“Do I need therapy or coaching?” is an increasingly common question posed by people ready to do the work, but uncertain where to start. Understandably, much confusion exists regarding the differences between therapy and coaching and which is better suited for particular needs.
Unfortunately, a lot of the information out there surrounding the distinction between therapy and coaching is flatly incorrect, leaving seekers of guidance further confused and potentially not accessing the best approach for their circumstance.
I’ve decided to break it down as clearly as possible, and I’ll also be updating here as each field evolves.
If you’ve recognized the need to reach out for support, cheers to you! It sounds cliche, but it’s truly the most vital step in enhancing your well-being. Of course, you’re not quite done. Now you have to figure out who in the world you’re going to enlist to be on your personal team.
I hear often that folks know they could benefit from “talking to someone,” but that’s where it stops. The idea of sorting through what feels like an abyss of professionals can be so overwhelming that many people end their journey there.
And it is confusing! Especially with the proliferation of people out there providing different services. Two of these types of people are coaches and therapists, and it helps to know a bit about the approach of each.
Who They Are
Coaches are service providers who offer individual and group support for people who want to address a particular area of their life. If it sounds vague, it’s because there are a ton of different types of coaches, everything from coaches that focus on helping you organize your home to developing your speaking skills to changing your health habits to getting a raise. Often, coaches assist people through a particular pain point in their lives by offering new approaches and solutions.
How They Learn Their Stuff
Coaches come from a variety of backgrounds, and there is no established path that coaches must take to begin their work. Likewise, there is no regulating body overseeing the work of coaches. As such, it is perhaps even more important to vet a potential coach that you are considering.
Training programs do exist, and I recommend that you ask if your potential coach has participated in one, especially if they do not have a professional helping background. Just because someone knows about how they navigate their own relationship or career doesn’t mean they have learned a framework to approach yours, or that they know how to facilitate behavior change in an effective and lasting way.
How They Work
Coaching can happen in a variety of formats and in different modalities. Most often, coaches work individually with a client to establish their goals and either apply a particular pre-established plan (e.g. a six-week resume bootcamp) or to develop an approach based on the individual.
Coaches often do work in a more time-limited capacity. You might discuss at the outset of your work together a timeframe, such as ten sessions or six months, in which you’ll dive into the target area.
Most coaching appears to occur remotely via phone or video, which can offer a lot of convenience both in travel and scheduling. Some coaches do work with people in-person as well.
What They Focus On
A coach is generally going to focus on understanding a particular issue or goal for which you are seeking assistance. This target issue is not a mental health diagnosis, but rather an area in which you want to grow or a circumstance you want to address. As I mentioned above, this could range considerably and there are specialist coaches in many areas. Some help you build a particular skill (e.g. using your voice), while others might be focused on a broader life issue (e.g. deciding whether to pursue a new career).
What the Cost of Coaching Looks Like
This is extremely variable, and depends greatly on the type of coach and the type of services offered. Generally, group coaching is going to be at a lower cost than individual. It’s important to know that, unlike some therapy, coaching cannot be billed to insurance. Many coaches offer packages of sessions that you may be asked to pay for at the start or in increments.
Who They Are
Given that there are lots of domains of therapy (e.g. speech, physical, occupation), I’ll start by specifying that I am focusing on mental health therapists here. Even within the scope of mental health therapists, however, there are a number of different disciplines. Therapists could refer to individuals who are psychologists, social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists, among a few other disciplines.
Therapists from different backgrounds can vary in the style of their approach based on their discipline. However, it’s difficult to even offer generalities here because so much can vary among training programs and individuals. Very broadly speaking, though, you may notice differences among providers in, for example, how much of a medical model they take when working with people, or how holistically they are inclined to look at an issue.
How They Learn Their Stuff
Therapists have a minimum of a master’s degree in a counseling or psychology-related field. Clinical psychologists in almost all states have a doctoral degree.
The training programs that therapists complete comprise a range of courses from diagnosis to biological systems to statistics to therapy techniques. Some therapists complete more specialized focuses during their graduate training, such as working with families or working from a body-based perspective. Therapists often complete post-graduate work as well, such as the highly specialized post-doctoral fellowships that some psychologists complete, or further certifications in an area like substance use disorders.
The therapy profession is regulated by each state in the U.S., and so therapists are required to obtain and maintain licenses to practice in their state. Licenses generally require graduate training, a particular number of clinical hours of experience, and passing a national and/or state examination.
How They Work
Therapists tend to work from a problem-oriented model, meaning that a client or patient seeks out care for an issue that is causing them distress. Many therapists consider themselves “healers” in the sense that they bring care and intervention to a person’s ailment. This does not mean that therapists aren’t focused on empowerment, as most do see their role as supporting the individual to gain the support and skills necessary to address this problem now and in the future.
Therapists usually start by assessing and often diagnosing a concern, and then develop a treatment plan, ideally in collaboration with the person being served. They might meet weekly, biweekly, or at a different frequency over a period of time.
Most therapy is open-ended in the sense that there is not a planned number of sessions at the start. However, this is not true for some modes of treatment where a specific protocol is being followed. But in the majority of cases, therapists will meet with a client until the problem resolves and believe this duration will vary by client.
Therapists are bound by law to hold your information confidential, which is a core tenant of the therapeutic relationship.
What They Focus On
Therapists specialize in the treatment of mental health, and so they will focus on diagnoses and mental health symptoms causing people distress. Therapists tend to work quite a lot with people with depression, anxiety, and trauma-related symptoms.
Some therapists specialize quite a bit, such as focusing on eating disorders, sexual concerns, or addictive behaviors, for example. They certainly can and do address life stressors, such as grief, transition challenges, and relationship problems.
Of course there are therapists that absolutely focus on skill building and personal enhancement separate from focusing on a diagnosis. This may or may not be considered “therapy,” depending on how the therapist approaches these.
What the Cost of Therapy Looks Like
Again, the frustrating answer that this is highly variable depending especially on the specialization of the provider and geographic differences in cost. Some therapists are in-network with insurance, while others are not. Among those who are out of network, some will provide a specialized statement that you can provide to your insurance company to utilize out of network benefits. Therapy is usually billed per each session.
Questions to Consider
If you’re still feeling confused about whether coaching or therapy is a better fit for you, consider the following questions.
- Do I already have a therapist or have been before, but feel like i want additional support in a particular area of a growth? (Coaching can be a great adjunct to therapy, particularly when it focuses on a target you’re not covering in the therapy relationship.
- Am I struggling to function in certain areas of life at this point? (If you are having trouble managing your more basic tasks or experiencing an inability to do the things you need to do, therapy may be needed.)
- Am I seeking support on a specific area in which I want to grow my skills or seeking a particular outcome? (Coaching can be great for working on a goal you have to enhance yourself or your circumstances, or to make an important decision.)
- Am I avoiding therapy because I worry it means something is wrong with me? (Despite a ton of progress, there continues to be stigma about mental health. However, mental health support is something we all need – regardless of if we have a “disorder.” Please don’t let stigma drive what type of support you seek out. You deserve whatever it is you need.)
The Same and Different
Hopefully you’ve gleaned some clarity on whether therapy or coaching is a better fit for you right now (and keep in mind that you may benefit from both and/or each at different times!). To summarize some of the key similarities and differences:
How Coaching and Therapy are Alike
- Growthful and helpful relationship with a focus on you
- Works within the framework of an individual (or sometimes group) exchange with your privacy protected
- Different than a friendship in being more objective and professional in nature
- Requires openness, willingness, and vulnerability
- Targets goals that you achieve by working incrementally
How Coaching and Therapy are Different
- Differences in training, credentialing, and licensing
- Degree of problem-focus vs. growth-focus
- Timeframes, diagnoses, and cost structure may vary
- At times, the focus of the sessions may be different
- Legal confidentiality protections in therapy
Lastly, don’t hesitate to reach out to a provider to ask your questions and explore whether their approach is the best fit for you needs. Get in touch if you’d like to explore further.