Life coaching, and how I was seduced by nonsense

Just over a year ago I started seeing a Life Coach. Six months ago I abruptly stopped seeing a Life Coach. I think enough time has passed for me to get a decent perspective on the events, and to explain how I ended up wanting to believe somebody who was telling me that any problems I have may stem from a previous life.

A year ago I wasn’t having a good time. I was taking two A-levels under a self-study course and by late spring was faltering in a big way. I had no clue what I’d do once the exams were over, nor any real aims in life. Although pretty much over the upset from my break-up, I was still struggling with being on my own. My parents had heard good things about a local Life Coach, and, very kindly, offered to pay. I looked over the aims and benefits of life coaching, and this is the kind of thing that came up:

Coaching is future orientated and although touches on the past, it is predominantly focused on creating a better future. It is very practical in its approach, as it involves proactively planning specific actions, which will enable step changes to be made. Progress is often rapid and hence can be fairly short term.

It certainly seemed to be what I needed, and I agreed to give it a try.

In the first lesson we used some kind of chart to break my life down into various components – friends, health, romance, work etc. – and figured out which areas needed improvement. Self-image and work were the big issues.

For the next few months I saw her on a weekly basis. We’d talk about my week, going over anything that had upset me or I’d found difficult, then move onto ways to improve things. Chief among these was the idea of affirmations – small phrases of confidence such as ‘I am likeable’ that I should say to myself as often as possible. The theory was that after a while they would ‘sink in’ and would become my default thoughts, as it were. Another technique was the trigger: whenever I felt particularly happy or confident I should do some action – I used touching a particular knuckle – and then whenever I needed a confidence boost I would repeat the action, which would trigger associated positive feelings. The trigger was undoubtedly the most impressive technique; it really did help on a number of occasions. Affirmations I’m not so sure about.

In hindsight, simply spending an hour talking to somebody was as helpful as anything else. Maybe it played to my bad habit of attention-seeking, but having somebody external who seemed genuinely interested in helping me was undeniably pleasant. She helped me figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I realised, through talking things out, that the activity I enjoyed above all else was writing. We figured out a plan to help me develop this, while still making money by other means. This was great, and exactly what I needed.

At one point I remember her saying something like “you’re a really likeable chap”. That, I think, was a mistake. Thereafter I didn’t want to tell her anything that I thought would change this opinion.

Although I was possibly backing away slightly, the by now fortnightly meetings were still productive. Then, not long before christmas, I had a bad week for one reason or another – can’t remember why, now – and wasn’t very happy. Towards the end of our meeting, she said something like “do you want to fix this problem once and for all?”. Naturally, I said yes. She explained that the cause of my lack of self-confidence was one particular event. It’s possible I wouldn’t even remember it, but this one event had started off the problem, and problems had spread like cracks ever since.

Alarm bells rang. This sounded a little dodgy. But, then, I’m not a psychologist. Maybe this was possible.

All right, I said. The good news, I was told, was that there was a way to fix this. It’s remarkably powerful, she said, and comes from neuro-linguistic programming.

Blink. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded impressive. She had a certification in it and everything.

The answer to all my problems was ‘timeline therapy’. She had personally witnessed its amazing effects. Was I interested? I nodded. We arranged we would ‘do’ the timeline therapy the next week, and that I should bring with me a sheet of paper listing everything I disliked about myself.

So I went home. I didn’t know what to do. The skeptic in me was yelling that this sounded hokey, and I should at least do some research. But what if it did turn out to be ridiculous? I didn’t want to think any less of this woman who had helped me for the last six months. I asked Mum what she thought, and she Googled timeline therapy immediately. She read over it, and I saw her frown. She told me that it seemed ok until the last paragraph, which had started talking about past lives. Damn. I looked up neurolinguistic programming, and at the time the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry described it as a psychological technique that hadn’t been proven one way or another (at least, that’s what I remember it saying).

Then I saw a way out. Timeline therapy seemed to involve hypnosis. Great! I knew that hypnosis is still fairly mysterious, but is definitely a valid scientific area. Maybe this technique could really work.

And this is how I, die-hard skeptic, fell for one of the more ridiculous types of pseudoscience / alternative medicine. It was presented by somebody I liked, and claimed to be able to solve all my problems. I simply convinced myself that there could be something to it by latching onto the smallest area of possibility, namely hypnosis, ignoring all other evidence.

The next week I arrived, complete with a detailed list of my failings as a person that had not been fun to compile. I sat down in her office. She was confident, excited. This was going to give me a fresh start, I was going to leave the building with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Ok. I would be open-minded.

She produced various documents. It was important that I understood the basis of timeline therapy. There are, she said, three reasons it works so well. Firstly, there’s the psychological reason. Ok. Then, there’s the metaphysical reason. More alarm bells. The word ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag for nonsense. I remember trying to push this to one side. There was still the possibility that this could work. Then came the third reason: quantum physics. My heart sank. If ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag, bringing up quantum physics is an air-raid siren. Its inherent lack of common sense lends itself to use by those who would have you believe something untrue, and any use of the term outside of a book on science is a guarantee that something is amiss. I was told that the process involved a ‘non-mirror reversal’ and asked, as somebody who’d studied physics, whether I thought made sense? Aside from the fact that A-level physics certainly doesn’t touch quantum stuff, I admitted that it didn’t. I was told that just because I may not have understood it didn’t mean it didn’t work.

Moments later, she explained the process to me. It didn’t involve any hypnosis, and that’s when the last real vestige of hope left me. I tried to bring it back, but the whole thing was too much, too ridiculous.

It was very important that she read out from a script. The conversation, as I remember it, went roughly like this:

LC: Close your eyes, and relax.
ME: Ok.
LC: Everybody has a timeline, which runs through them. This timeline represents your future and your past. I want you to visualise your timeline, and tell me in which direction it is going.
ME: (saying whatever came into my head) It’s going through me from front to back.
LC: Great. At some point in your life, there was an event that sparked off all of your troubles. You do not know where that is, but your subconscious does. We’re going to locate it. Firstly, and I want you to give me the answer that your subconscious supplies, did this event happen before, during or after your birth?

We were now firmly entrenched in woo-woo land.

ME: After.
LC: Great. I’m talking directly to your subconscious, now. What age did this happen?
ME: …
LC: Relax, and let the number come.
ME: …
LC: I want you to give me the first answer that comes into your head, as that will be the correct one. What age did this event happen?
ME: (this number did, indeed, pop into my head, presumably because that’s what happens when people tell you to think of a number) Five.
LC: Ok. Visualise yourself on your timeline.
ME: Ok.
LC: Float up and above your timeline, and move backwards along it, until you reach the age of five. Have you done that?
ME: (visualising it, and wanting to go home) Yes.
LC: Move to five minutes before the event. Feel the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to five minutes after the event. Feel the emotions. Analyse them. Let them go.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to the event itself. Release the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Now, rise up into the air again, and come back to the present.
ME: Ok.
LC: Open your eyes.

Did I feel better, she asked. I said that I didn’t, really. She asked whether we should go through it again. I was noncommital, so we went through the whole routine once more, but much faster. Again I was asked whether I felt better. I said that I couldn’t really tell any difference. That was ok, she said, beneath the surface everything was much better, and I’d feel the effects eventually.

I tried to put up a pretense, but have never been any good at that. I was crushed, and it showed. We arranged to meet again the next week, and I left with neither spring nor smile.

That was a bad evening. I’d spent the morning writing down everything I hated about myself, and after realising that the whole thing was a con, I felt awful. My parents had paid, I kid you not, £40 a week for the life coaching, and I felt like I’d let them down. They’d spent all this money and I should have realised that it had been a waste of time.

If my life coach thought that timeline therapy was a reasonable thing to do, had everything else made any sense? The whole episode was swiftly undoing all of the good that had come before. In hindsight there had been advantages, even if they were just talking to somebody for an hour. It had helped. Confidence triggers really did work. But the whole timeline therapy thing was so far off the scale of reason that it threatened to invalidate it all.

I went back the next week, had a slightly awkward session, and she told me to see how it went from thereon, and contact her if necessary. I haven’t seen her since.

I’m in two minds about this rather sudden end: it’s entirely possible that she believed me fixed, and honestly thought I’d be fine. Or, it could be that I was clearly uninterested in her techniques, so she cut me off. I think it’s probably the former, but unfortunately can’t discount the latter.

I’m not claiming that life coaching as a whole is a con, and I don’t want to say that my life coach was a fraud. That’s clearly unfair. Much of the help she gave me was founded in psychology, and some of it was effective. My life coach gave every impression of caring deeply about helping me, and believing fully in what she was doing. It’s just that she’d been seduced by NLP, which is a real shame.

The event has made me far more aware of how easy is it to be taken in. I wouldn’t have expected that something so crazy could get in under my radar, but it did. Somebody I liked was telling me something I wanted to be true, and I actively worked against reason to convince myself that it could work.

I’ve since learnt that neurolinguistic programming is no more than a money-making scheme that has been roundly debunked in terms of both method and effectiveness. It remains a popular tool used by business, but is in reality just another con. Training costs thousands of pounds, and once you’re a ‘qualified’ practitioner you can charge large amounts of money that people will happily pay. The Skeptic’s Dictionary updated their entry, and their conclusion is:

It seems that NLP develops models which can’t be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim “NLP works”? I don’t know and I don’t think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions.

A little knowledge of the techniques of pseudoscience did at least alert me to the potential quackery, even if I then ignored those signs until they became overwhelming. I certainly learnt a great deal, and am now more sympathetic to people taken in by alternative medicines.

If I ever need help again, I’ll talk to somebody scientific. Whatever a doctor would recommend.

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