Life coaches on Instagram break the first rule of therapy—that’s why it works

Millennial life coaches
Millennial life coaches
Image: Kat Hassan for Quartz
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I can’t remember, exactly, when or why I initially became obsessed with life coaches on Instagram. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because I wanted to hire one.

Over time, I came to know their lives, in that strange online way where you don’t know someone’s real name, but thanks to their Instagram Stories, you know their favorite ceramic mug, the layout of one corner of their apartment, and the kind of milk frother they use to make their almond matcha latte.

But it wasn’t just the pleasing aesthetics of their lives that lured me. It was the conviction and confidence with which they shared their inner worlds with their online one. During a period of my life in which I was spending a lot of time, energy, and money (if you count therapy) to sort out mine, I was drawn to these bold and risky displays of online vulnerability—even if I sometimes judged them.

There is no shortage of content from which to judge, too. In keeping with millennials who use social media to build a brand in the hopes of eschewing normal definitions of work and career, life coaches on Instagram are content creators as much as anything else. Some, like @JanneRobinson (74.8k followers) write poetry and sell feminist merchandise; others like @connie_chapman (13.9k followers) have podcasts and regularly share their morning beach workouts. They tend to work from a social media playbook that could just as easily be used to sell yoga mats or smoothies as self-help. And from what I can tell—it’s working.

Image for article titled Life coaches on Instagram break the first rule of therapy—that’s why it works
Image: Kat Hassan for Quartz

I’m no stranger to personal development. My mom introduced me to self-help stalwarts Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay when I was a teen, and I once worked as a personal assistant for a leading hypnotherapist. But the online culture of life coaching confused me. Life coaches don’t so much self promote on Instagram as they do actively and profusely share their life stories, worldview, and acquired wisdom, while wrapping it in very aspirational and personal packaging. Because of the conflation of product and package, I wasn’t sure if I was following for spiritual insights or for the addicting drip-drip-drip of content.

Did I want a life coach? Or did I want the well-lit and seemingly well-balanced life of a life coach? The more I followed, the less I could tell.

‘An energetic influence’

To find out, I decided to hire a life coach myself. As a journalist, I also wanted to learn what, exactly, the difference between the work one does with a life coach and a therapist is. Anyone who has ever done therapy can attest to the rather strange dynamic: You tell your therapist things that you’ve not only never admitted to anyone else, but haven’t even told yourself. The process is exhausting, time-consuming, and as far as I can tell, there is no shortcut. But for me, the time I spent in therapy was transformative.

Like most therapist-client relationships, the tell-all nature of mine was entirely one-sided. Other than the tiny amount I deduced from my therapist’s tastefully eclectic North London home office in the year I worked with her, I know absolutely nothing about her. She has an under-populated LinkedIn profile, but is otherwise not on social media at all. While some people find this model outdated and overly formal—there are now brand consultants for therapists, too—its theoretical basis is to allow for “transference.”

Originally popularized by Freud, transference is a process by which a client redirects feelings (ranging from attraction to desire to anger to co-dependence) about a known figure in their life towards the unknown therapist. While humans can do this with all kinds of people in their lives—lovers, friends, bosses—therapists tend to use it as a tool. The less a client knows about a therapist, the logic goes, the easier it is for the patient to see them as a blank slate and thus “transfer.” The therapist can then recognize the projection that is occurring, locate its actual source in the client’s life or family history, and go on to treat it accordingly.

This dynamic is why, as Berkeley, California based coach-turned-therapist Carmen Aceves-Iñiguez told me: “I would not go out to lunch or coffee with a therapy client—but with a coaching client, I would.” In my case, I couldn’t meet my life coach for lunch, because I met her where she meets most of her clients: the internet.

When I reached out to Vienda Maria (@ViendaMaria, 10.9k followers), who I’d been following on Instagram for about a year, I felt I knew way more about her than she knew about me. That said, one of Maria’s first observations about me—that I had spent most of my adult life thus far entirely focused on external achievement, and was now recognizing the limitations of that—rang true in that visceral, gut-level way that’s hard to hide from or ignore. I was impressed she gleaned this from a couple of emails and my online presence; I also felt very vulnerable.

Image for article titled Life coaches on Instagram break the first rule of therapy—that’s why it works
Image: Kat Hassan for Quartz

I later learned that feeling like I know Maria enough to be comfortably vulnerable in front of her on Skype within 10 minutes of digitally meeting her is part of her strategy: “In my approach, you lead the way with the client,” Maria explained. “By the time someone comes to work with me, they feel like they know my life so well already that they have this intimate connection with me before we even start talking together. They come to me with: ‘Oh we’re already friends, I already know you.’ There is almost this energetic influence that happens.”

Indeed, far from keeping a blank slate, Maria’s goal is to invite her clients to fill in their picture of her before they even meet, albeit online. This was a commonality of other life coaches I spoke to. They don’t market or sell themselves as much as they share themselves—often to surprising degree. Many say it helps filter the clients who will respond to a given coach’s methods or “vibe,” from the ones who won’t. It’s also, unsurprisingly, a practice that lends itself very well to Instagram.

While it may be very easy to mock one self-aware millennial packaging their relatively scant life experience to help improve the life of another, the surprising thing is this: For me, it was actually helpful.

‘Spirit Junkies’

The definition of a life coach is a bit slippery. Though certification schemes exist—some respected and widely recognized, many not—there is no singular regulator, licensing body, or governing board. Anyone, anywhere, quite literally, can call themselves a coach and practice across international borders. Because of this ambiguity, many coaches—be they spiritual, relationship, business, mindset, or wellness coaches—avoid the term entirely. Maria, for her part, prefers the term “mentor.”

When it comes to life coaching, I was told by several coaches I interviewed that people like me—who have completed enough therapy to be familiar with the fundamental issues that drive their emotional tendencies and neurosis—are a perfect candidate. In other words, having a baseline level of mental health and self inquiry means you can use coaching for its intended purpose: Creating proactive steps to live the life you want, rather than, say, trying to figure out why you’re so anxious, depressed, or self loathing all of the time. While coaches are meant to refer out to a therapist or specialist for serious issues like depression, addiction, chronic anxiety, childhood trauma, or self harm, it’s a fact of the industry that there is absolutely no oversight or regulation ensuring that they do.

Life coaches have existed for some time, but the ones I followed on Instagram operate on a model that’s thoroughly in tune with the social media era. One could say their patron goddess is Gabrielle Bernstein, a woman who has Oprah’s seal of approval and runs a “Spirit Junkie” online masterclass for people who want to learn how to be a coach. Bernstein extols a kind of deity-agnostic spirituality that serves as an all-inclusive offer: Get the universe on your side, and just about every other aspect of your life will fall into place too, including money, career, relationship, fertility, body, and personal fulfillment. Her website and blog are full of the type of language—”manifesting your desires,” “living your truth,” “surrender and co-creation”—that either speaks to you directly, or causes you to dismiss her completely.

One alum of Bernstein’s online program I spoke to for this piece described the three-tiered content strategy she advises: The first is giving away stuff for free, such as audio downloads, mediations, informative blog posts, and, of course, very long and personal Instagram captions. The second is paid-for courses and online workshops, which are more affordable than individual coaching and many people can do at once. The third is one-to-one coaching, often done via video conference. For those with a large following, affiliate and sponsored content can also be a revenue stream.

Image for article titled Life coaches on Instagram break the first rule of therapy—that’s why it works
Image: Kat Hassan for Quartz

Maria didn’t train with Berstein, but she follows a similar model, which seems to work well. She places no paid-for ads and garners all her clients—which she says range from 10 to 16 people per month, most seeing her on a monthly basis for up to one year— via social media and organic content marketing like blogs and newsletters. In fact, her foray into coaching was a result of this kind of organic marketing strategy too, when her own personal development led to a public-facing blog.

“Writing turned into a blog, and that blog turned into people asking me for advice, and the advice turned into these Skype calls,” Maria said of her start as a coach. From there, she built her practice up slowly, coaching many friends and clients for free at first. While she does not have a coaching accreditation from the various bodies that exist, she uses her psychology degree—during which she practiced one-to-one counseling—as well as her own life experience and wide personal study to inform her work.

Making space

My stated goal before my session with Maria was to become less obsessed with achievement and less driven by the adrenaline of ambition, which she described as a “masculine” way of moving through the world. I also wanted to “make space” (a phrase life coaches seem to love) for my wider, non-work existence. In short, I wanted to not feel like I’m on deadline, even when doing the dishes.

While that may sound precious, I can assure you that the anxiety associated with a fixation on perfection has for me, at times, been debilitating. But paradoxically and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s been a huge enabler of professional success; obsessive and pedantic perfectionism begets good journalism, if not good mental health. For large parts of my twenties, I’ve felt as though I’ve had to choose between the two states of being: spacious or perfect. I bet you can guess which one I—and many other millennials finding their way in a hyper-individualistic, neoliberal job market—have historically chosen.

While I previously explored and came to know the roots of this anxiety in therapy, which was no easy feat, Maria seemed particularly well-equipped to help me understand the role that social media and my largely online life plays in magnifying and exacerbating it. She also posited that, at a young age, I had learned I could use “intelligence as a tool to be recognized, to receive love, and be given the attention that [I] needed,” noting that this is a “natural” thing for a sensitive child to do. She went on: “The imbalance comes in later when using that same mental power as a coping mechanism to achieve all those things as an adult.” For someone who barely knows me, I can’t deny that she nailed it.

Image for article titled Life coaches on Instagram break the first rule of therapy—that’s why it works
Image: Kat Hassan for Quartz

While our session felt a little unstructured at times—I was unsure if she was leading it, or if we were just chatting—her resulting advice that she sent in an email was concrete. It included scheduling time to do nothing and seeing “what intuitively shows up”—maybe it’s watercolor painting, maybe it’s a nap, the point is not to judge its productivity level. She also suggested cultivating stillness in moments throughout my day—rather than just in the meditation sessions I often struggle to get through—something I’ve since implemented when waiting for elevators and in line at the grocery store to surprising success. And finally, she advised creating and honoring boundaries between work and life, even when it is highly uncomfortable for my perfectionist brain to do so.

All in all, the session exceeded my expectations, and it felt empowering to re-learn that my reliance on a purely external, intellectual and “masculine” style of ambition was not only unsustainable—but not even well-suited to having the kind of creative, happy life that produces work I’m proud of.

Overall, I sensed that Maria was the type of person suited to do this work: intuitive, curious, a good listener, and clearly valuing the connection with her client over earning a paycheck from just anyone. I wondered, though, what would have happened if I’d chosen a coach that didn’t have that approach. In an industry with a complete lack of regulation, the likelihood of that, it seems, can’t be ignored.

Luxury versus necessity 

It’s hard to estimate how many life coaches practice worldwide. But according to a 2016 study (pdf) by the International Coach Federation (ICF), which is one of the industry’s most recognized accreditation organizations, there are approximately 53,300 professional coach practitioners worldwide.

Assistant Executive Director George Rogers says that while the ICF provides a “self-regulating professional community” to its members, its true purpose serves prospective coaching clients.

“Regulation is meant to protect consumers and make sure they’re getting what they paid for based on an established set of standards, and that’s exactly what individual coach credentialing programs such as ours do,” Rogers said. “In a global coaching marketplace, a credential only carries weight if your prospective clients recognize its meaning.”

It’s hard to say if someone like Maria’s conversion rate would spike if she had a credential. But while her business model may succeed by upending one of the key tenets of therapy—the blank slate that allows transference to be used as a tool—there is no failsafe or recourse if someone in her position acts unethically or breaches the client’s trust. That’s a key, and troubling, difference.

Amidst that lack of regulation, there’s the added factor that there is a rather large motivation to get into coaching other than helping people: It’s lucrative. According to Daniela Tempesta, a San Francisco-based practitioner who is both a licensed therapist and a coach (though, for ethical reasons, she does not serve as both for any single client), some therapists have realized that much of their therapy training can be applied to a coaching practice—for more money. She says in the Bay Area, she has seen coaches charge anywhere from $200 to $1,000 per session. Maria charges $150 per session, which included a preliminary call as well as thorough follow-up notes and a recording.

“Anybody can call themselves a coach,” Tempesta told me. “But for whatever reason, coaches charge anywhere from two to ten times what a therapist charge. Who determines the value is a difficult question to answer. But therapists might say: ‘Hey, I have a lot of education and I’ve put a lot of time in and there’s these people who are getting compensated way more than me,’ so they may want to market that too.”

The price differential could have something to do with the fact that, as Aceves-Iñiguez put it, “There is less stigma about charging a higher fee since coaching is considered a luxury.” Though she sees it as a needed service, Aceves-Iñiguez does concede that the aspirational packaging in which coaching is sometimes wrapped online likely helps elevate its perceived value, too.

According to Tempesta, therein lies the risk factor—and perhaps part of the historical reason for therapists keeping their personal lives under wraps: “I think sometimes that kind of marketing can become kind of dangerous. People might do the thing where they project and they go ‘That’s what I want to be,’ and they think by working with that coach, that’s who they’re going to become. And that’s not really what coaching is about.”

That said, when I revisit why I was drawn to life coaches, I suppose this strategy worked. The creative, spacious, and non-stressful life that people like Maria artfully portray on Instagram is something that, if I’m honest, I’d love to have more of myself. Whether that portrayal is real or not—and more importantly, whether or not I can create it for myself—are questions that will vary with every client and coach relationship. The integrity of the coach, and not to mention the baseline mental health of the client, are by no means a given.

“People learn with a lot more ease and grace when they’re not told what to do, but shown what to do,” Maria told me.

I suspect she’s right. I believe the reason I got something out of hiring a life coach from Instagram was twofold: I had done a lot of previous self-inquiry—and I chose a good coach. Whether I manifested the latter—or it was the result of sheer dumb luck—well, that’s entirely up to you.