How the Life Coaching Industry Sells Pseudo-Solutions to Our Deepest Problems

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From Current Affairs: “The Robbins coaching formula is simple. If Robbins was able to face his fears and overcome such challenges, so can you. Victims are self-made losers. Poverty, trauma, abuse, and life-threatening illnesses can be reframed as badges of honor—opportunities to transmute life’s lemons so one can become a winner.

. . . Coaching immediately conjures up the realm of sports and gamesmanship with clear winners and losers. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People not only had a major influence on Robbins, but also Donald Trump. When winning is the name of the game in a cutthroat competitive marketplace, it’s no wonder coaching has caught on like wildfire.   

. . . Such mass appeal and insatiable demand for personal development resonates with a cultural ideology of unrestricted self-development. Robbins preaches a gospel of ‘Constant Never-Ending Improvement,’ a coaching tenet tied to a nonstop treadmill of perpetually having to become a better version of oneself. If you’re not moving forward towards the ever-elusive improvement zone, you must be either lazy or a failure.

. . . Positive psychology’s compulsory optimism is contingent upon a denial and disowning of what Seligman would consider negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, frustration, resentment, and sadness, which are supposedly mere impediments to mental well-being and human flourishing. Seligman’s ‘learned optimism’ entails skillfully replacing negative feelings with positive ones, shrugging off setbacks or misfortunes by unlearning and rejecting anything smacking of pessimism. This demonization of the full range of human experience is a toxic positivity, a sickening, contemporary form of Pollyannaism. As the Ukrainian-born psychoanalyst Oksana Yakushko writes in her book, Scientific Pollyannaism: From Inquisition to Positive Psychology:

‘[T]he insistence on optimism and happiness as ideal states is viewed as reflective of cultural-political forms of social compliance, which requires denial of oppressive conditions and inequalities and which necessitates routine engagement in disassociation, disavowal, and splitting. These defenses are employed to maintain the individual insistence that, like Pollyanna, the person is always “glad for everything.” Pollyanna is presented as a perpetually optimistic child, as someone who plays the “glad games” no matter how much she suffers or what suffering she observes.’

The peddling of toxic positivity is like a three-card trick. The first card shames the individual for feeling anything but positive emotions; the second, victim-blaming card insources responsibility for change on to the individual, inflating the amount of agency a person really has by downplaying the role of circumstances; the third card legitimizes the need for social compliance (via coaching), that is, to ‘better up’ by learning to be more positive and mentally fit for corporate duty.”

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Rather looks as though someone is upset that the pseudoscience of coaching is competing with the pseudoscience of therapy. Perhaps this can be reframed as an
    “opportunity ” to grow and transform. Why oh why would people turn to coaching instead of therapy? Hum…

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      • Quite correct Doctor Chrisnok- my bad.

        Therapy itself is not pseudoscience indeed. It is simply a “treatment” modality for “mental disorders “ which are non-scientifically based.

        It is technically not therapy that is the pseudoscience, but the DSM foundation on which the therapy “treatment” is prescribed, which is indeed pseudoscience.

        I believe that theories which do not withstand scientific rigor nor are replicable cannot be considered scientific and fall under the definition of pseudoscience.

        Yes, you are right, therapy is neither a scientific nor pseudoscientific- it is merely philosophical.

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  2. This short article completely misrepresents and misunderstands how actual, academic positive psychology is applied in therapy.

    When done properly and as intended by the science behind it, there is absolutely no disavowing and disregarding of negative emotions and experiences. There is absolutely no forced optimism and toxic positivity. The goal is to enhance the positive proclivities of a person, to promote a life of meaning and value and joy. To learn to savour life’s small joys and augment them. Nothing about this presupposes the detrimental conditions mentioned above.

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  3. I appreciate your take on life coaching. Indeed, there are many who would claim to be life coaches and peddle the idea of toxic positivity. Yet, the argument you make seems to be directed at toxic positivity and not coaching and psychological well-being modalities. Your source that claims Seligman’s positive psychology posits that one should replace negative emotions with positive ones is misguided. In positive psychology, the idea is to understand negative emotions are part of being human and that we should acknowledge them, and integrate them in adaptive ways. Moreover, there is much empirical research on the benefits of coaching when coaching is done by well educated and experienced coaches. Some universities that study coaching and it’s benefits are Case Western Reserve in Ohio and University of Sydney in Australia. These aren’t institutions known for peddling pseudo science.

    Toxic positivity is a phenomenon that deserves exploration, but taking a few examples then using those few examples to generalize the fields of coaching, positive psychology, and well-being creates a razor thin argument.

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  4. I believe it depends on the Life Coach you pick. I am studying to be a Life Coach because counseling has a lot of red tape. I want to school to be a Therapist. I personally do not endorse toxic positivity and have always said my coaching would be different than most.

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    • Picking a good, as in safe and effective coach/therapist does not work for airplanes nor cars.

      When I get into a cab or an airplane, except for a real “accident”, I would find difficult to argue that I, I,need to pick up a good one to be safely taken from point A to point B.

      Why is psychology, coaching and psychiatry different?.

      I think because they are useless and harmfull, probably, at least. Training them to deliver top results for years ends up depending on the “client”‘s ability to pick correctly?.

      Like picking a good wild animal to ride with you in a car or an airplane?. That sounds reasonable?. Just kidding, not trying to be rude, etc.

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    • Think of canned food!.

      Picking a safe and effective, as in that was delicious or fullfiling, depends on MY ability to pick the right can?.

      Or I am entitled to pick any and that will be more than ok, since I am paying?. The market stopped working for psychotherapists, explainable given te monopoly, AND life coaches?.

      No, it’s a lemmon market in economics terms, at least…

      Does not work for canned food either.

      That is a way of saying psychotherapists and life coaches are unrealiable.

      And being unreliable is a quality of common sense, what?, madness?

      Not saying it is, just many folks see unreliability as a quality of that. I am not making that claim or assertion, just saying society sees it that way.

      So how come psychotherapists and life coaches are not seen with an M word?. Even in their foreheads?!.

      Rhetoric!. As in: “Pick the right one, please, YOU’ll be fine, better than fine”.

      Right, right…

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  5. I think there is a trivial solution why life-coaching, experience, teaching and learning does not translate very well for other people.

    Why is there only one Maddona?, the singer. Why is there only one Warren Buffet?, why is there only one investment fund by Jim Simmons?, only one Chingis Khan?, only one Alexander the Great?. Etcetera…

    Surely, one could analyze why all those cases ended up like they did. Why they achieved so much, what conditions were present to give rise to the opportunity?, the achievements, etc.

    Clearly one can argue we don’t know enough, there’s room for improvement, we have incomplete knowledge, there are circumstances that will never happen, we cannot dosome “experiments”/attempts at replication, etc.

    Surely too, many people have tried doing that: analyzing why Maddona, why Buffet,why Simmons, etc. Setting up circumstances propicious to imitation and reproduction, etc. They could not have come up empty handed. There are powerfull economic incentives to know why, there are resources to make the next Obama, the next Trump. There are ways to “set it up” in the world, etc. And yet there is no next one: we have failures at replication.

    Why?.

    Because strictly speaking there are no reasons why those situations and people turned out to be the way they did. Whatever passes as an explanation, there is no causality to a lot of it, the gist of it: it might explain, tell a narrative, etc., but it fails the casusality test: replication. Claiming it is historic and can’t be imitated is circularity, at least. It explains nothing causaly since there is no proof it does…

    The final proof of causal explication still is succesfull replication.

    Causality in the reproducibility sense. If we knew how it is done, we would have known how to duplicate it, how to replicate it, how to do it again, and again. Regardless of conditions, because succesfull replication implies similar if not identical conditions, that’s the pudding of the proof!. Those are the requirements of experimenting with things: identical conditions.

    One can come up with various explanations why we can’t, why all fail the replication test. So, the most simple explanation, the most parsimonious is not that we need to keep trying and learn, know? better.

    The most simple is: there are no reasons to it, that’s why we can’t replicate those events, those achievements and those atrocities. Simple as that. We cannot claim we know why, until we replicate it in a willfull, deliberate way…

    As for life coaches, advisors and miscelanous achievers: yes, their explanations, reasons, arguments,and achievements have a ring to it. But, at the end, in the limit, there is no cause to them, no reason to them. We cannot claim we KNOW if we can’t replicate them, for whatever reason, simple as that.

    It’s about the weight of the claim, the proof in the pudding.

    Otherwise, we could all be Maddona, Buffet, Simons, Alexander and the great Khan!.

    That does not take going into the details, the rhetoric of success or failure, just looking at the world how it is, and figure why it is not DIFFERENT. It does not require abandonment nor predestination/predetermination, it requires humility to admit: we cannot claim we know…

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