It seems like a simple question to answer, but it's the kind of thing you only really know after you've experienced it for yourself. It's like asking someone what it's like to get a massage. You can describe it to them, but until they've gotten one, and depending on their particular masseuse, they won't truly know what it feels like.
This is the first article in a series of four designed to describe life coaching for you, as best I can through stories and explanation. But remember the caveat: if you're wondering whether reading an article or doing a web search on "life coaching" can really give you the answers you're looking for, you'll never fully know until you experience it for yourself. And it depends on who you are and the coach you work with. So if you're curious, I encourage you to find a coach you feel an inexplicable but real connection with, and experience it for yourself. I'll also teach you some tools in these articles, so you can try them at home on yourself. Just keep in mind that reading about coaching will not have the same effect as doing the actual work.
The simplest way to describe a life coach is that it's like having a personal trainer for your well-being. Like a personal trainer helps clients achieve optimum fitness through their bodies, a life coach helps clients achieve their optimum well-being in any and all aspects of life. Some people say, "Isn't that like therapy?" The difference between a life coach and a therapist is like the difference between a personal trainer and a physician. Life coaches and personal trainers deal with healthy clients to help them maximize their potential, while therapists and physicians deal with diagnosing and treating illnesses. So, life coaching is not meant to be a substitute for getting treatment for a diagnosed illness, although it may help you deal with the realities of being ill.
OK, so you're feeling pretty good about most of your life and might be wondering, "How do I know if I need a life coach?" I like to think that anyone, regardless of their situation in life, could benefit from the techniques used in life coaching. It's a matter of being open enough to allow something - or nothing - to happen. Sounds a little bit like music improvisation, doesn't it? The lesson from improv is that if you are truly open and connected to yourself and others in the present moment, the only thing that can happen is creativity. If a coach and client are in a place of openness, connection, and presence, the process can help anyone achieve more balance, experience less stress, and be more joyful in meeting the everyday challenges in your life.
How I found life coaching
The way I've experienced the power of life coaching is through the amazing Martha Beck, life coach and author of many books as well as a monthly columnist at O, the Oprah Magazine. What she does is probably best described as providing modern-day, evidence-based, practical steps to transforming your life through spiritual enlightenment. Only she doesn't call it that. Maybe because "enlightenment" doesn't market itself well in America, land of Goals and Winners and Rugged, Rational Individualism. Our culture teaches us to buy solutions, and we want results...tangible ones, preferably that photograph well, so we can post them on Facebook and get lots of "thumbs up" signs from our Friends from high school.
I've been enrolled in Martha's yearlong Life Coach Training program since last summer. I'd read her articles in O Magazine for many years, and I would describe myself during that time as skeptical but open to the possibility of all this "self-help" stuff actually being able to work in my life. Meanwhile, for years I'd been reading lots of books, poetry, and blogs in an attempt to access more inspiration and ideas to help me change my own life.
It wasn't until last year, when I hosted a workshop presented by one of Martha's Certified Master Coaches that I was inspired to actually read one of Martha's books. And I couldn't stop reading them, one after another - Steering by Starlight, Finding Your Own North Star, The Joy Diet, Expecting Adam, Leaving the Saints - devouring her unique combination of rational skepticism, intuition, mysticism and humor. I felt like I'd finally found someone in the "personal development" field I could identify with. With her Harvard education, her ability to describe her own experiences with unexplainable mystical phenomena, and her resilient courage to face her own inner truth in deciding to leave the Mormon Church (and then to write about it), I could no longer find a rational reason not to believe her. My heart wanted to know more about what she had discovered. Reading her materials and then hearing her coaching model was like coming home, to a strangely familiar place that I had never been allowed to visit before.
What I love about her coaching is her belief that each of us has our own "North Star", which always points toward the life of greatest joy, peace, and freedom for the soul. My metaphor for this is The Music Within Us. If we learn to recognize the sound of our own voice - the sound of our soul, the sound of our truth - we will create our own beautiful music with our lives and be able to share it with everyone we encounter. I see Martha's work as an elegant process that combines elements of mindfulness meditation, deep listening, imaginative inquiry and deliberate practice, all corroborated by scientific and empirical evidence with thousands of real clients (if you care about this sort of thing).
Life coaching basics - Who is leading your life?
My own life began to change the minute I saw these four words at that workshop I hosted last year: "social self" versus "essential self". I've written a personal essay on my own experience distinguishing between these two selves in my life. In brief, I think of the social self as the conglomeration of identities we take on via education, social systems, and roles that we acquire throughout our lives. It's what "Everybody" expects us to do. The social self needs to belong to a group, to fit into a category, to possess certain attributes or things, or to be doing a certain job, in order to be strong. The social self believes that we "should" do certain things, or that we "have to" be a certain way, or that we "can't" think certain things, in order to be accepted.
Often, as adults we can no longer distinguish whether our actions are driven by the social self or the essential self. We have been living by default, or by habits we no longer remember acquiring. Everything is fine until something - a catalytic event - in our lives causes us discomfort, suffering, or trauma, and we are asked to consider our options. More on catalytic events in Part 2 of this series, "The Change Cycle".
I like to think of the essential self as the essence of the soul. And our soul knows. Setting aside the philosophical question of whether or not you believe in the presence of a "higher consciousness", we can all agree that we've experienced times of peace (or joy or happiness) and times of suffering. We also can agree that as humans, we prefer the feeling of peace over the feeling of suffering. This experience of feelings and emotions is our soul speaking through our heart, mind, and body. We can live our lives in resonance with our essential self, where we feel in tune with our soul's desire for joy, freedom, and peace. Or we can live large portions of our lives out of tune with our essential self, saying or doing things that we know, somewhere deep inside, are not true to the desires of our soul. Our bodies carry these out-of-tune melodies, or discordant harmonies, in the form of pain, fatigue, or illness. More on how the essential self speaks to us in Part 3 of this series, "The Language of the Essential Self".
It is ultimately a choice we make about how to live, but sometimes we need the guidance of an observer to help us discern the truth of our essential self from the many voices of our social self vying for our attention. This is how I see the role of a life coach - someone to help you hear your own thoughts out loud (sometimes just doing this helps clarify the hilariousness of the social self's demands), someone to help you question whether these thoughts resonate with your soul, someone to hold a space for you to listen to your own truth, and someone to lead you back to the truth of your own internal guidance.
A life coach does not have the answers! By helping you see yourself more clearly, and ask yourself the right questions, a life coach helps you tune into your own true answers - the ones only your soul knows for sure.