Is life coaching worth it? Confessions from an ex-life coach

Certain circles in the internet are quick to dish out life coaching criticism, and for valid reasons. Hell, we’ve poked fun at life coaches before at GrowthLab, but now we’d like to go deeper and show exactly why someone chooses to become a life coach (despite there being too many life coaches who claim to have their stuff together), how they became a life coach, and how exactly they make their money.

So that’s why we talked to one ex-life coach to give you the unvarnished truth about life coaching, the fear and pain of what she went through — and ultimately, what drove her to life coaching.

“When we make decisions out of desperation,” she explains, “we make poor decisions.”

While her experience is her own, we believe it’s emblematic of a larger truth: Those who get into the profession often find the experience worse than what they expected.

Why (and how) I became a “life coach”

As told to Tony Ho Tran

I became a life coach for the same reason a lot of people become life coaches: Desperation.

Around 2009 when the recession hit, I first got started with life coaching on the side. I had been working in government before then. During this time, a friend of mine suggested life coaching to me. She did executive coaching and made her living off of it.

After researching it more and talking to her, I figured life coaching used my natural skills like good communication — though in different ways. So I dabbled in it a little, never really taking it very seriously and taking on a few free clients.

Then in 2013, I got laid off.

When you get to a place where you’re out of work and you didn’t expect it, you go to a bad place mentally. I went from a steady, six-figure income and being the primary breadwinner between my husband and me … to zero income.

I got a little bit depressed because of this, and it started to affect different things in my life. My husband and I had just bought a house literally days before I got laid off so I also had to worry about paying off my half of the mortgage.

I had less flexibility in time and money too, and I couldn’t do things I loved like traveling. So I started to look for something to fill the gap and help me cope.

And that’s when I turned to being a life coach, full-time.

How I made my money

I didn’t want to do anything crazy like become famous with my coaching, but I thought I could turn it into something great. I looked at people like Tony Robbins and how he created a movement with years of life coaching experience. I figured I could do a smaller version of that.

With life coaching, I figured it was a way to earn enough, pay my bills, travel again, and do whatever I wanted with my time — and also help people.

A lot of my work was with veterans and my first few clients were pro bono. When I started, I knew I needed a few coaching clients to “practice.” So I reached out to friends and family and worked with them for free.

I struggled with a few of my first clients. I remember I had a conversation with one after a session that I thought went really well, but then at the end, they told me, “That didn’t really help me.”

I’m very happy they were honest with me in retrospect, but I felt almost self-defensive at the time, as if I were being accused of manifesting all those fears around life coaching “scams”. I started projecting all of my fears and the things I’m not good at onto that person. I could feel myself physically cringing as my pride took a hit. But I also recognized their criticism was warranted. So I bit my tongue and I took some time to process it. But still it was tough to hear.

That wasn’t the only tough client I had. Sometimes a client and a life coach just don’t match personalities and there’s more friction. But that client sticks out because I also knew them personally before.

Eventually, I was able to expand by leveraging my network and referrals. I began to scale. I started small with $50 an hour. Then it went to $100 an hour. Then that became a few hundred dollars an hour. It was a gradual thing.

Like any freelance work, though, you’re going to have lean periods and I failed HARD my first year. Sometimes I took on a client only to realize that I needed three more to make my bills for the month.

When your bank statements are constantly going down instead of up, you realize something’s wrong. People who have gone through periods of being poor will understand. You do that numbers dance where you’re constantly moving things around. “Oh if I move these few pennies from this account to that account I’ll be able to pay for groceries this week.”

There wasn’t exactly one moment I realized this, but after many bank statements and tough client interactions I knew something needed to change.

Why I got out

Remember when I said that that desperation was the reason I got into life coaching? It was also the reason I got out.

There’s always the challenge of having clients whose personalities you just don’t match with. And in situations where desperation is driving you, you end up taking on bad clients just because you need the money. This leads to bad relationships and a lot of baggage for you to deal with.

I found myself becoming their therapist instead of their coach. Instead of helping them work through a problem, you become an emotional punching bag — consoling them and trying to help them justify why you’re taking their money.

It’s very emotionally draining. It doesn’t give you joy or space to breathe when you feel depressed or anxious yourself. You end up taking on too much.

This is the truth about life coaching that too many life coaches won’t tell you.

People who do coaching, by and large, are very empathetic individuals. They want to help. That’s a big reason why they get into it. But that caretaker mentality can make it really personal so you have to be careful. There’s a fine line between coach and friend. You don’t want to be both.

I remember once I had a client who was in danger of hurting themselves and others. I knew I couldn’t adequately support them. So I referred them to a medical professional who could. That’s the smart thing to do but some life coaches might not do that, or they realize when they can’t help a client.

Desperation is what drives a lot of people to life coaching. It’s an easy label to give yourself. You don’t need certification. You don’t even need experience. If you’re just calling yourself a life coach and not taking the time to position yourself and educate yourself on what you’re a coach for, it’s not good.

When we make decisions out of desperation, we make poor decisions.

That realization is what got me out of it. It didn’t feel like a right fit anymore. I knew I could use my skill sets in a better way.

I was lucky to have a partner and husband to help support me throughout my time as a life coach. Not everyone has the same support system I had though. My husband was very supportive of what I wanted to do and I could lean on him during the down times. But some people still have a mortgage and family to pay for.

What to do if you want to become a life coach

To this day, when people ask me “is life coaching worth it?” I give them a very short answer: Don’t.

I loved a lot of the work I did, but people who want to be life coaches are likely coming to it with the same desperation I had, which isn’t good for anyone.

In the end, I enjoyed my work — but am very glad I got out of it.