A Market Alternative to Psychotherapy
By Joel F. Wade - June 20, 2012

Psychotherapy, done well, can be a great help to people who need it. For a wide range of psychological symptoms and troubles, or for dealing with a certain range of relationship issues, some time spent with a good psychologist or counselor can be extremely valuable.

There is also a range of life issues for which psychotherapy may not be the best fit.

There has been a shift in this particular branch of helping people, and it is a very good shift made almost entirely through market forces working their creative destruction on the world of counseling and psychotherapy, which has opened up a more flexible and adaptive profession, life coaching.

Coaching is not regulated by any government – there are ethical standards through private organizations such as the International Coach Federation (of which I am a member and through which I am certified), but there is not a government licensing body for coaching – and I hope to keep it that way.

I am licensed in California as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC28877) with a Ph.D. in psychology. For the past 32 years I have spent my working life studying psychology, human performance and a vast array of techniques, theories and experiences involved in human growth and flourishing; and focusing my understanding and abilities toward helping clients who want to change some aspects of their lives.

When I was primarily working as a psychotherapist, people would come to me to help them with psychological symptoms – one of the central functions of psychotherapy. For the most part, though, people have come to me looking to be more effective in their lives – to build a better marriage or to be more successful in their work, to reach some goals or often, in some shape or form, they just want to be happier.

But people wait a very long time to see a counselor or therapist. Couples often wait until they are so bitter and in so much pain that it's too late; individuals wait to see how much they can work out for themselves before resigning to the idea that they are "broken" and "need help."

This was a source of frustration for me because I could see that so much of the pain that people suffered could have been avoided if only they could have felt comfortable getting some ideas and support earlier on.

We are not machines but just imagine if you waited until your car engine cracked before replacing your oil, or until your tires went flat before getting new ones. Life coaching is about taking care of your psychological and emotional concerns and your personal, career and relationship goals before there is an overwhelming crisis.

Reaching your life's goals – whether those goals are a happy marriage, a satisfying work life or a life that is in general happier and more satisfying – should be an exciting and expansive experience, not a desperate struggle to catch up.

An athletic coach looks for the strength in an athlete and designs a training program and motivation that will nurture those strengths and bring out the best performance possible for that particular athlete.

Life coaching is similar in that we focus on your goals and strengths and we find ways of practicing the skills and abilities that you want to develop until they become habits. Once they become habits you don't need to use your willpower in the same way and that frees up a lot of energy for other things.

Working as a coach, I find that I can be much more helpful to my clients, in part because they will decide to work with me much sooner and they also do not have to feel that they are "broken."

Unfortunately, there has been a debilitating growth in the range of behavior and experience that is now considered "broken." (I wrote in detail about this in Psychiatry's Hammer.)

There is a local elementary school in town that has a special education teacher. The more kids were diagnosed with learning disabilities, the more work she had and the more money she made. Not surprisingly, at one point fully 80% of the kids at that school were diagnosed with learning disabilities.

But now these kids have a label, with a self-concept that may include "something about me is broken." Maybe some of them are put on medication, others get special treatment – counseling, tutoring, etc. – and the 20% who are not yet diagnosed can be certain that they will be looked into, as well.

Part of what has happened here is that there are schools of psychotherapy, and certain practitioners, who tend to extrapolate from the most severe psychological issues to a much broader population than is justified. (I had one colleague studying Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) who believed that fully one half of the population was secretly MPD!)

The growth is in part the natural outcome of more therapists looking to work with more people – more practitioners with hammers looking for nails of psychopathology, in part due to the progressive mission of making people "better."

In any case, there are a lot of people who have been going to see psychotherapists – with the search for symptoms and diagnosis (and bureaucracy) required by that medical model of treatment – when what they are really looking for is help to live a better life.

I am not opposed to psychotherapy at all. When done well it can be a great help, and treatment has improved tremendously over the years and really does work. I am still licensed and still work as a Marriage and Family Therapist every so often. I am not interested in wielding my own hammer of Life Coaching – we are human beings, not nails, and psychotherapy is the right thing for helping with many psychological troubles.

But a significant percentage of my psychotherapy clients over the years have not really come to me for psychotherapy; they have come to me for the kind of solutions that life coaching can provide – which is why this is now mostly what I do.

We are complex, magnificent, strange, flawed and wonderful beings. There is a much broader range of human experience and behavior than is often appreciated in our modern world. This is human nature. It is up to each of us to understand and master our own nature, to learn to channel our energies, feelings and impulses in a useful direction and to use our willpower to develop habits that work for us, so that we don't have to work against our habits.

This is not trivial. Taking your most meaningful goals and values seriously, and pursuing them with integrity and passion, is fundamental to a life well lived.

The market continues to adapt and provide opportunities, even as government grows more intrusive. I have found life coaching to be much more valuable and straightforward and effective for most of my clients. I also base my coaching on practical solutions and researched understanding of what works – and coaching really works.