"Life coaching" is a shady industry that's earned its checkered reputation. So, when I decided to buy into my lingering dream of opening a philosophical practice, I wasn't thrilled to call it plain old "coaching." Instead, I've decided to run with a qualified "philosophical life coach" nomenclature.
But what is "philosophical life coaching" anyways? Philosophical life coaching has at least two close cousins: therapy and conventional life coaching. We can rule out what philosophical life coaching is not on our way to pinning down what it is.
"Therapy" is no monolithic thing: there are many kinds of therapy (even if you don't know which you're getting!): cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and so on. But these different therapeutic worldviews are significantly unified by an emphasis on correcting problems and treating disease.
Medicalizing challenges which may be better described as "moral" or even "existential" can help people afford the services they want or need, via insurance reimbursements. Yet it's far from clear that the services patients find via the conventional healthcare system actually fit the bill in these moral and existential situations.
Since therapy is such a diverse thing, and therapists even of the same school aren't fungible, it's easy to end up barking up the wrong therapeutic tree. Plus, there is a case to be made that therapy has at least as shady of a history as life coaching. For all their credentials (and cartelization), it's not clear that you can necessarily expect more in terms of valuable-to-you outcomes from your random insurance-subsidized therapist (over a carefully chosen life coach).
Life coaches are pretty invested in distinguishing themselves from therapists, apparently for marketing (and legal) reasons. According to most life coaches, coaching is about:
- crafting the future (instead of dissecting the past)
- developing strengths (instead of fixing weaknesses)
- pursuing goals through effective action (instead of navel-gazing)
- creating space for you to decide what to do (instead of offering specific advice)
If a life coach could really help you to become your best self, with a life you love, maximizing potential, crushing your goals, etc - well, who wouldn't want that?
In the first place, I doubt that life coaches can really deliver what they so often promise. For instance, I have a hard time reliably motivating myself to do things. What hubris to imagine I could reliably motivate someone else! Are all of these life coaches just superhuman?
There's an even bigger problem than simple efficacy, though: All of the facets of conventional life coaching are thoroughly saturated by higher-level philosophical issues. But there's no reason to believe that ordinary life coaches are well-positioned to address those.
What *is* your "best" self? Best how? Will you know it when you see it?
Should you even *want* to feel ecstatic about your life? Is that a proper goal? Is that what's good for humans? For you?
What does it mean to "maximize potential?" Is that a professional goal, a personal one? What will you trade it off against? Is that wise?
These and other philosophical angles tend to get brushed under the rug by conventional life coaches. The regular life coaching toolbox has value, but it also has blind spots: visualizations, habit-forming tricks, pro/con lists, "wheel of life" diagrams, etc are like mere party tricks when you're trying to get at something deeper.
Standard life coaching also has a certain subjectivism built into it. Life coaches help clients discover their goals and values - without passing judgment on them.
A pragmatic, relativized approach to coaching seems totally acceptable and agreed upon for some clients and their coaches. But it's not fine with me, either when I consume services like this or when I offer them.
What does a focus on philosophy add?
Philosophy is "the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved." Fair, if boilerplate, definition from Wikipedia.
At the risk of sounding super cheesy, notice that people often can't really *avoid* doing philosophy in the course of making choices in life. The only question is whether they're doing their philosophy well or poorly. Like a life coach, I can maintain a non-judgmental attitude towards my clients even while, like a philosopher, I hold that not all goals and values are equally well-justified or equally good.
For instance, the empirical findings of positive psychology suggest that some types of life are more likely to produce lasting positive emotions than others. Far from being unethical to discuss, it would be unethical for me to ignore these considerations. I don't want to help clients achieve any of their goals, I want to help them to achieve the right goals.
What can a philosophical life coach do for you?
Assuming that you are mentally well enough to handle this kind of exploration, philosophical life coaching is the place to do things like:
- Unearth assumptions of yours that may or may not actually be true
- Examine the role that emotions are playing in your life, and whether any of them could/should be corrected
- Grapple with personal or professional moral dilemmas
- Think carefully about difficult all-things-considered decisions that involve risk and tradeoffs (like investing in a career or relationship)
- Interrogate the nature of neurodiversity and mental "illness," especially as it pertains to your own quirks
Philosophical engagement involves developing a good rapport, not offering a cozy emotional womb. Although in general I want my clients to feel good, "goodness" is not straightforwardly reducible to simple pleasure. Achieving true well-being may involve difficult mental labor, especially including the rooting out of cognitive dissonance.
So there it is:
Philosophical life coaching is more abstract and intellectually rigorous than regular life coaching, but less illness-oriented than therapy.
It offers a ritualized space in which to articulate and clarify reasons for thinking, feeling, and behaving in one way rather than another.
If you want to talk to someone about something, but felt sure that no therapist or life coach could really get on your level intellectually, philosophical life coaching might be for you (holla)
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.