During the summer of 2016, Erica Charles had an epiphany: She was unhappy. She’d been married for 11 years, worked in human resources at a job she liked, had two children, and was attending therapy. On paper, her life seemed to be going well. Still, something wasn’t clicking, and she suspected it might be her marriage.
Around that time, an Instagram rabbit hole led Charles to the account of an online life coaching practice called Blush. She found the page entertaining, full of memes and humor, and hit the follow button; soon after, she enrolled in Blush’s virtual life coaching program.
At first, she was paired with one of Blush’s coaches, but Charles, now 39, quickly transitioned to working with the firm’s founder, Kali Rogers. The two held regular video calls and exchanged texts to get to the root of Charles’ unhappiness, which eventually led to her divorcing her husband in 2018.
In the aftermath, Charles used her sessions with Rogers to navigate the new challenge of co-parenting with an ex-husband. “She’s a medicine I’ll take for the rest of my life,” Charles says.
The life coaching industry — which encompasses niches like career coaching and fitness coaching — is a $2 billion field, composed of more than 53,000 professional life coaches worldwide, according to a report from the International Coaching Federation. It’s also highly unregulated: Since coaching is not considered therapy, professionals aren’t required to have a degree in psychology or mental health or be licensed, and there’s no central governing body that certifies coaches (though many are trained through organizations like the International Coaching Federation, Co-Active, and Dale Carnegie).
Some clients, like Charles, find the service irreplaceable. Others, though, are better suited to traditional therapy. With so many resources devoted to self-care and betterment, when is it worth shelling out for a professional life coach? Here are the most important things to keep in mind when considering whether it’s the right move for you.
Coaching isn’t standard therapy
Therapists are trained not to inflict their own views onto patients. Rogers, who originally began her career as a mental health counselor, struggled with feeling like she constantly had to bite her tongue. “I didn’t really bond with therapy, because you were expected to not be yourself,” she says. “You were expected to be an empty box, to let the person across the room from you work it out. That didn’t fit with me. I want to be able to call people out.”
Coaching is more prescriptive, often involving tactical steps for clients to enact, and is focused on looking forward for solutions rather than dwelling on past traumas or patterns. Carmen Aceves-Iñiguez, a coach as well as a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that she sometimes refers potential life coaching clients toward therapy if they would be better served by healing old wounds before turning to the future. “Inevitably, we do touch on issues [in coaching] that do come up in therapy,” Aceves-Iñiguez says. “If there’s anxiety, we’re going to talk about it. But we’re not going to talk about someone’s family history.”
Your relationship with your coach will likely be an informal one
Charles considers Rogers to be like a friend, albeit a friend she pays. Because their meetings are virtual, taking place from the comfort of Charles’ office or home, she says their relationship has always had a built-in ease. “There was something that took away the formality and allowed for it to feel more like a friendship,” she says.
Aceves-Iñiguez often looks at the dynamics of her personal relationships to determine what personalities she meshes well with. Her wife, for instance, is more assertive, which helped Aceves-Iñiguez realize that she responds well to that particular trait in a mental health or coaching professional. “I need someone who’s going to be firm with me, who’s going to call me on things,” she says. To figure out what you need in a coach, it helps to take inventory of your inner circle to see what qualities you admire in friends.
Coaches don’t need to be trained
While some coaches receive certifications (and some coaching agencies, like Blush, require all coaches to have a master’s degree in mental health or social work), it’s not legally required that they be licensed, so it’s important to do your research.
“Some people refer to the coaching profession as being in the Wild West stage,” says Jim Smith, an International Coach Federation–credentialed executive coach. He suggests checking if your potential coach has any sort of certification or professional experience in the area you’re looking for guidance in. For example, if you’re seeking out a fitness coach, find one who has a degree in exercise science, professional experience in a health-related job, and/or training certifications.
Coaching works best when you’re open-minded with your goals
Sometimes clients seek out a coach for a specific reason. In Charles’ case, it was to avoid a divorce. But during one of her earliest coaching sessions, she recalls, Rogers suggested she may want to consider it. “And I was like, ‘No, I’m not! That’s exactly what I don’t want to do.’” Eventually, Charles says, she realized that splitting from her husband would bring her the happiness she’d been missing.
Smith finds that most coaching clients begin the relationship with a specific goal — like advancing in their career or transitioning to a totally new field — but many will discover that this goal is an offshoot of a different objective altogether. “What often happens is we’re two or three months into a coaching relationship, and they bring up a new topic, and often that topic is much deeper,” he says. It’s important to remain flexible enough to dive into other issues as they pop up.
There’s no magic wand
Regardless of your goals, you’ll need to put in work to improve your circumstances. Be skeptical of any coach who claims their service can change lives overnight, Rogers says: “It’s just like those diet pills that promise you’re going to lose 50 pounds in a week.”
Colleen Star Koch of Rowan Coaching, who received a coaching certificate through the NeuroLeadership Institute, lets her clients know the effort they’ll need to put in from day one. “People don’t generally get a life coach because they want to figure out how to stop chewing their nails,” she says. “It’s ‘I want to completely change careers, and I don’t know where to start.’ You’re asking me to help support you in changing your life, and engaging in that level of transformation is so fun, but it’s also work.”
Like a gym buddy, a coach is meant to hold you accountable through difficult tasks, like confronting a behavior you’re trying to change, and give you a push when you get stuck on a specific action. “Because they have someone who’s going to check in,” Aceves-Iñiguez says, “[people] are more likely to do it. It’s motivation.”
Give it time
As with any relationship, a coach and client will need to warm up to each other before getting chummy. After you interview a few coaches and land on one, Rogers suggests sticking it out for three to four sessions to assess whether the partnership is working for you. (Many coaches offer a free consultation or first session.) During that time, you don’t necessarily need to feel like they’re already helping you make progress, but you should feel like the potential is there.
“It’s not immediately easy,” Charles says. “It’s not an automatic cure or miracle. For me, it was a slow-burn miracle.”