The last time I had a coach, I was a kid on the neighborhood softball team and the routine went something like this: You gotta hustle, AnnaMaria. You're throwing like a girl, AnnaMaria. Stop reading books in the outfield, AnnaMaria.
My response, invariably, was to roll my eyes. I had a very similar reaction when CityBeat asked me to write a story about life coaching. I pictured some overweight hack in a baseball cap shouting grown-up directives at me: Get out of debt, AnnaMaria. Find a nice man and settle down, AnnaMaria. Stop reading books while you're driving, AnnaMaria.
Then I met Kay Richardson (pictured on this page), a life coach who splits her time between San Diego and Seattle. Not only did she not yell at me—she silenced my inner skeptic just long enough for me to think that maybe life coaching isn't as big a load of hooey as I wanted to believe.
After an introductory e-mail, we decided to proceed as if I were an actual client, beginning with a complimentary phone session. Richardson, a native Texan who speaks in a languorous drawl, asked me to draw a “Life Balance Wheel”—a pie chart divided into eight categories: profession, finances, physical well-being, primary relationship, relationships, personal development, physical surroundings and rest and relaxation. She then asked me to assign each a rating of satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10.
Profession topped out at an 8, but finances merited only a dismal 2. My dilemma, I explained to her, was that since quitting my job at a newspaper a little more than a year ago to pursue my dream of being a freelance writer, I'd never been happier—or poorer. I had initially given myself a year to figure it out and, during that time, had made considerable advances in my fledgling career. Yet I found myself at a crossroads. I was sick of being broke and not entirely confident I could cut it—but I still wasn't ready to give up.
“I want to acknowledge your self-awareness,” said Richardson. Then she mentioned something about making an affirmation.
“I don't know,” I blurted out. “That sounds a little too Stuart Smalley for me.” She chuckled at my SNL reference and told me I could call it an intention instead.
“It helps to have some intentions of what you want your reality to be,” Richardson said. “Our thoughts really do create our reality. Our minds can run amok on us, but if we can take charge and discipline our thoughts, we can effect change.”
My intentions, she said, should be expressed in the present tense, which makes them more powerful. So this is what I came up with: “I am a writer. I am stepping up to my success. I am committed to making this work. I'm going to give my career my all and have no regrets.”
I flinched with embarrassment as Richardson recited my intentions back to me, but when I read them aloud a second time, they felt empowering. Maybe this self-directed pep talk wasn't such a cheesy idea.
“People spend a lot of time listening to their harsh, critical inner voice,” Richardson explained. “That voice thinks it's helping you, but it's actually beating you down. I help people develop a supportive, nurturing voice.”
She nailed it. That harsh, critical voice—what Al Franken's Smalley character called “stinking thinking”—is my frequent companion. It routinely leads me into minefields of insecurity: I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough and, doggonit, people don't like me.
It's an inaccurate perception of reality, a distorted reflection in a funhouse mirror. But could a simple shift in thinking really help me see myself clearly? You betcha, Richardson insisted. With that clarity, I could begin to make conscious life choices that are in line with the real me. Things would start to fall naturally into place. And, if I continued on with her, Richardson could help me set goals and strategize. Richardson is one of an estimated 30,000 professional coaches around the world (this number includes other types of coaches, such as executive and business). She received her training at La Mesa's Coach For Life, where she now serves as a faculty member. She's credentialed by the International Coach Federation, one of the three major accreditation organizations worldwide that provide oversight for training and professional ethics among its members. Critics, though, point out that there are no official regulatory standards for life coaching and that the self-regulating coaching associations are privately owned.
The ICF describes professional coaching as “an ongoing professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses or organizations.” Unlike psychotherapy, life coaching doesn't diagnose or focus on issues of the past. It's more about helping clients define themselves and modify their thoughts and behavior to achieve their maximum personal potential.
Richardson has been working in what she calls the “healing arts” for 16 years. Before becoming a life coach a two-and-a-half years ago, she was a collaborative therapist and a massage therapist.
“I find people fascinating,” she said. “I love seeing peoples' true selves and their strengths and helping to bring that out. It's really fulfilling.”
It's also not a bad way to make a living. After that initial free phone consultation, Richardson conducts a two- or three-hour in-person foundation session, which costs around $300. After that, she charges $100 for 45-minute phone sessions that the client can schedule as needed. It's a flexible career that allows her to travel and spend time in Seattle while keeping in touch with San Diego clients.
A week after our phone chat, I met with Richardson in person for an abridged foundation session. She'd prepared a three-ring binder for me, but before handing it over, she guided me through a visualization exercise.
With my eyes closed, I listened to her soothing voice instruct me to let my body fill with warmth. Then I was to imagine a cloud picking me up and depositing me two decades into the future. She asked me to visualize the place—where was I? What was it like? Eventually, she led me to the home of my future self.
At first, I had to suppress a smirk. Then, my thoughts wandered to my latest crush and the upcoming season of Lost. At some point, though, my mind cleared and I actually saw myself 20 years from now. My future self—an older, wiser version of my current self—embraced me lovingly. The advice she gave me: You can do it.
I bid my future self adieu and opened my eyes, after which Richardson went through some additional exercises to help me define my core values—in other words, what matters to me. She also asked me to sign a commitment, not to her but to myself, that I would live these values to create a truly fulfilling life. I scrawled my name without hesitation.
I wish I could say I am 100-percent committed as I write this, but I can't help but think that—like my commitment to refrain from smoking while swilling cocktails or to only date respectable guys—I'll forget my self-promise the second an opportunity presents itself, in this case when my inner critic starts haranguing me again. I also wonder if a life coach is like a chiropractor; when you don't go back on a regular basis, everything gets out of whack again.
It would be great to talk to a life coach on a weekly basis—it's deliciously self-indulgent to have someone focus on you for a solid 45 minutes, and for me it was also surprisingly helpful. Even with the sliding scale Richardson offers to qualified clients, though, paying a life coach isn't going to help my financial situation inch up from a 2.
But I won't forget her advice or my commitment. I know, it sounds cheesy, and you might be rolling your eyes. I'm really not an “express my dreams to the universe” kind of gal. The coaches I had as a kid actually did get me to hustle once in a while, though. They inspired me to try a little harder. And even though I can't afford a life coach (or a burrito, on occasion), I've decided that I'm not above giving myself a pep talk now and again: “You can do it. Yes, you can.”