You’re aware of a problem that you’ve been struggling with recently. You’ve tried self-help books, you’ve looked on YouTube, and (depending on the problem) you might have been talking to family and friends about it, too. But you’re starting to come to the conclusion that you need a professional person who can help. So – do you need coaching or therapy?
Lots of people get confused about the differences between coaching and therapy, because there are many overlaps between the two. And to make things more confusing, there are so many different types of therapy – and different types of coaching, as well. The restrictions and guidelines vary in different countries, too.
Myths about therapy and coaching abound. I set out to take a look at some of them in another blog post, 7 Myths About Coaching vs Therapy.
In this blog post I’m going to try and set out some of the differences and similarities between coaching and therapy. First, we’ll look at some issues that coaching can be good for. After that, we’ll do the same for therapy.
What Might Coaching Be Good For?
Coaching can be great for tackling specific problems that you need to solve (see below for examples). Coaches may give information and advice, teach you new skills, and collaborate with you to come up with specific plans for what you’ll do. Coaches provide accountability by checking up with you about whether you’ve done what you agreed to do. Coaching typically takes place over three to six structured, task-focused sessions, which may be done individually or in a group.
Coaching can be good for:
1. Workplace Issues
- Workplace bullying
- Line management issues
- Resolving workplace conflicts
- Performance management
- Team problems
- Developing managerial skills
- Public speaking
2. Business Development
- Career progression
- Building your business
- Creating a business plan and applying for funding
- Challenges of entrepreneurship
- Attracting customers or clients
- Marketing, advertising and social media
3. Body and Health
- Coming to terms with living in a larger body
- Learning intuitive eating after recovery from an eating disorder
- Managing and coming to terms with a disability or chronic health issues
- Fitness and exercise coaching
- Sports performance coaching
- Recovery coaching following treatment for addictions etc
4. Moving On in Life
- Fledging into adulthood: housing, career, job applications etc
- Becoming a marriage partner, or becoming a parent
- Negotiating dating after divorce, and finding a new partner
- Parent coaching
- Developing better communication skills
- Personal goal-setting
- Preparing for retirement
- Procrastination and time management
- Self-organisation skills
- Coaching for people with ADHD or Dyslexia
- Academic coaching for university and college students
- Decluttering and home organisation
- Improving your relationship to money
6. Creativity Coaching
- Exploring personal creative blocks
- Understanding the creative process
- Building confidence as a creative person
- Setting accountability and goals
- Helping you develop the business and career progression side of your creative activity
Please note that a specialist coach is usually needed. A person who advertises themselves as a ‘life coach’ or just as a general coach, quite likely won’t have the specialist skills in the particular sphere you need, so be cautious and do some research before you commit to working with someone.
Coaching training varies a lot, from just four hours (!) to over a year. You may wish to check that your coach is credentialed with the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
Risks with Coaching
The main risk that you could be running if you work with a coach is that they may not realise when they are working outside of their competence. This can happen when the client sees their problem as X, the coach also sees the problem as X, but neither coach nor client realise that the problem has deeper roots.
Why does this matter? Because the coaching process could unexpectedly trigger a traumatic reaction. This could make the coaching work ineffective (at best) or even harmfully retraumatising. Unless they happen to be a fully trained therapist as well, a coach does not have the training or skills to work with trauma, attachment-based issues, or mental health issues.
“A coach is not a counsellor or therapist. Coaches are not trained or qualified to work with mental health, trauma, complex relationships or the unconscious. They are about inspiring and motivating, but not healing the underlying issues that may be preventing motivation and inspiration.”Toni Jackson
The In-Between: Therapeutic Coaching
There are some coaches who are also fully trained psychotherapists or counsellors. They may keep coaching and therapy as completely separate businesses, or they may integrate the two, as ‘Psychotherapeutic Coaches’. This depends partly on the restrictions (if any) of their country or State, and also on their personal preference and way of working.
Eve Menezes Cunningham is a therapist who also practises as a coach:
“Therapeutic coaching (sometimes called coach-therapy and Personal Consultancy) means you no longer need to work with different people for different issues. Instead, I work with people wanting therapy (deeper work, often looking at the past, unconscious patterns and beliefs) AND help them build in supports as they feel more resourceful and start focusing on what they want out of life. Sometimes it works the other way with someone wanting coaching support and us then working with more therapeutic issues so the changes they make are more grounded and sustainable. Often, this means starting with weekly sessions and then evolving to fortnightly or even monthly work. My approach is collaborative so clients choose what they want to focus on.”Eve Menezes Cunningham
So now we’ve looked at coaching, and therapeutic coaching. What about therapy? (By which I mean psychotherapy.)
Therapy typically takes place weekly. It can range from short-term counselling (6-12 sessions), medium-term work (up to a year), through to long term psychotherapy (one year or longer, usually for as long as is needed). Therapy takes a significant investment of time and commitment. It can be a painful process at times, but the rewards can be enormous and long-lasting.
Therapy can help you deepen and open into a greater range of feelings. These can range from deep joy and satisfaction at some times, through to the capacity to be ‘okay with not being okay’ and not be knocked too much off-balance by grief, loss and anger. You can read a bit about my own experience of therapy in my blog post, ‘Therapy Works: Here’s How I Know’.
Therapy Can Be Good For:
1. Growth and Change
- Unleashing blocked creativity
- When old, limiting beliefs have kept tripping you up
- Deepening insight & self-knowledge
- Deepening capacity for connection, meaning & joy
- Building resilience after loss/ divorce etc
- Spiritual crisis
- Life crisis/ Life pivot
- Learning to thrive as a neurodiverse person
2. Healing Trauma
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Sexual assault
- Complex grief
- Constantly feeling unsafe/ unwanted, at a deep level
3. Overcoming Problems
- Low mood/ feeling numb
- Chronic procrastination
- Relationship issues
- Family problems
- Self-harming behaviours
- Intimacy, sexuality & commitment problems
- Feeling fundamentally different from others
- Body issues
4. Mental Health Issues
- Personality Disorders
- Bi-polar Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Eating disorders
- Voice hearing causing distress
Anxiety in particular is a very common issue that brings many people to seek help. So which would be better for anxiety: coaching or therapy?
Coaching or Therapy: Which is Best for Anxiety?
People often seek out coaching or therapy because they are suffering with anxiety. Or they may seek help because they have an unwanted issue (like overworking, overeating, etc) which masks anxiety.
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling to have, and most of us have strategies for avoiding, managing, or numbing our anxiety. Some of these strategies (like working longer hours, or binge-eating) could involve gains (like distracting you from the anxiety for a while) but also losses (e.g. you get to see less of your kids, you feel less fit).
A coach may help you figure out ways to work shorter hours whilst staying productive, or help you devise an eating plan; but this may not solve the underlying anxiety.
In fact, your anxiety may come back stronger once you stop doing the behaviour that was actually functioning to help you avoid the anxiety.
What’s needed, often, is a therapist who can help you peel back the layers and look underneath the anxiety to see what’s going on. This has to be done thoughtfully and with care. At the same time the therapist will be supporting you to find strategies that allow you both to mourn past losses and strengthen your present-day resilience and tolerance for your emotions.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to anxiety, as each person is unique (anyone who claims to be able to give you “the anxiety solution” is misguided, unfortunately).
It’s not unusual for anxiety to be a symptom of trauma or even PTSD, and it’s best if this is treated by a well-trained, trauma-informed psychotherapist or counsellor. Trauma should not be treated by coaching.
If your anxiety is not trauma related, it is still likely to be a symptom of disconnection from core emotions. There are probably very good reasons why you had to disconnect from your core emotions in the first place, and reconnecting with them can be a slow and delicate process, often requiring the assistance of a skilled therapist.
Want to find out more?
My colleague Jodie Gale, who is both a twice-certified coach and also a Master’s qualified psychotherapist, has written a very comprehensive and informative piece, ‘Everything You Need to Know About the Difference Between Therapy and Coaching’. Read it if you’d like to find out more about the difference between psychotherapy and coaching.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you experienced coaching, therapeutic coaching, psychotherapy, or counselling? Was it helpful? What were the drawbacks and the benefits, from your perspective? Tell us in the comments below!