Friday, June 21, 2024

How to Navigate the Wild West of Life Coaching

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The title “coach” lends someone a degree of authority and expertise. But the reality is that although there are certifications would-be coaches can get to give themselves more credibility, for the most part anyone can call themselves a coach. As a result, people who are looking for a trainer or mentor to help them level up their fitness, well-being, career, or all of the above and turn to a coach for help may be unintentionally taking a gamble with their well-being.

Possibly because the barrier to entry is so low, the coaching industry is growing at a rapid pace. According to the International Coaching Federation’s 2023 data, there were over 100,000 coaches worldwide (a 54 percent increase since 2019) and the industry generated $4.56 billion in revenue (a 62 percent increase). These numbers are likely even higher considering that ICF primarily surveyed its members (though it did encourage them to pass the survey link along to non-ICF coaches).

Life coaches in particular — aka someone who partners with individuals to help goal set and make targeted future improvements in their life have never been more in demand, per iPec, formerly known as the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching. At the same time, several mega life coaches who were once highly revered for their advice have recently come under fire, with everything from their qualifications to their character failing under the weight of public scrutiny. Think back to Rachel Hollis, the self-proclaimed relationship pro who encouraged others to “choose positivity” while comparing her own struggles to that of Harriet Tubman and racking up accusations of plagiarism. Or more recently, we can look to Jay Shetty’s recent run-in with claims of inconsistencies in his religious background and credentials.

If these mega coaches could wiggle their way into the lives of First Ladies and onto the NY Times Bestseller list, I grew concerned about the sort of life coaching that could be happening to everyday people hoping to improve their everyday lives.

In talking to several life coaches, as well as licensed mental health professionals, I came to an understanding: not all life coaches are scammers, but it’s not always easy to spot the difference.

Experts Featured in This Article:

Kelly Rugless, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist and chief clinical officer at Project Heal.

Ashley Mielke is a Boston-based life coach specializing in life-purpose and business coaching.

Joi Britt, LCSW, is a licensed therapist and owner of Life Intentionally Psychotherapy.

Chelcie Scott is an Atlanta-based life coach and certified personal trainer.

Natalie Jones, PsyD, is a licensed psychotherapist and advisory board member for PS’s Condition Center.

What Life Coaching Is vs. What It Isn’t

Life coaches are goal-setters and accountability partners — not fixers, and certainly not therapists.

“Life coaches are only capable and are only trained to help with goals,” says Kelly Rugless, PsyD, and chief clinical officer at Project Heal. “They are not trained to talk about the present or the past. They are really only trained to help you look towards the future, and identify what you want in the future.”

Ashley Mielke, a Boston-based life coach, agrees, describing her practice as being “future-focused”. “Life coaching is good for people who are ready to look forward,” she tells PS. According to Mielke, those who are best suited for life coaching are people who have big goals for the future and need help reaching them.

She specifically works with two different types of clients: those interested in life-purpose coaching, which helps clients figure out what they want to do next, and those interested in business coaching, which involves a mixture of life-purpose coaching as well as business consultation around topics like marketing and sales. She typically meets her clients three times a month.

Chelcie Scott, an Atlanta-based life coach and certified personal trainer, offers faith-based life, wellness, and fitness coaching. While different in specialty, Scott agrees that life coaching is a good resource for future planning, particularly for someone with “two to three goals in mind that they want accountability for.”

Both coaches, however, draw a line when it comes to addressing trauma and mental health concerns. If someone is coming to Mielke looking to address “past events” or a diagnosis, that’s a sign to refer them to a therapist or licensed mental health professional, she tells PS.

“I don’t go into trauma,” Scott adds. “If there’s ever a situation where it’s obviously very trauma based, that’s where I always refer them to go into counseling [with a mental health professional].”

The TLDR: Life coaching is for achieving something specific, says Joi Britt, LCSW. For example, maybe you want to learn how to date better or are interested in becoming an entrepreneur. “Life coaching is about a specific goal, not so much about all of the other things that make you you and some of the barriers that might be coming through, based on life experiences, traumas, your environment,” Britt says. Why? Because those aren’t things that life coaches are typically qualified to address.

So What Credentials Should Life Coaches Have?

This is where things get slippery. Life coaches don’t have to have any credentials.

Whereas clinicians have to attain a certain level of education, practice clinically, pass a licensing exam, and take a certain amount of continuing education units to maintain that license, per Dr. Rugless, there is no formal life coaching procedure.

“A life coach is not licensed, there is no regulating board or body that oversees life coach credentials — or non-credentials, I should even say,” says Natalie Jones, PsyD, licensed psychotherapist and advisory board member for PS’s Condition Center.

In other words, someone can just call themselves a life coach without any sort of degree, certification, or education to back that up, Dr. Jones says, adding: “It’s recommended that they get credentialing through the International Coaching Federation. But again, that’s not required.”

As for what the credentialing process can look like for those who choose to undergo it, Mielke’s experience looked like this: When Mielke became interested in life coaching, she already had a masters in communications, and had been working in public relations at a university. As she transitioned into her new career, she completed the Inner Glow Circle certification program offered by the Inner Glow Circle (IGC) Coaching School, an ICF-accredited organization.

The six-month program involved weekly training sessions and incorporated ongoing professional development courses on topics like “how to run a coaching session” and “the art of asking powerful questions.” She also received peer-to-peer and mentorship coaching lessons. “I had the opportunity while I was training to get practice coaching someone and then every semester . . . I would get reviewed by a mentor coach, who is credentialed and certified by the International Coaching Federation — they would review one of my calls and give me feedback,” Mielke says.

At the end of the program, Mielke, who’s now been a life coach for the past four years, walked away with an Inner Glow certification and all the pre-work needed to take the ICP associate certified coach exam. She hasn’t taken it yet, though.

There are other programs that offer life coach certification that aren’t ICF-accredited, and considering the lack of regulations around the industry, the quality of them can vary. Dr. Jones says people who are interested in life coaching should be wary of certification programs that boast grandiose promises. The same goes for those who are looking for a life coach. “Anybody who’s making sort of over-the-top false promises to get you a specific result or goal — that is definitely a red flag,” she tells PS.

Another warning sign for wannabe life coaches or life coaching clients is pseudo-therapeutic language. In a 2020 research article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, MD, writes that “the distinctions often drawn between life coaching and psychotherapy are increasingly blurry . . . This is potentially serious, in part because life coaching operates in a regulatory vacuum, with no education, training, licensing, or supervision requirements for coaches and no specific legal protections for any harmed clients. Although increased access to new forms of help is a positive development, the risk that mentally ill patients may undergo life coaching rather than receive proven psychotherapy treatments raises concerns about patient safety.”

Two other issues to watch out for when looking for a life coach include people who don’t include a disclaimer about their services — “There should always be a disclaimer that they can’t necessarily guarantee results or that results aren’t going to look the same for everyone,” Dr. Jones says — and people who don’t include their credentials.

What to Consider Before Hiring a Life Coach

Money is obviously a major factor in the decision to hire any sort of coach. Scott charges $500 to $1,200 for her coaching services, requiring a minimum commitment of three to six months. The package includes weekly meetings (both solo and group), workout plans, and communication on the program app. Mielke offers a sliding scale to her clients, charging between $150 to $250 for a 45-minute session.

That said, life coaching isn’t covered by insurance and the cost range can get even pricier. “I’ve seen people will charge up to the thousands of dollars for a single 30-minute call,” Mielke says. “I think if you’re trying to be more realistic and work with people who are really credentialed and going the right route, I’m really conscious of how much money you’re paying them.”

Otherwise, she says, you could run into a scammer-type — which is not unheard of in the industry. “When you combine someone who wants to make a lot of money within a group of people who are very vulnerable in a very vulnerable moment of their life, it becomes very easy to create an equation for scamming someone,” Mielke tells PS. The clients she meets are often frustrated, in desperate situations, and want to change their life, job, and/or financial situation. “People in a very harmful way capitalize on those dreams and wishes and make faulty promises,” Mielke says.

If you’ve been working on a particular goal for four to six weeks, and you’re not seeing any progress, or you’re not seeing the progress that you want to see, that might be a sign that this life coach is not the best fit and you need to find another one. It may also indicate that the issues you’re dealing with might be connected to a deeper problem that the life coach cannot address, Dr. Rugless says.

To avoid hitting these roadblocks, it’s also best to ask the tough questions upfront in your initial consultation, both Mielke and Britt tell PS. Probe around a bit to find out what certifications your life coach has, if any. If someone is certified by someone other than ICF, look into the certifying body and keep an eye out for red flags like over-the-top claims and quasi-therapeutic language. Also ask about what education programming they participated in, what their specialities are, and how they potentially align with your goals.

When to Seek Out Therapy Instead

Sometimes, a mental health professional is the best option — and that’s OK, too.

During your work with a life coach, you may find that your goals are actually mental health goals. For example, you could hire a coach because you want to change your career, only to realize that you have a lot of anxiety around your career and that’s what’s holding you back. “That’s when you need to go see a mental health provider, because life coaches are not trained in mental health conditions,” Dr. Rugless says.

While that may sound serious and clinical, “you don’t have to be experiencing outrageous symptoms for you to meet the criteria for depression, or for you to meet the criteria for anxiety,” she says. If you’re experiencing emotional distress, to the point that it’s making it hard for you to get things done in your life, that is the time to see a therapist.

“Prior to the rise of life coaches, what life coaches do was in the purview of therapists. We help people reach goals. We help people become unstuck in their lives. We help people identify problem areas, and we give them specific strategies on how to improve them,” Dr. Rugless says. So in some cases, going to a therapist isn’t much different than life coaching. However, therapists are qualified to go beyond goals, and can effectively and safely delve into the past and present to see what’s holding your back, and provide the tools you need to move forward.

As Dr. Rugless puts it: “Life coaches don’t do what therapists do. But I think therapists do exactly what life coaches do — and then some.”

That said, therapy isn’t always financially accessible to people either, nor is it always the best fit. Some communities, particularly communities of color or veterans may also feel less stigmatized in the life coaching world. In seeing a life coach, “they look at it more as this person is helping me get to a better version of myself,” rather than in therapy where they may see the situation as “something is wrong with me,” Dr. Jones says.

At the end of the day, we’re not here to knock the resource that works best for you. But if you do choose to work with a life coach, it’s essential to know how to choose a reputable one, to understand the limitations of life coaching in general, and to be familiar with the other options available to you. That way, you’ll be well equipped to create a better life for yourself — whether you do so with the help of a coach or not.

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her passions and areas of expertise include women’s health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women’s Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.





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