With the notable exception of the cognitive-behavioral crowd, most therapists are confused about what they are doing. Sad to say, but most of their theories are pure muddle. Most therapists are not very good at theory and are relying more on their gut than their training.
The relatively new world of life coaching also suffers from the same problems. Its practitioners are so varied that the concept has been turned into mush. Some life coaches offer spiritual exercises or pep talks. Some want you to get in touch with your feelings or to pound pillows with plastic bats.
In the best of cases, however, coaches will teach you how to manage your life as though you were playing in a game.
The same applies more clearly to executive coaching. In the real world, such coaches help their clients to develop their skills, that is, to manage their staffs and to organize their work.
All forms of psychotherapy are tainted by the assumption that the recipient of a therapist’s ministrations is: sick. Being a medical or paramedical activity, therapy must be addressing something that is abnormal, to the point of being an illness. Otherwise, why would health insurance companies pick up the bill?
Of course, healing the sick is not the same thing as teaching a skill or motivating someone to do a good job. If people are turning away from therapy and toward different forms of coaching, one reason must be that a coach assumes that his client is fundamentally competent, but in need of added instruction. A therapist assumes that his patient is suffering from a mental disease or defect and that eliminating said disease or defect will restore normal functioning.
Of course, if you did not know how to manage your staff or to conduct your marriage before you were cured of your mental disease or defect, nothing about the therapy process will teach you how to do so. As I said elsewhere, knowing why you got it wrong tells you nothing about how to get it right.
In some sense the notion that therapy patients are suffering from an illness is a ruse. From its inception modern psychotherapy has tended to see life as a drama. This means that if you want more drama in your life you should rush right out and see a therapist. A modern therapist will teach you how to tell stories and will find ways to induce you to add more drama to your life.
Coaching, when done properly, derives from sports, from a world where people compete in games. Living your life for the drama is not at all the same as living it as though you were playing a game.
In the drama-laden world of therapy, people are taught to play their parts well, with authentic feeling. Don’t ask me how people are supposed to feel real feelings while playing a part in a theatrical performance. The enterprise is corrupt, down to the roots.
If anything, today’s therapists are constantly obsessing about narcissism and what they call control issues. And they seem to believe that they can cure all ills by providing a warm bath of empathy. Why they need years of postgraduate study to learn how to mother people is beyond me.
As it happens, empathy is merely a con, a diversion from what matters. A capacity for empathy tells you nothing about character. And, despite the protestations of therapists, it is perfectly possible, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has shown, to be sadistic and an empath.
Even if a person is overflowing with the milk of human empathy, that tells you nothing about whether he is trustworthy, loyal, reliable, responsible… someone you would want to do business with or to befriend.
Having empathy says nothing about your perseverance, discipline, self-control or any other of the virtues that would make you a good friend, a good neighbor, a good colleague or a good teammate.
Today in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein addresses the role that coaches can play in one’s life. She limits herself, wisely, to coaches in sports, but the lessons that people learn from such coaches are surely more value than the pabulum and bromides being trafficked by therapists.
Since Bernstein often reports on the latest news from the world of therapy, her foray into the world of coaching and her willingness to consider its positive benefits provide an excellent counterweight.
In her words:
A great sports instructor or coach builds us up, but also teaches us important lessons of emotional management, such as confidence, perseverance, resilience and how to conquer fear and anxiety. Many times, these lessons have a permanent impact on our mind-set and attitude well beyond the playing field.
Note the difference. Therapists will tell you to get touch with your feelings, even to feel your feelings. They will then tell you to express your emotions, openly, honestly and shamelessly.
If your emotions are unruly or overly labile, therapists will often recommend that you take a pill.
A coach, Bernstein explains, teaches you how to manage your emotions, and thus to learn how to overcome your anxieties, how to gain confidence and resilience. After all, isn’t this far more constructive than taking you as sick, in need of medical treatment?
A coach builds confidence because he begins with confidence, in you and in your abilities. He might berate you for not trying hard enough but he does not assume that you are mentally ill. He gets irritated because he believes that you can do better. He gets irritated because you are letting yourself and your team down.
He wants you to do better. He does not care whether or not you understand why you are slacking off. Excuses and rationalizations do not change the outcome of the game.
These teachings are often long-lasting, sports psychologists say, because sports are a microcosm of the larger world—with goals, competition, a game plan, results and feedback. Most people participate in a sport voluntarily, so they are open to learning. There is emotional intimacy and trust in a good coach-student relationship. And, perhaps most important, the lessons are simple and immediately reinforced. “If you have a golf club in your hand, your coach tells you to twist a little to your left to adjust your swing, you do that and it works, that is a very powerful lesson,” says Jack J. Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, in Cleveland, and a performance psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
True, sports are a microcosm of the larger world. It is better than seeing the larger world as a stage or a movie set. Seeing life as a game allows you to make a plan, to compete at your best, and to take a lesson from the results and feedback. Instead of getting in touch with your feelings you will be making a plan to deal with a real situation.
Most importantly, a coach’s advice can be tried out. Thus, you will subject it to a reality test. It might help; it might not. If it does, you will know quickly and will develop confidence in the coach.
Compare this to classical psychoanalysis where you could spend years on the couch or not acquire any real benefit. Beginning with Freud analysts assumed that a magical moment would arrive when you would have an epiphany and see the truth. At that point, they insisted, the chains of neurosis would melt away and you would march confidently into the future.
Unfortunately, as Freud was the first to notice, this moment never seemed to arrive. The analytic process was more about finding ways to rationalize failure than to gain success. It is far more effective to have a coach who can make a suggestion, offer a piece of advice. Then you can try it out and draw your own conclusion about its value.
In classical analysis if you should ever dare disagree with your analyst you will be accused of resisting the truth and will be sentenced to five more years on the couch.