Ask a Denver Therapist & Life Coach

Do I Need Therapy or Life Coaching?

People have many options when it comes to getting effective help in making positive changes in their life. It can be confusing to figure out what kind of help you need. People often wonder about the difference between therapy and life coaching, and which strategy is right for them.

To help understand the difference, I often use the “hole and mountain” metaphor to help people understand the difference between counseling and coaching, and decide which is best for them.

Filling The Hole: When Therapy is the Right Choice

When people are feeling really bad, they are in “the hole.” They may be struggling with self-doubt, anxiety, depression, negative core beliefs, trauma, unfinished business with the past, intense emotions, painful relationships, or addictive behaviors. (Sometimes even all at the same time). When you're in this place it can be very difficult to take action and have it be successful.

Until you feel stronger emotionally, you may not be able to make major changes in your life. You might feel helpless, trapped, and have no idea how to help yourself feel better. Or the things you try don't work, and just make you feel more hopeless.

The truth is that sometimes you have to heal, grow and get stronger on the inside before you can make changes on the outside.

When you are in “the hole” you really need the compassionate support of a highly trained therapist. Someone who is competent to help you climb out of the hole and back onto solid ground. Someone who can create a safe space for you to begin to heal and grow. The first stages of growth are often introspective, subtle, and happen more on the inside then on the outside.

Change is risky, and change is difficult. You have to feel strong, confident, and competent in order for changes to stick and carry you forward. If you're not on this space, therapy will help you get there.

Climbing The Mountain: When Life Coaching is a Good Choice

People can begin growth work from different starting points. Sometimes, people feel generally okay, and are simply interested in changing their circumstances and improving their outcomes. They feel strong enough to start making changes, and begin “climbing the mountain” that leads them to greater success. The work of this stage involves designing their new life, and figuring out how to make their dreams a reality.

Some people arrive at this point after first doing supportive, growth-oriented therapy. Some start the process at this solid-ground point, and just want to improve their current circumstances and create success. If you're truly ready for coaching you probably don't need as much insight, emotional support, or healing. You just need to get clarity, make a plan, and take action. If you're here, coaching will be much more useful to you than therapy, because it will help you get results.

A good coach will help you get clarity about what your mountain looks like, and all the actual day-by-day steps you need to take to get to the top. Then they'll support and encourage you as you walk up it.

Therapy or Coaching: Pros and Cons

The Dark Side of Coaching

There is a serious problem with the coaching profession as a whole: They are serving as therapists and marriage counselors. This is entirely inappropriate, illegal, unethical, and dangerous. Coaches do not need to have any professional credentials, education, training, or experience and are forbidden from practicing counseling or therapy. But many do, anyway.

Due to the stigma linked to traditional therapy people in search of personal growth and emotional wellness may prefer to seek support from life coaches rather than highly trained professional therapists. This is even true for people who are seriously in the hole, and struggling with big issues. It can just feel better for them to say, “my coach” instead of “my therapist.”

Unfortunately, lots of life coaches may only have a few weeks or months of training before being certified. You can decide being a realtor just isn't for you any more, become a life coach in a weekend seminar (or online), hang a shingle, and start seeing clients the next week.

In contrast, professional therapists devote years in Master's degree or Doctoral programs learning about research based, evidence supported strategies to be instruments of change in people's lives. In the personal growth world, it’s like choosing to put your life in the hands of a marginally educated medical assistant rather than a board-certified physician.

True story: I had a professional colleague recently tell me about an experience she had that highlights the issue. She was at a coffee shop minding her own business when she couldn't help but over hear a Life Coach at the next table (clearly in way over his head) clumsily attempting to do therapy with a woman who was clearly struggling with major depression — which is a potentially life threatening psychiatric condition. Many ethical violations were being committed that a true therapist wouldn't do, like violating privacy and confidentiality, practicing beyond the scope of competence. It was truly shocking.

And self-trained “Relationship Coaches” are even worse. Couples facing serious challenges who seek support from a “Relationship Coach” are putting their marriages in the hands of someone who is likely not competent to provide meaningful support and guidance. I have personally seen a number of couples in my practice after failed attempts at “relationship coaching” almost destroyed their marriage. Scary, but true.

Coaches mean well, but they just don't even know what they don't know. And they are attempting to serve people who are leery of effective therapy, and marriage counseling, but who probably need it. It's a real issue in the personal growth world.

The problem with therapy…

I hate to say it, but I'm going to anyway– there are a lot of fairly ineffective therapists out there. Well meaning, kind, warm, compassionate, and ineffective therapists. I can't tell you how many clients have approached us after spending months, if not years, in therapeutic relationships that do not help them feel better and make positive changes.

In fact, many new clients to our practice seek us out specifically because we offer coaching and not just therapy. They want real guidance and direction — not months of free-associating to a nodding, sympathetic therapist. They get frustrated by “just talking” and not being taught the skills and strategies that will actually make a difference in their lives.

Worse, some people get involved with therapists who do not practice effective, evidence-based forms of therapy. Colorado does not regulate the type of therapy that is offered, and unfortunately it's completely okay for therapists to decide for themselves what is helpful to clients — energy grids from magic rocks, past life regression, spiritual exorcisms (seriously – I've heard it all). People can spend years in ineffective therapy dissecting the symbolism of their dreams or speculating about “past-life trauma”… as their lives are falling apart.

This is frustrating, and not okay either. Research shows that therapy can be extremely effective, as long as it is based on the kinds of therapy that are proven by research be helpful.

Our Solution: The Best of Counseling and Coaching

All the therapists at Growing Self have a strengths based, positive, and active approach to therapy. We are “coach-y counselors.” We use only effective, positive, evidence-based strategies to help you heal and grow. And when you are ready to walk up that mountain, your therapist will be right there beside you offering you the accountability, practical guidance, and action-oriented strategies of a coach.

And, any Life Coach you see through Growing Self also has formal, graduate level training as a traditional psychotherapist. They follow the strict, ethical guidelines you'd expect from a therapist around confidentiality and professional boundaries, and they really know what they're doing. They combine the power and depth of evidence-based psychology with the focus on active change and accountability you want from a coach — to help you get the results you want.

Your Choice

If you know that you want an accountability partner, who can help you get clarity and make an action plan, and you are feeling ready to climb up that mountain — by all means, start with coaching. If you feel like you need to grow on the inside, gain insight into yourself, and simply feel better before you're ready to make changes in your day-to-day — start with counseling.

Bottom Line

Whether you see a Growing Self counselor or coach, you can't really go wrong.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is trained as a Psychologist, a Marriage and Family Therapist, and is a Board Certified Life Coach. She is the Founder of Growing Self Counseling and Life Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

Dr. Bobby is the host of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, and the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love.”

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