It’s a question I see tossed around the online business world pretty frequently: why the heck is everyone and their mother a “coach”? What does that even mean? Isn’t a life coach just like a glorified, expensive friend? Why would you pay a coach, people wonder, when your best friend/mother/sister/girlfriend could do the same thing for you for free?
Life coaching is a relatively new profession, with origins in human potential movement of the 1960s and 70s, and the first official life coaches coming about by the 1980s. Though coaching is a decidedly modern invention, wanting to better oneself isn’t new. Needing support in learning how to do so is also not new; there have long been people outside the family one could go to for guidance: the priest, the village witch, the fortune teller. All of those, in one way or another, were “paid” professions. But our family systems and social structures have changed so drastically over time that we no longer have a built-in system to support these changes.
I believe that relational work is real work. When I say relational work, I mean the fields of work in which relationships are central to the work: coaching, therapy, teachers in some instances, doulas, careworkers of any kind. There are probably other fields I’m forgetting here. I also believe that emotional labor is real labor. When I say labor, I mean an expenditure of energy towards a certain outcome. When I say real, I mean actual, existent, valid, worthy. When I say real work, I mean work that expends energy, work that takes physical, mental and emotional labor. The emotional, logistical, administrative and relational labor that womxn+ are expected to take on in their homes, workplaces, families, and relationships that includes acts of nurturance, active listening, skillful guidance, and emotional support: this is labor, and it is real.
Certainly there are nuanced skills in all of these professions, but a large part of what coaches provide is emotional nurturance, a listening ear, an encouraging word, a shift of perspective. And it’s only inside late-stage capitalism that these kinds of emotional support need to become commodified and transactional and branded in the particular way they have been in recent decades, but here we are, inside of capitalism, and I want to be compensated for my labor.
A large part of why relational work is scoffed at and emotional labor is frowned upon, both casually and professionally, is because we have a culturally engrained habit of expecting women (particularly women of color, particularly Black women) to perform this type of labor for free. That expectation is so entrenched that many people would not even call this emotional work “labor,” and perhaps would not even notice it happening, so unconscious is the expectation.
In a capitalist system, value and payment are inextricably linked. Paying for work isn’t the only way to signal our values, and it’s not a long-term solution to ending misogynist or racist norms or building a world beyond capitalism. But for now inside white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, the primary way we signal value is by paying. When a certain type of labor is unpaid, it is inherently unvalued, and thus invalid. Paying for relational work validates the labor it entails; it also validates the laborer.
None of this is to say that there aren’t problems in the coaching industry. There definitely are. The same patterns of white supremacy and patriarchy that rule every other aspect of our culture are also playing out in this realm. And there are definitely some truly predatory coaches out there, harming people with their lack of skill. But I have the strong suspicion that a whole lot of snark about coaching and coaches from within and outside the world of online business is not because of these patterns, but because of unchecked patriarchal assumptions about what kind of labor deserves payment, and who doing it deserves to be paid.
It’s worth reminding us all here that not every patriarchal ideal comes from the mind of a man; not every nurturing act happens by a woman’s hand. Many women and otherly-gendered people also hold these assumptions; I used to too, and in fact, I still feel it inside myself occasionally as imposter syndrome, which is really just patriarchal norms rattling around in my brain masquerading as facts. “Is coaching really a valid profession?,” they ask. “Are you just a quack?”
But those assumptions are also what I’m pushing back against by continuing to do coaching work. When I take my labor seriously by assigning a price to it, I’m asserting to myself and the world that relational work is valid. And when you pay a coach for their work, you’re affirming it too.
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