The Life Coach
In late capitalism, economic relationships become emotional, while market models permeate intimate relationships. At the juncture of this paradox, Alice Blackhurst finds herself stuck with a life coach who behaves more and more like a treacherous friend.
In 2017 I became, for a brief sequence of months, a person with a life coach. I told no-one. Even to myself I referred to her as my ‘online therapist,’ which was not exactly what she was. I first learned about her by listening to her podcast, where she spoke on topics such as how to cultivate more gratitude, or manifest abundance. On vulnerable days, days stunted by red-wine hangovers or the premature departure of a man I was trying to convince myself was my boyfriend, I left it on in the background, lulled by the music of her smooth, Midwestern brogue.
The invitation to sign up for a free coaching session, in which she would offer advice to anyone who texted the word SPIRIT to a four-digit number, was well-timed. I would soon turn 30, and had not written that novel, ran that marathon, or taken any stand-out trips. The analyst I saw occasionally had begun sending me laconic messages which he claimed were intended for his wife, forwarded in error. The appeal of laying my problems at the altar of a disembodied Skype username based in 35-degrees LA started to outweigh that of sitting in a musty room with a retired lawyer, poring over my ‘aversion’ to my mother or why I was resisting ‘committing to the work.’
For years, Freud’s ‘talking cure,’ and his sourcing of neurosis in the enclaves of the family, dominated therapeutic culture. Here, psychological treatment involves a somewhat experimental process of mapping the unconscious self, by talking about its drives. Recurring tendencies, habits, family patterns, speech and dreams are all tracked, thereby furnishing the individual with new, previously obscured, perspectives and narratives. Many schools of thought and modes of clinical practice branch from this approach, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and Winnicott’s theories of attachment.
In line with an increasingly results-driven, efficiency-obsessed economy, in recent years more action-based, deterministic forms of therapy, less concerned with tracing the contours of the past than with cheerleading the self to step into their ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity,’ have swelled in popularity. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, nicknamed in the therapeutic community as ‘Talk that Works,’ and advocating skills such as non-emotional self-monitoring and problem-solving, rose to particular prominence in the early 2000s, paralleling neoliberalism’s eagerness to sell us the seductive myth of meritocracy, and to anchor agency firmly in the monad of the individual. CBT propagated the agenda that patients were responsible for ‘cognitive dysfunctions’ and that positive thinking was enough to resolve challenges. Often following the format of task-based, modular, four or six week ‘programs,’ it conveniently also provided a thriftier, more cost-effective means of treatment than the meanderings of Socratic forms of dialogue.
Life-coaching, which retains CBT’s buoyant and results-driven approach in suggesting that we motivate ourselves towards tangible wins and personal bests, is a further offshoot towards a new school of self-help. Located at the slippery juncture between therapy and the ever-ubiquitous, lucrative objective of ‘wellness,’ its emphasis is not on curing illness but on optimizing and enhancing the self as personal brand. Such intentions are enticing. At a time in which the present often feels like an incessantly unspooling political nightmare, life-coaching strategically locates its efforts in the future, or in dreaming, visualizing and ‘manifesting’ a more covetable reality. Mapping the attractive circuits of ‘positive neural feedback,’ it shifts emphasis away from the self as a catalogue of traumas and bad habits, and, more appealingly, towards that’s self’s ability to live her or his ‘best life.’
The idea that a ‘life’ could be a manipulable category, that it could be wielded as a kind of project as opposed to an ontological given, was everywhere in my first session. Having exchanged pleasantries, the coach encouraged me, within minutes – curtailing any talk of prior history with therapy, or invocation of the past – to identify five obstacles to the ‘dream-life I desired.’ I was then invited to visualize that life via breathwork and a guided meditation. One exercise, which entailed envisioning myself as a bamboo stick – ‘lean, serene and strong’ – was, as well as shaded with the wellness industry’s premium on thinness – too ridiculous to be taken seriously. At the same time, I did – whether down to the increased oxygen intake or otherwise – feel calmer following the session: less glitched by the constant interruptions of self-doubt.
In her monograph Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Eva Illousz flexes the now widely accepted argument that capitalism, in the latter stages of the twentieth century, became less about the production of objects than the offering of services. In this new, dematerialized ‘service economy,’ which also slips under the alias of ‘cognitive capitalism,’ emotional intelligence became paramount, to facilitate the ineffability of services being sold. If previously, CEOs and bosses were expected to perform as good leaders, under the new optic of emotional intelligence they were doubly expected to be ‘good communicators,’ a guise, Illousz argues, that appeared well-meaning but did little more than gloss the ever-hierarchical, cut-throat factions of the corporate environment in a flattering lacquer. Feeling they were being catered for, and ‘looked after’ by proliferating HR departments, workers came to logically devote more time to their workplaces. The home, or the private sphere, as locus of emotional intensity, was displaced. In line with this inversion, our more intimate relationships – with parents, siblings, lovers, and friends – became drained of affective energy and started to take on the grooves of transaction, bartering, and quantifiable exchange.
In an online interview I found later with my coach, who had a background in musical theatre, and who spoke of the ‘relief’ of swapping life on Broadway for the more rewarding work of spiritual broadcasting, she attested to the ‘many hours’ spent studying the trends of digital marketing. To forge a career online, she emphasized, you needed to know the landscape: or what transformed the odd promotional email into a service for which people would actually pay. In our sessions this deft entrepreneurial fluency was obscured behind lexicons of ‘purpose’ and ‘service.’ In the email which suffixed every conversation, for example, she encouraged me to pay her the amount that I was ‘called’ to offer, blurring the transactionality of the exchange. Prompts to book another meeting were sieved through the tender mesh of friendship – ‘When can you next chat?’ – erasing typical parameters between therapist and client. Texting one another outside sessions was common. Our emails were increasingly post-scripted by long strings of kisses and warm declarations – ‘LOVE you. So PROUD of your learning, of your light. xxx’
In the initial podcast episode urging listeners to sign up for a taster session, the coach described life-coaching as an interactive, exercise-based form of life-improvement that would bolster individuals to clarify their vision, harness their potential and ready them to ‘introduce major shifts.’ In my experience, often sessions would revert to the unstructured expanses of traditional talk-therapy, without visualizing, affirmations, breathwork, or other coaching-verified methodologies. Increasingly, the only evidence of life-coaching’s difference from psychoanalytic dependence on free-form patient divulgence was the occasional reference on the coach’s part to a relevant book – or, more often, TED talk – currently forefront on the motivational speaker circuit. Then again, whilst qualifying as a medically-validated mental health professional requires years of grueling training, adding ‘coach’ to the list of one’s descriptive hyphens on Instagram – model/speaker/author/coach! – entails little more than an armored sense of self-confidence and a following robust enough to listen to your dispatches on emotional expansion, or kale.
It took seeing something I had written in a private email, reproduced without permission on the coach’s website, to persuade me to end the sessions. While, thankfully, I hadn’t signed up to an annual subscription, which required upwards of $1000 in advance, extricating myself from the arrangement still proved hard. My eventual approach of just not answering her emails stoked measured, yet immediate alarm: ‘Hey, I’m worried about you;’ ‘Hey, did you want to schedule a session for this month?; ‘Just checking in here.’ When I finally confirmed that I would not require more conversations, the tone grew inflammatory. ‘What do you mean working together isn’t the best fit?’
Life-coaching claims to want to overstep the shackles of past trauma and bad habits, and to galvanize the individual towards ‘self-actualization.’ As Illousz points out, however, the very idea of ‘self-actualization’ feeds on suffering – namely, that in order to progress towards yourself as fully ‘actualized,’ you have to believe that you are, at present, warped, and flawed. In this way, therapies like life-coaching only reproduce the suffering and alienation that we ask them to alleviate. A less goal-oriented, less ‘progress’-obsessed approach doesn’t lean on any crutch of self-improvement, nor, in its relentless futurist agenda, vacate the external and structural pressures from ongoing situations.
In the weeks following my break-up with the coach – which seems the appropriate terminology, given that, other than a swiftly forwarded invoice for my final session and punctual unfollows on social media, I never heard from her again – it helped to short-circuit the internal loopings of my own ‘authentic voice’ and to re-immerse myself in the thinking that had made me critical towards life-coaching in the first place. Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, for example, which strenuously argues against any notion that our thoughts create our reality, was a useful reference point. Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, which sees the risk of loss and vulnerability as the basis of all political communities, making the desire to inoculate a life against grief and violence through ‘universe support’ and ‘abundance’ a futile task, was helpful, too. Finally, a re-reading of Michel Foucault’s third volume of The History of Sexuality, The Care of the Self, whose call to make one’s life “into a work of art” has calcified into something of a 21st century meme, was revealing. Most citations of this life-as-work-of-art idea omit the preceding sentence, which counsels that a self is not something that is ‘given’ to us (“given in advance”), but something that can only be developed in relation to others, or through an ethics. Despite the affected closeness of the core dynamic between myself and my coach, this was my main problem with the project of life-coaching: that it didn’t leave much room for the derailments of a life often caused by other people. It saw a ‘life’ as an almost locomotive force, blindly raging against errancy of any kind.
In one of the sections of his 1993 work Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben links the resignation and withdrawal of Melville’s infamous short story, Bartleby the Scrivener, to the question of a life as “pure immanence,” which is to say, without overarching structure or transcendent law, operating independently of any fungible economy of general exchange. For Agamben, Bartleby, and his iconic refrain of “preferring not to” is an emblem of “pure, absolute potentiality,” where potentiality must be differentiated from the will or necessity to carry something to fruition. In a pithier, more aphoristic sentence he writes, “Potentiality is not will.” Potentiality is not will, the self is not given to us in advance, and it is a form of cruel optimism to assume that our lives are our own.
Recently, I spent time in Paris for work and, one night, having left my purse and bank cards at a conference hall that would not open again until Monday, faced the prospect of an evening cancelling accounts abroad and dining on a croissant that had long crumbled at the bottom of my bag. My annoyance must have been legible, because, walking up the Canal St Martin, an elderly woman called out to me, tugging a fastidiously groomed dog on a lead. “Mademoiselle,” she said. “On peut aimer la vie sans aimer sa vie.” It’s possible to love life without loving your life. It is. Sometimes, on non red-wine hangover days, I do.