Life Coaches: A Con Or Worth Every Penny? We Asked Women Who've Tried Them

Photographed by Serena Brown.
Not long ago, it seemed the whole world was a yoga-teacher-in-training, or handing in their notice to become a therapist. And while more of us are doing the "interior work" to maintain good mental health (self care is still booming and therapy is thriving) and achieve our goals, sometimes we need help. And there are plenty of life coaches out there to offer it.
In the UK, life coaching isn't regulated so you don't need any qualifications to start advising people on potentially life-changing decisions. Which may explain why so many people seem to be doing it. You can train with credited coaching associations – like the Association for Coaching (AC) or the European Mentoring and Coaching Council UK (EMCC UK) – but this is a 'nice to have' rather than a requirement to practise with clients, and there's no protection for the public or any mechanism to hold unregistered practitioners to account. Because of the lack of regulation it's difficult to know how many life coaches there are in the UK, but the number of coaches registered internationally with one body alone, the International Coach Federation, ballooned from 1,500 in 1999 to over 17,000 coaches across a total of 34 countries by 2013. ICF’s latest coach survey (from 2016) has the number of coaches worldwide at 53,000.
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You only have to browse the six million Instagram posts tagged #lifecoach for an insight into how many people are offering and seeking life coaching services.
What exactly does a life coach do? Well, the job description is broad and loose – people visit them for advice on their careers (including many freelancers and entrepreneurs who work without a boss keeping track of their progress), their personal relationships, their health and wellbeing, and sometimes just to discuss their values and beliefs.
So while a therapist may not want to give you advice – preferring to keep asking you questions until you reach your own conclusion – and a psychoanalyst is specifically trained not to, a life coach with no qualifications or experience could advise you on whether or not to accept a job offer, whether you should dump a long-term partner or the best way to get over your parent's death. All the while, you could be paying them £100 an hour for the privilege – or far more. (One 29-year-old business owner tells Refinery29 she spent £2,500 on 12 hourly sessions with her current coach. That works out at £208 an hour.)
Despite the lack of rules around it, many people say they owe some of their biggest achievements and most valuable personal growth to their life coach. Some don't even mind the industry's lack of regulations, maintaining that experience and connection are more important than qualifications.

Running a business is tough and sometimes you need a guiding hand to help you navigate through the day-to-day and allow you to see the bigger picture. Having a life coach that can do both is hugely rewarding.

Jess Sims, 31
For Jess Sims, 31, who runs a marketing consultancy in London, seeing her life coach – Sarah Elliott at Vault Coaching – kills two birds with one stone: giving her career direction and helping her stick to her fitness goals. The pair met in the most millennial way: at a spin class. As well as a life coach, Elliott is a personal trainer and spin instructor at Psycle, where Sims gets her fitness fix. "Her motivational talks through each spin class helped push me to reach my fitness goals, and that’s when I found out about the other things she does," Sims explains.
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As an entrepreneur, Sims had also "lost focus" of her career goals and needed someone to refocus her attention on her priorities. "Running a business is tough and sometimes you need a guiding hand to help you navigate through the day-to-day and allow you to see the bigger picture. Having a life coach that can do both is hugely rewarding."
No money changes hands between the pair and the relationship is mutually beneficial: in return for life coaching and PT sessions, Sims helps Elliott with social media and marketing. "I was already looking to hire a PT and life coach independently, so this was a win-win for me."
What Sims values more than qualifications in her life coach is "personality and connection". She elaborates: "You need someone you have a connection with and who motivates you, and whose opinion and direction you truly respect. I don’t think that can come with a qualification – it’s an innate quality in someone."
It falls within a life coach's remit to discuss any setbacks in their clients' personal lives that may be affecting them. Kirsten Rees, 36, a book editor and author in Glasgow, has worked with several coaches during some of her darkest moments. When she developed fibromyalgia at age 30, a condition which causes pain all over the body, Rees felt she'd lost her identity as "a 'strong woman' who did mountain climbing, completed Tough Mudder and other adrenaline junkie activities." A confidence coach helped her rebuild her sense of self and share her struggles on social media, while a career coach advised her on building her own business.
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Over the last five years – during which time she lost her dad to cancer, was in a car accident, and found a lump in her breast – Rees says life coaches have transformed her outlook. "At the start of this year, I created a 2019 vision board with 21 goals including publishing a number-one bestselling book and launching an author retreat in a castle, which I would never have had the confidence to go for before," she admits. "After six years of telling myself 'you can't', I'm now saying 'yes, I can'. I’m focusing on turning negative into positive and always looking for the silver lining."

I do my research before paying anyone nowadays as it's too easy to set up a website and claim to be the best around.

Kirsten Rees, 36
Saying all this, Rees has learned the hard way the importance of researching life coaches after several bad experiences. "I do my research before paying anyone nowadays as it's too easy to set up a website and claim to be the best around. I also make sure I can book a complimentary session in person or via Skype so I can confirm we're a good match."
The blurry line between issues that fall within the remit of a life coach and those that would be better addressed by a qualified mental health professional is also problematic – and worrying for many experts.
"I've been a clinical psychologist for more than 25 years, and I still can’t predict where a conversation with a new client is going to go. There is always a chance of inadvertently opening up a Pandora’s Box – where the issues are much more serious and deep-seated than either of you expected," says Dr Hamira Riaz, a chartered clinical psychologist and business consultant. "If you happen to be seeing a life coach when that happens, you're reliant on their judgement to decide if they're professionally equipped to help you, or whether they are out of their depth and should refer you elsewhere. That is a big and blind leap of faith to take."
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If you've got pre-existing conditions (such as anxiety or depression), are stuck in self-sabotaging behaviours (such as addictions, eating disorders or self-harm) or if you've experienced significant life events that have sparked atypical levels of stress (such as a job loss, acrimonious divorce, family illness, bereavement or bullying), Dr Riaz recommends a mental health professional as the first port of call rather than a life coach.
But done right and with clear boundaries around the topics for discussion, many consider life coaching worthwhile – the cherry on top of an already generally stable life. "Anyone who wants to do their job well and succeed in the long term will make sure they're good at what they do, whether that's based on certificates or experience," says 31-year-old Laura Smith, a digital marketing consultant in Yorkshire who has received coaching for her business. "If someone wanted to 'be a life coach' for an easy income, I'd expect them to quickly fail as it takes a lot of business sense and genuine skill to be able to help people. I've never questioned the qualifications of my life coach because she's so good at what she does. Just look at the government cabinet for a group of people unqualified in the areas they run departments of!"
Life coaching can be useful for anyone "feeling well in themselves but wanting a dedicated space where they can explore possibilities, brainstorm ideas and have their story heard and reflected back to them, because they're in a transitional phase," says Dr Riaz. Say you're about to leave home for university, contemplating a career change or are about to get married or have your first child, life coaching could help you "press the pause button, reflect on lessons learned and ready [yourself] for what’s to come before embarking on a period of positive change."
If you're in the market for a life coach of your own, there are ways to assess how 'legit' a practitioner is, says Sally Brown, a therapist, coach and British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) member. "Look for membership of a professional body, such as BACP Coaching, the EMCC, the ICF, the AC or the AICTP. They all operate with ethical codes of conduct including a requirement for continuing professional development. Most coaches offer a free 'chemistry' call – it’s fine to shop around before you commit. Listen to your gut instinct and be particularly wary of any coach who claims to have all the answers to your problems."
Life coaching works best when you're already fairly sure about your goals and already have the willingness to commit to achieve them, Dr Riaz concludes. "It is a short-term, focused intervention. If you're looking for a silver bullet for life’s challenges, you'll be in for disappointment."
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