Questions About Therapy:
Do I Need Therapy?
If you’re struggling with a rocky relationship, a difficult life transition, or a mental health situation, working with a therapist can be hugely beneficial. Therapy can unleash personal insights, alleviate symptoms, and teach you new ways to approach problems, helping you through immediate difficulties and building up your emotional self-care skills for future challenges.
But therapy isn’t a panacea. It may be the first place you think to turn to when you find yourself struggling, but it’s important to understand what’s causing your distress or dissatisfaction before settling on therapy as a solution. Is it something to work through with a counselor, or would a more action-oriented approach, like working with a life coach, actually deliver better results?
Not getting therapeutic treatment when you need it is a big mistake, and can be incredibly detrimental to your health and wellbeing. But spending time in traditional talk therapy when it’s not what you need can feel like spinning your wheels, and can sidetrack you from the personal growth work that may make a bigger difference.
Here’s a guide to help you decide if therapy is what you need, or if you’d benefit more from a different kind of help.
I think I need therapy. Is there something wrong with me?
First, let’s dispense with the notion that people who could benefit from therapy are somehow damaged. The stigma around getting help with mental health problems is incredibly harmful, unhelpful, and keeps people struggling for far longer than they need to be. If you decide that therapy is right for you, I hope you don’t have any more shame about seeking it out than you would about going to the doctor to treat a sore throat or a broken bone. Mental illness is every bit as real as physical illness, and it’s not uncommon. About one in five Americans live with some form of mental illness, from mild depression or anxiety, to more severe conditions that substantially impact their lives.
Furthermore, while therapy is primarily intended to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, successful therapy has other purposes. Plenty of people seek out and benefit from supportive, personal growth-oriented therapy, despite having no mental health diagnosis. They may be learning to trust again after a bad relationship, building their self-love, learning how to have healthy relationships, processing a history of trauma or abuse, or any number of other goals.
All of these life challenges can trigger bouts of situational mental illness, like depressive episodes or panic attacks, and if they arise, your therapist can help you work through them. Even when they don’t, getting a therapist can help you become more emotionally healthy so that you can move forward in a balanced, happier, and healthier way.
Do I Need Therapy or Coaching?
However, it’s also true that many people who aren’t experiencing mental health symptoms but are instead wondering if they need therapy to help them in their self-development process could actually benefit more from working with a good life coach vs. a therapist. To understand why, you need to know about the differences between coaching and counseling. Even growth-oriented therapy tends to prioritize insight, introspection, and exploring the past. Growth-oriented therapy can be wonderful, but its primary outcome is often simply greater self-understanding and self-acceptance — not necessarily positive change.
If you’re considering therapy to help you not just understand yourself, but actively create change in your life, relationships, career, or personal habits, working with a good life coach may be a more direct route to creating those outcomes. Learn more about the difference between therapy and coaching here. And if you’re considering getting involved with a life coach, be sure to read “How to Find a Life Coach” for more information.
Before getting into therapy, think about your hopes and goals. Are you hoping to relieve symptoms of a mental health condition, or are you aiming for personal growth in some area of your life? Does the stress you’re feeling seem to be situational, or do you think it could be linked to a history of trauma or abuse? Does your relationship need a little TLC, or has an unhealthy dynamic taken hold?
Answering these questions will help you find the helping professional you really need. Whatever you decide, the fact that you’re taking positive action on your own behalf is admirable.
Reasons to See a Therapist
Therapy can be an incredibly useful tool for learning to be kinder to yourself, treating symptoms of a mental health condition, and dealing with difficult emotions that have roots in a painful past. Sometimes it’s a little fuzzy whether therapy is the proper tool for what you’re dealing with; other times it’s very clear. While these aren’t the only reasons to find a therapist, here are a few dead giveaways that therapy is appropriate for you:
1) You’re dealing with symptoms of a mental illness
If you’re actively struggling with symptoms of what may be a mental health condition, it’s vital that you get help from a professional who can assess what’s going on and develop a treatment plan. You may be experiencing mood swings, persistent feelings of sadness, unexplained changes in sleep or eating patterns, a sense of hopelessness, or a number of other symptoms.
Be particularly wary of any suicidal thoughts, or thoughts that your loved ones would be better off without you. These are all red flags that tell you it’s time to get help from a qualified professional, the sooner the better. If you’re currently experiencing a true mental health crisis, please visit our Emergency Resources page for links to immediate assistance.
2) You’re struggling with addiction
Substance abuse disorder is a serious and sometimes deadly condition that requires treatment. Treating addiction can involve counseling, medication, 12-step programs, or a combination of approaches. What’s important is that you get the help you need, and that starts with an assessment by a mental health provider who specializes in addiction.
3) You have a history of trauma
If you suspect that your present issues have their roots in past traumatic events, like childhood abuse or long term exposure to a stressful environment, you may be suffering from PTSD. Trauma-focused psychotherapy can help you reprocess the trauma in a safe, healthy way to loosen its grip over your daily life.
4) You’re struggling with a major life transition
Maybe you’ve recently become a parent, moved to a new city without any friends, or decided to call it quits in your relationship. When you’re struggling with a major life change, it’s natural to feel grief about the past, discomfort with the present, and uncertainty about the future. If these changes are creating feelings of anxiety or depression, therapy can help you get to a better place. But if you’re trying to figure out who you are now, and how to shape your life into your ideal situation, a therapist with a coaching background can help you design (and create!) a positive new chapter.
5) Your relationships are unhealthy
Maybe you have a history of dating jerks, or infidelity in a past relationship has made it hard for you to trust new prospects. When you notice that you’re acting out a pattern of painful, one-sided, or dead-end relationships, working with a therapist can help you understand the origins of these negative relationship patterns, and help you heal any attachment trauma that may be contributing to it. Connecting with a therapist who offers coaching can help you not just understand why you do what you do in relationships, but then actively use that information to find new ways of being that allow you to break the cycle and actively create happier, healthier relationships.
P.S. — If you do choose to seek therapy, make sure you choose the kind of therapist you need.
When Therapy Isn’t Really What You Need
While therapy works as a powerful tool for addressing a wide range of issues, it’s not always the right tool for the job. For high-functioning clients who simply need help with their personal growth work, life coaching can be a much more satisfying and effective way to reach their goals than traditional talk therapy.
So how do you know if you need life coaching or therapy? The key is understanding the underlying cause of your distress or dissatisfaction. For example, let’s say you’re seeking help because you’re unhappy at work. If that unhappiness is due to not being challenged enough, not feeling valued, or simply feeling stuck, working with a career coach can help you get clear about what changes you’d like to make and how to make them happen.
Coaching helps you make internal changes too. If you have interpersonal issues that make it difficult for you to stand up for yourself, or you have low self-esteem that keeps you from reaching your potential or loving yourself unconditionally, it could be incredibly valuable for you to work on emotional intelligence skills or on re-writing your internal script with a good coach who can help you find and implement actionable strategies.
Traditional talk therapy is insight-oriented, focused on helping you understand your circumstances, process painful emotions, find the historical influences shaping your present reality, and build self-awareness and self-compassion. This is valuable work for those who need it; for those who don’t, it can feel like endlessly rehashing the past without creating any actionable plan for moving forward.
Life coaching also involves gaining insight, but it goes beyond that. In working with your coach, you’ll learn about your internal processes that keep you stuck, the values that define what a happy life looks like for you, and the goals you need to work toward to build that life. And then, with support and motivation from your coach, you’ll get to work. This can feel a lot more satisfying for people who aren’t struggling with a mental health condition, and who don’t need to spend much time processing the past, but who simply want some help discovering what they want and to start living fearlessly.
The Risks of Life Coaching
While therapy can feel like a waste of time for people whose problems would be better addressed through coaching, choosing to work with a life coach when what you really need is a therapist can be downright harmful, or even dangerous.
Life coaching isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition, or to help clients work through complex emotional issues, or histories of trauma or abuse. Unfortunately, because coaching is a totally unregulated industry, most coaches don’t know enough to know when they’re out of their depth. Attempting to coach someone who’s struggling with a mental health condition, like depression or PTSD, can delay clients from getting the help they really need, and can even make their symptoms worse.
To avoid this trap completely, choose a coach who is also a licensed mental health professional who has gone on to earn a coaching credential. This ensures they’ll have the educational background and experience to catch any serious issues you may be dealing with, and to direct you to the treatment you need if that’s the case.
Therapy or coaching? Consider your goals.
The best way to determine whether therapy or coaching is right for you is to consider what you want to get out of the experience. If you’re hoping to relieve the symptoms of something that may be a mental health condition, then it’s time to get help, and therapy is the help you need. If you want to work through difficult emotions tied to your past, or you just have things to talk about with a therapist to gain more insight and self understanding, therapy, therapy is likely the best choice for you.
If you’re not struggling with a mental illness, and you’re feeling strong and healthy enough to make a plan for your personal growth and get to work on it, life coaching is probably the better path.
Still not sure? Schedule your free consultation with Growing Self to meet with one of our experts, discuss your hopes and goals, and learn more about which approach would be most beneficial for you. You can also meet with one of our experts for a one-time, action-oriented “solution session.”
Meet a Few of Our Personal Growth Experts
The therapists and life coaches of Growing Self have specialized education and training and years of experience helping people achieve their personal and professional goals. We use only evidence-based strategies that have been proven by research to help you get clarity and direction, have better relationships, feel happier, and design your ideal life.
Otherwise, I hope you keep reading! This website is devoted to your wellbeing, and offers loads of free information and actionable advice that you can start using today to create positive change in your life. Browse around to meet our experts, get free advice on our blog, listen to a podcast, or take our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz. Or, if the time is right, you can schedule a free consultation with any of us to talk about your situation — and, most importantly — your hopes for your future.
Wishing you all the very best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.