Therapist Or Coach :: What's The Difference?

When you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed or challenged by a particular situation, or life in general, you may be considering seeking professional help. There are so many available and effective choices to help you move forward with your life and in your online research, you may have stumbled upon outstanding sites such as Psychology Today. It is likely that you also feel overwhelmed with the many options--therapy, mentoring, life coaching, relationship support and groups for example. It's also important to understand your needs at this point in your life. Are you stuck deep in the mud, or are you perched and just about ready to take flight but in need of a little support?  

Whether your struggles are recent or longstanding, you may be challenged by many of the following: low self-esteem, depression, severe anxiety, residual trauma(s), family of origin issues, addictions, eating disorders, intense emotions and relationship struggles. When you're managing any of the above, it makes it very difficult, if not impossible to move forward using the help of the life coaching strategies that require action and accountability. Coaching is an elegant model for individuals who are healthy enough or who have resolved obstacles and conflicts that enable them to feel strong, deserving and able to receive that which they desire. Coaches can give you the tools and support, but certain obstacles will be present or come to the surface leaving you feeling worse.

An experienced, trained therapist can help you identify patterns and obstacles and provide you with a safe space to help you heal traumas and wounds that may be sabotaging your current life. Once you're feeling stronger, more resilient and less stuck in the mud, you may be ready to carry on with your goals of creating a better life for yourself.

Sadly, many are drawn to life coaching because of the mental health stigma attached to psychotherapy, therapy, counseling or marital therapy. Many coaches are providing services to clients that are unethical and illegal, as well as unsafe and dangerous for clients who are not ready for coaching. They attempt to navigate, and are not trained to recognize potential problems that will certainly arise during coaching efforts--put simply, they work outside their scope of competence putting someone with depression, trauma, psychosis or other challenges at risk.

Relationship coaching and counseling also requires an exquisite understanding and specialized training regarding the complex dynamics that occur with the individual as well as patterns that arise and are triggered within the relationship as a result of individual experiences that impact the couple. 

Next up is another confusing topic: online or in-person sessions? What follows are a few tips to make finding an online coach or psychotherapist a little bit easier. It is a convenient way to seek help especially with family challenges, physical or medical challenges and when geography and time constraints makes it difficult to meet face-to-face.

As a licensed psychotherapist who provides online therapy in New York and coaching outside of Manhattan, I'm experienced with the pros and cons of providing emotional support using both in-person and online modalities. Here's what I have to say about choosing an online therapist:

  • It's not for everyone. Individuals with serious mental illnesses or who are at risk are better served by in-person sessions. Professionals learn a lot by actually seeing their clients and assessing week-to-week functioning.
  • Some clients are actually more comfortable being in their own environment; they may feel less inhibited expressing feelings and emotions and being vulnerable during sessions. That said, it's somewhat problematic to miss body language using online treatment.
  • When choosing a mental health professional, it's important that they have graduate training in psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy or counseling. It's helpful, especially when seeking a specialist, that therapists have post-graduate specialty training beyond graduate school and expertise in the area that you're interested in. You can check to ensure that professionals have up-to-date licenses with the state that you reside in. Professionals will be happy to provide their license numbers.
  • Ask about insurance especially if paying out-of-pocket is not an option for you. Some state are now covering online therapy but you will need to ask your insurance company about reimbursement.
  • Make sure you have privacy. I can ensure that on my end, however it's important that you have privacy as well. You may also opt for a HIPPA-compliant platform instead of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or others.
  • Inquire about their expertise and specialties. If you suffer from fear and anxiety, it's best to find a professional who has experience with a range of anxiety-related difficulties. Couples require professionals who are trained to help with interpersonal and relational challenges as well as understand patterns and dynamics.
  • Serious depression and other serious concerns such as trauma, PTSD, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, some addictions and bipolar depression should be treated in-person to ensure safety and quality of care.

If you are interested in goal-setting, health and wellness management, career concerns, motivational issues, self-esteem, habits and advice about a challenging situation, some life coaches are able to help in these areas. There are benefits to working with a trained mental health professional who is in the best position to understand the complicated dynamics behind self-defeating patterns and other obstacles that make it difficult for clients to experience the satisfaction they desire. Do your research and ask if a potential therapist or coach will consult with you briefly to see if you are a good match for what they have to offer.