Michelle Fraley, MA, CPC
I know I need help! Should I seek a life coach or a therapist? And, what's the difference between the two anyways?
Since becoming a certified life coach, those are questions I hear A LOT! As a helping professional who has worked as a both a therapist and a life coach, I can share some firsthand information with you.
Life coaching and therapy do share a lot of qualities and in fact, many therapists (like myself!) have gone on to become life coaches or have sought out life coach training to add tools and strategies to their current practice.
Let’s start by exploring some similarities:
Therapists and coaches both offer their clients a safe, supportive and empathetic space to share their thoughts and feelings without judgement. In both modalities, clients should feel that they are heard and understood. Trust and confidentiality are fundamental elements for both modalities and lay a solid foundation for success.
Therapists and coaches also both begin their work with clients by using various assessment tools (personality tests, learning style indicators, ect). to help clients identify potential obstacles, resources, values, strengths, motivators and goals.
Lastly, both therapy and coaching use formal, written agreements for the process. These treatment plans (therapy) or action plans (coaching) should be clear and measurable and agreed upon with the client.
While coaching and therapy do share some important structural similarities, but they also have some key distinctions.
The most striking difference between coaching and therapy is that coaching places very high emphasis on the present, with a focus on future actions and goals, whereas, therapy focuses on analyzing the client’s past in order to understand/explain current behavior. In other words, coaching works from where the client is today and helps them move towards where they want to be in the future and therapy revisits and examines the past in order to heal unresolved emotional pain that is causing the client dysfunction in their current life.
Differences between coaching and therapy also arise from the client’s baseline level of functioning. If a person is suffering and unable to function in daily life because of a mental disorder or substance abuse then therapy would be the clear choice of treatment. If the client is functioning at an acceptable baseline level, but is experiencing discomfort, stagnation or dissatisfaction within areas of their current life then working with problem solving, goal setting and concrete action steps with a life coach would be an appropriate avenue.
The emphasis on diagnosis is another difference between coaching and therapy. Coaches do not use formal diagnoses for clients, whereas therapists use a diagnostic code from the DSM and generally have a diagnostic label in place before creating a treatment plan.
Lastly, coaching and therapy differ greatly in how the sessions are led. Coaching assumes a co-equal partnership between the client and coach. The coach will offer support and structure, but the client is responsible for being an active participant throughout the process and will help co-create a structured plan including goals, action steps, deadlines and accountability. Therapy on the other hand is a therapist directed process and may be necessary depending on the client’s mental and emotional readiness. In this situation, the therapist is in a provider and expert role and would devise and carry out a treatment plan based on a DSM diagnosis.
As you can see, life coaching and therapy will definitely overlap at times and at other times will look drastically different. It is important to note that coaching and therapy are not mutually exclusive and a client may make great strides if they are in a position to seek both therapy and coaching as they work towards transitioning into greater levels of functioning.
What works best for any one client really depends on the client’s current psychological and emotional state and what that client is hoping to gain from the process. Generally speaking, coaching seeks to bring clients to their highest level of functioning while therapy seeks to return clients to a baseline level of functioning.
About the author:
Michelle Fraley, MA, WPCC is a relationship coach and professional matchmaker and founder and owner of Spark Matchmaking & Relationship Coaching, LLC. Her mission to help people connect and maintain healthy, satisfying relationships using mindfulness and intentional love. She lives in Arizona with her husband, daughter and 4 furry children.
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