The Four Stages of Developing a Life That Feels Great

People decide to try coaching because they are dissatisfied with some area of their life. But most of the time they don’t really know what they need to get from their present state of dissatisfaction to a life that feels great. Even figuring out whether I am the right person to help them can be a challenge. So I have to use our initial consultation call to lead us through a mutual journey of discovery to see what help they need and whether I am the right person to help them.

One of the things that I do is make an assessment of where they are on what I call the Stages of Dissatisfaction journey.


Stage One: HELL

When someone is in Hell, life is miserable and their behaviour is out of control. Everything feels awful. They are suicidal, self-harming, using drugs and alcohol, or engaging in other overtly self-destructive behaviours.


When someone is in Quiet Desperation, their behaviour is under control and they look fine to the people around them, but they are suffering internally. They have limited experience of positive emotions.


Someone who is Embracing Self-Determination has decided that it is time to live life according to their own definition of success. They may be throwing off habits of people pleasing, deciding to risk career change, or simply wanting to feel more empowered about the decisions they are making.


Someone who is Seeking Joy has embraced ordinary happiness and unhappiness and is seeking a greater sense of meaning or purpose. They want to feel fulfilled and connected to the whole. They are looking to build their ongoing capacity for experiences of joy and freedom no matter what is going on around them.


Once I have identified where someone is on the journey, I can make an assessment about whether I can help them or not.


Coaches cannot help someone in Hell. As a coach, I do not have the skills to do this. People in HELL need a therapist. In order for coaching to be effective, the overtly self-destructive behaviours have to be under control. Taking on coaching clients at this level of distress is irresponsible.

Quiet Desperation

People who are in Quiet Desperation can be helped by therapists and qualified coaches. Many people in this stage seek out coaching because they don’t feel bad enough to think they need a therapist. They often have a hard time believing that anything will help or feel ashamed about feeling so bad inside when they are so clearly seen as successful by others. People at this stage need an emotionally intelligent and preferably trauma-aware support. They need a coach who can make them feel safe enough to be courageous even when tough emotions come up.

An ICF accredited coach is expected to use practices that are trauma-aware. Some are better than others. Some coach training programs are better than others at developing emotional intelligence. Some, like the Co-Active Training Institute, explicitly train their students in the distress tolerance required to create a safe container in the face of intense discomfort. Most do not.

I know that I can help these clients. Over the course of my coaching career, I have coached many individuals with well-managed anxiety, depression, and PTSD. All of these individuals worked with a therapist to get from Hell to Quiet Desperation and many of them continued to work with their therapist as they worked with me.

Many people in this stage do not recognize that they are in this stage and think they are in stage four: seeking joy. And in fact, during an initial conversation, I cannot always tell which stage a person is in. But, since I know I can help a person in either stage two or four, it doesn’t matter when assessing fit. When coaching doesn’t work for someone, it is often because they were in this stage and hired a coach whose skill set in stage three. Most coach training is geared towards people in stage three.

Embracing Self-Determination

Most people who are looking for coaches are in stage three and most coaches are trained to work with people in this stage. This stage is about setting specific goals based on your values and taking the actions necessary to achieve them. People in this stage are often looking for support from someone who can serve as a cheerleader and as mentor or teacher. They are looking for a coach who functions like a sports coach: walking them through drills and helping them with the right mindset.

In this stage, a good fit between coach and client requires both a coach who can create a sense of psychological safety for the client and who can teach the relevant skills. ICF accreditation is a signal that a coach has experience and skill creating psychological safety, but says nothing about the skill set.

I am a good fit for clients in this stage when they are entrepreneurs running very small businesses, new coaches, parents, new managers and emerging leaders, leaders in organizations that depend on volunteers, and people who are trying to develop their ability to have difficult conversations and build better relationships. I am also a good fit for people who want me to help them with the mindset piece and are willing to do the skill development on their own or using other resources. People in this stage with other challenges do better with other coaches.

Seeking Joy

This is a stage that often feels “spiritual but not religious”. People in this stage often turn to religious leaders for guidance in this stage. It can be a challenging stage for people who are uncomfortable with religious thought or language about spirit, and doubly so for people who left family religious traditions because of theri commitment to reason. When my clients whose professional lives are founded on evidence and rational thinking enter this stage, they are often embarrassed or shameful or worry that they are losing their edge.

These clients love that I am rational and evidence-based, with my background in law and neuroscience and ability to think fast and rationally. But they come to trust my capacity for love and my embrace of the non-rational parts of human experience. My ability to hold rational and irrational humanity as an integrated whole rather than as paradox allows them to do the same.

I spent two years at a liberal theological school, Starr King School for the Ministry, in the early 2000s and have a lifetime of using dance and theatre to reveal the heart of human feeling, and that training serves me well in this capacity.

In most cases, people in this stage have a strong ability to identify whether the person they are talking to is the right teacher for them at this point in their journey. They tell me if I am what they need or not.


If you are human, there is dissatisfaction in you. It may or may not be at a level that you want to do anything about. If, however, you are thinking about trying to make a change, I hope this guide to the stages is useful.

If you can see which stage you are in, it can help you decide who might be a useful companion for the next stage in the journey.

And, of course, if the descriptions of my coaching strengths seem to fit your needs, schedule a free consultation to discuss how I can help.

Here’s to you feeling great about your life!