Which Path is Right For You?
THERAPY OR COACHING? If you're seriously considering getting involved in some personal growth work, you may have wondered whether therapy or life coaching would be the best path for you. There is a lot of confusion about the differences between therapy and life coaching. In all honesty, there is a great deal of overlap. There are also important differences between them. Educating yourself about the similarities and differences can help you choose the path that will be most genuinely helpful for you in accomplishing your personal goals.
Advice From a Therapist Who is Also a Life Coach
I have both a Master's Degree and a Doctorate in counseling, and have been a therapist and marriage counselor in Denver for over a decade. About five years ago I also went through a life coaching program and became a board certified life coach too. These days, I practice both therapy and life coaching, (as well as couples therapy and relationship coaching) and have spent a lot of time educating people about the similarities, and the difference between the two approaches. [Read all about “The Difference Between Counseling and Coaching.”]
First, let's talk about the similarities between counseling and coaching.
The Similarities Between Therapy and Life Coaching
Therapy / Counseling (generally interchangeable terms) and life coaching have many things in common. The success of either therapy or life coaching are largely dependent on having a positive, strong relationship with your coach or therapist. Both therapy and coaching create a safe place for you to discuss your concerns, and your hopes for your life.
Whether you're in therapy or coaching (with a well trained coach, at least) you'll experience:
- Focused attention on you and your concerns, and time and space to talk through your thoughts and feelings in order to achieve clarity and new awarenesses about yourself
- The opportunity to discover new ways of thinking and behaving that will help you grow
- Encouragement, and the positive regard of your therapist or your coach
Both approaches can be very effective in helping people get unstuck, and move forward in their lives. However, there are also many differences between therapy and life coaching. While both of them can be helpful, both approaches can have serious limitations for helping people with certain kinds of issues and goals.
The Problem With Therapy
For example, while therapy can be an extremely powerful and life changing experience for some people, therapy can be a huge waste of time and money for others. In fact, “therapy refugees” come into our practice all the time feeling incredibly frustrated and put-off by their previous experiences in traditional therapy.
Therapy = Slow & Healing
Specifically, many mental health therapists are extremely “non-directive” meaning that they do not guide the sessions, offer specific input or challenge clients; rather, they allow clients the time and space to talk (and talk, and talk) confident that, eventually, people will arrive at their own conclusions about the right answers for them. Under the surface, traditionally trained therapists believe that people are being healed through the experience of having a positive relationship with their non-judgmental therapist, and by having the opportunity to make contact with and express their feelings. This type of therapy can be extremely helpful to people who have had traumatic life experiences, and who have been abused.
Therapy Emphasizes Process, Not Action
All of this is wonderful, under the right circumstances (and certainly, exploring thoughts and feelings is part of great coaching as well). However, many people seeking meaningful personal growth work don't need someone to “hold their space,” re-parent them emotionally, or help them “work through feelings.” Life coaching clients generally already have positive relationships with friends, loving parents, and supportive people in their lives. They don't have deep trauma to work through. They are ready to make actual, positive changes in their lives, and looking for answers and action. They want guidance, they want tools, they want strategies, and they want to take action and get different results in their lives and their relationships. Life coaching will give them that.
Therapy is “Non-Directive”
Traditional talk therapy is, by design, gentle and slow. This is a good thing for people who are hurting, and in need of a safe space to work through hard things. But for people who could benefit more from coaching, traditional therapists often seem kind of checked out. A traditional therapist may not challenge you or offer any feedback or guidance, and will wait for you to “find your own answers.” This can feel so annoying for people who are ready to dig in and take action.
People seeking life coaching are not looking for a new best friend. They want the personal growth equivalent of a car-mechanic who can tell them what's not working, and how to get better results in their lives and in their relationships. For these people, therapy is often an expensive, unproductive waste of time. For people seeking positive change, life coaching, career coaching, or relationship coaching will be a much more satisfying experience.
Therapy is Medically Necessary Healthcare
Furthermore, “psychotherapy” is behavioral healthcare. Therapy (the kind that is covered by health insurance) is seen by the medical community as medically necessary treatment for a mental health diagnosis. When you're in “therapy” the assumption is that you're dealing with a disorder that you're seeking treatment for: Anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, etc. If you've ever used insurance to cover the costs of therapy, your therapist has given you a diagnosis and then submitted medical claims saying that they are treating you for a psychiatric condition. That's how health insurance works.
In contrast, many many people (our clients, anyway) who are looking for “therapy” aren't reaching out because they have a mental health condition. They don't have anxiety, they don't have depression, and they're not seeking to heal from a difficult past. They just want to evolve, grow personally, improve their relationships, gain self-awareness and self-confidence, and feel like they're growing into the person they want to be… not “recover.”
Therapy is Focused on Pathology and Illness
If you're trying to simply make positive changes in your life, but are working with a traditional therapist who's framing your normal personal growth work as evidence of a “disordered,” it's demoralizing and not helpful. When you're trying to simply improve yourself, have better relationships, and feel happier, last thing you need is to connect with a therapist who makes you feel like (and believes) that there is something wrong with you.
In contrast, life coaching and relationship coaching assumes that you're simply a normal person having normal life experiences, hoping to attain goals or get different outcomes for yourself and your relationships. You're not sick, you're not disordered, you're simply dissatisfied and wanting more for yourself.
Coaching is For Personal Growth and Positive Change
Coaching provides feedback, guidance, new ideas, and always guides you towards action. The first stage of great coaching involves creating clarity about what you want. Then we identify the obstacles (internal and external) standing in between you and your desired reality. Then you develop strategies and an action plan to begin having new experiences and creating positive change. Your coach is your accountability partner, your cheerleader, your guide and your co-collaborator. Together, you'll look at what's working, what isn't, and where to fine tune your process as you go. Over time you'll not just learn and grow, but create real-world changes that you can feel great about.
The Problem With Coaching
After reading through the above, coaching may sound pretty great. And it's true: life coaching, career coaching and relationship coaching are fantastic, effective vehicles for personal growth and positive change, for people who are able to make use of them. However, coaching isn't always a great strategy, especially when deeper things need to be addressed and resolved first.
Doing Life Coaching (When You Really Need Therapy) Can Make Things Worse
In fact, coaching strategies are not going to be helpful at all for people who need to heal and grow before they can start making big changes in their lives. If you attempt life coaching when you have more serious underlying issues, life coaching can actually make you feel worse. Why? Because when you have depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use problems, or other underlying mental health issues, you cannot make good use of coaching strategies. The feelings are too strong; they're like a tidal wave wiping out your good intentions.
In order for action oriented positive change to occur, you must first heal from these conditions. This takes time, and specialized skills and experience of an excellent therapist who knows how to help you resolve the underlying mental health conditions that will always sabotage your attempts to take positive action.
The net result is often that people wind up 1) with untreated mental health symptoms, and 2) feeling badly about themselves because they cannot make the positive changes they “should.” This is not helpful at all.
Coaching is NOT a Treatment For Mental Health Issues
For example, we often have people reach out to us interested in life coaching. However, sometimes, through our interviewing process and assessment process (and because of the fact that all our life coaches are mental health professionals, and know enough to tell the difference) we become aware that the issues they're describing are actually consistent with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or PTSD.
People really want to make positive changes, but life coaching strategies are not going to be enough to move the needle. They're feeling so badly on the inside, that they just can't follow through. In these cases, we suggest that they engage in therapy in order to heal first, and then come back into life coaching when they're ready to move forward.
The ONE exception to this can be the treatment of ADHD. Research has found that insight oriented, non directive, standard therapy does not help people with ADHD. (Unless they have developed associated anxiety, depression or substance abuse disorders as a result of a lifetime of untreated ADHD, which is not uncommon). But if you are simply seeking to develop skills and strategies for managing ADHD symptoms, coaching may be helpful to you.
Mental Health Issues Are Common and Treatable… By Educated, Mental Health Professionals. (Aka, Therapists)
And really, mental health issues are common. National statistics show that at any given time one in five Americans are struggling with mild to moderate mental health symptoms. One in twenty-five American adults, annually, will experience a mental illness episode that is severe enough to impact daily functioning. Over their lifetime, nearly half of all Americans will meet criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition.
Mental health issues are real. They are common. They are treatable. However, it requires specialized education, training and experience to identify and correctly diagnose mental health symptoms (as different from dissatisfaction due to life circumstances). There are also very specific types of evidence-based therapy that work best for different conditions. Many mental health practitioners spend years and years educating themselves, attending trainings and seeking out consultation with other mental health experts to ensure they are providing the highest quality treatment in their area of expertise, like trauma, depression, anxiety disorders and more.
There Are No Educational or Training Requirements Necessary To Be a Coach
Buyer beware: The biggest risk of coaching is to get involved with someone who is simply a life coach, who does not have the education, training or experience to recognize when mental health issues will sabotage coaching. (Much less the ability to help you resolve these foundational issues first). At best, a “life coach” may have attended a 1 to 9 month certificate program… maybe. If you're lucky.
Not-so-fun-fact: Life coaching is not a recognized, regulated or licensed profession. There are zero educational requirements needed to call yourself a “life coach” and absolutely anyone can roll out of bed one day, decide to be a life coach, and start taking clients. They don't have to register with the authorities, agree to any ethical standards, or even take a test! You don't need a high school diploma, you don't need to pass a background check, and there is no regulatory agency overseeing life coaches. You just start introducing yourself as a life coach, and it is so.
Your weird next door neighbor with the ferrets who drinks too much and is always offering unsolicited advice? He could decide that he's really smart and has lots of great life experience and wisdom, and that he'd be a great life coach. He can put together a little website one afternoon and be in business the next day.
Coaches Can Cause Harm
As a mental health professional as well as a board certified coach who actually did go through a very involved, accredited coach training program (which was offered online, and which I zoomed through in about 6 weeks), I find this thought to be extremely frightening. Imagine that a person with legitimate clinical issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc. reaches out to a random, completely untrained “life coach” for help? At best, they risk wasting months and years of ever-worsening (and sometimes life-threatening) symptoms without the effective treatments that will set them free. At worst, it ends tragically.
While mental health conditions are treatable, if left untreated they can become life-threatening. They can also ruin relationships, destroy families, and tank careers. If you have a mental health condition it is vital that you get involved in evidence-based therapy with someone who has the skill and experience to help you.
Relationship coaches are often times even more dubious, in my experience. Really: Someone can say, “Well I'm smart and I've been married five times so I know a lot about relationships and I can help people with theirs!” They set up a website and start taking clients.
If It's Important, Go To An Expert
A licensed marriage and family therapist will spend years in graduate school learning about general counseling and mental health, PLUS many courses on family systems and assessment, relational dynamics, family therapies, methods and theory into couples and fa therapy. THEN they have supervised practicums, internships, and generally spend several years post-graduation working under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist. THEN they have to accumulate thousands of clinical hours and pass a difficult national exam. Only then will they be a licensed marriage and family therapist themselves.
And even for licensed marriage and family therapists with all that education and experience… couples counseling can still be extremely challenging. What we know from research into couples and family therapy is that couples often delay couples counseling or relationship coaching until their relationships are feeling very difficult — they may even be on the brink of divorce.
Imagine some poor couple, who is on the brink of divorce, reaching out to a self-proclaimed “relationship coach” who doesn't even know enough to know what they don't know about how to help? That couple will likely wind up divorcing, thinking “Welp, we did everything we could do — we even tried a relationship coach, so our relationship must have been beyond repair!” How sad to think that that same couple, if working with a true relationship expert, could have had a very different outcome.
Not to be overly dramatic here, but the fate of your family and your future could be hanging in the balance. Divorce especially has significant emotional, financial, and material consequences for both adults and children. If your relationship is on the brink, please seek the help of a marriage and family therapist, NOT a coach. (Or any therapist who does not have specialized training and experience in marriage and family therapy, for that matter).
Knowledge Is Power
If you're still with me, I must say that I am SO thrilled that you've read this article. The general consumer of therapy OR coaching typically doesn't know about any of the differences between therapy and coaching, or the risks involved in different approaches. That is why I'm taking the time to explain these differences to you! As a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed psychologist who also happens to be a certified coach and a relationship coach, I feel that it is my obligation to educate the public around these types of things so that you can make educated, well informed decisions about the best option for you.
In addition to informing yourself, please DO share this article with anyone else in your life who might be 1) inappropriately seeking help from an unqualified life coach (and getting worse) or 2) feeling totally frustrated by therapy that isn't going anywhere.
I'd also like to add that, when you're feeling dissatisfied with your life and hoping for change, it can be difficult to know which path is the right one for you. Many people ask, “Do I need life coaching or therapy?” Unless you have a master's degree in counseling and can spot the difference between a mental health condition and a personal growth issue, it can be very challenging to know which approach is going to work for you. To help cut through the confusion I've put together a free, online quiz. Take it by clicking the link below and answering a few questions.
I hope that it helps you learn about yourself, and which option will be most effective in helping you move forward.
All the best,
Do You Need Therapy, or Life Coaching? Take the Quiz.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.