Living a Deliberate Life Using Life Skills to Promote Self-Care: Tips from an Expert An interview with Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW

Living a Deliberate Life Using Life Skills to Promote Self-Care Tips from an Expert An interview with Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW.jpg

Those of us who have struggled with overeating know that it is not uncommon to turn to food when life feels overwhelming. What many otherwise competent, high-achieving people don't realize is that overwhelm is often created when we fail to engage in effective self-care because we think we have "more important things to do." Usually this involves attending to the needs and care of others while we put our own self-care last on our "To Do" list. There is a way out of this pattern, however, and it's as simple as planning ahead. When we become skilled at planning ahead for success by organizing our lives, we not only function better, but we often find that we have more, not less, free time. That free time may be used to relax, take a walk with our partner or children, or to simply do nothing, and it fuels us in ways that overeating cannot.

Today I have asked my co-author, eating disorders therapist and 7-book international author Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, to speak with me about this topic. Even though I had read all of her books, when Karen and I started collaborating on Helping Patients Outsmart Overeating: Psychological Strategies for Doctors and Health Care Providers, I had no idea how she managed to juggle a busy psychotherapy practice with her workshops, community service and daily food and activity regimen. It should not have surprised me to learn that she uses the same life skills and self-care strategies that she highlights in her books on outsmarting overeating. I hope you will enjoy this interview.

Karen, thank you for joining me in this blog post. I wanted to share with our readers some of the skills and self-care strategies that you use to manage your life without turning to food. In the medical community, we often think of self-care as lifestyle behaviors, such as diet, exercise, and stress management. But, as I first learned from reading your books, there are other important aspects of self-care that matter just as much, if not more, to living well. Could you please share your perspective on this?

I didn’t used to take the kind of great care of myself that I do now. I say this because for most of us, self-care evolves over time. My desire and ability to self-nurture comes from valuing myself and seeing self-care as my primary job. Put another way, why wouldn’t we take care of ourselves? Rarely do my clients have a good answer for that question. In fact, I don’t believe there’s any other rational way to live.

I do try to practice what I preach and most of the time do it joyfully, loving the fact that I attempt to do what’s best for me, maybe because I didn’t always do so. Saying yes and no in balance rarely comes easily for the majority of us, so that’s been a learning experience. Since there’s no actual formula for doing that in balance, it’s always trial and error. Sometimes I’m a bit too assertive about saying no and other times I wish I were less passive. But I’m not judgmental when I’m off base. That’s simply life.

I make every attempt to strive for good enough in self-care, and some tasks I do better than others. For one thing, I value efficiency and don’t care for clutter, but I’m not a cleanliness freak. I don’t strive for perfection because it’s unnecessary in my line of work. One of my strengths is that I enjoy structure which many people, especially dysregulated eaters, don’t. We need to find a balance between structure and freedom. Too much of one drives us to the other, but we don’t want to live at the extremes. For example, I try to work out some every day: sometimes it’s the gym, other times a walk with my husband, dance classes, or sometimes rather than read on the couch, I put the treadmill on slow and read as I walk.

 Rather than get attached to outcomes, I follow the organic process which means taking things step by step: try this and see how it works, then try that and see if it’s better or worse. Eventually things work out using this method. When I say work out, I don’t mean a pre-ordained outcome, but how things evolve to an endpoint. I might start a book writing about one thing, then find I’m actually writing about something else, and that’s okay with me.

I am also passionately curious about people and myself, so that helps me personally and professionally. Luckily, I learned persistence and valuing consistency from my parents growing up. Those attributes contribute to self-care as much any other personality trait. I don’t have goals as such, for the most part. I have things I want to do: strong desires. To me, we invent goals because we don’t have powerful enough desires for positive things. For example, I don’t have a goal to be healthy; I want to be healthy. I don’t have a goal to write books; I love writing books. As a social psychologist friend of mine says, “We only set up commitments and goals for things we don’t want to do.” It works better when we can develop the desire because then the actions flow from desire and take care of themselves.

You have more energy than most people I know. How do you sustain your energy throughout the day and still have energy for an evening walk or evening meetings?

I’m tremendously fortunate to love the work I do and it energizes me. Of course, I don’t see 8-10 clients a day like I used to. At 70, six in one day is plenty and some days I have one or two. Working for myself, I schedule my own time, so I end up having breaks during the day, but often work on weekends. Again, though, my work (writing and seeing clients) is pleasurable, so I rarely feeling anything is a drudge or drain. My dad was a high energy person and I think I have his genetics. I do stress about being on time for things and I think that’s overly important to me.

One habit of yours that impressed me most when we met was the way you manage your time and your calendar. Could you please share your approach to managing your schedule and how it impacts self-care?

I’m not sure what to say other than I aim to balance my schedule and mostly succeed, though I often feel I’d like to be doing less in a day. But since I don’t make that happen, I suspect I don’t really desire it. I like being busy, but not too busy. I enjoy alone time, time with my husband and friends. I rarely have the feeling, as some people do, that I need to do something or go somewhere because I might be missing out if I don’t, and I don’t say yes to please other people, but for myself. It’s important that, as adults, we choose our priorities and not let someone else do that for us—be it children, parents, spouses or friends. I think because I’m an only child, I had it easy in learning to please myself without worrying about hurting people’s feelings.

One of the things that I enjoyed about our time together when we were writing the book, was taking a walk outdoors with you at the end of the work session. I learned that you make time each day for exercise and also for an evening walk with your husband. How do you make this happen on such a consistent basis?

Living with conscious intent means recognizing and acting upon what’s important to you. I’m a bit compulsive about exercising, though I won’t do it if I’m physically unable to. I build my life around my priorities: I’m not an early morning person. I exercise late morning, schedule a walk with my husband in the late afternoon or early evening and have other social commitments. Everything else happens in between. Clients are clear about my clinical hours and seem fine with them and my husband loves his own time, so he’s glad that I have a full life.

I don’t like to get too hungry or too full because that reminds me of my dieting and bingeing days, so I eat at fairly scheduled times. Not fussing with food makes things easier, plus my husband cooks for himself so I get to eat what I want when I want. When I’m with friends I negotiate about where and when eat, bring food along for myself even if they think I may not need it, and don’t pay much attention to what others are eating or not eating. It’s not hard to be consistent when you focus on what you want. At this stage of my life, that’s something that’s easy to do, but I also chose a husband that respects my space just as I respect his.

You also are very organized when it comes to medical appointments and other wellness-related priorities. What's your strategy here?

I write everything down on a calendar and look at it frequently. Remember that I enjoy structure, so this is not hard for me. Some people find structure constraining (maybe they had too much of it in childhood and are still trying to break free from imaginary chains) and yearn for freedom. Structure is a comfort for me. I like knowing when and where things begin and end. I enjoy predictability, routine, and planning.

From what I know if you, I'll bet you know what you are having for lunch today. Is this important to healing overeating and learning to be a "normal" eater? How do you do it?

I have pretty much the same breakfast and lunch every day, with some variations and I eat at just about the same time every day due to my work schedule. There are many things I’d rather think about than food. And many things I’d rather do than eat. As long as food is easy to make, healthy and fairly tasty, that’s good enough for me. But I like going out to dinner twice or more a week. That’s freedom for me.

I think there are different kind of “normal” eaters. I’m a structured one but have a friend who mostly grazes because she works at home. She’s a runner and eats for fuel. But, when I’m on the run, I bring food with me. Why wouldn’t I? It’s my job to feed and nourish myself.

Do you have any other tips for our readers?

  • Stop wondering and worrying about what other people think, whether they like or approve of you and whether you’re doing the right thing.
  • When it comes to eating and self-care, aim for doing what’s best for you at the time and forget about "right" and "wrong."
  • Dare to be different from your parents, not in a rebellious sense, but through careful thought and reflection.
  • Challenge authority and food rules that don’t make sense.
  • Strive to be imperfect.
  • Laugh more and don’t take things so seriously.

Thank you, Karen!

To learn more about Karen's work and to sign up for her blog, visit her website at

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Until next week, my friends,
Here’s to your deliberate life!

Here's to your deliberate life!

Dr. Paige.