Life Coaching: A Symptom of Our Times – Interview w/ The Irish Times

neoliberalism psychology

*Excerpts of this response were used for a publication in the Irish Times on life coaching. The publication can be found here.

Do As You Please

chomsky psychologist neoliberalism

“Neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the US but across the planet, and will be for the forseeable future.” – Noam Chomksy

The growing uptake of life coaching is symptomatic of the ideology of our time. The function of government and religious institutes as agents of instruction has long been on the wane. What operates instead is a laissez faire ideology. The land of the free sort of attitude. This is freeing in a sense but in another way utterly terrifying. Is there anything more frightening than a complete lack of direction? Who will tell us how to dress appropriately? How to be a proper lady? When to have sex? The appropriate time to have babies? It’s no coincidence that there’s a wave of young people overwhelmed with anxiety and struggling to find a signifier for their gender.

Another aspect of this neoliberal mentality are the demands to produce and enjoy. “Be the best you can be.” “Find happiness.” We’re uncomfortably familiar with these mantras that are regurgitated in many places and many forms. Caveat emptor – the type of production and enjoyment we’re urged to pursue is a particular one. One that owns a flash car, a host of property, a thoroughly modern kitchen – the whole bit. A real success. If you stay and listen long enough for the dust to settle, you’ll hear that anyone reaching these lofty heights will be met with an abject hollowness afterwards. What next?
The register that these ambitions reside keep very close company with competition and rivalry. A game for winners and losers – where winning only lasts so long.

The Unavoidable Alienation of the Self

“Find your true self.” “Do what really makes you happy.” If only it were so simple. What discourses aiming to conclusively answer these questions fail to appreciate is the fundamental contradiction of being a speaking body.

Consider the moment when we are just a glint in our father’s eye. There may be a relationship on the demise, maybe instead a pair of young lovers massively enthused at what a child might bring – “this will be the making of us.” Perhaps even a jovial couple of globetrotters supposing that the very last thing on earth to happen to them in that moment would be exactly what was about to happen to them in that moment. “I’ve always dreamt of having a little boy.” “What will my mother say?” “What will your mother say?” The combination of circumstances and complexities are endless.

Jacques Lacan Psychoanalysis

“In other words, the man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth.”
― Jacques Lacan

When we eventually enter on to the stage we are already typecast in to a grand, intricate, subtly woven play that we are utterly unaware of. To top it off someone else names us. As we grow older and sturdier on our legs we begin to learn words that others give to us. We tediously master a language that predates us and is curiously the invention of no one in particular.

At some point we figure out that that thing in the mirror is us. That image that’s outside of us is actually us. In fact, the only opportunity we have to see our whole self is when we are looking outside of ourselves. The moment we step in to the speaking world we are inevitably constituted by a division. Our name. Our history. Our image. Our speech. All coming to us in various forms from outside… but also composing us and belonging to us. We are fundamentally alienated from ourselves and others. Is it any wonder we crave direction? Is it any wonder we are conflicted over what we want?

Plugging a Gap

The signifier Life Coach tells us a lot. To coach is of course to train or tutor and is inherently linked to performance. It alludes to a master. A masterful coach who dispenses or unlocks the tools to perform. From the very beginning of a Coach – Client relationship there is a demand to perform in operation. The sort of performance suggested to us by others is problematic for many reasons, some of them alluded to already.

Then of course, what is neglected is the very constitution of being human. The unfortunate truth that we are walking contradictions at the best of times. That almost exclusively we hold diametrically opposed beliefs simultaneously. I want to be a good family woman but actually I would love nothing better than to disappear over to the other side of the planet and live in a hut. I’d give up the ‘auld drink but..

Division within ourselves is something that absolutely cannot be reconciled. There can be no remedy, resolution or restitution. Resultantly, this leads to a lifetime punctuated by failures, disappointments and suffering. We are fundamentally limited in our abilities and lacking in our place in the world. To follow a path without this is complete fantasy.

Mobius strip psychotherapy dublin logo

The circuit on a Möbius strip runs seamlessly and infinitely – merging inside with outside. This figure resembles self-identity and how the self is paradoxically constituted from both what is inside and outside. You can find that same figure in our logo.

Do or Die

This impossibility is foreclosed in the crusade of ‘Mental Health.’ Mental healthiness. The words themselves are problematic. It supposes someone can be mentally healthy. In all my years I am yet to meet one of these people. When we speak of what’s healthy we automatically allude to something unhealthy. Norms and ideals are established in the very utterance of the word. There is a pressure to perform as a normal, ‘functioning’ person.

Functioning in our era of course means being an effective member of the capital producing market. Consider the endless swathe of children diagnosed with ADHD for not paying proper attention to their lessons. What on earth is wrong with them if they do not want to be productive? They must have a psychological illness. As a Harvard psychologist, Professor Jerome Kagan put it:

“Let’s go back 50 years. We have a 7-year-old child who is bored in school and disrupts classes. Back then, he was called lazy. Today, he is said to suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). That’s why the numbers have soared.”

Within the psychoanalytic community what is common is a weariness of the pervasive relationship between neoliberalism and modern psychology. For me, at least, Life Coaching is the love child of this relationship. A super-driven, super-fast training course aimed at wringing performance out of us and promising to plug the gap of our limitations.

It pressures us to become ‘a better version’ of ourselves. A pressure that needs no help in its renewal. A pressure that is crushing enough when it springs from the abyss of our own minds. To persistently suggest that we attempt to fill the gap of our own lack with achievement is an endeavour that ultimately deadens us, leaving us more alienated than ever before.

When is it useful to coach your life? When is it useful to win a race?

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Colin McDonnell is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with over ten years experience working in different health and social settings. Currently he works as a psychoanalyst and Clinic Director at Psychotherapy Dublin. As an accredited psychoanalytic psychotherapist he is a member of APPI, ICP, PSI and PPS. He also holds masters degrees in both psychoanalytic psychotherapy and addiction studies.