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Do I Need a Life Coach?

The rise of this new approach to self-improvement leads to answers for many—and questions, too

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Life coaching emerged as a profession about ten years ago, and the field has grown rapidly since then. In 1999, the International Coach Federation (ICF) had roughly 2,100 North American members; today, that figure is more than 8,000. The organization’s local chapter, the Chicago Coach Federation, has grown from 239 members in 2004 to 325 members currently. But questions about the practice still exist—namely, what does a life coach actually do, and how is it different from therapy? Here, a primer in five easy pieces:

Take Stock

The biggest hurdle can be figuring out whether dissatisfaction with one’s life is a problem that needs help from the outside. Amy Fenton, an Oak Park stay-at-home mom, was stuck. “I had this vague idea that I didn’t want to be doing this forever,” Fenton recalls. “But I had this question: What do I do with the rest of my life?” Feeling utterly worn down by the demands of parenting her young daughter, Fenton, who has degrees in art and theatre but had been working in an unrewarding office job when she became a mother, decided to hire a life coach.

Before the first session, the coach asked Fenton to assess various areas of her life—career, physical environment, fun and recreation, and so forth—and how she felt about them. Fenton made some surprising discoveries. “I was very frustrated with [lack of] personal growth, because I was home with Ariel all the time,” she says. “[But] in the process of talking with my coach I realized I was doing a lot of personal growth—but I

didn’t like it. Also, I was very career focused when I started talking to her, but she really helped me identify how I was going to make my whole life work better.”


Understand the Difference Between a Life Coach and a Therapist

Coaches—and clients—are adamant that while the line between coaching and therapy can seem a bit blurry, they are not the same thing. “Therapy is all about your feelings and your past,” Fenton says, adding that the time she previously spent in therapy would have been better spent with a coach. “I wasn’t frustrated because of my family history; I was frustrated because I felt stuck. A coach is not going to get into your psyche—they’re going to help you take action.”

Jim Korenich, a social worker and director of clinical services for Chicago-based Employee Resource Systems, which works with employers to provide counseling services to their employees, has been trained, but doesn’t practice, as a life coach. He agrees with Fenton’s assessment, adding that coaching is most appropriate for people who are emotionally healthy already. “If someone’s been married six times, they pro­bably need a therapist, not a coach,” Korenich points out. “There’s not a problem finding people to marry; they need to find out why they’ve been married so much.”


Illustration: Hanna Melin/agoodson.com


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