Therapy or Coaching: Making The Right Choice For You

Are you struggling to figure out whether to work with a life coach or psychotherapist? Potential clients who inquire about therapy and coaching often ask me to explain the difference between psychotherapy and life coaching. Coaches are quick to offer the short answer, which usually goes something like this: "Coaching is for the already whole, emotionally well individual who is future-focused, action-based and not in need of a therapeutic intervention." Therapy is the correct choice for those with a "diagnosable mental illness (e.g. anxiety, depression, addictions, PTSD) and who are in need of healing from past wounds and trauma." Some therapists would say that they don't coach, and coaches will tell you that they don't do therapy. In my humble opinion, when talking therapy or coaching, it's rarely so neat and tidy, and overlap between the two fields does exist. It would be accurate and fair to say that many therapy clients are high-functioning, emotionally stable and "well" individuals who choose the psychotherapy relationship as a means to enrich and improve their lives. They do not feel "broken or unwell" or so encumbered by emotional wounds or neurotic patterns that happiness eludes them. They describe therapy as a "growth-focused endeavor" that provides the space for intellectual, emotional and spiritual curiosity. When conflicts arise and pattern dynamics become apparent, therapists can partner with therapy clients and help them understand how the past gets recreated in the present.

Coaching, by contrast, does not seek to resolve and root out the deeper underlying issues that are the cause of problematic life interference, such as negative and repetitive patterns, poor motivation, low self-esteem and underachievement, but is very much focused on the practical issues of setting goals, taking action steps and achieving results within a specific time frame.

That said, sometimes it becomes clear that something bigger is getting in the way during the coaching process. People get "stuck" or seem to "rebel" especially with all the homework and hard work. The reason for this is that it's often related to some unresolved conflict or issue from the past that's at play. This becomes baffling to coaches. People fear success, just as they fear failure or as another example, a coach can begin to feel like a demanding parent to the client and trigger rebellion, procrastination or obstinance. Therefore, it's important for coaches to run interference and help the client become aware of or resolve any blocking beliefs or conflicts that may be interfering with clients reaching goals and moving forward. I often use EMDR therapy for rooting out deeply-held beliefs when clients appear stuck and unable to get results.

In short, therapy and counseling tends to address personal issues in much greater depth than would generally be explored within the coaching context. And in my opinion, as a therapist, it is possible and often helpful and necessary to integrate coaching tools and techniques into therapy sessions with clients who are ready and able to move forward. It's a more directive way of working with clients than is used in many traditional psychotherapy approaches, but can helpful in the long run.

Practice acceptance, try compassion and change what you can. KS

Kim Seelbrede, LCSW is a psychotherapist and integrative therapist in private practice in New York City.