You’re unhappy at work, you and your partner aren’t communicating as well as you would like, and you don’t know the next direction you want your life to take. You think you might like to talk to someone, but you’re not sure which would be right for you—therapy or coaching.
At first glance, they seem similar: therapists and coaches can help you work toward goals, examine areas of your life you might want to improve, and get unstuck. But which should you choose?
Here’s a quick look at what therapy is, what coaching is, some important differences between them, and a few ways to decide which is best for you.
A therapist is a clinician, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, licensed professional clinical counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, pastoral counselor, or psychiatric nurse practitioner, focused on the treatment of mental health conditions.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers can all offer psychotherapy. Credentials (e.g., MD, PhD or MSW) tell you the therapist has completed a basic course of study and has been granted a degree by an academic institution. A license tells you the therapist has passed an examination administered by the state.
In short, therapists help people live happier, healthier and more productive lives by applying research-based techniques to help them develop more effective habits. They use approaches like cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, psychodynamic, and more to help people work through their problems.
“A coach is someone who gives more actionable advice toward a goal,” said Nancy Slotnick, a coach and MyWellbeing community member. “For example, if someone was trying to meet someone for a relationship or trying to decide about a break up, as a coach, I would help walk them through the strategy and the behavioral changes they need to achieve in order to make changes in their life or change their patterns.”
Coaches partner with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The International Coaching Federation, the leading global organization for coaches and coaching, differentiates therapy from coaching by saying coaching is focused on visioning, success, the present, and moving toward the future.
They say that therapy, on the other hand, emphasizes psychopathology, emotions, and the past to understand the present, stating that it works more with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues than does coaching. They even provide a resource for coaches to understand when and how to refer a client to a mental health or other helping professional when the client’s needs are outside a coach’s competencies.
Coaches can earn certifications from private programs or professional organizations but coaching is not regulated by a government entity. Even though there is not an official license to be a coach, that doesn’t mean they don’t provide good-quality services. They can come from any educational background, and they are often very experienced in a certain field.
The most important distinction to make between therapists and coaches is that therapists are medical professionals qualified to both diagnose and treat mental health conditions. If you suspect or know that you have a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, working with a therapist is for you.
Additionally, one of the biggest differences between coaching and therapy is that coaching isn’t covered by insurance while therapy can be (if you meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition and the treatment for that condition is deemed appropriate by your insurer).
It is important to contact your insurance carrier and find out what your specific insurance does and doesn’t cover—there is a chance that going out-of-network would actually be cheaper and easier for you to find care.
First of all, therapy isn’t just for people with mental health conditions. Anyone can see a therapist to help them grow as a person—you don’t have to wait until things become completely overwhelming to talk to a therapist. Preventative care is just as important!
“You might be surprised to hear that anyone can benefit from therapy. Therapy is not exclusively for people with diagnosed mental conditions. Therapy is a tool for anyone who is interested in investing in him or herself,” said Julia Taub, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member.
Whether you’d like to be a better partner, parent, or you want to take time to focus on yourself, therapy can give you the space to practice self care and self improvement. In an overwhelming world, it allows us to put ourselves first. We all go through challenges, and going to therapy when things are good can give us the tools and strategies we need to cope when the next crisis arises.
The main distinction is that if you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, a therapist is right for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also see a coach for other topics.
If therapy and coaching still sound pretty similar, that’s okay! There are a lot of similarities.
Therapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between the person seeking therapy and their therapist. Your therapist will provide a safe, supportive space for you to talk to a neutral, non-judgmental party.
Coaching is focused on visioning, success, the present, and moving into the future. Your coach will help you with performance improvement and setting and achieving goals.
“With coaching, a lot of times it can be more short-term,” said Nancy. “You’re just focusing on the goal and going after it.”
If you’re still not sure which might be right for you, this quiz might help. Which brings us to our final point:
Of course! Many people work with a coach and a therapist at the same time and find both relationships fulfilling and valuable. We are all multidimensional with different needs at different times in our lives, and while some of your needs might be best supported by a therapist, others might benefit from the perspective and expertise of a coach.
“A lot of times they go hand-in-hand,” said Nancy. “Sometimes you might need to have therapy first if you’re going through hard times. You might have to work through the feelings first before taking action. It’s almost like weeding a garden, where you have to get to the roots underneath first.”
The best thing to do if you are wondering about starting a relationship with either is to put together a list of possible matches and conduct complimentary phone consultations to see who might work best for you at this point in your life.
Whichever path you choose, what’s important is that you took that first step to getting the support you deserve. There are plenty of reasons people are hesitant to start therapy or coaching, from mental health impostor syndrome to social stigma to finances and more. If you know you want to start, this guide can help—or use our form and find the perfect match for you.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.