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Is a Life Coach or a Therapist right for me?

counselor life coach mental health stigma therapy transformational coach May 08, 2022

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness month. This month is always a particularly favorite time of mine as it gives awareness to an issue that is SO important for our world. I worked as a mental health therapist for 17 years and, as a result, continue to support getting out the message regarding the importance of taking care of your mental health and physical health.  I support whole-person health. Our brains and bodies are connected, so we need to include our minds if we genuinely want to take care of our health.  During the pandemic, we’ve seen many individuals reaching out for help these past two years.  This is both bad and good news.  The bad news is that so many people with mental health concerns were struggling, but the good news is they reached out for help!  I’ve seen the stigma of mental health decrease over the length of my career.  I hope to see it reach true parity with physical health within the healthcare system one day. 


My work has now shifted; I am still a licensed therapist and the owner of a Life Coaching Business that works with professional women and companies that want to bring wellness education to their employees. At first glance, coaching and therapy appear to be nearly the same thing.  During mental health awareness month, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the differences between the two types of services.  I can speak to some nuanced differences because I have two businesses, one as a licensed mental health counselor and one as a personal development coach for professional women.   I work in both roles.  With more education, you can make informed decisions about what type of help you may need.


So, imagine a tennis player who wants to improve their game both in skill and strategy. First, the tennis player hires a coach. Then, after some time spent reviewing the player's goals and the type of support the coach offers, they begin their work together.  The tennis player may work one-on-one or attend a group clinic setting based on the kind of support they need to enhance their game. For example, the coach may teach them new skills, fine-tune their current skills,  or connect them to others who play tennis for peers.  


However, if the tennis player obtains an injury or aggravates an old injury, they seek medical care. First, there would be a formal assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan. Then, the tennis player would follow the treatment plan, which aims to help them return to playing tennis again.  The medical care would be billed to insurance and only provided when deemed medically necessary using strict guidelines put out by insurance and medical facilities.


During medical treatment, the tennis player may or may not continue working with their coach. For example, if their injury is a knee injury but they sought coaching to work on their competitive mindset, they might work with the medical provider and the coach simultaneously. On the other hand, if it’s an injury that prevents them from being able to do any of the aspects of the game, then they might not continue with coaching until they are healed enough to return to the game.


As you may have guessed, the medical provider is a therapist, and the tennis coach is a life coach, in my analogy.  Let me start with the therapist or medical provider.  When seeking therapy, the therapist, if billing insurance, must provide a diagnosis to proceed with treatment.  A diagnosis is obtained through a comprehensive biopsychosocial assessment.  Followed by a treatment plan which includes the ultimate goal of the work with the patient and what specific treatment the therapist will provide.  Therapists are treating diagnosable mental health issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, etc...  There are diagnostic criteria in a manual used by all therapists called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), which is updated and reviewed by the American Psychological Association.  Once the treatment goals are met, the patient will be discharged from that treatment episode.  


A life coach is not treating wounds, physical or emotional.   You may have injuries, but the coach isn’t the person who will help resolve that for you. Instead, the coach is there to provide you with education, teach you skills, hold you accountable, cheerlead, connect to communities, and more.  The role of a coach is unique and supportive but very different from a therapist, whose job is to diagnose and treat the symptoms you are experiencing so you can live a healthy life.


Another difference between a coach and a therapist is the aspect of self-disclosure.  Conclusion: there are ethical guidelines that state therapists are not to self-disclose but instead keep the focus entirely on the patient's needs.  Part of the magic of therapy is that there isn’t a give and take; you can go in and take all you need from the session.   One thing that makes it feel so safe is the high level of confidentiality.   Part of the magic of coaching is that coaches are invited to share information about themselves.  Many coaches are teaching others how to walk the same path as their own but with less resistance, and through that, they will share their entire stories.   Neither is right or wrong, but it demonstrates how the two offerings are different in so many ways.  Knowing this difference might also help you narrow down the type of support you need.

You may have heard the distinction between therapy and coaching: therapy looks backward, and coaching looks forward.   On some levels, this is true. For example, a coach will not get to the root of why something is occurring, and they will focus on the here and now and how to make a change. But, on the other hand, a therapist does want to know the origin and will help uncover and heal hurts from the past.  But a therapist also looks forward to where you want to go. So a therapist may include some coaching in their work, but a coach will never include therapy in their work. 

The final difference I want to share is credentialling.  As a therapist, I had to obtain a master's degree that included 3000 hours of unpaid practicum/internship, post-graduation complete 3000hr supervised direct service, and pass a national exam to get licensed. The education doesn’t end there. Since becoming licensed, I need to complete 10-20hrs of continuing education each year. This is my exact path to becoming a licensed therapist. It varies slightly from state to state but is generally the exact requirement.   The coaching field, on the other hand, is mostly unregulated. A coach may obtain certification; however, it is not required.  There are many outstanding coaching programs out there.  But many coaches do not receive certification and instead use their own lived experience to develop their coaching programs.   It goes back to the analogy I used in the beginning.  Mental Health therapists are part of the medical community and regulated like other treatment providers you might see for illnesses and wounds.  A coach is a different community and different approach to supporting you.   


I support both roles as I do both!  Both coaching and therapy are services that are needed in this world.  Our lives are complicated and demanding at times. Having different ways to be supported only enhances our lives.  As I wrap up this post, I request that you be open to the idea that a coach might tell you they recommend a mental health therapist.  Due to the different types of education and credentialing requirements, it is respectful of your needs and the coach's skills to ensure you are with the professional that can best help you.  So when a coach recognizes there might be a wound that needs medical care, be receptive and appreciative that they are helping you be the best version of yourself possible.  And also, be aware that a coach may not recognize when therapy is required due to an entirely different level of training.  So be sure to be proactive with your health and have a primary doctor that you can reach out to.


One of the ways the stigma of mental health can end is if we educate ourselves and choose therapy or coaching based on our needs, not based on what is more socially acceptable. They do different work but can work in tandem for even more impressive results in life.  To reflect on your needs using my tennis player analogy, seek consultation if you aren’t sure.  I have a free 15min chemistry session in which we can discuss what coaching service I offer might be the best fit for your particular needs.

What would you say if I told you that spending 5 minutes per day supporting your mental wellness could improve your gut health? And 5 minutes per day helping your gut health could improve your mental health?


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