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Therapy Versus Life Coaching

Life coach working with a female client

What a time to be alive! The stigma against seeing a therapist is all but vanquished, thanks in part to millennials who reportedly are changing the way mental health and therapy are regarded. In an article by Business Insider published in December 2019, millennials are more likely to seek help with their problems than any previous generation. This is good news for society which benefits from a healthy and happy populace.

But is there still a stigma against Life Coaching? And if so, why? Perhaps coaching is more obtuse and less understood. And yet over our lifetime most of us have benefitted from a coach or advisor of some kind...a piano teacher, a strength and conditioning coach, a financial advisor, a professional mentor. Someone who pushes us to perform our best.

I can see how people are confused about what a life coach does. To be honest, I don't even care for the term "life" coach. It implies we are somehow 'not doing life right'. That is why I prefer the term Success Coach. My goal in working with a client is to help her reach the next level of success, whatever that looks like to her. This concept makes even more sense when we look at famous people who've used life coaches. Oprah Winfrey has relied on author and well-known life coach Martha Beck for years. Hugh Jackman and Leo DiCaprio have worked with Tony Robbins. The members of Metallica famously worked with Performance Coach Phil Towle who helped them overcome interpersonal issues and produce a new album. These are super-high performing personalities. So, it is clearly not just people who struggle with failure or who lack confidence that use coaching.

Let's take a detailed look at how therapy and coaching differ and debunk some myths.

We begin with the person. In therapy the person is usually unwell or suffering significantly from trauma or post-trauma symptoms. In coaching, the client is healthy and looking for improvement in performance, relationships or overall life satisfaction. In therapy the patient's issues are acute (in the moment) and the needs are related to day-to-day coping. He or she is seeking alleviation of pain or anguish. A coaching client is typically aware there is low satisfaction with life or there are areas in her life in need of improvement. She may have come to this decision after a long period of frustrated introspection but little change. She is seeking a success partner to facilitate the next level of growth or advancement.

There are also differences in approach. Therapists are typically intervention-focused and seek to analyze and diagnose problems. They seek healing for their patients. Coaches are discovery-focused and seeking improved satisfaction for the client. One of the biggest differences is that coaches provide a level of accountability. A therapist is apt to let a patient go at his or her own pace. A coach, at times, may push a client to challenge her behaviors and thoughts, while offering strategies to support change. This is often accomplished through 'homework' that is done between sessions. Perhaps a coach's greatest advantage is that they teach a repeatable process the client can use, over and over again, as they encounter potential setbacks. In this way, the effect of a coach can be longer lasting and incrementally of greater value over time.

Graphic showing differences between life coach and therapist
Source: THINK Yourself

Let's review a few similarities. Both professionals are skilled listeners. Both seek positive outcomes for their clients. They each asked skilled questions and have, usually, hundreds of hours of experience from which to draw appropriate supports for the specific person. Therapists and coaches alike should be neutral and non-judgmental. Therapists and coaches should be excellent communicators, able to build trust and rapport. Certainly, they should both uphold the highest of ethics and client confidentiality.

In terms of myths, it is often said therapists focus only on the past and coaches focus solely on the future. While it is true a therapist is interested in exploring the past to make sense of the present, so too will a coach ask a client to think of past patterns that may be a key to why current circumstances are creating discontent. Similarly, while a coach wants to help clients achieve a future state of satisfaction, he or she is also invested in their current self-concept. A professional in a helping career cannot isolate the work to just one period of the client's life if the goal is holistic healing or growth.

I hope this article was helpful in discerning the role of a therapist from that of a coach and that you learned something new about their approaches. For more insight, I welcome you to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with me and invite you to explore my unique offering of coaching services for women.

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