When Your Wheels Are Spinning: What to Look for in a Therapist or Life Coach

ID-100134364Sometimes, when you hit a brick wall during your process of change, and it seems like it’s closed in on you, boxing you in, getting outside help is the best way to go.  Therapists and life coaches are excellent options. But choosing one can certainly be tricky. Sometimes there’s good luck in just grabbing someone from the Yellow Pages (that was how I found my new dentist; I chose someone close to work and home, not knowing anything about him, and he worked out beautifully). Asking your doctor for a recommendation for a therapist/psychiatrist is a good place to start.

Finding a good life coach, on the other hand, is a bit harder. Most will have websites which you can peruse, and many do work remotely — by phone and by email, so that’s a big plus. How much they charge varies depending on the services they provide.

But first I need to explain the differences between a life coach and a therapist.A therapist/psychiatrist generally has you focusing on your past and how you got to where you are so you have understanding and the ability to move forward.

A life coach, as I am, does see the past as important, but focusing on it isn’t; we acknowledge it as important and that it’s what got you to where you are, but we focus less on what happened as it cannot be changed, only accepted, and it’s going forward from here that matters. (That should also be a point a good therapist also does.)

While there is therapy (rather, it’s therapeutic) in life coaching, as well as a deep need to understand humans and human behavior, we generally don’t analyze the past or search for whys. If you get them, great; if you don’t, that’s fine, too.  Getting stuck in analysis and finding whys to all your behaviors is not something we see as important. Only that you have them — where they came from or why doesn’t matter. Again, it’s about learning how to make new choices. Accepting past behaviors and incidents as part of you, but letting them go. Focusing on the past keeps you from focusing on the future.

Both therapists and life coaches can be a boon; many clients of mine use both. It’s not unlike having a swimming coach and a personal trainer. They have overlapping knowledge bases, but they have different skill sets and focuses.

But how do you know which is for you, and what makes a good one? Here are some of the things I feel are important to look for when choosing a therapist or a life coach — or any coach for that matter. (These are in no particular order of importance).

1. Make sure they resonate with you.

If your gut is saying, “I don’t like this person,” listen to that.

You need to have rapport with the person with whom you’ll be working, and you need to feel like there’s some kind of connection. You need to feel like you can trust them. Rapport, that resonance, should be there fairly quickly. There have been times when I feel like I haven’t made that connection with a client, but for whatever reason they felt they had that important connection with me.

When that happens, it means they trust me. That’s what’s most important. Ma

2. They should be friendly, but they should not be your friend–or try to be.

The role of a therapist or life coach is not that of a friend to take you out for a beer and a cry. Granted, a life coach might meet with you in a friendly pub and you may cry with them, but they aren’t there as a comrade. Doing so interferes with their role of having non-attachment.

This doesn’t mean they don’t care — it means they are coming from a place of professionalism. There are coaches and therapists who do think it’s about being your friend, in the true and classic sense, but, in my professional opinion, that motive is a bit skewed and makes me wonder what they’re trying to personally fill by doing so. Think of a great boss — he or she is friendly, personable, perhaps even charming — but they aren’t your friend. You may socialize with them at functions, but this is not someone with whom you’d go see a movie and grab dinner with afterwards.

A coach or therapist is not there to commiserate with you. They are not there to compare notes with you about life experiences and how they feel. This is what a best friend is for. Commiseration does not provide growth and healing for you in a long-term, foundation-building way.

3. A life coach–or a therapist–is not Dear Abby.

We do not give advice. We may give counsel or make suggestions, but if you think about the letters in Dear Abby or other such columns, they’re asking Abby to tell them what to do, rather than making the decision for themselves. A good therapist or coach should help give ideas, but they should also leave it up to you to decide what’s best for you. The letter writers in Dear Abby often come from a place where they believe they cannot / do not know what’s best for them.

When I’m asked by a client what they should do, I may make a few suggestions, but then I always ask them what resonates best with them.

If they don’t know, we often leave it at that and then return to it later. This means your therapist and coach shouldn’t tell you what to do. They aren’t a parent and you aren’t a child. Yes, for some, learning how to think on their own is a scary thought, and something that seems impossible, but a good therapist or coach should be encouraging to do exactly that.  I tell clients to think of me as a park ranger, a guide, a “second pair of eyeballs” on a situation, but that, ultimately, it’s up to them to decide what the journey is.

4. A life coach or therapist should never try to force you to do something that makes you uncomfortable.

To that, they should push you. Sometimes hard. But if they are trying to make you do something that doesn’t resonate with you, they should respect that. It’s one thing to be encouraging, another to be a know-it-all about what’s best for you. This is a foreign concept for both clients and therapists / coaches sometimes.  I may come out and tell someone it’s time to at least try something — or even to not do something — but I’m basing this on my relationship and knowledge of them.

Sometimes someone does need a boot in the rear. However, I also know that if they say no, that’s up to them. I still don’t “know” for sure.  A therapist/coach is an expert on guidance, but they cannot — and should not — define your path for you, or, even, what things mean, if something is right/wrong.  If I do come out and say “Don’t do that”, I will say it in a way that’s more like, “Based on your past choices and what you’ve seen come out from them, I’d say don’t/no as it’s just the same product in different packaging. But if you feel you need to try it this way, go ahead. Maybe it will work this time.”

5. The therapist or life coach should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

They should not divulge personal information about their life (though sometimes I do share certain things about my life to create rapport and help the client feel like I do understand in my own way), but you should get a sense that if they’re telling you to take responsibility for your life and the choices you’re making, they do the same thing.

We are not, of course, perfect. We’re flawed and we make mistakes and we’re still working on ourselves. And I’m open about that. I mess up. But I also take responsibility for mistakes; if I’m late, I make it fully my own fault.  You’ll get a gut feeling if the therapist or coach does this.

6. Interview them for the first session.

The sessions should be about you, not about a lecture of what the therapist/coach “can and will do for you”. They are, in truth, your employee as you’re paying them, and so they should be interviewed for the job. I don’t mean grill them. I mean treat it as someone who is vying for a position in your life. Learn about their tactics and methods, their background. This is how you can start to get a feeling if there’s rapport and trust.

If you think there is at first, but then, after a few sessions or so (or even later than that) you no longer have that sense of connection, find someone else. And if you do, the therapist/life coach should not take it personally, nor should they try to force you to stay.

They may spend some time with you to find out why and to make certain your motivations are exactly that and not out of an unconscious fear of big changes coming (many people quit therapy or working with a life coach right before big changes happen due to an unconscious realization it’s happening; it’s a form of resistance). If you don’t connect with the person initially in any way or form, keep going until you do.

Keep in mind that they’re interviewing you, too.

Be all right if they say that they feel like you need to work with someone else; 99 times out of 100 (if they’re a good coach), they’re wanting you to find someone who has the best rapport they can with you so that you get the best help you can. This may take a few sessions. That’s all right. It’s not rejection in the sense they’re abandoning you (even if it feels like it). I’ve passed clients on to other colleagues when I realized I didn’t have the kind of connection they needed, and I’ve “inherited” clients from colleagues as well.

7. Make certain they are not trying to heal themselves through you.

Here’s what I mean. In my profession, as well as with my shamanic healing circles, I have come across many, many people who got into their profession of therapy or coaching as a way to “fix” themselves through their clients. This isn’t healing or therapy.

Quite often, these people aren’t working on themselves actively. They have a belief that if they “cure” or “fix” a “broken” or “wounded” client, that their life will somehow miraculously shape up and become beautiful and joyful. They aren’t willing to do the work on or for themselves, or see that they’re actually using their clients. This does more harm than good, and someone who does this more apt to take liberties that are not theirs to take (telling you want to do, being forceful about it, “knowing” what’s right/wrong for you, telling you you’re broken and wrong…and so on).

One thing I’ve seen, too (especially in shamanic healing practices), is that the person seems to believe that the only way they can provide healing is through personal suffering. Watch out for this, too.

I once met a woman who wanted to be a healer and become a life coach (and use her shamanic training), but she was fixated on the belief that she was an unworthy person, and that she must live in suffering. She even moved to a poor square of land with a cabin that had no heating other than a tiny stove.

She believed that cobbling together sustenance and living without joy meant there would be more for others to have. This indicated, to me, an enormously low sense of self-esteem. She actually said to me, “If I’m suffering, then it will show those I’m working with that I’m selfless and that I am willing to make the sacrifices for their healing.” In truth, sadness radiated from her. The suffering she felt she deserved.

Could you really expect to find your own healing and motivation through someone who is purposely creating suffering for themselves?

Yes, unhappiness is part of the human existence. But someone wanting to provide you with motivation and inspiration   should have a good sense of self-esteem and personal power.

They should recognize that suffering is self-imposed pain — a choice. That there is an unlimited amount of joy out there for everyone. They should have a sense of humor and love themselves.u

I admittedly find a wonderful sense of fulfillment through my job and I often find insights to my own life and things I’m working on through my clients — and that’s fine. That’s a different thing altogether. But I also recognize my clients are not what make me whole. They are not what heals me. Yes, I find healing through them as I learn from them and get insights into myself…but I must then do the work myself to integrate it. I don’t use my clients specifically for that reason.

There is an unlimited amount of energy in the world, which means there is an unlimited amount of happiness and joy. Having an enormous amount of that for yourself no more pulls away from someone else than your breathing pulls oxygen away from another person.

I can say that I’ve found healing and motivation through my clients, but only as an inadvertent by-product of our sessions. I don’t purposely seek it. My clients have often found solutions to issues in their life that inspire me to incorporate into my own life. It’s wonderful when this happens, but it’s not my main focus. My main focus is my client and his or her goals.

8. Keep in mind that education/certification does not make the person a good therapist or life coach.

There are life coaching schools that certify you as a “bonafide” coach. I have not been through one, but it’s been my career for over a decade at the time this was written. I have come into contact with many life coaches over the course of my job who have been through the schools and have become certified, but they have absolutely no concept of what a life coach is or what coaching is (they fail at all of the above).

Some gave me the impression that they came into the career to feel like they had power and that their role is to tell people what to do. I once had someone tell me that he had more trust in the coaches at my company than he did in someone waving a “certification” at him, claiming that’s what made them a “good” “coach”.

I once had a “life coach” tell me that I was incorrect about my view point of how to coach, that certification did make them the expert about someone’s life choices, and that she was, therefore, the one to tell them how to live their life. “After all,” she said. “They came to me and I’m the coach. I am there to tell them what to do.”

That made my stomach go cold. Sadly, that viewpoint not uncommon in the coaching (or psychiatric) world.

Neither therapy nor coaching should ever be used as a vehicle (weapon) for a power trip.

Therapy is a bit different. You do need a state-given certification. A psychiatrist even more so as he/she is also a physician with the license to prescribe drugs (a psychologist does not).

When it comes to life coaching, my query to people who believe that certification is the only way someone is a “good” coach is this: “Would you want someone with more than a decade and a half of daily experience working on cars to repair yours, or would you want someone who only recently got ‘certified’ to do so?”

Let me also say this: I’m not disparaging life coaching certification.

There are many wonderful, amazing coaches out there who did receive a certification. My encouragement is still the same: look to the resonance within you and for a coach whose focus is on helping you. Not giving you orders because they believe they’re the experts on your life.

You want to find someone who is walking the walk as well as talking the talk, as the saying goes. Even if they’re just starting out.

Also, stemming from this, and connecting to the point below, watch where the therapist’s/life coach’s ego sits. Meaning–do they seem easily threatened? Do they get defensive when you ask for clarification or balk at a suggestion?

You are buying time with them to (ideally) help you sort out what you want to do. Not what they want you to do.

If your coach or therapist takes your questions or decline of a suggestion personally, that’s a red flag that this person isn’t focused on helping you in a way that you truly want.

Both therapy and life coaching augment each other, just as yoga augments weight lifting. I have had several therapists call me and tear me a new one for having the audacity to stick my nose into their patient’s business. They had the idea that I–and the other–were attacking them personally and trying to usurp their “authority” over a patient.

That was actually how one “therapist” phrased it: “Authority” over her patient. (Do you really want someone in your life who believes they have “authority” over it?)

This wasn’t a patient with severe behavioral issues where very specified therapy was needed. Rather, it was simply someone who wanted to create a life for herself where she felt fulfilled and no longer trapped in her past experiences.

A therapist or coach who acts in this manner is not someone you want as a therapist (or a life coach). They’re far too threatened.

Why? Well, any number of reasons.

It would be like your weight lifting coach making a scene with your yoga instructor–or vice versa. The focus of your therapist or life coach should be on you and your path for healing. If I had a client who said they wanted to also hire a therapist, my reply would be, “Great! Whatever you feel you need to do to reach your goals is fine with me.”

Your therapist and/or life coach should be supportive of your chosen efforts to move forward and reach your goals and support you in finding a path you feel is best fitting to reach those goals. The only person who has the “authority” to decide this for you is you.

9. Ask yourself what the coach/therapist is trying to prove to you.

Pay attention to their body language. Their voice. If they listen. If they talk at you rather than to you or with you. Do they  have an agenda for “fixing” you? (Watch out for the royal “we”; “Here’s how we’ll fix things.” It’s a mistaken form of rapport-building as it smacks of “I’m the expert”, rather than a sense the two of you are a team).

If they’re giving I-know-better-than-you advice, rather than encouragement and suggestions based on their expertise and observations of you (again, they may be upfront and forthright…but you know when someone is speaking from a place of a power trip or one of simply giving you feedback based on knowing your tendencies.)

Are they humble but confident? Do they have (personal/professional) integrity? Do you connect with them? And, perhaps most importantly, do you feel like you can trust them?

If you sense they’re trying to prove to you that you can find your way through providing you with avenues of self-exploration (such as homework or activities to practice so you can integrate your changes), then that’s a good sign. If they’re trying to prove to you they’re an expert and therefore the most knowledgeable person in the room for what’s best for you…reconsider.

Watch for their agenda. Yes, I or my colleagues have an “agenda” for our clients in the sense we want them to find healing–but we understand that everyone is different and will take a different path (a person isn’t an engine to rebuild that has a specific course of steps), and our “agenda” is to coach the person into finding their own path using the tips and tricks we give. If you sense the “agenda” on the part of the coach or therapist is that they see you as an engine, consider that as well.

Life coaching or therapy should be about you and helping you move forward.

Maybe you’ll find that it’s not quite time for you to do so — and that’s okay. But the ultimate goal of a therapist or life coach worth their salt is to get it so you do have a final session. Yes, there are some people who do require weekly or twice-monthly sessions with a therapist because they have behavioral or mental issues (like the character Monk of television show of the same name; he had a deep case of OCD).

But the larger part of the population does not.

I once spoke to a fellow who said his whole family had been seeing the same therapist for twenty years.  He had no concept of thinking for himself or what I meant when I asked him what he wanted. His response was, “I’ll have to ask my therapist.” In my opinion, that therapist is the worst kind out there; a professional coach or therapist should never foster that kind of co-dependency in their clients. 

These were not people who had almost debilitating forms of OCD or PTSD, some kind of mental illness–say, schizophrenia–that needed that kind of attention. Rather, that therapist had fostered an enormous level of co-dependency with this client and the client’s family, to the point where the whole family could no longer think for themselves. The had no idea where they ended and their therapist began. Or versa. The therapist had engendered a relationship where the client and his family believed they couldn’t function without his weekly (or more frequent) input.

That’s an abuse of the therapist’s position. A therapist or life coach is a healer, not a power-and-ego-hungry dictator.

What a good life coach or therapist wants is for their client to eventually not need them at all. The point of my job is to help the person develop the kind of life skills that allows the person to live a life of self-support, self-confidence and the ability to believe in their own personal power. Not to lean on me as a crutch for twenty years.

10. Watch to see how personally invested the coach/therapist is in you.

Yes, you want them to make you feel like they’re present and they care — but how attached are they to you moving forward? Do they take it personally when you rebuff a suggestion that doesn’t resonate with you? (But do be open-minded and flexible; they do have expertise — it’s why you went to them — just not in who you are at heart; if they’re making you “wrong”, step away.)

Does the therapist/coach get frustrated or angry if you don’t follow what they say to a T? There are times when I’ll be (rather) forthright with a client, but that’s only (and I repeat only) if my gut is telling me it’s absolutely warranted. There also must (must!) be a level of rapport there. It’s also situation-dependent. By my question above, I mean do they take it personally? As in an insult?

Do they feel like they’re a bit too involved in your problems, bordering on the healing-through-you bit mentioned above?

Of course you want your therapist and/or coach to care and have a certain level of personal investment — but one that has a boundary/boundaries and is professional.

I have a phrase I follow of care, don’t carry. Many coaches and therapists think they have to carry you. They misunderstand/misinterpret encouragement and support as shouldering you and your burdens, which leads to far too much personal investment. You can sense when a coach or therapist is too emotionally invested in your progress.

As another aspect to this — watch how they react when you feel it’s time to disengage from them. A good coach or therapist will perhaps mention you have some unfinished work, and that’s okay. But if they try to cajole and crowbar you into staying, that means they’re applying their agenda to you. It’s all right if you decide it’s not time for you to move forward or into a certain area — whether a particular issue or at all.

I do, however, encourage you to be mindful of why you’re resisting it or stopping the therapy. If it’s out of fear, be really mindful. A large percentage of people quit their therapy or coaching out of fear, labeling it as “useless”…right before they’re about to make a huge shift.

11. Ultimately, the relationship should be about YOU and YOU moving forward.

Sometimes going back into your past is healthy, and that does occur with my clients, but then my question is, “How can you use that to move forward from here?” You want your therapist/coach to be someone who’s got compassion and sympathy, but also keeps you moving forward with encouragement (not strong arming you into action). They should have a balance of being forthright with you sometimes, but also diplomatic.

You want to feel comfortable with with your coach or therapist. It’s fully up to you to do the work (they cannot and will not do it for you), but you should feel supported.  You want to feel like you trust them, and like you can reveal personal things to them…but only if you choose to do so. If they try to elicit things from you that make you uncomfortable, and keep pushing you to do so in a way that feels like a violation, pay attention to that.

(Yes, I know I keep repeating this; I’m doing so because of how vitally important it is.)

Everyone needs a second pair of eyeballs at times. Having a different perspective to help you get a different perspective is enormously helpful. Seeing a therapist or a life coach doesn’t mean you’re “broken”. It just means you’re essentially calling AAA to help you get out of being stuck in the mud where your wheels are spinning.

So how to find someone?

You can check a life coach’s credentials through various sources. LinkedIn is a good place to start. Their website should look and sound professional. I cannot tell you how many awful life coach websites there are out there…ugly, poorly-designed, badly written; one fellow’s site forced me to scroll down through every single workshop and certification he had received before I got to the information I really wanted. Having that up is fine, but it should be on a separate page. Otherwise my feeling is the person is trying to jam their worthiness down my throat. My thought was, “What is he trying to prove to himself?”

A website for a life coach is  You can also use the site to get an idea of their view of what life coaching is about (there’s also lots of sub-categories of life coaching). If you’re looking at a coach’s website, ensure that their information is transparent–their approach to coaching, pricing (and what you get for what they charge. If someone is charging you $X for a session and it seems high, they’d better have information telling you what you’re getting for that price.)

I also suggest looking for cliched phrases on the coach’s website, as it means they’re relying on those to sell their content, rather than actual examples of what they want to help you do.

I recently came across a coach who denounced entrepreneurs for using over-used industry-based phrases because they don’t tell the prospective customer anything about the product or service they’re buying. But, ironically, this coach’s website was chock full of phrases like “unleash your inner potential” and “empowering you to find your inner god or goddess.”

What do either of those phrases mean, exactly? They’ve been so over-used to varying degrees they’ve lost impact. Yes I have some cliched phrases and words in my posts. But I don’t rely on them to carry my message or content.

Your doctor can give you  names of therapists.

Other sources can be found here. More great information is here as well. Here are some other good tips. There are excellent county mental health resources that charge on a sliding scale. Don’t pooh-pooh those; I used one for a time when I was out of work, but needed help.

There is a difference between psychologists and psychiatrists. Psychologists have a degree/degrees in psychology (maybe even a doctorate), but they are not a medical doctor and cannot prescribe medications. Generally they have a doctor with whom they work to do this (though they can often decide what medication they want you to take.) A psychiatrist is a medical doctor whose specialty is psychiatry; they can prescribe medication.

All psychologists and psychiatrists are therapists and counselors, but not all therapists and counselors are psychologists or psychiatrists. It depends on the degrees they hold and how the state has certified them.

A life coach is actually none of the above; I suppose we could be counselors, but we’re not therapists. The main difference between life coaching and therapy is that our focus is to say, “Okay, the past happened, but it doesn’t matter other than it’s an important part of you. Let’s move on from this moment.” A therapist wants to do that as well (or should, if they’re good), but there’s often a larger focus on from where you’ve come mentally and emotionally. This may be what you need. If I have a client who has a past event they can’t resolve, I will suggest finding a therapist to aid them in doing so.

In my coaching, I do get into discussing the client’s past at times, but not as a main source of information.

A note about medication: If your therapist suggests it, do not immediately reject it. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication are all bonafide resources to help you get to where you want to go. There’s absolutely no shame in taking it. Society may tell you otherwise, but that opinion of society is idiotic. Look at the medication as another tool. It’s often a temporary one (but do not ever go off your medication without consulting your doctor. There can be very harsh side effects of doing that. If you’re feeling better, please consider the understanding that’s happening because of the medication.)

I covered as much as I could think of in this post. If you have more questions, please feel free to follow up with me. Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, leave a comment below or feel free to start up a conversation in the discussion forum.



2 Thoughts on “When Your Wheels Are Spinning: What to Look for in a Therapist or Life Coach

  1. This post is worth everyone’s attention. Good work.

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