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What is the difference between Therapy and Coaching

Coaching versus Therapy: The Differences

While there are many similarities between coaching and therapy, the differences between them are important to understand if you’re thinking about starting the personal growth process. There is widespread confusion about the lines between therapy and coaching, so much so that sometimes even coaches and therapists themselves have trouble recognizing where their expertise should end and they should refer out to another professional. 

Both therapy and coaching have enormous potential to heal as well as power to harm. They can be harmful in small ways such as through a waste of time, energy, and precious resources, and in larger ways such as detrimental or inadequate advice being given when a larger trauma or mental health issue like anxiety, depression, or even suicidality, is not treated appropriately.  As with any field, due to the wide variety of types of training, types of regulation, and even types of personalities, there is a huge variance in the quality of professionals for hire. While there are many careful, educated, and professional coaches and therapists out there, there are also many who, while they may have their strengths, don’t thoroughly understand ethics and professionalism…or the scope of their work. 

Ideally, a coach or therapist should clearly delineate and explain to a potential client the differences between therapy and coaching as early in the process as in the initial call. Starting with the first call, a clinician or coach should be assessing what other professionals you are working with and why, and whether working with them or a referral to another professional would be appropriate. This is because coaching and therapy have a lot of crossover in terms of subject matter but also very different objectives and processes. 

This is why it’s important to be an educated consumer when it comes to these services, and to know for yourself the differences between therapy and coaching.  Some people may need a coach, while others need a therapist. Some people may see both simultaneously.  If you’re thinking about coaching or therapy for yourself, read on to educate yourself as you discern what would make the most sense for you.

Before we get into the differences, let’s define each.

What is Coaching?

The purpose of coaching is to develop and implement strategies to reach client-identified goals such as enhanced performance and personal satisfaction. Coaching assumes that a client is mentally healthy and has already developed the internal resources needed to move forward.  Coaching includes strategic planning, values clarification, brainstorming, motivational counselling, and other present and future-oriented techniques.  Coaching may address specific personal goals or projects and issues including, but not limited to: life, relationships, business, mindfulness, motivation, planning, vision, life enhancement, self-care, spirituality, health and fitness, creativity, financial freedom, and organization. Coaching questions and techniques tend to be straightforward, challenging, supportive, and direct.

What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is a healthcare service targeted at proper assessment and treatment of mental and emotional disorders and is often reimbursable through health insurance.  Psychotherapy is geared towards the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders, ranging from general anxiety and mild depression to more severe disorders and suicidality. The goals of psychotherapy include alleviating symptoms, understanding underlying dynamics of symptoms, altering dysfunctional behaviours, and developing new coping strategies to deal with psychological problems. 

As such, the content discussed in psychotherapy can be more past-oriented and more personal than the content discussed in coaching. This type of content, combined with the potential for heightened sensitivity due to past difficult experiences, places clients in a vulnerable position and gives psychotherapists disproportionate power. As a result, therapists have a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to protect the emotional safety of their clients to the best of their ability. This responsibility is governed by the ethics code and laws associated with a therapist’s license. 

A coach is encouraged to design relationships that do not create this power differential between coach and client. However, coaches may unwittingly open up deeper material in session, which is why it is important that they are experienced and trained in how to create structure and boundaries in session, how to defuse the power differential, and when to refer out to a psychotherapist.  A simple way they can do this is  by sticking to the here-and-now, rather than trying to address the psychological roots of why a client may not be moving forward. Coaches with a higher level of training or coaches that are ICF-certified, also have an ethics code to guide them.

What is the Similarity Between Therapy and Coaching?

Both coaching and psychotherapy can be individual 1:1 sessions or group sessions and draw upon knowledge of human behaviour, motivation, and behavioural change. Both services are close professional relationships and may include interactive counselling techniques. 

Coaching relationships are usually much shorter-lived than therapy relationships, and therefore not quite as deep. Though both services may feel like close personal relationships, it is important that either coaching or therapy remain within professional boundaries during and after your work in order to protect your growth as a client and to ensure lasting benefits of the work you do together. 

Both therapy and life coaching may include goal-setting, though coaching may emphasize this more heavily. Specific forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), solution-focused therapy, and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) can tend to be more like coaching in that they emphasize clear goals and can be shorter-term.

What is the Difference Between Therapy and Coaching?

The primary differences are in the goals, focus, and level of professional responsibility in the two levels of care. Here’s a more specific list:

What’s the Difference Between a Therapist and a Life Coach?

  • Therapists are healthcare providers
  • Therapists are licensed by a professional state or national licensing board, while coaches may have a certification or no credentials at all.
  • Therapists are governed by a licensing board and have an ethics code they must abide by to ensure quality practices are followed. Coaches may have an ethics board if they are ICF certified. 
  • Therapists focus on addressing, treating, and diagnosing mental health while coaches do not
  • Coaches often do short term work, while therapists generally tend to work with clients for longer periods of time to create deeper change
  • Therapists often work with past experiences, and present experiences, while coaches often focus on accountability and have a future orientation.

How are Sessions Structured?

Sessions may be structured similarly between the two practices. Therapy sessions may vary slightly depending on the needs of the client and the type of therapy. However, most often, therapy is 50 minute sessions once per week. Coaching may have less frequent regular sessions with more frequent between-session support via platforms like Voxer. Therapy sessions are oriented towards mental health and wellness and may be more exploratory and open-ended in the style and types of questions asked, while coaching may be more structured, goal-oriented, and directive.

What’s Important to Know about Licensing and Accreditation?

As mentioned above, therapists are licensed and their licenses are overseen by a governing body. While coaches have some training and may even receive a certification, therapists must undergo around 5 years of training and supervision to become licensed in a particular state (hours and years vary by state.) Because therapy licensing occurs by state, therapists can only see clients who live in states in which the therapist has an active license. Because coaching is not regulated, coaching is generally unrestricted by location. 

Therapy licenses give therapists the ability to properly diagnose and treat mental illnesses from anxiety to bipolar disorder, using standards of care dictated by their profession. Coaches cannot properly diagnose someone.

Should I Hire a Coach or Therapist?

Start by asking yourself what your goals are and doing your research. If you want to hone in on one aspect of your life, like improving your dating outcomes or relationship to money, coaching might be for you.  If you’re looking for longer-term care for mental health reasons, a deeper look at your past, blind spots that might be holding you back, or generally want to improve your overall well-being, therapy is more likely to be supportive for you. You can still work on shorter term intentions and goals with your therapist, but will be able to address deeper obstacles and resistance in your life.

Hoping this helps you navigate the decision-making process. Here at Lovewell, we offer dating coaching, mindfulness coaching, and certified wellness coaching in addition to therapy for individuals and couples. Drew Anne is our board certified wellness coach who specializes in relationships, self-care, and Mindful Self-Compassion. Dr. Susana Scotti, PsyD and Lauren Korshak, MFT provide therapy services in California, Colorado, and Florida.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q. What is group counseling & how does it work?

A. Group counseling is a type of psychotherapy designed for groups of people with a common issue, such as grief, depression, or addiction. The group members are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings to help each other. There are different types of groups including process groups, skills training groups, support groups, and more. 

Q. Do dating coaches actually work?

A. Dating coaches provide a service that is meant to help support people through the dating process and ultimately, to help people create lasting relationships. Dating coaches work online or in person and offer clients advice on how to improve their dating skills.

Q. What techniques are used in individual therapy?

A. Individual therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps people with emotional, mental, and interpersonal problems. The therapist will work with a client to explore their thoughts and feelings, as well as past experiences.

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