Social media, the internet, and every city in America are filled with “coaches” and self-help “gurus”. They’re everywhere and with a little investigation it’s easy to find that very few have any type of certification in coaching or professional helping of any type, and some have neither education nor certification to back up any claims they make. Delving into the certifications for “coaching” that exist it’s easy to find that few of the programs have very clear admittance policies or education requirements.
I paid for and attended training to become a life coach through a service offering such a certification. After a few days of instruction I withdrew from the course on ethical grounds, got a refund, and went on my way. I’m already trained in “life coaching” - I’m a counselor. I spent 6 years learning this and much more. Not only can I “coach” someone through challenges life presents or planning or decision making or the creative process and achieving goals - I can do so using science backed methods and if something is amiss, I’m highly trained in the clinical aspects of mental health should that be needed. For these reasons, and perfectly within the boundaries of ethics and law, I advertise myself as a coach to meet the needs of people who prefer my services under that label.
The truth is if you’re encountering problems in life there’s most likely an underlying systemic issue, an issue in thinking, an issue in behavior - all of which I know how to help with thanks to my graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling.
Anyone can call themselves a “life coach” or “guru”, because neither is regulated as a profession or supported with science that shows any effectiveness. There are no laws to protect the privacy of people in coaching or using online self-help services. The methods employed need not be linked with any successful outcome.
When you dig into coaching websites and the online media of the self-help gurus you find that they both market the idea of success. Indeed these professionals may experience more success as far as obtaining clientele based on the appearance of success they create for themselves. Nice clothes, a sweet office, and a shiny car combined with promises of “abundance”, “purpose”, “direction”, and “happiness” have some coaches literally rolling in the dough and in clients waiting for their services. The message: Only successful appearing people can help you be successful. Buy my stuff and use my services if you want to be successful.
A bit like the traveling doctors of yore with wagons full of miracle cures, coaches and self-help promoters offer themselves and their “expertise” as affirmation of their ability to help their clients find abundance, purpose, direction, and happiness - yet their expertise is affirmed with no evidence but the image they set publicly and the success of their clients is supported only by testimonials solicited and distinctly absent of evidential research.
Anyone can call themselves a self-help expert or a coach. Because we are engineered to seek to better ourselves, alleviate the pain and discomfort we often experience, and are sometimes desperate for answers to our problems, we will latch on to these gurus and their ideas if we believe they may help us; perhaps particularly after failed attempts at healing ourselves using medicine or other traditional approaches.
What’s more is that we are disinclined to label ourselves as depressed/lost/sad or otherwise somehow mentally or emotionally ill. Mental health has made leaps and bounds in recent years, but as a culture we still tend to view mental and emotional difficulties as deficiencies in ourselves. It stands to reason that we’d be put off going to a mental health professional for our lives; we don’t want to be seen as mentally ill. A flashy coach or self-help guru offering a fix through a book or any other number of gimmicks is appealing in that climate.
There is no need to look far to find out how damaging this can be. Tony Robbins, self-professed life and self-help expert, sells millions of books, CDs, and tickets to his events each year. Just last year one of his events resulted in a massive transport of people with severely burned feet from his seminar in Dallas to a local hospital. He wasn’t held responsible for leading a group of people to believe that somehow walking on fiery hot coals was a good idea and totally safe.
Best-selling author and self-proclaimed self-help expert James Arthur Ray (he wrote The Secret) sat idly by while people at a retreat he ran in Arizona passed out, vomited, fell into comas, and died after having paid 9,000 dollars a pop for a date with the expert. Sadly, 3 people died and many more were hospitalized. Ray served just less than 2 years in prison. He’s now free to write, publish, rent out more sweat lodges, and sell tickets to whoever is buying.
Another famous internet self-help coach is Tai Lopez. He films videos of himself in his lavish Beverly Hills home and garage (packed with exotic sports cars) to tout how he knows the secrets to success and happiness you’re looking for. He has a questionable professional background with what my profession would note as clear ethical violations (like creating fake profiles on dating sites and marketing those sites as being jam packed with people to date, when they’re really emptyish). Yet, he’s online selling through recurring billing his video guides on success.
There are many more successful, albeit lesser known coaches and gurus advertising on social media, selling videos and self-help courses online, making promises that they can’t possibly keep on topics they have no education or experience in whatsoever.
It’s alarming. Or it should be. Every professional counselor should be speaking up about this and yelling about it into the void that the 12 billion dollar per year self-help and coaching industries are when combined.
When facing challenges in life, navigating life changes, coping with relationship difficulties, overcoming traumas, aiming to cultivate new direction in life, or even create a positive course for overseeing plans you’re making, a trained and licensed counselor/psychologist/therapist is your best bet. You just have to find the right one for you.
Here’s the breakdown:
It’s true that some self-help authors are professionals with genuine expertise in what they write about. I’m one of them. Note, though that I don’t make my readers any promises. I’m not posting pictures of myself inside my non-existent Mercedes telling people about “success” while studiously forgoing any look into what that word might actually mean to my readers. And as an aside, my lack of Mercedes may just indicate I spend my money differently than others, not that I’m unsuccessful. Picking a professional helper based on their possessions makes about as much sense as allowing your tailor to work on your teeth. Material success doesn’t equate with happiness and there’s research to support that.
How to tell snake oil from real help?
Look at the source. Is the author/vendor of whatever product you’re purchasing licensed in any way? What is their experience? What is their expertise? What is their training? If you can’t find anything but material items to back up their know-how, abandon ship.
Who’s got your back? If you’re entering into a coaching relationship through a social media group, video service, or purchasing self-help supplies online from a coach, is there a privacy statement anywhere on what you’re getting into? How is your information stored? If there isn’t a policy readily available or you get a half-answer about trust, just say no. If the professional you’re using doesn’t answer to a state board regarding ethics and laws, say no again.
It sounds too good to be true. Is someone marketing their coaching services using free videos on social media to rope you in? Do those videos claim some simple trick will make it easier to (fill in the blank)? Learning new ways of communication, thinking, and doing are what changes lives. This isn’t done in a matter of days and it’s rarely done in a way that has significant and lasting impact without someone there guiding you, so be wary of video and materials purchases.
No published material on effectiveness is a major red flag for programs or methods that don’t work and may be a waste of your money. Good programs will have independent data showing their success rates rather than fluffy anecdotal testimonials.
People are flocking toward the self-help industry because we’re hurting and we want help. We are afraid of going to the experts sometimes because of the stigma culture associates with mental health, so we shop for coaches and self-proclaimed experts that avoid any of the labels that get lumped in with “counseling” or “mental health”. If you love yourself enough to want to change, grow, improve, or address your life head-on, take heart and have courage to do so with someone who is properly trained in helping others with your specific issues. The benefits of obtaining real expert help is that you get someone who is highly trained, held to a standard of ethical practice that will protect you from harm, is held to federal and state laws governing your privacy and their practice, and that you’ll be getting evidence and results-driven help for your problems.