Note 1: Given some of my previous work this article is deeply hypocritical. I get that. But then, if we don’t periodically reevaluate our ideas and values we will forever be held captive by our past.
A little more personally: this article is hard for me to publish. It also feels right.
Note 2: For our purposes, the term “life coach” will act as an umbrella term that broadly encompasses people offering mental health services without academic training, qualified supervision, or licensure. This also includes spiritual guides and meditation teachers who do not come from an established lineage with supervision (including self-proclaimed shamans and plant medicine practitioners).
Ok, let’s begin…
Autumn 2016: To my surprise, my coaching practice is filling up. Not only that, but I’m making way more money than I expected.
And yet, something feels off. My clients are turning to me for advice about sexual abuse, addiction, childhood trauma, their relationships with their children, infidelity, divorce, breakups, and decisions that will impact their lives for years to come.
Though it’s easy to get caught up in the success and the ego of it all, the reality is clear: I’m not qualified to do this type of work. If a friend wanted to discuss something over beers that would be one thing, but these people are paying me for advice on their inner wellness and life strategy. An innocent mistake or two and I can seriously fuck someone up. I need to quit.
Why it’s surprisingly hard to work with good mental health professionals
Let’s start with something simple: it’s wrong to treat people’s health problems without extensive training, supervision, and licensure. The risk of unintentionally doing harm is just too high. In the realm of physical health, most providers and patients seem to understand the risk of inexperience. If you have an infectious disease, you would turn to an MD, not someone that learned medicine from a YouTube channel or by reading a few articles.
But with mental health, things start to get blurry. Often instead of turning to licensed providers, we either deny the reality of our problems or turn to life coaches and self-help. These coaches claim to be able to help with eating disorders, self-acceptance, self-esteem, transitions, anxiety, depression, grieving, addiction, a wide variety of inner turmoil, and a million other mental ailments. Of course, coaches can’t provide these services any better than the YouTube dude can cure infectious disease. But still, we turn to life coaches and similar providers for mental health issues all the time. This happens for reasons that are as numerous as they are complicated:
- From a legal perspective, training, supervision, and licensure isn’t really required to provide mental health services.
- Many coaches don’t fully understand that they are providing mental health services. They tell themselves that therapy focuses on the past and coaching focuses on the future so consequently coaching doesn’t have much to do with mental health. Of course, neither claim is true. This is further complicated by the reality that many people who turn to life coaches (and the coaches themselves) don’t understand that their dissatisfaction in life likely stems from untreated mental illness.
- Mental health is a relatively new and evolving field filled with misconceptions coming from both providers and clients.
- Insurance companies make getting effective treatment complicated and push accelerated and ineffective regiments.
- Mental health issues are plagued by stigma, which makes us more likely to feel shame and deny their existence.
- Some mental health professionals are abusive and take advantage of their clients (this happened to me).
- Some mental health professionals are idiots.
- Many mental health professionals have terrible websites and marketing.
- Many people have sought mental health services from licensed providers, only to never have their calls or emails returned.
- In contrast, many life coaches have beautiful marketing and smooth on-boarding procedures, which makes working with them much easier than working with many licensed providers.
- Many coaches frame their services as “an investment in yourself” and lie about the results they can produce which makes it more seductive to work with them. A complicated note here: many coaches aren’t fully aware of their own deceit. More on that in a moment.
The end result? Life coaches and self-help gurus can edge out mental health professionals. They’re easier to work with, more seductive, less stigmatized, and have better marketing.
In almost all cases life coaches are a risky waste of time and money
Keep in mind that I write from the perspective of an industry insider. Not only did I own a thriving coaching practice, as a speaker I attended – and often spoke at – many of the elite industry conferences. I consulted for some of big names and managed to almost get sued for publicly discussing my shifting views of the community.
Coaches tend to believe that they’re qualified to help others since they’ve done a bit of reading, allegedly healed their own ailments, or got their lives on track. Many simply believe that they have a gift for understanding people. While I think their intent is benign, it’s also misguided.
Again, this is not a mistake that we would ever make in the realm of physical health. You would never believe that getting your kidney stones pulverized by a doctor and reading the accompanying literature would qualify you to treat other people’s kidney stones, even if you’re a fast learner. And yet, coaches routinely couple this logic with their desire to help people. Part of the reason this happens is that many of the things that seem to be productive for people aren’t. A few examples:
- Many coaches (and, unfortunately, therapists) will urge their clients to have difficult conversations with triggering people in their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hard conversations, but not categorically. In some instances they can be counterproductive, retraumatizing, or both. I once met a woman who, at the direction of her coach, reconnected with a man who raped her several years prior. She was instructed to let him know that she forgave him for raping her. The coach figured this would help complete her past. It didn’t. Instead it triggered her, riddled her with regret and shame, and derailed her self-esteem.
- Along similar lines, coaches will often encourage their clients to share deeply vulnerable parts of themselves before they’re ready. Several years ago I was at a conference in Napa when a coach made an audience member stand up and admit some of his deepest insecurities to the audience. When the audience member was reluctant, the coach bullied him until he tearily opened up. The coach believed that admitting insecurities to strangers was the path to liberation from them. This is not only wrong, it’s reckless.
- Due to a lack of grounding in scientific research and evidence-based practices, coaches will often give guidance that seems like it should work, but doesn’t. I recently met a man who was routinely sexually abused as a child. Understandably, his self-esteem was in the gutter well into his 30’s. He turned to a coach to help develop his sense of worth. The coach assigned the man a series of complicated affirmations that took 10-15 minutes to recite each day. This did little beyond waste his time, temporarily deflate his hope for a better life, and criminally oversimplify the complexity and pain of trauma.
- Unlike therapists, coaches will often tell their clients what to do in any given situation. While many clients like this, it tends to be counterproductive. It gives the coach way too much power and creates a level of co-dependency that prevents the client from becoming confident, self-aware, and autonomous.
- Coaches will often push their clients to “take massive action” in their lives. The idea is that if you make all the changes you want to make right now you’ll suddenly step into a new – better – era. While this has the potential to be seductive, it’s unnecessarily violent and unsustainable. A far better approach is to make gradual changes and allow them to compound over time. Not only is this smoother, but the net impact tends to be far greater.
- Some of the most effective mental health interventions are extremely counterintuitive. For example, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is weird as shit. It involves bilateral stimulation while recalling difficult memories and experiences. It’s also an effective form of trauma treatment. No coach would ever stumble upon this technique on their own. The more intuitive techniques, like talking about trauma or reframing it, tend to be less effective.
Often, many of these coaches aren’t just lying to their clients: they’re lying to themselves too. Instead of addressing their own issues, they claim to be able to help others with the exact problems that define the coach’s own life. Doing so allows them to enter a fantasy land where they can conceive of themselves as healed instead of doing the hard work of facing their demons.
Earlier this week I had dinner with a young attractive couple. There was a weird vibe between them. Their communication was strained and they didn’t seem to like each other all that much. Later on, the friend who organized the dinner told me that the couple intended to start a relationship coaching business. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. This type of thing – though insane – is common.
What does this have to do with Jason going to graduate school again?
All of this is top of mind for a simple reason: I am dying to become a mental health professional, but also, I really dislike higher education and am extremely reluctant to go back to school. In fact, I so dislike school that I nearly dropped out two weeks before finishing my undergraduate degree. The only reason I didn’t is because a mentor heard about my plans, called me, and yelled at me until I promised to finish.
This leaves me with three options:
1) Ignore my dream of becoming a mental health provider or work adjacent to it (like running the business operations of a counseling practice)
2) Work as a life coach and deal with the ethical issues
3) Bite the bullet and go back to school
Though written out like this it seems easy, the decision was deceptively difficult. When I floated the idea of going back to school I got countless texts and emails from people I trust telling me that it would be a huge mistake especially given my previous success as a coach.1 This, coupled with my own disdain for higher education made it difficult for me to determine my next step.
Eventually the right decision became clear and three weeks ago, I entered a Masters of Social Work program at Fordham University to pursue licensure as a psychotherapist. In addition to the academic work, I’ll receive 1,100+ hours of supervised fieldwork. To help round out my understanding of the mind and spirit, I’ve also begun a meditation teacher training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Yeah. 2019 is going to be a busy year.
When I finish my education in mid-2020, I’ll open an untraditional private practice. In fact, I’ve already begun working on it. I’ll aim to use psychology and evidence based practices to help people flourish personally and professionally. The space itself will be something akin to a spa for people’s inner wellness. To say I’m excited is an understatement.
PS: A call to arms for coaches and therapists alike
I totally understand that life-coaching isn’t going away. Heck, it was one of the paths I considered. I realize that some people’s lives have been dramatically improved by the work of good coaches. I also understand that not everyone who works in the industry will (or can) go back to school. With that in mind, here are my best suggestions for life coaches who want to stay in the industry and be as fully in integrity – and responsible – as possible.
1) Hire a licensed mental health professional to supervise your work and inform your decisions. Check in with her at least once a week to ensure that you’re not doing harm to your clients. Again, just because you have ostensibly solved the issue for yourself and have a thriving business does not qualify you to do mental health work. It also fails to protect your clients from accidental harm. Supervision will help mitigate the risk and improve your success rate.
2) Better yet, work to ensure that the field of coaching becomes one with licensure, accountability, grounding in evidence based practices, and meaningful accreditation. Doing this would solve many of the industry’s problems. It may also lead to coaching overtaking psychotherapy as the preferred line of intervention for some mental health challenges.
3) Eliminate the lies, half truths, and deceptive statements from your marketing and sales. Keep in mind that this likely begins by having a difficult conversation with yourself (that’s where I had to start).
4) Be upfront with your clients and yourself about the limits of your ability. If these are not immediately obvious to you, then you are probably unqualified to do this type of work. When I worked as a coach, I wrote, “RYL” in sharpie on my wrist everyday. “RYL” was short for “Respect Your Limits”
5) Consider pursuing formal education and licensure (unfortunately those coaching certifications don’t count). I know, going back to school is a bitch, but if you’re not willing to get the proper credentials to do this type of work, is it really reasonable for you to get involved with people’s inner wellness? Is it ethical?
Therapists have a few things to learn from coaches too…
Going back to school while I was at the top of my industry was a difficult decision. To help ensure I wasn’t making a mistake, I partnered with a few therapists in 2018 to help them with their businesses. As I begin to work on my practice, there are a few questions I continuously come back to again and again that I think many therapists should consider.
1) How is your marketing? What can you do to modernize your website and signal that mental health is a problem with effective solutions and a misplaced stigma?
2) How easy is it for prospective clients to book their first appointment with you? When I sought therapy, scheduling my first appointment was shockingly hard. For the most part, the therapists I called never returned my calls. My friends struggled with that too. It’s important to make it easy for people to schedule their first appointment or get referrals to available providers.
3) Am I consistently helping my clients achieve their goals? Remember to periodically ask clients, “Hey, how’s this going for you? Are we making meaningful progress together?” Remember that for most consumers, psychology exists in a black box. This makes it extremely difficult for patients to evaluate the quality of their providers. Push to provide the best service possible. Don’t be the reason that people perceive psychotherapy as a waste of time. Even if you think you’re good at what you do you should always be striving to improve.
4) Be creative. How can you integrate the good parts of life coaching into your practice to create the best overall consumer experience? Add creativity, boldness, and experimentation to your work. While nothing will replace the standard 50-minute session on the couch, to only offer that is to deprive your clients.
PPS: What about this blog?
Don’t worry the blog isn’t going anywhere while I’m in school. If anything, it will get better because I’ll be working in the trenches and keeping up to date with the latest methodology and research.
One heads up though: the program I’ve enrolled in is one of the most intense and comprehensive in the country. Though I will 100% continue to write here, it may take a minute for me to get used to the new pace of life and figure out what a realistic publishing schedule looks like.
- You might wonder why this happened. It’s complicated. Some friends just had misconceptions about psychotherapy and didn’t understand the moral imperative for getting trained. Some built their livelihood around the idea that they are qualified to treat people’s mental health without training and felt threatened. Others – like myself – feel that higher education is criminally overpriced, pedantic, stifling, inefficient, and rewarding of mediocrity (but ask me how I really feel…).