While both professions can help you get to a better place than where you started, therapists are trained to treat mental illness or other major emotional and relational problems, while coaches seek to help you improve performance in a specific area. There are a few main differences between coaching and therapy. Therapists are licensed and provide mental health treatment to people with diagnosed mental illnesses. Coaches provide goal-oriented services that are not related to health care.
First, let's look at coaching and therapy to discuss their differences and similarities, and then let's explore how they can converge to help provide maximum benefit to a client. The main difference between a therapist and a coach is that, in general, therapists tend to focus more on the past or the present, while coaches tend to focus more on the present and the future. Therapists tend to focus more on cognitions, while coaches tend to focus more on behaviors. Of course, cognitions and behaviors are extremely intertwined, and as such, therapists and coaches often converge in their respective practices.
I've been working with a lot of executive coaches recently and have the utmost respect for many of them. They are intelligent people who help their customers immensely. But they always want to tell me that they are not doing therapy. And they often offer a similar story about how coaching and therapy are different.
They (the coaches) apparently work with the future; I (the therapists) work with the past. They work to improve healthy clients; I work with pathologies and diseases. They work with the conscious mind; I work with the unconscious mind. Their work has a time limit, with specific behavioral outcomes desired, and is often over the phone; my work is open, with understanding as the main objective, and is done in my office.
The list can go on and on. What these coaches describe are actually false distinctions that don't make a difference. In reality, the differences between two psychotherapists or two coaches can be greater than the difference between a coach and a psychotherapist, depending on who they are. Therapists help clients look at their figurative past to overcome deep-seated problems, while life coaches are there to help you take advantage of today's starting point to succeed tomorrow.
That said, many coaches should be able to help you understand how the past contributes to your present, and psychotherapists can help you achieve your future goals. Here are five differences between coaching and psychotherapy to help you decide who might be best suited to help you on your journey. One of the differences between life coaches and therapists is that therapists can only serve clients who live in the state in which they are licensed. And if you have goals that you want to work on in therapy, they're probably different from the goals you'd identify with a life coach.
While therapists are trained mental health professionals who are in the regulated field of health care and require a license, life coaches have no mental health training and are not equipped to diagnose or treat mental health conditions (unless a life coach has previously received training as a therapist, which is also common). Psychotherapists face more restrictions than coaches as to where and how they can offer their services. Finally, keep in mind that all coaches have different training philosophies and this will guide your association, so be sure to select a coach whose approach is right for you. One of the most important distinguishing factors between psychotherapists and coaches is that psychotherapists are trained to help people dealing with mental illness, and coaches are not.
In this session, clients and therapists have the opportunity to get to know each other better and evaluate if there is an adjustment. While therapists must follow appropriate ethical guidelines established by their respective licensing boards, coaches do not. In this sense, therapists and coaches have more in common than they realize: a professional myopia that stands in the way of helping people. No matter what your incentive is to seek help, it's helpful to understand what the roles of a life coach and therapist fall into, so you can make an informed decision about which one is right for you.