Confessions of a life coach: when my clients succeed, I’m left with nothing

Set adrift.
Set adrift.
Image: Ayank/Pixabay
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My client started our 13th phone session together by telling me she figured out what she wants to do with her life. She came to me fed up with the long hours of mind-numbing work at her office. She didn’t think she’d have the time or energy to find a new career. I helped her strategize. Now, she excitedly announced that she enrolled in a certification program to become a holistic health practitioner.

Another client success.

“Damn, she’s going to leave me,” I thought, picturing the hole in my appointment calendar, the setback to my cash flow and not being able to hear updates every other week. I already missed her.

Part of me was delighted for her and flattered when she credited me for her success. She thanked me profusely, saying, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” As any good coach is trained to say I responded, “Thank you, but you did the work.” I recapped the mental blocks she overcame and the specific changes she made to recognize the opportunity and to have the courage to seize it.

Sheepishly, she said, “Now that I’m enrolled in school, I think it would be hard for me to keep up with our sessions.” I considered telling her I could help her manage juggling school with work. If I were bolder and not the people-pleasing, guilt-ridden, Korean-American daughter of a Christian Ethics professor that I am, I would have suggested it. The horrible truth was she didn’t need me anymore.

Instead, we planned how she would tackle work conflicts that were likely to arise. We ended the session with my congratulatory encouragement and with her promising to keep in touch. “I’m going to tell all my friends how you helped me,” she exclaimed.

After the call, I allowed the reality of her departure to sink in. I loved coaching each of my clients. I felt privileged that such talented people entrusted me with private details of their lives they didn’t share with anyone else. I found their stories fascinating, everything from post-explosion remorse after fights with their children to meticulous methods of cleaning out overstuffed email inboxes.

As a former social science researcher, I had always enjoyed the hunt; interview questions provided insights and anecdotal evidence. As a coach, however, my queries helped clients figure out better solutions for themselves. It was rewarding to feel helpful and useful. Moreover, observing them helped me unravel my own career-family conflict puzzles. I appreciated that glimpses into parents’ lives with teens made me less fearful of my own two daughters’ looming adolescence.

But after my clients succeeded, they left. Worse yet, I was stuck with the part of my job I didn’t love: the hustle to find more candidates.

Unlike good therapists whose customers see them for decades, mine only stay with me for months. Though our fees are similar, $150-200 per session, therapists take home far more per person. Their engagement is longer, and they sometimes see patrons twice a week, while I typically talk to mine only once or twice a month.

Judging by the endless solicitation I receive, I know I’m not alone. Nearly every business day, I get an email or phone call from “experts” who promised the “secret weapon” to “easy breezy money,” increased web traffic, or a “massively” successful coaching business. These marketers probably brand solopreneurs like me as vulnerable, gullible saps. They get our names from the International Coach Federation website. Legally anyone can hang up a shingle and start a practice. But, I, along with 20,000 other members voluntarily chose to pay the $245 annual fee. I could have exploited my hard-earned Ph.D. Instead, I paid $6,300 to attend an accredited school, and an additional $300 to get further credentials as a Professional Certified Coach.

In the beginning, I took advantage of some of those offers. I learned to hone in on a “niche” and to deliver “winning” consultations. I preferred coaching high-achieving women and parents who needed help juggling career and family. Sometimes I was so effective during consultations at easing prospective clients’ worries that they lost the urgency to hire me.

My savvy MBA friend, Michael, diagnosed my problem as not having a “scalable” business: “Your earnings are limited by an hourly rate and there are only so many hours in the week.” He urged me to generate income streams that reach an infinite number of people with finite effort. I wrote an ebook, gave speeches and led workshops, but these did not showcase how I customize my coaching to my client’s unique situation and personality. They didn’t provide me with the sense of connectedness I craved working with unique individuals.

I looked at my calendar and saw that my next session was with a conscientious mom who hoped to start a new venture when her son embarked for college. Having already sent her two older daughters off, she felt ready for this last send-off.

That was when it hit me: my clients were preparing me for empty nest syndrome. Each success was helping me embrace my own children’s growing independence and launch into adulthood. Each departure was teaching me to accept my daughters needing me less and to cope with void. The big payoff for being a good coach and a good parent was the same: the chance to share wisdom with an open yet vulnerable heart, then dispatch someone into the world, better off.

To learn more about Stacy’s practice, visit LifeJunctions.com. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Image by Ayank on Pixabay, licensed under CC-BY-0.