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The Disturbing Power Of The Instagram Life Coach

It goes deeper than Caroline Calloway

by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria

Last January, social media influencer Caroline Calloway drew widespread criticism for selling—and later canceling—a poorly planned series of "creativity workshops" scheduled to appear in multiple cities across the U.S. and internationally. Tickets sold for $165 and included a salad, notebook, and stickers, and four hours with an Instagram celebrity best known for her wholesome content.

Critics called Calloway a fraud who scammed her devoted followers, an accusation that Calloway later leveraged to promote a relaunch of the same workshop series in August. This rebooted event held in a Manhattan loft reportedly invited attendees to share poems, personal stories, and journal entries aloud to the group. During a Q&A session, Calloway also answered questions about her "creative process," though subsequent reports about Calloway's numerous money problems raise questions about what, if anything, this process actually entails. This didn't deter Calloway's followers drawn to the allure of "living authentically," but more recent scandals surrounding Calloway—including an exposé written by her former friend for The Cut—did.

However, as the Calloway story revealed, millennial women want to feel connected, empowered, and creatively fulfilled, and they're willing to pay those who claim to have answers. High-profile influencers and Instagram "life coaches" are tapping into a widespread, generational desire for meaning, purpose, and aspirational "wellness" among millennial women, many of whom are lonelier than ever. Some can't afford therapy, but they probably have Instagram, where an influencer's promise to teach self-love or "manifest" prosperity can be an irresistibly appealing option. When used as a substitute for therapy or professional mental health care, however, this can be incredibly dangerous.

According to licensed psychologist Dr. Marni Amsellem, one of the biggest problems with Instagram self-help gurus and self-made life coaches is their lack of qualifications and formal training. Without any form of official certification, license, or oversight from a regulatory agency, anyone with a social media following is free to sell empty, dubious advice without any real consequences. "There is a risk at any point of someone perhaps taking some advice that could end up harming them. Should something go wrong, there isn't really any protection for people," Dr. Amsellem said. "Not every self-help person on the internet is thinking about that."

Wellness, creativity, and empowerment can't be measured, but pursuing these vague ideas can feel like doing something when therapy may be inaccessible and unaffordable. Still, it can be impossible to tell the good advice from the bad when it comes packaged as an aspirational lifestyle. The idea of wellness and self-actualization is attractive, but the idea of looking well and self-actualized can be an even bigger draw. These ideas often center on cults of personality, with self-appointed gurus presenting what looks like a fully actualized, radically self-loving "bad bitch" leading her own personal empowerment revolution. However, common issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief that drive millennials' search for internet life advice can't be cured with empowerment.

That doesn't mean that striving for self-improvement is inherently dangerous, especially when used in conjunction with therapy. "Someone can offer good advice without formal training," Dr. Amsellem said. Cera Byer is a Los Angeles-based dancer, choreographer, and movement teacher known for sharing sexy twerk videos and body-positive posts. She's also the creator of Intuitive Edge Coaching, a program for developing self-acceptance and empowerment inspired by her own journey toward self-love. Byer offers the course to followers through her Instagram account, and coaches her students through different stages of the program, which includes journaling prompts for each specific topic. Byer is currently working on expanding the program with live group retreat experiences, one-on-one sessions, and a book. "It's a reprogramming process essentially, of starting to peel apart what I feel is our core essential self from what is toxic social programming, trauma, abuse, protective mechanisms, defense mechanisms, and coping skills learned through trauma," Byer said. "This is something I taught myself."

Byer developed the course in response to requests from followers who frequently expressed their admiration of her unshakable confidence, and wanted to learn how they could improve their own. "At that point, I had been through about 12 of eating disorder recovery, therapy, different spiritual practices, coaching, and self-help. All these different things that I had done," Byer said. "I asked myself if I felt there was an essential process for moving into a place of self-love, what would that be? What did I think were the key pieces that I could boil down and teach someone?" Byer feels the program is a natural extension of her work as a dance teacher, and believes her own lived experiences can be valuable tools for helping others with similar struggles.

"I do believe there can be some benefit to working with someone in a realm that feels safe, especially when it comes to accountability," Dr. Amsellem said. "You don't need a license to be a good coach." Fame and online popularity shouldn't be taken as endorsements, though. "The source and the position of the source matters. People can get carried away talking about a thing they think they know a lot about," Dr. Amsellem added.

Byer agrees. She's aware that offering life coaching and self-improvement courses comes with great responsibility, and not everyone uses their power wisely. "One of the problems with being famous for being yourself is that you start to believe that you being you is inherently valuable," Byer said. "While I think you being you is inherently valuable, teaching other people how to do something requires you to have a deep understanding of the mechanics of how someone else can replicate it."

Byer believes it's important for anyone offering advice to a large following to examine their intentions closely. "If you never wonder whether the information you have is valuable, and you're willing to just sell it without ruthlessly interrogating yourself and your motives and making sure that your skills are commercially valuable to your audience, then you probably aren't that self-aware."

Though there's nothing wrong with following and admiring an Instagram guru, or even taking their advice, Dr. Amsellem believes it's best to approach with caution. "A very real danger is following bad advice like it's some sort of gospel," said Dr. Amsellem. "This is not a substitute for therapy."