Should Coaches (and Therapists) Who Have Depression and Anxiety Be Coaching Others?

officeMP900390083This is a follow-up to the very personal article where I outed myself for having chronic anxiety (still active but reduced), depression (now past thankfully) and ADD (unsurprisingly still very active!).

I thought I would write this follow-up article because one very brave soul left a comment saying among other things, “If someone struggles with severe depression and anxiety, they should not be coaching.” The comment was kindly put-together and I believe that many people feel the same way, so here is my follow-up post, I hope you read it with an open mind.

And before we start I want to share a quote that I hope you find helpful as you read on:

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.” Sir Francis Bacon

To begin, I hope there are three things that most people will agree on:

  1. There are SOME coaches who have severe anxiety or depression who should not be coaching others.
  2. There are SOME coaches who just aren’t very good – irrespective of whether they have anxiety or depression.
  3. If a coach or therapist has HAD anxiety or depression and has ‘overcome’ it – then the past anxiety and/or depression is either:
    a) Completely irrelevant or
    b) A bonus! Especially if they have clients with sticky limiting beliefs and mental health issues – because they have first-hand experience.

So, lets explore. The coaches who currently have anxiety or depression – fall into 2 broad categories:

  1. The coach who HAS anxiety and/or depression, is AWARE and is working on it.
  2. The coach who HAS anxiety and/or depression, is UNAWARE (or is choosing to be UNAWARE) and is therefore NOT working on it.

Type 1) The coach who has anxiety or depression AND is aware of it AND is working on themselves to feel better.

So why shouldn’t they be coaching? Coaching involves many things including following intuition and asking questions, helping clients to create supportive structures and habits in their lives, it’s about accountability, believing in the client’s wholeness and beauty as a person and helping the client to both see – and accept that. Coaching is about helping clients achieve goals, create positive new empowering beliefs and to identify the gremlin/limiting beliefs within. It’s about helping our clients become the best they can be through a process – called the coaching relationship.

Still thinking that depression and anxiety get in the way of a coach helping a client? Well, go here for some testimonials from people I helped WHILE I WAS DEALING with depression and anxiety.

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I’m sharing these testimonials to make a point. If you are AWARE of your issues you can work around, or WITH them. In addition, because I was willing to share (when it seemed appropriate), many of my clients found it INCREDIBLY helpful to know they were not alone in dealing with negative thoughts, inner critics, anxiety, depression, fear and doubt.

AND here’s another benefit of a coach with anxiety or depression! Coaches WITH anxiety and depression are quicker to spot these issues and encourage people to seek alternative or additional help (as I did with both coaching enquiries and clients), whereas a coach who has never had anxiety or depression will not recognize these signs in the same way – and sometimes not at all.

OK, so now for Type 2) The coach who has depression or anxiety – is unaware or is choosing to be unaware – and is not working on themselves.

This I believe to be of concern. In no particular order:

  • When a coach has depression or anxiety and is not working on it, there is an inauthenticity – a lack of “walking the talk”. It could be fear preventing someone seeking help or they could simply be oblivious to their problems. A coach in this situation is not necessarily a bad coach. It’s not going to stop a coach from helping a client achieve their goals, but it sure makes them a less effective coach.
  • A coach who has depression or anxiety and is not working on it – well, there is a strong risk they may not recognize signs of depression or anxiety in their client (they’re too busy avoiding looking at themselves). This could be dangerous if the client needs a deeper help than the coach is able to give.

But even here I believe there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. As I mentioned at the beginning, there are some coaches (just like policemen/women, doctors, electricians, plumbers, artists or any other profession) who just aren’t very good at their jobs. And I am sure there are coaches out there who have untreated anxiety and/or depression who can still coach better than a coach who just isn’t very good.

Isn’t it Hypocritical to Coach Someone if you Have Anxiety or Depression?

Well, there are all sorts of supposed contradictions in the world:

  • Doctors who smoke
  • Policemen and women who break the law
  • Personal Trainers who are supposedly ‘overweight’
  • Dentists who eat sugar (or who don’t floss their teeth after every meal)
  • Coaches who are depressed, anxious or both!

I believe it’s only hypocritical to coach someone else when you’re depressed or anxious, are aware of it AND deny and are unwilling to do anything about it.

If we ruled out everyone from helping others who had issues themselves, we wouldn’t have very many (any?) doctors, dentists, therapists, coaches out there to help!

And whether it’s a doctor, dentist, personal trainer or therapist/life coach, each of us chooses who we want to help us. There is not only the ability of someone to consider, but rapport – and timing. These must ALL be in alignment. I tried 5 therapists before I found the right fit for me.

On Perfection and ‘Black and White-ness’:

When we expect people to be ‘perfect’ and free of fault we not only set them up for failure but we set ourselves up too. Because no-one is perfect. The standards we judge others by – are also usually the standards we hold ourselves to. The more rigid our standards are, the more limited our lives will be.

Mental health issues like anxiety and depression take time to heal. We are reprogramming our minds after 20, 30, 40, 50 years of thinking a certain way. Some beliefs can be changed in a snap. And others take a lot of time, hard work and courage.

We live in a society that likes to make things black or white – and yet we humans are shades of grey. There are no absolutes. But there is a fear in our society of what we don’t understand and we can’t control. Our mental health (feelings, thoughts etc) is incredibly complex and individual – and impossible to fully understand and control. What a shame we’re not fascinated by this – instead of being afraid and determined to control it!

AND sometimes the best helper is not someone who has solved the same problems as us – but is just a few steps ahead of us. They’re far enough ahead to be able to see issues and offer valuable insight, but they’re still close enough that they know what it’s like to be where you are!

To Summarise:

Some coaches who are severely depressed and/or anxious should probably not be coaching – but it depends on the individual; many coaches continue to do an amazing job and make a difference while working on their own issues.

Coaches who have recovered from depression/anxiety will most likely be better coaches than they were before, as they have been forced to face their demons and have come out the other side. Like a doctor who has beaten cancer, a personal trainer who has lost 150 lbs – the success means they have been there, done that. And coaches have a distinct advantage here, in that we won’t be telling people HOW to do it, but using our experience and coachlike questions to help clients over their hurdles in the way that works best for them.

And as in all other professions, some coaches just aren’t very good – regardless of whether they have depression, anxiety or some other mental health issue.

So, just because we’re not operating at a “super-happy level” doesn’t mean we can’t help our clients through the knowledge we have, the coaching process we share and the relationship we have with them. In fact I think we’re better coaches if we have some unhappiness, disorganization, worry in our lives. THIS enables us to empathize. THIS is what makes us HUMAN.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.” Tagore

I’d love to know what you think! Please share this article with people who might be interested and/or comment below.

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26 comments to Should Coaches Who Have Depression or Anxiety Be Coaching Others?

  • Couldn’t agree more with this article!! I have worked with many people who have these issues (some have identified what they are dealing with and some have not) but they would not have made good coaches however that is not the industry they were working in. I personally believe, if the person has identified what they are dealing with, still wishes to be a coach, then they have additional experience they can draw upon.

  • Kerrie

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your article. It reminded me of the word ‘IMPERFECT’.
    I believe we are all ‘IM PERFECT’.
    Thanks for putting this article on the map (or WWW), I do believe the best coaches are the ones that embrace their humanity (ie make it a priority to dedicate time to their own growth, CANI in their own time), and keep their own map out of the coaching sessions.
    Just because “you have done it”, doesn’t make you an expert at ‘It’! It makes you an expert on you. Now to empower our clients on being their own experts – to me that is coaching.
    Again, thanks for the great article.

    • Hi Kerrie! Thanks for taking the time to comment. And Yes. I love what you say about being an expert on you and helping others to become their own experts. Beautiful! Warmly, EL

  • Joan

    Emma -Louise, thank you for a very detail article. I read both your articles and I totally agree with you and thank you for your courage to put it out there.

    I believe some of the best coaches are those who have been there with issues of depression and anxiety who;
    *continue to work on themselves and their skills.
    *to be the best that they can be not only for themselves but also for their clients
    *have the knowledge and experience to not only detect this in their clients, but to also guide their clients to work through and overcome the challenges they are faced with.
    *and to refer to seek medical advice if required.

    So once again thank you Emma-Louise for bringing this issue forward for discussion, it really shows me your authenticity and courage.

    • Wow – thank you Joan! And you have summed up some key points in your 4 bullets. I have been thinking an article on when to refer out etc might be worthwhile, and your points are excellent. Warmly, EL

  • Dear Emma-Louise,
    Thank you for your courage, not only for the first article but also for the follow-up. I absolutely agree that the first step to reduce misconceptions is openness and honesty. You have led the way with your personal story.

    As for the commentor, if we as coaches believe everyone is naturally creative,resourceful and whole, then we must also trust that coaches are as well. Coaches are not super-people, they’re people with a specific set of skills, experiences and feelings that all contribute to helping others.

    If I were someone looking for a coach to help me work through a specific issue, you better believe I would want someone who has a solid knowledge of my experience.

    Keep up the great work!

    All the best,
    Gina!

  • Bonnie Devlin

    As a music therapist, and ordained parish minister for over 23 years, I can attest to what you have explained so beautifully and accurately. None of us is perfect and that was never our goal as humans. We are at our strongest when we share our brokenness with others and hopefully are not judged in return. All the great saints and mystics struggled with their ‘demons’ and yet left great legacies for humankind. I myself have had clinical anxiety disorder for many years and through medicine have it under control. When I get depressed or struggling, it is often through giving to others which brings out the best in me, and where I can give my parishioners or clients all of my best professional and personal skills, without transference or projection of my problems onto them. It’s all about self-awareness and taking responsibility for our on-going healing processes. I come to your site regularly because I trust in your process and you could coach me any day! Those who live under the illusion that they are somehow perfect are more of a danger to any profession than those who understand their humanity and use that as their strength. Thanks so much to you and keep up your fantastic work!.

    • Thank-you Bonnie! Thank-you for your kind words, and your honesty and wisdom! You sum it up beautifully – that “Those who live under the illusion that they are somehow perfect are more of a danger to any profession than those who understand their humanity and use that as their strength.”
      Warmly, EL

  • Sonia

    I fully support the idea that coaches who suffer from (not debilitating) depression or anxiety and who are working on their problem have every right to coach. We are not psychiatrists who are there to try and “cure” these problems in our clients but rather guides to help them explore their issues and find ways to move forward. I believe a coach who has had to deal with depression and/or anxiety himself or herself may even have a slight advantage over others, as they are more likely to recognize the signs early and will know what they themselves had found useful in dealing with these issues. Excellent article, thank you!

    • Thank-you for your kind and wise words Sonia! And yes, you say “We are not psychiatrists who are there to try and “cure” these problems in our clients but rather guides to help them explore their issues and find ways to move forward.” I couldn’t agree more. Warmly, EL

      PS. I added in the “not” to your comment as you mentioned that in a separate comment.

  • nayana

    I think it is really courageous to continue with ones life when one is at the same time dealing with so much and such seemingly unsurmountable challenges.

    On the other hand being a coach the only thought I got is- when in the state of panic, anxiety or depression can you really see the other person’s perspective clearly- without projecting? Can a person keep self and the other completely separate? I ask as very often our perception of the world can color the way we observe issues.

    • Hi Nayana,

      You raise excellent points. If we are truly in a (full-on) panic, I don’t think anyone should be coaching or trying to help others – they should be helping themselves!

      So, I think our perception of the world ALWAYS colours the way we observe the world and respond to it. We can ONLY look at the world through our own filters. The BIG question is, “Are you aware of it?” Are you aware that this is just a perception, that there are different ways of looking at things? Are you aware that you might be projecting? Even the best, most experienced and highly trained therapists still sometimes make mistakes, project onto others. It’s unavoidable.

      And if we are depressed or have anxiety we can still listen, reflect back and ask questions to challenge our clients and help them meet their goals.

      BUT I would indeed find it difficult to coach well if I was very depressed or anxious in that moment. However, I also think there is this idea that anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are a kind of constant. When actually, our mind states vary from moment to moment, day to day, week to week and month to month. Before a coaching session (even if I’m already feeling great!), I meditate or similar to get me into a specific ‘coach-like’ state of mind.

      Just a few thoughts. Thank-you for your great questions Nayana. Warmly, EL

  • I agree that having resolved ones own challenges with respect to anxiety and depression makes one a better coach – particularly from the perspective of empathy of what the client is going through.

    Personally, I believe that having challenges of ones own in that area, regardless of whether one is working on it or not, will affect current coaching relationships. As a coach, I believe these challenges affect ones ability to listen fully in the client’s space that’s why I wouldn’t coach in that position.

    As a client, I suppose some fitness clients would not be bothered to be trained by an obese personal trainer, but for me, that speaks volumes to the credibility of the coach – I doubt I’d respect much of the process if I felt or knew that they are in the same mess I’m in currently.

    • Hi Pratish,

      Thank-you for taking the time to comment! You raise good points. And I’m going to borrow some of my responses to Nayana’s comments.

      If we are depressed or have anxiety we can still listen, reflect back and ask questions to challenge our clients and help them meet their goals.

      HOWEVER, I agree, it is indeed difficult to coach at our best if we are very depressed or anxious in that moment. However, I also think there is this idea that anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are a kind of constant. When actually, our mind states vary from moment to moment, day to day, week to week and month to month. Before a coaching session (even if I’m already feeling great!), I meditate or similar to get me into a specific ‘coach-like’ state of mind. It is possible to sidestep the depression or anxiety for specific periods of time, but it does take a process – and effort.

      Our state of mind and perception of the world ALWAYS colours the way we observe the world and respond to it. We can ONLY look at the world through our own filters. The BIG question for me is, “Are you aware of it?”

      A coach who is depressed, working on themselves and aware of it will be a better coach than someone who is happy and blissfully unaware of their own filters, prejudices and triggers…

      But it is all down to the individual coach, and their unique situation. There are no blanket answers here. Everyone must follow their own conscience and we are ALL doing our best.

      Curious to know what you think. Warmly, EL

  • Hi Emma-Louise,
    I think you are spot on here. Your assessment to me seems cogent, fair and sensible. It’s also very empowering to the (surely) many coaches out here, myself amongst them, who periodically experience anxiety and/or depression.

    I agree there is a significant difference between a coach who wilfully ignores their depressive/anxious experience – or cannot see that they are in struggle – and a coach who acknowledges their depressive/anxious experience and actively seeks to build their understanding, resilience and resources.

    Both anxiety and depression are sadly very common in our modern world however, as with many debilitating conditions, often bring unexpected gifts. As you imply, these may include such coaching essentials as: wisdom, insight, empathy, courage, willingness to ‘name it’, compassion and more.

    I also think you are right to reiterate the inescapable and beautiful truth: none of us are perfect; indeed it’s our imperfections which make us fully human. In my experience, it’s when we acknowledge and own the full range of our human experience that we really create the potential to serve our clients.

    In part, coaching is about helping clients unlock the treasure-chest of their lives – worth bearing mind then that diamonds are made from coal under pressure and it’s the grit in the oyster which creates the pearls.

    • Dear Sarah,

      What a great summary. Thank-you. And I love your final paragraph (wonderful analogies – especially all three together!)

      “…coaching is about helping clients unlock the treasure-chest of their lives – worth bearing mind then that diamonds are made from coal under pressure and it’s the grit in the oyster which creates the pearls.”

      Beautiful imagery.

      Warmly, EL

  • Judy

    You would be hard pressed to find a person — any person — who hasn’t had some kind of experience of anxiety or depression. Obviously if it is of a crippling nature, one would be advised not to take on responsibility for others. Emma Louise, I have been following your articles on this, and my take-away is that we should all have some basic mental health awareness about ourselves and others. It’s irresponsible to collude with clients and colleagues that everything is or should be rosy all the time. Anxiety and depression in the milder forms are rampant, almost to the point of being “normal” responses to stress at this time in history. Make that any time in history. Off topic, I think the medicalization of the less than happy aspects of human nature is a callous attempt to sell pharmaceuticals.

    • Hi Judy,

      I agree. Anxiety and/or depression seem pretty rampant in current society. If we are aware of our own issues around this we can help others more effectively – spotting it in others for starters. And the societal view that everything should be rosy all the time is NOT a realistic expectation of the human (life) experience! Pretending it SHOULD be rosy all the time just leads to us denying reality – and thus creating suffering for ourselves!

      When experiencing crippling anxiety or depression, we should be focusing on taking care of ourselves.

      I think the medicalization of much of our mental health speaks volumes. I also believe pharmaceutical companies take advantage. But many people (both mentally well and unwell) collude… How much simpler and less shameful it is if it’s just a ‘chemical imbalance’ that causes these difficult mind states? The shame, fear and discomfort we feel when facing difficult emotions or negative mind states make it easier to pop a pill than to seek help and face those fears…

      Great thoughts. Thanks again Judy.

      Warmly, Emma-Louise

  • Dear Emma-Louise,

    Another beautifully written article. You have truly managed to address all aspects of this issue and I truly appreciate it. I read these comments and I wonder if I might be an odd ball among the coaches. You might be appealing to a different audience though. The beauty of all of us on this board is that we will attract different folks and every person will help in their own way, whether they suffer from depression or anxiety or not.

    Having said that, I still strongly disagree with the premise that coaches that are being treated for anxiety or depression (i.e. taking brain altering meds or seeing other help because dis-ease affects their everyday life) should not be coaching. I don’t doubt that such a coach can give a killer session, but that is not the point (even though I do think that it will most certainly get in a way). I simply find it hypocritical and feel that across the board, we keep lowering the standards for professionals.

    Yes, we are all human and I have had my share of misery – I grew up during the civil war, lived in a refugee camp and lost a child. I have seen dark days and have had my share of anxiety. BUT – I used that to overcome and create the peace of mind and healthy life that I lead now. You are right – those coaches who overcame can be even better coaches because of their history.

    You might be able to center yourself before coaching a client, but I am not sure that is possible all the time or for everyone. Everyone has depressive and anxious moments but that is different than from someone dealing with it day in and day out.

    We promise clients to help them create their most ideal life – is living with depression the most ideal life? I suspect not. The comparison that comes to mind is an alcoholic leading an AA meeting: he may have a drink only once a week or every day, it is irrelevant: he hasn’t overcome. Recovering alcoholic is a great mentor though since they have been there and have found a way to overcome (for now, at least!). In the same light, coach who is being treated for depression/anxiety that interrupts their lives (whether they are aware of it or not) should step away from coaching.

    Many coaches promise clients inner peace, calm and happiness – how can they help them find that when they, themselves, haven’t found it. If you tell me that a coach with depression/anxiety is also happy and calm – then I am confused. Which is it?

    You are obviously a beautiful soul and without a doubt a great coach. I applaud you for your honesty and for starting this dialogue. I just must belong to a whole different school of coaching and what that means. It is all, after all, dependent on our definition and perception of what coaching is.

    I choose the one wherein I’ve been there, lived it and found a way to overcome so that I may serve others for the highest good of all. I have been able to create the most ideal life and feel that there is integrity in what I sell to my clients. I suspect that I will continue to attract high functioning individuals who do not suffer from depression and anxiety because of that. We all have a path and I must honor and respect -even if I disagree – everyone’s choice. We are all beautiful souls underneath of the shadow of any title we might give ourselves to explain the unhappiness we feel.

    Anyway, thanks for the insights and for letting me share.

    Best,
    Jasna

    • Thank-you for your well thought out reply Jasna.

      Firstly, I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for you. It is fabulous that you have turned your life around.

      And I have a feeling that we will have to agree to somewhat disagree – and that is just fine with me! If we all thought the same way it would be a very dreary world out there.

      As I mentioned in reply to another comment, if our lives are a mess, if we are in a panic situation, if we are in a severely depressed state – we should absolutely be taking care of ourselves as a priority, not others.

      And each situation is unique and different. We must each follow our intuition and conscience.

      We have started and had a great discussion around this. Hopefully it has given people something to really think about.

      Warmly, EL

  • Rubem

    Carl Jung quote:

    The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. . . The pains and burdens one bears and eventually overcomes is the source of great wisdom and healing power for others.

  • Thank you for posting this! As someone living with – and working on – my anxiety and OCD, I had to reflect long and hard on whether I was in a position to help others since at first it felt hypocritical to say I could coach others when I wasn’t perfect and hadn’t (and still haven’t) resolved all my issues.

    The more I’ve spoken with people about this, though, the more I’ve realized that it’s just as you said – many people aren’t looking for people who have all the answers and are perfect. They often feel unattainable and inaccessible in some way. But if I’m not perfect, I’m working to be the best person I can be, and I share that with you in a professional way where appropriate, you may just connect to me and be more open to learning from me than you would be otherwise.

    As a matter of fact, now I’m focusing on helping women with anxiety and OCD realize there’s so much more to them and their lives than these issues, and people relate so much more because of my personal experience.

    Thank you again.

    • Thanks Elizabeth for your heartfelt and thoughtful reply. I am sure you are a wonderful coach to women with anxiety and OCD – and your own experience just makes you more relatable, approachable and real. Congratulations! Warmly, Emma-Louise

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