Mental Health
How Can Recovery Coaching Help You?

How Can Recovery Coaching Help You?

7 min read


Sean Kensing

At My Wellbeing, we don’t believe that therapy is a one-size-fits-all process. As each of us is unique, so are our needs and paths to growth and development.  

This week, we hear from Sean Kensing, who teaches us about Recovery Coaching, a profession that has developed as an additional option for treatment that may be more appropriate for some people than other more traditional modes of healing.

“New services sprout from the soil of unmet need.” – William White

When I started my career as an addiction counselor roughly 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a “Recovery Coach” - at least, I never heard the term in my day-to-day work.

There were addiction counselors, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists… and there were 12-Step sponsors, and mentors… but “Recovery Coaches”? Never heard of ‘em.

A lot can change in a decade.

I recently left the field of clinical addiction treatment to start my own practice as a recovery coach. And to get here, I had to ask myself many of the same questions you might have about recovery coaching.

To follow, I will address some of the most common questions that I am asked when introducing my practice to clients and other professionals.

What exactly is a Recovery Coach?

Right out of the gate, a disclaimer: there is no single or perfect answer to this question.

Just like snowflakes and psychotherapists, no two recovery coaches are alike. Each individual recovery coach will have their own style and focus.

You can read a bit more about my personal approach here, but I’ll take stab at a more general definition of Recovery Coaching as a profession.

Recovery Coaching originally emerged in response to recognition of an “unmet need.” Clients were doing well while they were engaged in addiction treatment, but were struggling with relapse or limited progress in recovery (“stuckness”) once they completed treatment.

Addiction treatment programs took a look at the relapse rates of their alumni and began to recognize the need for ongoing professional support grounded within the context of the client’s “real world” environment (as opposed to the controlled environment of intensive treatment). At the same time, the nonprofessional “recovery community” began to embrace informal, coaching-style relationships as a helpful “bridge” between clinical addiction treatment and long-term, community-based recovery maintenance.

A new profession began to take shape, situated somewhere between professional clinical treatment and informal community-based support. That profession became known as Recovery Coaching, and continues to evolve as we speak (White, 2006).

The “recovery community” movement is grounded in the idea that each individual will experience their own unique recovery process, and that the individual’s context (their family supports, their community, and their society) will directly influence their recovery process. The idea of a “recovery community” refers to a new, intentionally chosen, and sustainable community that the recovering person constructs - think of it as “the family you choose” to support your personal recovery.

One way a recovery coach can be helpful is in helping you select and engage with the elements of this new community. Do you want to work with a sponsor and attend 12-Step meetings? Or would you prefer a more behavioral, less spiritual approach such as SMART Recovery? Is your work environment supportive of your recovery? If not, do you need to find a different work environment, or would you rather learn skills to help you deal with your work stressors until you are ready to make a change?

These are all questions a recovery coach might ask to help you start to make intentional choices about the “recovery community” you are building for yourself.

Recovery coaching places a strong emphasis on your present experience and on the removal of obstacles to your growth and continued recovery; this is in contrast to the emphasis on past experience and emotional insight that is associated with traditional psychotherapy.

However, it is important to note: this does not mean that recovery coaching cannot deal with emotions or dysfunctional behavior patterns. I talk about feelings and behaviors with my clients all the time. The important distinction is that the recovery coach tends to place a greater emphasis on the present situation, the power of personal choice, and a more collaborative approach to finding solutions.

This leads me to the next question I am frequently asked…

Are you a licensed psychotherapist? If not… should I be scared?

Ok, the first part is easy to answer: no. As a recovery coach, I am not a licensed psychotherapist, and I do not advertise myself as such (although I do acknowledge that I incorporate therapeutic principles and skills into my work with clients).

As for whether or not that should scare you, I can understand why you might ask that. If you are considering developing a relationship with a recovery coach - a relationship that may involve discussing difficult aspects of your life and recovery - you want to feel secure that the recovery coach knows what they are doing and can be trusted.

The most realistic answer to this question that I can give you is, “You might have to shop around.”

An effective helping relationship is all about your personal comfort with the helping professional. There has to be comfort and chemistry. Unfortunately, a specific professional license or credential is no guarantee that you will feel comfortable working with someone, or even that they will be trustworthy or competent. The best thing to do is explore your options. (One of the brilliant things about My Wellbeing is that they do a great job of finding the “right fit” for you, which can make exploring your options much easier and more comfortable.)

I tend to think of the first session as an opportunity for you (the client) to interview me (rather than the other way around). I do my absolute best to be as open and transparent as possible, and to answer any questions you may have about my background, experience, or the process of our potential work together.

The same should be true of any helping professional. If you experience the opposite, and you don’t feel your questions are welcomed or answered transparently, I would consider that an indication that you haven’t found a good fit. The bottom line is: the relationship and the connection have to be there for the work to take place.

What is “recovery,” anyway?

You’re probably getting tired of my saying this, but... there is no single or perfect answer to this question. The meaning of the term “recovery” is not standardized, and there are many highly individualized definitions of recovery.

The word “recovery” has traditionally been applied most often to addictions, but more recently has been applied to mental and emotional health in general.

My focus as a recovery coach is to do my best to help you articulate your own definition of recovery, and then help you bring your life into alignment with that personal definition.

I believe that “recovery” involves a continual process of moving towards more optimal ways of living and being (physically, emotionally, and existentially).

This might mean completely ending your relationship with a substance or addictive behavior (sometimes described as an “abstinence” approach), or it might mean making gradual adjustments to those relationships (sometimes referred to as a “harm reduction” approach).

I believe that each individual has the right to determine their own definition of recovery. I also believe that like everything else in life, personal definitions of recovery can and often do change over time.

Are you in “recovery” yourself, Sean? Is that relevant or important?

Personally, I am not sure that personal recovery status is particularly important to the role of a recovery coach (although many in the field might disagree with me). In my experience, other qualities are more important than recovery status; I’m referring to qualities such as trustworthiness, integrity, transparency, authenticity, sense of humor… you get the idea. These are all qualities that, to me, are more relevant to my efficacy as a recovery coach than whether or not I am in recovery myself.

Having said that, I do happen to be an individual in recovery from an addictive disorder. My recovery process has changed shape many times over the years, giving me a familiarity with many different recovery contexts, resources, and approaches.

When it comes to my work with clients, I follow a simple but powerful rule of thumb: I incorporate my own recovery experience into my work with clients only to the extent that I feel it would be helpful for the client.

To put that more in plain English: if you ever catch me talking about my own recovery, and you have no idea why I’m talking about it, or what it has to do with you... fire me!

My recovery should only be relevant insofar as it helps you as my client.

More often than not, I find that my own personal history with recovery is not a main focus of my work with clients.

How exactly do you plan to help me?

I have written more extensively about my own personal approach to coaching on my website here.

As for recovery coaching in general, there are some primary roles that are universal to the profession.

As a recovery coach, I can act as a:

  • motivator and cheerleader: I can demonstrate a fundamental belief in your ability to change and succeed. I can celebrate your victories and help you mourn your challenges and disappointments, all the while reminding you that you are engaged in an ever-unfolding process of change.
  • ally and confidant: I can listen closely to you and demonstrate unconditional positive regard for you. I can be a stable and consistent positive presence in your life and your recovery. I can act with integrity and respect your confidentiality.
  • source of objective feedback: I can provide you with honest and helpful information and feedback (although I will not tell you what to do). I can offer suggestions, after making sure that you want them. I can help you to identify patterns of behavior and brainstorm possible ways to change unhelpful patterns.
  • problem-solving partner: I can help you identify potential problem areas. I can collaborate with you on problem-solving. I will not tell you what to do, but I will help you examine your options in a structured way. I will not judge you as a person regardless of the choices you make.
  • resource broker: I can provide linkages to various recovery communities. I can also act in a case management capacity, linking you to other sources of professional support and treatment (if appropriate and welcomed). I can share my knowledge regarding the continuum of care for addiction treatment and can utilize my established contacts in the field to support your recovery.
  • advocate: I can advocate for the recovery community and for you as a recovering individual. I can assist you in protecting your rights as a client and as a person pursuing recovery. I can act as a representative for you in certain capacities at your request.
  • lifestyle consultant: I can offer you feedback on your lifestyle as it pertains to your personal definition of recovery and your related goals. I can help you focus on wellness.

Do I see you in an office, like a therapist?

Yes, I see most of my clients in a conventional office setting, much like a therapist.

However, one of the unique aspects of recovery coaching is the opportunity to move our work together out of the office and into your environment (if that is something you are interested in doing).

To give you an example, you might be curious about attending a SMART Recovery meeting, but might not feel comfortable going on your own. Maybe you have some social anxiety or maybe you’ve just never been to a mutual support meeting before and you’re interested but uncomfortable. You and I might make a plan for me to accompany you to the meeting, and to meet afterwards to discuss your experience.

The majority of my recovery coaching work takes place in a conventional office setting, but I am always open to unconventional coaching opportunities.

Do I come to you after I complete formal addiction treatment? Or before? Or during?

Yes, yes, and yes.

As described earlier in this article, when recovery coaching first started it was seen primarily as a “bridge” from intensive addiction treatment back into the recovery community - in other words, recovery coaching was seen as something that happened after addiction treatment had been completed.

As the field has developed, this narrow view has shifted considerably.

Personally, I work with clients from all over the spectrum of recovery and treatment. Some of my clients have never undergone any kind of addiction treatment whatsoever; in other words, I am their first contact with a helping professional.

Other clients have been to multiple formal addiction treatments in the past, but seek out recovery coaching because they want to try something different (conventional addiction treatment is not necessarily a good fit for everyone).

Other clients complete an inpatient or residential treatment episode and come to me for ongoing support.

I also work with clients who are currently undergoing addiction treatment (usually at an outpatient program); in this capacity, I collaborate with the addiction treatment program to support the client’s successful treatment experience.

In other words: personally, I have no rules about who can come to see me for recovery coaching. You do not have to be “sober” in order to to work with me - you do not even have to want to be “sober.” You may simply have questions about your relationship with a substance or a behavior, or you may have successfully ended a relationship with a substance or behavior, but still feel you have not made meaningful progress in recovery.

All that is needed for us to work together is an open mind and a willingness to set goals collaboratively; what those goals may be is entirely up to you.

I am happy to meet you wherever you may be in your recovery journey.

Thank you, Sean, for sharing your knowledge about and experience with us today.

If you’d like to learn more about Sean and his practice, or schedule time to talk by phone or meet in-person, please visit his website.

Any thoughts, questions, or topics you’d like to see featured on our blog? We’re all ears: [email protected] or chat with us on social @findmywellbeing.

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About the author

Sean Kensing is a Recovery & Life Coach in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn. With a background in clinical addiction treatment and personal exploration of humanistic and existential thought, Sean's unique approach to recovery and life coaching focuses on the critical role that grief plays in the human experience.

Visit Sean’s website to learn more about him and his practice.

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