and I’m going to teach.” And the very next week a different client of mine said, “Sarah, I really, really want you to work with my manager level. Here’s the budget.” I think it was 17 people. “And you’re not allowed to do it.”
LJS: Why weren’t you allowed to do it? What does that mean?
SF: Because I was his coach so I was working with him and the C-Suite leaders and he said, “Okay, now I want coaching for the next level down. You can’t do it.” Which is totally appropriate. I called this woman and I said, “You know, I think I have an opportunity for you; would you like to work for me?” And she said, “No, I’m going to be a teacher.” I said, “Well, when do you start your training?” She said, “Oh, well, I can’t apply till next fall.” And I said, “Okay, well, if you can’t apply till next fall, could we test this and see what happens?” And she thought it was a great idea. So she came on board. She was the first coach on my team. She has been fantastic. I have loved working with her. She’s still on my team today. She’s been on my team since 2018. She shared with me her gratitude for how she had thought, “I could have been a teacher, and that would have been my zone of excellence, not zone of genius.” And she shared with me, in 2022, she met all of her financial goals, more than she’d ever thought she could. And this year, she met all of her financial goals by August 1.
So part of it is really the network, how you do it. I think there’s a great business, there’s all kinds of flexibility. Your listeners may be ready for that. There’s a real revolution that happens at this age, in your 50s where you really want more. You want fulfillment.
LJS: And a lot of people are looking for creativity. They didn’t have creative jobs. They didn’t have flexibility. They didn’t have all the things and they just feel like the window is closing. They want to give another part of themselves. Do you have to become part of a group network in order to make enough money, or can you do it on your own?
SF: You don’t. I think most coaches are solopreneurs, and in that way, if we think about the heroine’s journey and how women function, it’s lonely, right? And it’s hard to be at the top and kind of manage your own doubts and fears, especially if you go from corporate into something that’s entrepreneurial. I know for me, because I came out of the entrepreneurial world and had run my own business for two and a half decades, I think it’s partly why I was so successful so quickly. None of the business things fazed me. Piece of cake. I know how to do all this bing, bing, bing, et cetera. And I think one of the gifts that I bring – my kind of magic secret sauce – is because of having held this sacred, safe, brave space as a therapist, people [who] shared with me continue to as a coach. Every time I get a client, [they tell me] things they’ve never told a soul.
A lot of my clients find me because they’re driven by trauma
SF: When it comes to coaching, Lesley, I really think I’m in what a friend of mine calls blue ocean. So, a lot of coaches come out of the corporate world; they’re in corporate burnout. They have a master’s degree in business or a business degree. And when it comes to mental health or trauma, coaches are really trained. Don’t go there. That’s not what you do. Refer someone to a therapist. But because of my background, my unique background in mental health, positive psychology, strength based training, and trauma, all the things that other coaches are running away from is where I start. So I often share that I have four levels that I work with clients at, and I do think it might be interesting for your listeners because some of them may be driven. A lot of my clients find me because they’re being driven by trauma. That’s actually running things below the what.
LJS: Yeah, that’s what I meant in terms of, yeah, you’ve got to know what’s driving you to start with.
SF: Yeah. Did you hear the interview? It’s been at least a decade or more ago. Elizabeth Gilbert talked about when she wrote Eat Pray Love, she talked about how anxiety is always present and that she felt like when she’s on the edge of creativity, her anxiety is in full gear. She described it as if anxiety was driving the car and she’s being held hostage in the backseat. This is an example of trauma running you subconsciously. I loved what she said because she said what she’s realized – and this is part of, I think, her reinvention story. What she realized was that her job was to treat her anxiety like a toddler throwing a fit; put them in timeout on the backseat and take control of the car. And so, a lot of times I love that when I work with clients on these levels of self-mastery, when we coach together… a lot of women come to me. If we have time, I’ll share stories of clients, and if not, just know they come. They’ve had this awakening. They’re ready for something. More awakenings can come in the form of divorce, loss. Somebody’s died. Rock bottom at work transition.
LJS: Yeah. That’s what we deal with.
SF: Yeah. It also can be a spiritual awakening. So, when I work with clients, we really step into being students of our own self-mastery. So, that looks like helping these women with their emotional range. How can they handle their own emotions and the people around them? Whether it’s[with] family or at work, the capacity is the second thing that we work on, their depth and resiliency. So we know grit is the number one predictor of success. So we really work on developing resiliency. How can I handle more, have more capacity to handle what comes my way with grace.
The third area is nervous system mastery. So this means being able to shut off fight or flight, our sympathetic nervous system, and engage our parasympathetic nervous system. That part we forget about, rest and digest. And underneath all of that is the fourth area, which is really, for me, your spiritual truth, aligning with your higher self and your highest calling.
So I know that you ask every person who’s on your podcast for some tools. I have three, maybe four, that I can share. I’m going to name three of them and I’ll describe one since we have a few left.
Exercises for Personal Growth
The portal exercise is the first one, which is to think about when our times [are] kind of like Shoots and Ladders, that game where something happened and you trusted your instinct and the next level appeared. If people can look at that, it often gives you clues on how to follow the breadcrumbs of your soul’s journey. The second idea is to do an energy audit, super simple exercise. Draw a line across the middle of your paper. Above the line, write the things that energize you. Below the line, write down your drains and think about people, places, thoughts, mindsets, situations. Systematically try and eliminate your drains. I mean, when people do that, it’s shocking. It may be interacting with different friends, changing jobs, changing things with a significant other. I also have a dashboard that people can use. So my gift to your listeners, if this sparks someone’s creativity, I want to offer them all of these tools as a gift. So if they email me, or reach out, we’ll provide the links. I’m sure in your show notes, we will give them these pdfs so they can download it.
The final one is the emotional guidance scale. This one is a model that looks up the upward spiral of emotions that bring us up and the downward spiral of thoughts and emotions that bring us down. And that works really beautifully in tandem with the energy audit. So hopefully this will spark people to think about, How can I really get to know myself better?” These tools really help you notice. Where do I feel most alive? Most of my clients, they’re seeking – they want it all, Lesley. Time, freedom, financial freedom, love, joy, empowerment. It’s not enough to just be content. They really, especially in a reinvention stage, are looking for inspiration to take it to their biggest, highest calling.
LJS: Yes, well, wonderful. Awesome, Sarah, it’s been wonderful speaking to you.
SF: I’d like to offer your listeners the gift of time, a complimentary coaching session with me or one of my team members to explore any of these ideas further. We’re here. I am a servant leader and there’s nothing… I enjoy and love [more than] giving back. And I know you believe the same thing. I’ve heard it time and time again on the podcast. So thank you for having me on the show. I want to support and serve your listeners in that way.
Sarah Fruehling has achieved the highest level of Mastery in the field of Coaching as one of the few Master Certified Coach (MCC) in the world. Only .03% of coaches are MCCs, so they’re a rare gem! That’s why a Fortune 20 company came to her when they needed help creating engaged, fulfilled and passionate leaders. Her clients go deeper and are on the fast track to change.