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Do You Need A Life Coach?

Life coaching isn’t cheap, and it’s also not covered by most benefit plans. But if you’re feeling stuck and unsure of what’s next, the *right* coach could help you bust out of your rut.
An illustration of a woman holding a pink purse leaping on to the top of a building while another woman spreads her arms and looks at her encouragingly Illustration: Aliya Ghare

By her own admission, Lisa Murphy should have been happy. At 50, she had two thriving teenagers and a great marriage. She had recently left a successful career in media and was looking forward to figuring out what was next. It should have been the prime of her life. But it wasn’t. Perimenopause symptoms had triggered a severe confidence drop. She was anxious and drinking more than usual. “I was feeling disconnected from myself,” she says.

She’d been so focused on work and family that she hadn’t made time for personal growth, and she lacked a vision for what she wanted for herself in the future. “I felt like I was on a hamster wheel.” In an attempt to get herself unstuck, Murphy, who lives in Toronto, signed up for a six-month group life-coaching program. Twice a week, she joined hour-long sessions to learn strategies to shift the way she thought about her life. One exercise was to envision her life as a movie and imagine the plot as she’d want it to play out. Another was to imagine her ideal birthday and life 10 years in the future.

She also met with a coach every two weeks for one-on-one sessions that focused on her specific needs and did daily homework to consider what steps she needed to take to “live in alignment” with her goals. “As soon as you start thinking about what makes you happy, you start moving in that direction,” she says. “That was the most powerful part of the program.”

So powerful, in fact, that it changed her life. She began meditating and exercising regularly. She used coaching tools she learned in the program, as well as on her own, to quit drinking. She also started a side project she cared about: the 50 Forward Club, an Instagram account dedicated to uplifting women who are over 50. “Coaching gave me the tools to discover what I wanted next for my whole life, not just my work and family life.”

As it turned out, what she wanted next was to become a life coach. Murphy had always enjoyed mentoring co-workers. “I’m the person people call when they need a reference or when they’re making a career change,” she says. “I realized that I love coaching.”

And so, in the deep, dark middle of the pandemic lockdown, she enrolled in a six-month course with the Canada Coach Academy, a Montreal-based coach-training program accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Then she launched her coaching business—which focuses on helping women in midlife define career and life goals, identify what brings them joy and change self-sabotaging behaviours—with a post on LinkedIn.

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Full disclosure: Murphy has been in my professional network for years. I’ve called on her for advice, and I’ve followed her social platforms for dispatches on developments in the media industry. Did it come as a surprise to me that she’d made this professional leap? It did not. What’s more, I’ve noticed that many other smart, successful women in my circle are either seeing a life coach or becoming one—or both. It seems that while men get flashy sports cars to deal with midlife crises, women get coaches.

What is life coaching, anyway?

Life coaching is a catch-all term that describes the practice of helping someone make positive life changes. Coaches help their clients set goals and take steps toward achieving them, provide guidance through major transitions and offer tools for organization and confidence building.

Sounds great, right? It can be, but there are a few caveats. First of all, life coaching isn’t cheap, and it’s also not covered by most benefit plans. According to compensation-data company Payscale, Canadian coaches can earn an average of $152 an hour. A coach who’s popular in my circle charges $750 per month for one live call and one virtual group session per week, plus access to videos, tools, prompts and other exercises.

Secondly, it’s crucial to note that not everyone who calls themselves a coach has the training and tools to guide you through positive change. (More on that later.) But if you’re feeling stuck and unsure of what’s next, as so many of us are in midlife, the right coach could help you bust out of your rut.

Coaching is a women-centric industry.

“Coaching in general largely attracts women,” says Nathalie Blais, co-founder and CEO of the Canada Coach Academy. So much so that the majority of participants in the academy’s increasingly popular “life and wellness” coach certification—a five-month program comprising live sessions, mentoring, a practicum and observational clinics—are women between 40 and 50 years old.

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When asked why women are drawn to coaching work, Blais suggests it may be because it’s a nurturing and supportive profession. (Women hold 75 percent of paid care occupations in Canada.) It’s also a job that allows for flexibility while raising kids.

According to the ICF, midlife women make up the majority of life-coaching clients as well, which is not exactly shocking. Consider the unique obstacles we face at this time: careers that may be stagnant after years of hustling, heads bashing against glass ceilings. The onset of perimenopause. Burnout from looking after our kids and maybe our moms and dads, too. Twenty-six percent of Canadians in midlife are caring for aging parents; I’ll give you one guess as to who the majority of that caregiving falls to.

Throw in a global pandemic that in its first year saw women exit the labout market in droves—10 times as many women as men—and it’s no surprise that many women in this age group are looking for tools for fulfillment and self-empowerment.

Put another way: We have zero fucks left to give. “Most of us in our 40s, 50s and 60s were raised to look out for other people’s needs before our own,” says Liz Doyle Harmer, an ICF-certified coach based in Toronto. “In middle age, a lot of us are becoming less tolerant of that shutting down of ourselves.”

Doyle Harmer herself came to coaching in midlife. After getting an MBA and spending years working in banking, she decided to stay home to raise her four kids. When she hit her late 30s, she struggled with stress and self-doubt after opening a yoga studio. She knew she wanted her work to make a greater impact and to break the cycle of “socially enforced powerlessness” she saw herself modelling for her children. Becoming a coach broke that cycle.

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Today, Doyle Harmer has six years of practice under her belt and coaches women and fellow racialized folks in the corporate world to overcome career stagnation and imposter syndrome, build confidence and leadership skills and manage stress. “Coaching is about helping you thrive and working toward goals that are meaningful and fulfilling to you,” she says.

Looking for a coach? Do your research.

Like social workers, psychologists and therapists, life coaches help clients deal with serious personal issues. But unlike those professionals, they don’t need any specific training or oversight to launch a practice.

While the ICF, a U.S.-based non-profit organization, does require its certified professionals to adhere to a code of ethics, membership is not obligatory in order to practise. Google “life-coach training” and you’ll be met with hundreds of programs. Many are not associated with the ICF at all. Some offer “certification” in just two days—a timeline Blais says isn’t realistic for proper training. In other words, anyone with an Instagram account and a flair for designing clichéd quote cards can call themselves a life coach.

More confusingly, there is a myriad of types of coaches, training programs and certifications. In researching this piece, I came across coaches that claim to be certified in approaches such as life purpose coaching, neurolinguistic programming, emotional freedom techniques and mindset coaching, to name a few. I’m not challenging the validity of these methods per se, but the mind-boggling number of approaches on offer can make it tough to determine which ones are based on sound research.

To make things even murkier, some coaches are certified by programs designed by some questionable dudes, like Bob Proctor, the late Canadian self-help guru who based his teachings on the pseudoscientific “law of attraction” theory—that one can attract wealth and fortune merely by thinking positively. Others are accredited through a program founded by famed coaching personality Tony Robbins, who has been accused of sexual abuse (which he has denied) and once physically pushed a woman he invited on stage at an event as he railed against the #MeToo movement.

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Another significant issue with the coaching industry is the lack of an overarching governing body to enforce a code of ethics that applies to everyone who calls themselves a coach. That means there’s often no guarantee of confidentiality, no requirements for how records are kept and no way to discipline a coach who behaves in an unethical way.

“If you’re dealing with a physician, a psychologist or a social worker and you have questions about the quality of the services you’re receiving, you call the regulatory body and they’ll investigate,” says Dr. Martin Drapeau, a clinical psychologist and professor of counselling psychology and psychiatry at McGill University. “Whereas in coaching, you don’t have that type of protection. You’re on your own.”

A coach is not a therapist.

Also problematic is the potential for coaches to veer into mental-health support, a field in which they are not qualified. Clients tend to seek out life coaching when they’re at a crossroads in their lives, and the line between coach and therapist has the potential to become blurry.

In a 2022 investigation by CBC’s Marketplace, undercover reporters posed as life-coaching clients. When one disclosed that she had anxiety, the coach said that other clients with anxiety felt so much better after working with her that they reduced their meds. Another undercover reporter was told by a coach that medication would not help their depression.

Unqualified advice like this is, obviously, dangerous. “If [anxiety] is misdiagnosed or missed, it has a higher likelihood of becoming chronic,” says Drapeau. “These conditions are not treatable with coaching.”

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According to Blais, a well-trained and experienced coach should terminate services if they suspect a client is struggling with mental illness. “The ICF makes clear that there’s a responsibility for the coach to refer to a therapist as soon as they realize that they can’t offer the help that the client needs.”

Life coaching can be life-changing...

When Veryl Obodi first arrived in Toronto from Kenya in 2019, she ended up in a women’s shelter. Though she had a master’s degree in natural-resource management and had worked in that field in Kenya, she struggled in Canada to find a similar role.

A social worker at the shelter referred Obodi to Up With Women, a national charity that helps women and gender-diverse folks find their way out of poverty by pairing them with coaches. “When we were told we were getting coaches, I almost laughed,” she recalls. “I did not believe it would work.”

But Obodi’s coach won her over. He encouraged her to set big goals for herself, like living on her own and landing a job with higher earning potential.

“I come from a culture where people really don’t seek coaching,” she says. “But working with a coach made my decision-making easier, and made me believe in myself more.”

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Today, Obodi is a permanent resident, works in project management at a bank and rents her own apartment. “If I hadn’t received coaching, I wouldn’t have reached my full potential,” she says. “Up With Women made me the person I am today.”

...but finding the right coach is crucial

Janet*, a Toronto-based entrepreneur, shelled out about $3,000 before realizing that her life coach, who used Bob Proctor’s methodologies, was actually making her feel like crap.

She wanted the coach’s support in transitioning to motherhood and making her photography business profitable. At first, she was drawn to the coach’s background and approach to mindset work, which involves challenging and reframing attitudes and beliefs you have about yourself and the world. But Janet’s feelings about the coach changed when her newborn started experiencing medical issues and her coach told her to “shift her thinking” about the situation. When she couldn’t complete the daily homework the program required, there seemed to be a lack of understanding from the coach. “There was a level of guilt I felt for not doing the work because that meant I wasn’t going to become a better person,” she says. And when unpaid credit card bills were stressing her out, the coach, who made no secret of her own financial success, said, “If you think about debt, that’s all you’ll attract.” “For me, the message [that] shift your thinking and everything will change is bullshit,” she says. “I just remember thinking, ‘What did I sign up for?’” In retrospect, says Janet, the coach’s approach felt almost cultlike.

Janet also became suspicious of the type of content the coach was posting on social media. She was stunned, for example, when the coach shared that she had bought her dream house during the COVID lockdown, when so many people were struggling. “I watched people who were in the same cohort as me who were not succeeding and did not have the same accumulation of wealth as the coach had,” she says. “It made me question [her].”

Janet quit that coach but still has faith in coaching as a tool. “I’m really direct with the coaches I work with now,” she says, noting her focus has shifted to growing her business in a sustainable way while still being able to spend time with her family. “If they’re making claims that certain things can happen, I want more information up front about how they work. If there is an expectation to do homework, I steer clear of those programs. I don’t have time to shower everyday; how am I going to journal for an hour?”

What to look for in a coach

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If you’re thinking about working with a life coach, you'll want to make sure their approach jibes with your own values and lifestyle. The ICF recommends interviewing three potential coaches before settling on one that's right for you. Most coaches offer a free 30-minute consultation to suss out whether the two of you are a fit; use this time to ask about their certifications and methodologies and whether they require homework. Also ask them to share a success story and keep an eye out for red flags, like promises that their programs will solve all your problems or claims that they treat mental illness.

You’ll also want to examine why you’re drawn to coaching. What are your goals? Are you looking for strategies for levelling up professionally, or do you really need help with your anxiety? If it’s the latter, talk to a doctor about treatment options. “Life coaching is for fine-tuning and maximizing performance,” says Drapeau. “It won’t fix existential issues.”

*Name has been changed 

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