The problem with life coaching

wooden-chestBecoming a therapist isn’t the only way you can put a psychology or counseling degree to work. You can also become a “life coach,” a growing profession that involves helping people come closer to reaching their life goals. Some clients who would resist going to therapy will happily visit with a life coach, as receiving coaching does not carry the same implications that going to therapy might. And some therapists see coaching as a way to diversify their practice, allowing them to market to clients who simply wouldn’t attend counseling or therapy.

Life coaching is a perfectly respectable and well-defined profession. The problem with life coaching isn’t the work itself, for which there clearly is a market. It’s with the people providing it.

Life coaches can be broken down into three categories, and one of the big problems here is that we don’t have good data on how many coaches fit into each category.

1. Responsible professionals

Life coaching has certification programs and a code of ethics. It has a small but growing research base. These are all markers of a profession. And indeed, many of those who practice life coaching are well-trained, certified, responsible professionals. They understand the limits of their scope, and are quick to make referrals when their clients show signs of mental illness or other problems.

2. Market opportunists

Because the life coach profession is largely unregulated, anyone can call themselves a life coach and start marketing their services. It doesn’t matter whether they are trained or certified. They don’t have to know or abide by the code of ethics. They just need enough business sense to get started. And there certainly is a market for coaching services, as evidenced by the many psychologists, counselors, and therapists who become coaches as well simply to expand their client base.

3. Unprofessional therapists

Here is where the main problem arises. As we learned from a study published earlier this year, therapists who lost their licenses to practice therapy kept practicing. They just called themselves life coaches instead. While we don’t know how many coaches fit into this group, it’s clear that some of those who call themselves life coaches are failed or unprofessional therapists who want to continue practicing therapy, but without the consumer protection that comes with a license and regulatory structure.

Many of us as therapists have reason to be frustrated with the rules and processes that accompany licensed work. And it’s fair to say that a lot of clients don’t know or care about licensure. They just want to talk with someone who can help them. But licensure fundamentally exists to protect consumers from those who would take advantage of them. And the unregulated nature of life coaching makes it much more difficult for responsible coaches to avoid having their profession dragged down by the bad apples who either couldn’t hack it as therapists, or never got trained to be anything.