Inside the wild, unregulated world of life coaching

During the pandemic, the promise of building a better you has become a big business.

Peter Gamlen
Put me in, Coach

Perennially anxious millennials and Gen Z-ers have been turning to life coaches for years for things like changing jobs or navigating a fitness routine. But the pandemic, one of the greatest existential crises of our generation, seems to have led to an uptick in demand. Life coaches are having a moment, in other words. In its latest Jobs on the Rise report, LinkedIn lists “professional and personal coaches” as one of the 15 career categories showing the fastest year-over-year growth from April to October 2020, with hiring for these roles growing more than 51% since 2019.

But like celery juice, yoni eggs, and other wellness trends heavy on hype and thin on evidence, life coaching triggers my health journalist spidey sense. As someone who swears by therapy — which, unlike coaching, has plenty of research backing its efficacy — I wonder why someone would hire a life coach who took a months-long certification course instead of a licensed therapist who’s undergone years of rigorous training. I’ve never tried life coaching, so I’m not one to judge, but I genuinely want to know: What’s the appeal?

To pull back the curtain on the industry, I spoke with therapists, life coaches, and people who’ve received life coaching. Our conversations revealed that many gravitate to coaching because it focuses on concrete strategies and goals. Some say it feels safer than therapy — or, at least, popular understandings of therapy, which can remain cloaked in stigma. But while many life coaches mean well, the lack of educational and licensing requirements needed to market yourself as a coach could lead to real harm, intentional or not. As with any industry, especially one that's largely unregulated, buyer beware.

Let's back up and examine what exactly life coaching is and how it differs from therapy. Every therapist and every coach is unique, but life coaching is more directive, structured, and goal-oriented than therapy. Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and life coach, sometimes works with her therapy clients on specific goals, sometimes not. Therapy isn’t meant to be prescriptive, she explains.

“But with my coaching clients, we have a goal that we’re working toward,” she tells me, whether it’s habits they want to change or something they want to achieve every week. At the end of every hour or half-hour session, Brigham knows exactly what the client will be working on until the next session. She usually sends them follow-up emails with specific guidance.

In the half-hour sessions, they discuss what goals the client met over the past week, if there are any remaining hurdles, and how to proceed. Unlike in therapy, coaches don’t tease apart the thoughts and emotions underlying their clients' progress. “They just need accountability and structure,” says Brigham, who moved into coaching partly because she noticed many clients found therapy too open-ended. They described therapists who simply echoed their observations, and felt “a little bit lost in the process,” she says. “Where is this going to lead me, and how long am I doing this for?”

As with any industry, especially one that's largely unregulated, buyer beware.

Thirty-year-old Kristen of Miami, who’d been in and out of traditional therapy since she was a teenager, found the specificity of life coaching “really intriguing.” While she'd set some loose goals and growth milestones with some of the therapists she'd seen, “certain life coaches have very specific programs, like, ‘In X amount of weeks … this is the goal that you’re going to achieve,’” she says. Hiring a life coach in 2018 seemed like a way to invest in herself and possibly salvage her relationship at the time. (She requested Mic use only her first name because she works in a similar industry as her former life coach.)

Indeed, some of Brigham’s coaching clients have contacted her after their time with their therapist had reached a natural endpoint. Others are still seeing a therapist but want to work on a specific issue that lies outside of what they’re focusing on in therapy. They might be working with their therapist on processing family issues, but want Brigham’s help with a more immediate problem, like job or relationship dissatisfaction.

Thirty-five-year-old Joseph James from Ibiza, Spain, similarly sought life coaching for its emphasis on immediate goal-setting. While James, now a life coach himself, had gone to therapy and believes it to be “extremely beneficial,” he explains that he “preferred a forward-facing approach that was about creating changes in the here and now.”

While the stigma around therapy has lessened as young people talk more about it on Instagram and TikTok, a hesitation still exists. It’s also why “coaching” sounds more approachable than “therapy” — the former conjures images of someone cheering you on, maybe giving you some tough love every now and then; the latter, images of someone sternly nodding their head as you plumb the depths of your mother wound.

“There’s a lot of people out there for whom the idea of therapy scares them to death,” Brigham says. And while she doesn’t specialize in trauma, she points out there’s a school of thought that questions whether digging up tragic events is helpful for people who’ve experienced trauma. “I do not encourage everybody who has trauma to see a life coach,” she says. For those who don’t want to deal with their past, or can’t, and “still need help — coaching feels safer.”

Brigham notices some overlap between her coaching and therapy clients. Someone who hires her as a coach might be navigating impostor syndrome as much as someone who seeks therapy for anxiety. Thankfully, she’s noticed the pandemic shifting perceptions of mental health struggles from a sign of brokenness to the product of circumstances beyond our control.

While life coaching might purport to help clients set and achieve goals, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that it actually does, according to Michele Nealon, psychologist and president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. In contrast, “there is extensive research that demonstrates the efficacy of psychotherapy, and that research is ongoing,” she tells me. “There just aren’t comparable studies to back up the efficacy of coaching,” partly because it's still a relatively nascent field.

Those who reach out to life coaches often have underlying emotional and psychological issues that are getting in the way of achieving their goals, Nealon says, which may cause mental health problems. A life coach might try to help a client follow a more disciplined workout or wellness regimen, but the reason they’re not sleeping or exercising might be because they have anxiety or depression. A psychologist, not a life coach, is qualified to treat these issues and the resulting life challenges. Many life coaches apply behavioral regulation and other psychotherapeutic techniques in their practice, Nealon says, but without nearly as much training as therapists undergo.

To call yourself a therapist, Nealson explains that you need to apply and be accepted into an accredited training program at a university, have supervised clinical experience, and pass a comprehensive licensing exam. A life coaching certificate, on the other hand, “can be obtained very quickly, really sometimes within a matter of weeks, and most often through online courses,” she says. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) approves certifications that hold students accountable to certain standards of education and experience, but many certifications aren’t ICF-accredited.

There are no formal application or acceptance processes for life coaching certification programs. You basically complete your program of choice — which will likely cost you around $1,000 to $3,000, according to NerdWallet — and launch your life coaching career. Or, you could save your money, since, as the website points out, you don’t even technically need a certification to become a life coach. (According to an ICF study, 74% of all coach practitioners reported they had a credential or certification from a professional coaching organization in 2019.)

“Directly stated, life coaches do not have to meet the educational, licensure, and continuing education requirements that psychologists must,” Nealon says. “Anyone can claim to be a life coach and accept clients.”

The Wild West of this industry also raises real concerns about life coaches — at least those who aren't also licensed therapists — harming their clients’ mental health, despite their best intentions. Joseph James explains that he makes the difference between coaching and therapy “very clear,” and recommends clients see a therapist if a mental health issue arises. Indeed, life coach training programs emphasize that coaches need to tell clients from the outset that any mental health issues they become aware of lie beyond the scope of their certification and practice, Nealon says. But given that “it takes years of training for a therapist to be trained to assess and diagnose a mental health condition,” Nealon says it’s not clear how well a life coach can spot one.

“Coaching” conjures images of someone cheering you on, maybe giving you some tough love every now and then.

And as in any loosely regulated industry, there are scammers. Kristen describes herself as being “in a very vulnerable spot” when she hired a life coach on the recommendation of an acquaintance. Not only was her relationship on the rocks, but she had also quit a full-time job. The coach told Kristen she’d help her with her relationship and double her income, and convinced her to buy the premium package, which cost $3,000. Kristen dipped into her savings to pay for it, a fact she made explicit to her coach. The package included personal phone sessions with the coach and her romantic partner, who ran the program with her; group meetings with other participants; and a prerecorded course on how to cultivate a healthy sense of self, shadow work, and other buzzy therapy and wellness concepts.

In retrospect, there were red flags. In the two phone calls Kristen had with her coach, the advice she got often came in the form of simplistic truisms. Her coach wouldn’t answer her requests for additional one-on-ones for days, offering much less access than promised. Her coach also posted Instagram stories about shopping with her partner for $1,000 sunglasses and other luxury items.

Once it was clear that her romantic relationship was over, Kristen told the couple that she wouldn’t be able to afford to move out of the place she shared with her ex if she continued to pay for the program. The response? “We totally get it, but just imagine how much is on the other side of fear. You’re letting fear get in your way. You need to trust yourself.”

Feeling gaslit, Kristen texted back that she wasn’t afraid to finish the program, as she literally couldn’t afford it. While she didn’t demand a refund, she explained why she was unsatisfied with her experience. She never heard from the couple again.

While Kristen gleaned a lot of useful knowledge from the program, it didn’t leave her unscathed. “After they ghosted me, I felt really bad,” she said. “I felt guilty for saying something. I thought maybe I did something wrong. It triggered other trauma things in me that weren’t in the scope of that program,” like feelings of rejection. Their silence also “felt really horrible.”

Kristen thinks the fact that life coaching doesn’t need to adhere to strict standards means coaches have more freedom to play with how they promote themselves, whether it’s catering to certain niches or overstating what they can help clients accomplish. This could also help explain their appeal over therapists. “I think the way traditional therapists advertise their work is kind of outdated,” Kristen says.

The feeds of therapists I find on Instagram tend to be dominated by informational slides, while those of life coaches feature photos of themselves and their well-curated lives. But as Kristen learned, a strong social media presence might be little more than that. She trusted her life coach at first, partly because she seemed to have a lot of followers and engagement, which Kristen mistook as a sign she was legit. (She didn't check if the life coach had any certifications or other credentials.)

Anecdotally, life coaching — like other forms of wellness — seems to be marketed heavily toward women. In North America, women accounted for 75% of coach practitioners in 2019, according to the ICF. While the sources I spoke to agree that women are more likely than men to seek help and want to explore their feelings — partly because, as Tess Brigham notes, it’s more socially acceptable for them to do so — Kristen believes that women often engage in more emotional labor in their relationships and communities. As a result, life coaching could play into the expectation that women, in particular, need to smile and have their shit together.

“I think it’s deeply internalized that we have to maybe make sure we’re optimizing ourselves in order to carry those responsibilities,” Kristen says. “What are we really trying to fix? What is healing? Is there an endpoint?” When does self-healing end and dismantling of the misogyny that overburdens us begin? Over the years, Kristen has grown more conscious about whether the language around mental health and life coaching is “actually reinforcing really unhealthy views of ourselves and what’s expected of ourselves as women.”

“After the coach ghosted me, I felt really bad. I felt guilty for saying something. I thought maybe I did something wrong.”

To safeguard yourself against a bad experience, you need to do your research and continually check in with yourself, Brigham says. If you want to hire a life coach, she suggests asking your list of candidates where they were trained, how long they’ve been practicing, how many clients they’ve worked with, and what results they’ve had. Think of your initial conversation as a job interview with a potential employee. Reflect on how their responses make you feel, and whether they align with what you’re looking for.

Looking back, Kristen realizes that her former coach’s intake process wasn’t as extensive as it should’ve been. The first half-hour call was “really general,” and the follow-up call was mainly to confirm which program she planned to enroll in. In general, she wishes she had listened to her intuition. “There was a part of me that was like, ‘Don’t do this.’”

Even if you get a weird feeling about your life coach (or therapist, for that matter) a few sessions in, it’s totally okay to end the relationship. “Go find someone else,” Brigham says. “There’s no such thing as a waste of time.” Nealon also advises scheduling an initial consultation with a qualified professional. If you meet with a therapist, you could get their opinion on the next steps, or even whether they think you’d benefit from therapy or life coaching. And if you start out with a consultation with a life coach, she suggests finding someone with a certification accredited by a reputable institution, like ICF. Another option is to seek out people like Brigham, who are both licensed therapists and certified life coaches.

At the end of the day, the important thing is to find someone who meets your needs at this moment in time, Brigham says. I’m at a point in my life where I want the space for exploration that therapy allows, but someone else might need the structure and direction a coach can provide. “It kind of doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a therapist or coach,” Brigham says. “It’s really about finding the right fit for you, finding the right personality. It’s believing this person can help you.”