The more I think about it, the more I dislike the idea of health coaching. Please read this post with the caveat that I just spent the last five or so years of my life trying to become a health coach, spending multiple thousands of dollars on training and business building investments, and truly believing in the power and the purpose of my chosen side hustle. I’m also friends with and advocate for several amazing health coaches who are doing great work and who I will continue to stand behind, since this is not just their chosen profession, but something that’s helping people out in the world. With that in mind, however…onward:
I recently restarted therapy. I’ve always been resistant to therapy — preferring instead to read blogs and books by people going through the same struggles I was (coaches and internet personalities), over having to talk to an impenetrable wall of a person about my issues (therapists). Maybe that impulse is the result of wasting money on a series of bad therapists who seemed to make things worse or maybe it was the result of being raised in a culture that normalized LiveJournal angst and Facebook confessionals. I don’t know.
But I decided to see a therapist…rather than drop another grand or two on a coach who thinks that all of my problems can be solved by reading their ebook and following their X-step formula, which is based on the way they solved their own problem, and my failure to get out of my funk is just a failure to change my mindset to match theirs.
When I went searching for a therapist, I did so deliberately, after five years of basically saying that therapy is important (for legal reasons) but not actually believing it. I became a health coach (even though I stopped calling myself one) for a reason: I thought that the reason that therapy kind of sucked was that there was no way for my therapist to relate to me because they had not lived through the same experiences.
Health/wellness/body image coaching is an interesting thing. It’s grown in popularity for the same reason that Facebook support groups are such a hot place to be right now: we’re all looking to feel seen and heard and like we’re not alone. We’re looking to find other people who are just like us — but a few steps ahead. People to whom we can relate and learn from.
This is why everyone can be an expert on social media: all you need is a body and a problem, and — voila! — you have your brand.
I hated my body and then I learned how to do burpees and got a six pack. Great. Now you can say you’re an expert in using fitness to “love your body.”*
I hated my body and then I started wearing crop tops anyway. Great. Now you’re an expert in fat acceptance and/or body positivity.**
I didn’t know how to use a camera and then I did an unboxing video and now I do more of those and sometimes also take pictures. Great. Now you’re a photography expert with a thriving amazon affiliate program.
I had acne and then I washed my face with coconut oil and now I don’t have acne. Fabulous. You’re an expert in “female” hormones.
This was me. I became an “expert” in Paleo eating disorder recovery and exercise addiction, because I ate Paleo for a few months and hated my body a little less.
People came to trust me, not because I had studied any therapeutic modalities, but because I was figuring out recovery in a very public way that resonated with other people who looked/ate/exercised like me.
I became a coach because I wanted to share my own personal experience as a way to help other people, who, like me, didn’t trust therapists and wanted someone to tell them how to eat and exercise and supplement to fix themselves.
The more I learn about the ways in which the Internet works, however — the longer I sit here and watch people become coaches become brands and build tribes of faithful followers and recurring revenue streams — the less I feel like coaching is necessarily the right thing for everyone.
I will caveat by saying: I know some coaches who are great at separating themselves from their brands and who are doing good work and are kicking people out of the nest and forcing them to grow, so this is not a universal take-down of all coaching in the universe ever, okay? Everyone take a deep breath and calm down before I go on. … Done? Okay:
The problem with turning your pain into expertise and selling it is that, even after you’ve healed, you have to remain in touch with your pain in order to remain authentic and continue selling. (I’ve written about this before, but I have to say it again.)
Brand-ifying your story helps solidify your messaging, and your messaging has to remain consistent in order to attract your ideal client. So, in order to sell, you have to continue sharing your pain and your healing — variations on a theme. You have to remain in your “expertise” if you want people to find and come to know, like, and trust you.
At the same time, the tribe you build traps people in their stories as well. When we find people who hurt like us, who experience life the way we do, we tend to form bonds with them. The internet has given us the ability to find people who struggle with their bodies the way we do, our mental health the way we do, our physical ailments the way we do. We become friends because we eat the same way, have tried the same supplements, have experienced the same traumas, or are going through the same struggles.
But what happens when you heal? Well…you have to leave the tribe. You can’t relate anymore. Just like a coach who has to keep on writing about their trauma to keep you in their sales funnel, if you want people to continue to relate to you, you have to stay in your hurt, at least a little bit.
Or, better yet, you can become a coach yourself. Because if you’ve healed but still want to stay relatable, you can share your story and become your own expert, expanding your tribe while capitalizing on the one that helped heal you.
So we voluntarily stay trapped in a sales funnel because god forbid we miss another podcast or summit with the same seven “experts” talking about the same seven topics over again. FOMO becomes a threat to your friendships, your community, and even your ability to make money.
At the same time…I get it. There are a lot of bad therapists out there. There are a lot of people who bring their own shit to the table — who got their license, but are just as disordered or messed up as their patients. There are also lots of therapists who are good, but just not for you. That’s why therapist shopping is so frustrating. And also so important.
So of course coaching seems like the better alternative. A quick Google search or a scan through the health and wellness section of the Podcasts app, and you’ve found “the answer” to all of your problems. I just need an inspirational story, a personal framework built on the struggles of someone who’s been there, and the experience backed by social proof.
But let me offer a counterpoint.
When I started therapy, I did so knowing almost nothing about my therapist. I found her via referral, so I haven’t read her blog posts, listened to her podcasts, or watched her youtube videos. Also: she doesn’t have any of those things.
I don’t know anything about her story. I don’t know if she became a therapist because of her own unresolved traumas, I don’t know if her diet or supplements changed her life. In our sessions, she doesn’t talk about herself, her story, or her other clients’ successes. She doesn’t frame suggestions based on her own point of view or experience.
Instead, she listens, she asks questions, she guides my process, and I leave, having made a little progress.
I don’t want to be on her email list. I don’t want to be her friend. I want to be able to work through my traumas and leave and not get updates from her or the other people who are working with her at all hours of the day and night. I don’t want to read articles that keep me engaged in my quest to feel better when I’m not actively working with her. I don’t want to stay where I am in order to remain in her Facebook group.
I want to do the work and be done.
I do not want trauma to be my brand or my tribe. I want it to have an end point, not a monetization strategy.
I get the appeal of working with coaches. I get the appeal of being one. I also see the value of working with someone who “gets” you because they’ve been where you are. But the more I understand the ways in which the internet encourages us to make our traumas into our expertise into our brands, the less I want to be involved.
Seeking coaches is, at the end of the day, seeking confirmation bias. As a coach, a marketer, I write and speak in a certain way, because I have a certain type of audience in mind (a persona). You, as my potential client, read or hear that speech and recognize that it’s a signal to you. Whatever you’re seeking, you’ll find it, and you’ll stay in it.
There’s also a darker angle to this argument: while there are many health coaches who have personal experience with having eating disorders, there is no regulated training for said coaches to help others recover from eating disorders. Often, I see people with very active and very dangerous eating disorders gravitate toward “body positive” groups, where they can get validation for their pain, but the coaches and Facebook group moderators aren’t trained to guide them to and through recovery. Because of confirmation bias, people with eating disorders feel that all they need to recover is a body positive meme or two, a few Facebook live sessions, and a string of inspirational podcasts to keep them entertained with the idea of recovery.
And while for some people that’s enough (I recovered without immersive therapy, so I will not be reductive and say that everyone needs intensive treatment and an intervention), it puts many in a dangerous position: the person with the eating disorder may not get the help they need to fully recover or even start to recover, and the coach may end up dealing with legal or emotional backlash from a “patient” who shouldn’t have been a client.
I’ll tell you a quick story, and then you can go and write your angry takedown of this post:
When I went seeking a therapist, I was turned down by about four different people (because I could not afford them, because they were too far away, because they were booked until August), before I was referred to my current therapist.
When I sat down for our consultation and told her my story and why I needed her help, she was very frank with me: I am not her ideal client. In fact, she informed me, she didn’t want to waste my time by working with me.
Her method, Internal Family Systems, requires that a person be different from the kind of person I am — my energy is too kinetic, I’m too high-strung, too skeptical and angry.
I told her that I understood. And that I wanted to work with her anyway.
It’s been the most productive therapy I’ve ever had.
Because I have spent the last, what, six years or so finding what I was looking for and being disappointed by it. So this time, I went with something that I wasn’t looking for at all, because it forced me to get out of my own head and do the damn work.
I’m not going to tell you to stop coaching or being coached. I know there are people out there who are getting immense benefit from it, spiritually, emotionally, and monetarily.
But I’m personally done for now. I’m going to recommend therapy in earnest and not just because I legally have to.
Go off brand. See what changes for you.
*This only works if you believe that “loving your body” is predicated on changing it.
**And, thanks to the internet, this is even if you know nothing about intersectional feminist theory, the history of the fat acceptance movement, the people who pioneered fat acceptance, or how to stop triggering other people online by talking about why you should still probably diet.