Meaning Seekers or Meaning Makers ‘R Us?
Life Coaching: the New (but Maybe Not So Improved) Counseling
The setting: a kitchen table in a suburban Midwestern home, four women seated around one end, coffee or ice water within reach, a book, pencil, and paper set before each one. The scene has been repeated weekly for some months now, usually, as today, with me included. Of late, we’ve been working our way through a Bible study on prayer, one chapter a week. Sometimes one of us takes issue with the author. At other times we disagree among ourselves. At all times, barring major schedule conflicts, we come back each Tuesday because we find it rewarding intellectually, spiritually, and relationally.
On this particular morning, we reflected on some of the challenges we’ve grappled with over recent years. Some would certainly qualify as grounds for clinical depression in more formal settings, yet none of us identify ourselves as “depressed.” I thought about this as I read Rethinking Depression, the newest book by family therapist turned “life coach” Eric Maisel. The back cover had plugged it as a “deconstruction of the ‘mental health industry'” that “busts numerous myths about why people have the so-called mental illness of depression,” and Part One delivered well on that promise.
Maisel argues that the ordinary human condition of sadness, a common phenomenon traditionally called melancholia, has in recent decades been exploited and medicalized by professional psychiatry and an aggressive pharmaceutical industry. As a result, social forces now direct us to diagnose the often temporary feelings as “the mental disorder of depression” and then to seek “treatment” for them from the mental health industry, which happens to consist of psychiatrists and pharmaceutical manufacturers. “Mental disorders come into existence by virtue of a handful of people in a room deciding that a phenomenon ought to be called a mental disorder. Once this naming occurs and is codified, the rest of the profession goes along with the naming, and the general population follows,” he wrote. “The system is designed to turn ordinary human experience into categories of disorder, trapping in any real disorders with the concocted ones. This bad science couples intellectual shoddiness with venality to produce tens of millions of ‘patients’ annually.”
Fees are collected and prescription drugs sold, generating economic activity and a variety of neurochemical alterations in patients’ brains, but perhaps not much else. Voices as diverse as Time magazine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Scientific American have raised credible doubts as to whether antidepressants work any better than placebos.
In light of those doubts, Maisel’s deconstruction struck me as a welcome breath of fresh air. Certainly feelings of sadness are unwanted, but it does not follow that they are abnormal in a medical sense. “It is a grave mistake to make every unwanted aspect of life the symptom of a mental disorder,” he asserted. Yes! I thought. We were clipping along, Dr. Maisel and I, until I got into Part Two, his prescription for overcoming the blues.
Maisel promotes a “new psychology,” a pseudo-academic approach he has christened niometic psychology, “the new psychology of meaning.” In doing so, he has rightly identified the innate human need for meaning. We want and need to live for something that matters, and we want and need to know that we matter. But he has wrongly positioned the locus of meaning squarely within the self. Instead of beginning with the questions, What really matters? as if there exists some objective, transcendent meaning to life, and How should I orient my life’s activities in reference to it? as if one finds satisfaction in life by discovering it and living accordingly, his approach begins by asking, What matters to me?
A 163-page train wreck proceeds from there. “‘Meaning,’ the shorthand word for ‘what matters to us,’ is primarily a subjective psychological experience,” he pronounces without providing any support for the bald proclamation. And “since meaning is a subjective psychological experience, you are in a position, as with any other subjective psychological experience, to participate in influencing it, manipulating it, and creating it.” In other words, the meaning of your life is all in your mind, and since it’s all in your mind, you are the source and determiner of it. Once you realize this, you “are suddenly in the position of never running out of meaning again: it is a wellspring, a renewable resource, and in a sense that is more real than metaphoric, infinite.”
Did you follow that? Here it is minus the lofty language: You make your own meaning, and then the meaning you made makes your life have meaning. There is nothing infinite about this, except that if it took the form of a computer program, it would be stuck in an infinite loop. It’s circular reasoning, beginning and ending with the self.
Life Coaching: The New Counseling
Maisel has adopted the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, commonly called existentialism (Your life means whatever you decide it does), invented a new name for it (noimetic psychology), and deployed it as therapy under the banner of life coaching. Life coaching is the new counseling.
In a sense, the new branding suggests a refreshing paradigm shift, with its emphasis on a relationship in which one person comes alongside another to help him attain his personal best. Etymologically, ‘coach’ comes from earlier words regarding transportation; think ‘cart’ or ‘carriage.’ The sense of ‘instructor’ arose, as did its use in athletics, in the 1800s in reference to a tutor who “carries” a student through an exam, and the shift toward counseling connotations followed much later, when football coach Benjamin Karter took up motivational speaking in the 1970s.
Since then, life coaching has blossomed into a bouquet of niche specialties. Need help navigating the marketplace? Career, business, and executive coaches will help you in return for fees ranging from the modest $50 to upwards of $300/hour. The budget-challenged can hire a financial coach, and the relationship-challenged, a conflict, victimization, or dating coach, depending on the nature of the relationship in distress. If you prefer a coach with a Christian bent, those are out there too, and for general help with life challenges, a smorgasbord of all-purpose life coaches stand eager to tender services.
Coachee’s Caveat Emptor
To be sure, any of these may prove helpful for getting you through a tight spot in life, but careful screening is a must. Just like any professional, a prospective counselor-coach offers knowledge, expertise, and time in return for a fee. A personal trainer, for example, will mine his knowledge of exercise physiology to help you set reasonable goals, devise a regimen to achieve them, and then work the regimen with you. A similar process would ensue with a financial coach. If all goes according to plan, the fees you pay will be money well spent.
But what is the base of knowledge from which a life coach coaches? Whereas physiology begins with the hard sciences of anatomy and physics, and finance with basic math, a life coach’s counsel begins with his outlook on life. This is a whole different category of knowledge, not a matter of hard science but of one’s personal philosophy.
And that begins with one’s view of God. Maisel, to use him as an example, begins with the presupposition that God either doesn’t exist or is irrelevant. This explains why he recognizes no transcendent point of reference for meaning in life, but it also indicates that the ‘wisdom’ he offers will ultimately be groundless, as it will spring, presumably, from the same, self-referential and vacuous, What matters to me? It will either direct you back to yourself – What do you experience as meaningful? – a question you may as well discuss over coffee with a friend for free, or it will be based on his own subjective experience of meaning – What matters to me? being the admitted wellspring from which his life’s meaning flows.
Ponder for a moment the absurdity of a counselor who makes meaning (and a living) for himself by counseling clients to make meaning for themselves in whatever way they make meaning for themselves. Other life coaches take an approach similar to that of 12-Step programs, appealing to “whatever Higher Power you recognize.” This works fairly well for the purposes of 12-Step but is dubious at best for general life counsel, as it’s still precariously self-referential. One must choose his counselors wisely.
For kicks, I took a free online quiz from Coach Training Alliance (CTA) to see if I have “what it takes” to be a Certified Life Coach. I answered all ten questions with the bland ‘Somewhat Agree.’ “Not bad,” responded CTA, according to whom I can become a Certified Coach “with paying clients and a growing practice – in just 6-months.” Not only that, if getting started seems overwhelming to me, I can “land coaching clients” by hiring Client Acquisition Partners (CAP) to make cold calls for me. CAP “will sell business owners into FREE phone consultations” with me because they’ve made it their business to set me up for success.
Are you ready to buy in yet?
Resetting the Locus of Meaning
Me neither. Which brings me back to my cherished friends around the table. In The Pursuit of God in the Company of Friends, Richard Lamb suggests that what people are really looking for in life is God, not just ideas about God, but God himself. To satisfy that desire, he recommends cultivating deep friendships with others whose lives are shaped by the same pursuit. This is what my friends and I do together. Life is hard. We know that by now. But we’ve managed to navigate it thus far without sinking into “the mental illness of depression” or the delusion of self-made meaning, in part I believe, because we look together to the self-existing Author of life, who is himself a better and more reliable source for truth.
With this as our immovable reference point, we coach, counsel, and carry one another through the perennial challenges of holding a marriage together, raising children, and maintaining a semblance of equanimity in a hostile culture. These things matter, we know, because God made those people, put them in our lives, and has tasked us with loving and serving them on his behalf. The mission involves a host of unpleasant feelings, but it is infinitely meaningful, not because we experience it as meaningful, but because the infinite God who is the determiner of all meaning says it is.
If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, though, for a limited time I’m offering FREE phone consultations …. Haha, just kidding.
This article first appeared in Salvo 24, Spring 2013