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Is Life Coaching Just Modern Sophistry?
Tony Robbins (Flickr), @coach_kathryningle (TikTok), Getty.

Is Life Coaching Just Modern Sophistry?

The popularity of a trend does not necessarily make it ethical.

· 12 min read

The use of the word “coach” as a synonym for tutor emerged from Oxford University during the 1830s to convey the idea of someone carrying a student through their exams. Initially associated with sports and organisational efficiency, today the realm of the coach has expanded to include everything falling under the banner of life.

A form of personal development ostensibly intended to help individuals achieve personal and professional success, the rapid growth of the life-coaching industry has accelerated exponentially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when the global shutdown prompted many people to question values around work and relationships, the life coach—aided by Instagram, TikTok, and Zoom—has emerged as a fashionably new response to the age-old question of how to live the good life. But the popularity of this trend raises questions about the ethics of a nascent industry and the potential damage it may inflict on vulnerable people.

The Sophists of Ancient Greece

Since at least the time of Socrates, humanity has been preoccupied with notions of personal improvement and development—“capacity,” “actuality,” and “potential” were terms coined by Aristotle to describe how a living thing changes over time, embodying more of its nature. Aristotle’s teacher Plato spoke of how life aspires to the “good”—achieving its highest form through the cultivation of virtue, wisdom, and knowledge. Socrates, whose dialectical form of reasoning would become the inspiration for today’s cognitive behavioural therapy, challenged the rich and powerful of Athenian society by interrogating what they held to be true. 

Plato and Socrates were both highly critical of the sophists—professional educators who toured ancient Greece charging large sums of money to teach the chattering classes how to use argument and rhetoric to get ahead. Protagoras was the first to call himself a sophist and claimed to teach people “how to achieve success in life.” The sophist’s services were in great demand in Athens, but Plato believed that the deceptive practices they taught—emotive rhetoric, circular reasoning, and the misuse of language—prioritised winning arguments, rather than the discovery of what might be true, real, or wise. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates rebukes one of the best-known sophists for relying on anecdotes rather than logical coherence or concrete evidence. 

Much like the sophists of ancient Greece, the life-coaching industry of today emphasises the pursuit of personal gain, success, and self-interest. In a 2023 interview with Quartz, journalist and podcaster Jane Marie described the industry’s ethos as “scammy”—a vague theory of self-help that employs emotionally appealing stories and empty truisms (“create a life you love,” “step into your power,” “own your truth”) and makes grand promises of success. A 2023 article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the rising popularity of life coaching described pyramid-selling schemes, high-pressure sales tactics, and evangelical personality cults revolving around the wonderfully successful lives of life-coach leaders. “I am very wealthy,” Remi Pearson of the Coaching Institute told the paper, as she sat surrounded by the slogans of self-help and hustle-culture rhetoric that adorn the halls of her Melbourne headquarters. 

In 2021, the Guardian published a lengthy critical profile of Brooke Castillo, founder of the Life Coach School, whose business turns over $37 million annually by training clients in simplistic and untested proprietary coaching techniques. When those $36,000 training programs failed to deliver the expected benefits, some clients were told that the problem was their own mindset and not the quality of the program. Meanwhile, the controversial practices of Tony Robbins, the doyen of life coaches, have been the subject of numerous investigations and reports. Robbins’s former clients have alleged bullying and harassment by staff, and in 2017, the Washington Post reported that dozens had been hospitalised after walking across hot coals. 

Nevertheless, life-coaching programs remain incredibly popular and often oversubscribed. Tony Robbins has amassed a $500 million-dollar fortune with his publishing and coaching empire, and he can still sell out arenas whenever he speaks. One of the testimonials on life coach Stacey Boehman’s website reads:

I made $500k in 2.5 years. I started a brand new life coaching business working with Stacey in 2016 and mentoring with her over the last two and a half years has not only helped me create a $500k business but also my dream LIFE. She taught me how to BE in the world to have a successful business and really LIVE my life. She helped me navigate crucial client conversations, she helped me really plan for where I wanted to be at 500k and she saved me from making critical mistakes with my growing business. My profit is high, my time is totally in my control to enjoy my life, and I have really learned how to solve any problem in my business. Mentoring with Stacey will change everything in your business and life.

Grateful reviews like these can be found on all life-coach websites and have helped the industry develop its reputation for offering transformative advice. Its success is perhaps best symbolised by the platform BetterUp, a Silicon Valley platform that connects clients with coaches and boasts Prince Harry as its Chief Impact Officer. It was recently valued at $4.7 billion.

We Have Been Here Before

During the 1950s, a new approach to psychology emerged in response to the prevailing deterministic (psychoanalysis) and mechanistic (behaviourism) approaches. Mostly associated with the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow and psychotherapist Carl Rogers, the underlying assumption of what became known as humanistic psychology was that individuals are innately predisposed to realise their potential. Maslow referred to this process as “self-actualisation,” while Rogers described it as the quest to become a “fully functioning person.” Maslow and Rogers realised that dynamic socio-cultural factors have a significant impact on thoughts and behaviour, and that a person’s choices are not simply determined by unconscious drives or shaped by rewards and punishments. 

In a 2007 paper, Gordon Spence, a psychologist at the University of Wollongong, explained how the human potential movement (HPM)—and coaching as we know it today—sprang from this innovative milieu during the 1950s and ’60s. By the late 1960s, the HPM had become so popular that Life magazine published a feature describing the movement as:

[A] business, a means of recreation, a subculture, a counterculture, a form of theatre, a philosophy of education, a kind of psychotherapy, and an underground religion, with its own synods, sects, prophets, schisms and heretics.

By the time the Life article appeared, the movement had shifted away from the theoretical base established by humanistic psychology, and was drifting into a freewheeling eclecticism that reflected the anti-intellectual “tune in, turn on, drop out” counterculture of the time. This abandonment of research and testing eventually led to a proliferation of gimmicks and hype. Leaders of these programs began to rely on anecdotal evidence and supported their sensational claims of success with aggressive sales and marketing campaigns. 

All this led to skyrocketing fees. Vulnerable people bought into the hype and maxed out their credit cards while entrepreneurs grew rich from self-directed programs offering trite advice. Scandals and increasingly negative press saw the HPM fall out of favour in the 1970s, but the appeal of its pseudoscientific stew of glossy promises and simple-minded solutions never really diminished. The life-coaching industry shares many of the characteristics of the HPM, and in the Internet age, it has duly become an even more prominent manifestation of our desire to live the good life. 

Certainty in an Uncertain World

In a 2015 article for the Financial Times, columnist Janan Ganesh reflected on the state of the “knowledge economy” and its reliance on rhetorical skill:

We are all sophists now, or should be. The ancient Greeks saw these teachers of rhetoric as amoral transients. ... Scorned then, imperious now. What unites the elite professions in any international city is their command of sophistry. Barristers and management consultants, political advisers and advertising executives, public-relations strategists and even certain types of investment banker: all trade on the same skill. It is the ability to frame any given problem on your own terms so that your conclusion is irresistible to the client (or jury, or investor, or politician, or reader). To be clear, this is not the same thing as being right. What matters is being persuasive.

These modern sophists are remunerated by offering an illusion of certainty and a path to victory and success. Even if everyone knows that the certainty is illusory, there is still a lot of money to be made by simply providing someone with a sense of direction. And that is what appears to make life coaching so popular. Countless testimonials swear by it, particularly in comparison to mainstream psychotherapy. Most of the life-coaching programmes surveyed for this article appear to be built on mindset- and rule-based formulas for success—if you know how, you can think your way to a better life. By focusing purely on thinking and mindset, many life coaches create an illusion of certainty by convincing participants that by changing what they are most certain of—their thoughts—they can transform their lives.  

For example, the framework promoted by Castillo’s Life Coach School runs as follows: Circumstances are neutral but Thoughts create Feelings, which drive Actions that lead to Results (or CTFAR for short). CTFAR appears to be a mangling of cognitive behavioural therapy, the underlying premise of which is that thought, feeling, behaviour, and physical sensation are interdependent and dynamically interlinked. By removing the dynamic, interdependent nature of this evidence-backed psychotherapeutic treatment, Castillo’s program has flattened it into a linear series of simple steps that can be easily followed.

LEFT: The hot-cross bun model of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy formulation. Greenberger and Padesky (1995); RIGHT: CTFAR Model from the Life Coach School.

CTFAR may sound smart to eager and impressionable course participants, but it assumes that circumstances are in fact neutral (a highly contentious claim) and that thoughts cause feeling, an understanding of cognition that conflicts with a large body of evidence showing that we usually feel before we think. This is not to say that mindset is unimportant to psychological wellbeing—our thinking and perception of the world can have a significant impact on the quality of our life. However, some of the more unscrupulous (and highly popular) life-coach leaders misuse and misrepresent scientific evidence because it sounds compelling to the uninformed.

One of the most popular life coaches is Dr Joe Dispenza, whose honorific denotes a doctorate in chiropractic medicine from Life University. To his millions of followers, Dispenza preaches a form of mindfulness sprinkled with scientific-sounding language like quantum field, electroencephalogram measurement, epigenetics, and neuroplasticity. Among the red flags on his website is a page titled “Proof” that emphasises anecdotal case studies and points to two published articles. One of these claims that meditators who attend Dispenza’s retreats are better protected against COVID-19, while the other makes the pedestrian finding that meditation was beneficial for novice meditators. And yet, as has been shown, there are countless testimonials from satisfied clients who say they benefit significantly from these kinds of services. So why might they work?

Don't Sweat the Technique

One of the most stable findings in psychology is that the quality of the relationship between client and practitioner is the best predictor of treatment success. When various psychological interventions are compared and the common factor of an empathetic relationship is excluded, the difference between different treatment techniques almost disappears. So most of the benefit a person receives from a relationship with a coach comes from an engaged listener who provides hope that change is possible rather than a particular technique. 

Hope encourages us to become more goal-focused and unimpeded pursuit of these goals results in positive emotions and well-being. The concept of self-efficacy—the belief we can achieve our goals—is one of the main factors protecting us from burnout. To be in a relationship with someone with whom we share our hopes, goals, and fears keeps us more motivated and accountable than trying to achieve those same goals on our own. 

Coaching efficacy depends on a version of the placebo effect—if we are motivated to believe that something is going to work then it is much more likely to do so. This understanding is the basis for much of the mindset-oriented approaches to change championed by many in the life-coaching industry. Joe Dispenza has even written a book on the subject called You are the Placebo, which provides examples of how people have healed themselves through mindset alone. 

Where Does Psychotherapy End and Coaching Begin?

Motivation is central to how life coaches market themselves. To avoid the charge of practicing psychotherapy without a licence, life coaches will typically distinguish themselves from therapists by saying that they only work with clients who are mentally healthy and highly motivated to change or succeed. The problem, of course, is that someone who is highly motivated to change or succeed could also be harbouring significant psychological difficulties which may not be addressed by a life coach without clinical training. Indeed, a constant need for success and external validation can be a symptom of psychological difficulties such as low self-esteem and struggles with self-worth. It also presumes that the life coach can distinguish, without any of the requisite clinical training, who is mentally well or unwell.

So, what do life coaches offer that an army of rigorously trained and accredited counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists do not? For a start, availability. In Australia, prior to the pandemic, one in 100 psychologists were unable to accept new clients. After the pandemic, it became one in three. Coupled with this is the lingering stigma associated with seeing a mental-health professional. Seeing a life coach appears to be a more socially acceptable—and even impressive—way of telling others that not only are we getting help but we are also getting ahead. Besides which, life coaches, with their savvy use of social media and shameless promises of success and transformation, offer a far more enticing prospect for the dissatisfied. 

There are ethical constraints to the way a psychotherapist or psychologist can market themselves, particularly in terms of what they can self-disclose and promise to their clients. No such constraints limit the life coach whose Instagram feeds are often filled with redemptive personal stories and curated images of well-lived lives. It is no surprise that, for a generation accustomed to the glossy sheen of Instagram and the therapy speak of TikTok, a life coach may seem far more appealing than a psychotherapist or psychologist. 

The terms coaching and psychotherapy are vague. Psychotherapy began with Freud’s technique of psychoanalysis and has now evolved into hundreds of methods, modalities, and schools. Coaching is a much younger discipline, but it has nonetheless diversified from its initial emphasis on performance and effectiveness to incorporate a vast array of niche interventions in anything from career development to better orgasms. A rule of thumb used to delineate this difference is the intention of the client. If the intention of the client is to heal past wounds, then the client may be better served working with a psychotherapist. If a client wishes to emphasise growth and achievement, then the client may be better off working with a life coach who can guide and challenge them to do so. 

The problem with this view of intention is that it assumes the self can be separated into neat compartments representing trauma and healing, or growth and achievement. Achieving success doesn’t necessarily mean we have healed our wounds. By suggesting that we can just focus on the past—a very simplistic view of therapy—or just focus on the future—a very simplistic view of coaching—suggests that we can tinker with different parts of ourselves and leave the rest unaffected. This approach turns the human being into a machine to be optimised. 

In an Age of Scams, Self-Help Falls Short
An individualistic focus only goes so far in preventing scams and frauds.

While coach-training websites, like that of Tony Robbins, acknowledge that a life coach may need to address a client’s limiting beliefs, this detour into the past is framed as a momentary diversion on the path to future greatness. But an exploration of limiting beliefs can rapidly drag the coach into the past. If a client has the limiting belief of being unworthy of a promotion, and that by exploring this limiting belief the client uncovers memories of schoolyard bullying, neglectful parenting, and a crushing loneliness buried under a façade of activity and achievement, where does the coach go from there?

Do they expand the coaching conversation into a counselling session? If this difficulty persists and is getting in the way of this person achieving their goals, does the life coach refer the client for psychotherapy? And if not, is the coach now performing psychotherapy without the requisite training? Or does the life coach acknowledge this story and then invalidate it by turning the client’s attention away from what they have said and toward how good things could be if they just changed their patterns of thinking and focused on the positive? 

The danger of engaging a life-coach without the proper training may only become apparent when the benefits inevitably stop arriving. When the blocks, limitations, and impingements to a realisation of success begin to make themselves felt in a session. Without addressing the needs of the entire person, life coaching risks being superficial at best and harmful at worst. The implication of this is that the more the life coach addresses the entire person, the more contact there will be with those parts that are painful and hidden, and the more glaringly unethical a lack of clinical training becomes.

“Rhetoric,” the sophist Gorgias said, “is the art of ruling the minds of men.” The life coach may be charging a fortune compared to a psychotherapist, but if their ability to persuade is significantly better than that of most mental-health professionals, it is no wonder that the industry is growing at such a pace. If there are those offering the promise of success and claiming the means to deliver, then it is understandable that the ambitious are happy to pay up. The hedonic success promised by life coaching is a much easier sell than the self-knowledge advocated by Socrates and offered by psychotherapy. But buyer beware.

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