Written by Imogen West-Knights
Approaching your 30th birthday comes with a huge amount of pressure for women. Could a specialist life coach help you work through life’s most difficult questions? Writer Imogen West-Knights, 29, went on a mission to find out.
Growing up, I didn’t have much of an idea of what my life would look like at 30. I am the eldest child in a family with no cousins, so there weren’t many young adults in my life. Mentally, I sorted adults into The Old (parent-aged people) and then a mysterious species below them, whose lives I couldn’t imagine any more than I could imagine the lives of creatures scuttling along the deepest ocean floors. What did a 30-year-old look like? What did they do?
For most of my life, I’ve been happily unencumbered by expectations of what being in your 30s should include – other than knowing my mum was 30 when she had me.
So when Stylist asked me if I was up for meeting the world’s first ‘turning 30’ life coach, my initial reaction was resistance. I actually felt fine about turning 30 – or so I thought. I had a long-term partner I loved and I was happy in my career. I know, intellectually, that I am still young. But I also know that panic often sets in around this age, rooted in a fear of leaving it ‘too late’ to do things like switch jobs or partners or which country you live in. The more I thought about it, and got uncomfortable thinking about it, the more I realised it’s not that I didn’t have feelings about turning 30, but that I was avoiding thinking about it altogether. I don’t want to look at the decade head on, to reckon with what my finances, my career, or my family might look like.
People talk about 30 in a way they don’t when turning 25, 27 or 29. Friends express their anxieties about their upcoming ‘big’ birthday: their lack of major life plans, stress over not having those traditional markers of maturity such as a stable relationship or a career in good order. For women who want to have children especially, it’s the dawn of an intimidating decade in which we might actually have to do something about it, and the external pressure can be overwhelming – take the headlines around a new ONS report in January 2022, boldly stating that record numbers of women are hitting 30 child-free with little to no mention of men.
If I’m honest, I’ve never been sold on the idea of a life coach. I associate them with cringe-worthy sincerity, like using ‘adult’ as a verb or journalling, and this woman I follow on Instagram who spends all her time on yoga retreats pursuing “self-actualisation” in ever more beautiful locations. I’m just suspicious of anything that purports to be about self-improvement, which can slide all too easily into productivity-enhancing life hacks and then straight down into the hustle culture swamp.
But I’m also suspicious of my own suspicion. Maybe it comes partly from a cynical place, and partly from a fear of trying and failing to self-improve. So, I google Emma Wilson. She’s the first and only life coach offering sessions specifically targeted at people turning 30 – a way for her to carve a niche in a crowded market given that she first turned to coaching herself when she had a crisis of self at the age of 29. With a big birthday coming up, she found herself without a career she loved, without a partner, without savings and without a healthy lifestyle. She started seeing a life coach, which turned everything around for her – so much so that she packed in her corporate legal job and decided to become a coach herself, to guide others through this very particular moment in life when other people start expecting you to have your shit together.
Her website features pictures of a pretty woman in her early 30s, glowing as she rolls around in the sand and laughs while climbing a tree. It promises that with her help, I too will enter my 30s feeling confident, empowered and hopeful. Ultimately, my curiosity wins out and I sign on for a taster of three sessions to see what it’s all about.
I fill out the online questionnaire Emma has sent me before our first session, to help her understand what makes me tick. The questions are probing, things like ‘Do you have a five or ten-year plan?’ and ‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’ They make me feel surprisingly uncomfortable. An image of something between a baby and a goblin crawls to the front of my mind. I don’t typically like to dwell on these big life questions let alone share them, so I feel exposed when I hit send.
I log in to my first session with Emma on Zoom. She’s wearing a black hoodie, small gold hoops and has dyed blonde hair with dark roots. She seems not at all like a pseudo-shaman or a corporate ghoul, but a normal person. She asks me how I felt about the questionnaire, and I tell her I didn’t like it. “Considering these questions doesn’t feel comfortable, I want to be blunt with you,” she tells me. In this first session, she wants to identify areas of my life that cause me anxiety. There are loads of these, it turns out, but the ones she picks up on are my finances and the inevitable, time-worn question for women in their 30s: what about having a baby? We talk about this for a bit, and I am embarrassed to notice a lump in my throat. I was not aware that the question of when, or if, I should have a baby was something that agitated me very much. But the evidence is undeniable. I feel backed into a corner, and she can tell I am panicked.
She gives me an analogy for what I’m experiencing. “Imagine a beach ball in a swimming pool, and that beach ball is subconscious anxiety relating to things in your life. Most of us are pushing that beach ball really far under the water, but it’s difficult to keep it down there. And sometimes, when you lose control of a situation, the ball rushes up to the surface and explodes out of the water.” Hence the racing heart.
And anyway, she’s not here to make me decide on my goals for the future. Life coaching is for “people who want to explore why they think what they think,” she says. My first week’s homework is to notice, and write down, any time I find myself spiralling into “negative thought loops”. I also have to journal at least three times, writing about whatever comes to mind, and one has to be about starting a family. I agree reluctantly, thinking of the Instagram woman and her yoga retreats.
Not long after our session, I catch myself in a negative thought loop about the chances of a piece of work turning out badly, resulting in me not being asked to work by this outlet ever again, then not being asked to work again by anybody, then my untimely death, then the untimely death of those close to me, etc. I write it down.
On Emma’s instruction, I try journaling. I make a list of nine things that freak me out about having kids. Seeing it written down over one and a half A5 pages makes me feel calmer. Some are legitimate concerns, others seem less worthy of serious consideration after I write them, such as point 9: ‘Scared of being pregnant because of body horror, Alien vibes.’ My boyfriend asks me what I’m doing and so I read him the list on a whim, which feels weird at first but does prompt a productive and reassuring conversation.
I journal again. I realise I am scribbling down a written version of the negative thought spirals I do in my head. I make a conscious decision to write about things that are exciting instead, and feel good afterwards. I begin to suspect journaling is not bullshit. I hate this realisation, as it forces me to question more things I thought were a waste of time that other people like, such as extensive skincare routines and bowling.
I have my second session with Emma. I tell her about my successes with journaling. “Bringing your attention to something going on in your mind means you can question it,” she says, which is what I had started to do of my own accord. She reiterates: life coaching, or at least her kind of life coaching, isn’t about being told what to do.
I learn about what she calls “the unintentional model”, a way to unpack the way you think and feel about something. It’s not dissimilar to cognitive behavioural therapy, she says, and writes a flow chart onto a flipboard behind her to explain: ‘Circumstance > Thought > Feeling > Action > Result’. It’s a little complicated but with practice, she tells me, you can use it to help question the validity of your ingrained thought processes – those spirals you go down again and again. All of my models involved avoidance: trying not to think or talk about something, which can create situations that – when laid out – are ridiculous. For example: I don’t have a good grasp on how much I earn as a freelancer month to month, which stresses me out and causes me to avoid looking at my finances too closely, which itself means I then have a bad grasp on my finances.
I feel overwhelmed. I could make a model for everything I’ve ever thought. I could fall down a bottomless well of life coaching. I finish the session feeling like the way I formulate thoughts is fundamentally broken – but fixable – and sit at my desk staring out of the window for a while.
I accidentally write my way into a sensible decision to turn down a piece of work by journaling about it, weighing up both my options and seeing that it is obvious which one is preferable.
Unplanned, I end up having a detailed conversation about future plans with my boyfriend – the type of conversation that made me sweat to think about three weeks ago. Still uncomfortable, but doable.
I arrive for my final session with Emma. Today, she teaches me “the intentional model”, a version of the flowchart we did before but this time you map out how you would like to feel about something, and what thoughts would lead you to those feelings. This, she says, is a good thing to do around a milestone birthday, a time when we naturally tend to reflect more about where we are in life, but especially approaching 30 when we start to field uninvited questions and judgments about our choices from others.
Several more realisations about my thought patterns, specifically around money, fall into place. At the end of the session, I decide to come clean about how sceptical I felt going in. She smiles, because she’s heard all this before. “Coaching has a reputation for being either really business-y or really spiritual. But this is logical, not spiritual,” she says.
Wilson’s coaching is not for everybody: specifically, it’s not for people who need psychotherapy for mental health issues, and she redirects clients who she thinks would benefit from that instead. And her sessions are expensive. More expensive per hour than weekly therapy, for instance.
I don’t feel any differently about the notion of turning 30 in and of itself: I see it as both a made-up deadline and a moment when it’s natural to think about the future. It may seem like everyone is juggling big life decisions at 30, but we have to make decisions about the future all the time. That’s not going to start, or end, with a birthday.
But I have to admit that she has helped me feel differently about my life in general. With the intentional model she taught me, I’ve been given a tool to tackle anxious thoughts that aren’t serving me, and I intend to use it. Maybe I’ll keep journaling too – I’ll just call it “keeping a diary” instead.
Images: Imogen West-Knights, Emma Wilson
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