Therapist or Coach — What’s the Difference?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a coach and a therapist, and whether you would benefit more from coaching or therapy?

Maybe you have, and that’s why you’re reading this. Or maybe you haven’t, but maybe now I’ve put the idea in your head. Or maybe now you’re like, “What are you doing in my head? Get out.” Either way, in this post, I’ll address these questions in my capacity as both a coach and a therapist. I’ll also clarify some of the misinformation you may find on the internet.

A quick Google search pulls up a bunch of articles on the differences between a therapist and a coach, with three main points popping up repeatedly:

  1. Accreditation and regulation: Therapists are accredited and regulated. Coaches are not.
  2. Mental health: Therapists work with mental health issues. Coaches do not.
  3. Area of focus: Therapists work on past issues (trauma, etc.). Coaches work on future issues (goal-setting, etc.).

I’m going to examine these more closely, because as it turns out, I agree with only two of the three points …

1. Accreditation and regulation

On this point, I agree with the other articles out there. To earn a masters degree in counseling, I had to attend an accredited school. And now, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I practice under the codes of ethics established by three separate licensing boards: the Board of Behavioral Sciences, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

There are similar graduate programs and licensing boards for other types of therapists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, professional clinical counselors, etc. All you have to do is look at that jumble of letters after a therapist’s name to see where they got their training (MD for psychiatrists, PhD or PsyD for psychologists, LCSW for licensed clinical social workers, LPCC for licensed professional clinical counselors, etc.).

Every psychotherapist in the country has to abide by their respective codes. One of these mandates is that we must stay within our scope of practice. This is just a fancy way of saying that if a client has issues beyond what we’re trained to handle, we must refer them to someone who has had the proper training. Failure to do so can land ourselves in a ton of legal trouble. Did you ever see that commercial where the surgeon in the operating room was just a guy who stayed at a Holiday Inn last night? Scope of practice basically ensures that this scenario can never happen, and if it does, someone is going to face criminal charges.

Unlike for therapists, there is no governing board for coaches. There are coaching programs out there, some of which are rigorous and even taught by people who hold therapist degrees, but their curriculum is not currently regulated by anyone. As such, there is no legal requirement that someone have graduated from such a program to call themselves a “coach.” This is why the term ends up being a catch-all for anyone wishing to help others improve their lives in whatever capacity they decide they’re qualified to offer.

So what does this mean for you, as a potential client?

With a therapist, you mostly know what you’re going to get, and you have a safety net in the form of legal protection. With a coach, neither of these is clear. Going with the hotel reference, the analogy I like to use is staying at a corporate hotel chain versus an AirBnb. Let’s say you decide to stay at a Hyatt. There’s an established reputation that comes with the brand name, so even without knowing anything about a particular Hyatt hotel, you can count on a certain level of service and amenities.

Now, let’s say you decide to stay instead at an AirBnb. Without any brand reputation, you can never know for sure what to expect. The place can turn out to be awesome and amazing, or it can end up being … well, not so awesome and not so amazing. It’s a crapshoot, and worse yet, if crap does end up being what gets shot, you don’t have much legal recourse aside from leaving a bad review or — nowadays — the blunt axe of social media.

In this analogy, therapists are the chain hotels. If you’re seeking the services of an MFT, you can expect that all of them will have an established set of theories and techniques they know and use. Though different schools may have different focuses, all MFT’s will have a similar level of education and training. Coaches, on the other hand, are the AirBnbs of the counseling world. There is no standardized training program for coaches, so you won’t get the predictability and reliability of established theories and techniques.

So which is better? The answer is neither, because it depends on your specific preferences and needs. Some people like the reliability of corporate brands. Other people lean towards the unconventional vibe they might get from an AirBnb, along with the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. Some people need the reassurance of legal protections. Some people see the law and throw up two middle fingers. Potato potahto.

Coaches are not held to established theories or techniques. But, you can also see this as not being limited by established theories or techniques, as having the freedom to be more creative and unconventional in their work. It’s up to you to decide if you want to take the gamble.

The bottom line is that you’ll want to do some background research on any therapist or coach you’re looking to hire. Different coaches have different areas of focus, and different therapists can specialize in different theoretical orientations. Knowing about them will help you decide which is best for you.

Doing the requisite research before hiring a coach or a therapist can seem like a daunting task, so I’ll explain the process in more detail in my next post.

2. Mental health Issues

On this point, I also agree with all the other articles out there on the internet. As part of our education and training, therapists learn about the mental and physiological processes behind such issues as anxiety, depression, addiction, and so on. This science-based understanding can only be attained in a academic program.

Of course, a coach can do their own personal reading and education outside of a formal academic program, or they may have gone through an actual coaching program. There’s just no guarantee as to the exact skillset they’ll have, because as before, without a regulatory board, there isn’t anyone mandating what coaches must know when it comes to mental health issues. This is an important time to remember the point above about scope of practice.

Having said that, the life challenges people face may not always be attributed to mental health disorders. And even within the counseling profession, there is an active movement to move away from labels and destigmatize the notion of “disorders.” Talk-based counseling, whether in the form of therapy or coaching, often ends up being more of an art than a science. That is to say, when I am offering therapy in its traditional sense, I often have to think beyond the academic models I learned in school. These type of counseling and interpersonal skills can be learned via life experiences or hands-on training, and they are not exclusive to therapists.

So what does this mean for you, as a potential client?

To me, this point boils down to seriousness or severity. Are you in a place to take a gamble on something unconventional? Or do you need something tried and true? Continuing with the accommodations analogy, let’s say you’re planning a vacation, and you come across a quirky, off-the-wall AirBnb that looks like it could be totally cool or an absolute disaster. You think about it for a while, but then you figure that you’re on vacation, so you might as well give it a shot. If it turns out to be cool, great! If not … well, it happens, you’ll have other vacations.

Now, let’s say instead that you’re planning an important business trip. Your livelihood is on the line, so you need to make sure you find someplace reliable. In this case, are you more likely to try that quirky AirBnb, or fall back on a well-known corporate hotel?

The answer should be obvious, right? There are times when it might be fun and worthwhile to gamble it up a bit, and there are times to stick with the tried-and-true. In the case of counseling, if the issues confronting you feel serious, the established techniques you’ll get from a therapist will likely be more appropriate. Chances are, a coach will not be properly trained to help you manage your issues, and this is not the time to take risks with your own mental health.

On the other hand, if your issues feel minor and manageable, then depending on your specific goals, coaching or therapy may be appropriate. You may even want to try something funky and non-traditional. In this case, you’ll likely find more excitement and surprises with a coach than with a therapist.

This is why it’s important to do some self-analysis and reflection, so you have a better understanding of your own needs. I will also discuss this in more detail in my next post.

3. Area of focus

This is where I disagree with many of the articles on the internet. The idea that coaches work in the future, while therapists work in the past, strikes me as a distinction coaches try to make to bump themselves up. Yes, there are traditional models of therapy that focus on past issues and how they impact who we are today. You may be picturing the client lying on a couch, droning on about their childhood trauma while their therapist inquires about their mommy or daddy issues. Sure, yeah, that can still happen, I suppose.

Then again, therapists are not limited to this focus. Goal-setting is absolutely within the scope of practice of a therapist, and a therapist absolutely will help you enact future behavior changes. In fact, a truly skilled therapist will work with you to figure out when it’s best to focus on your future versus digging into your past, because not all past trauma needs to be unpacked for life change to occur.

On the flip side, I’d argue that a good coach will also be willing to consider your past, when appropriate. For instance, if you feel awkward and uncomfortable approaching someone you find attractive, it may be worth looking at past experiences that may have planted the seeds for this discomfort to grow.

So what does this mean for you, as a potential client?

If both therapists and coaches are equipped to help you address both past and present issues, then how do you decide? My answer is — you guessed it — research and reflection.

Per the last point, if you know that you suffer from mental health issues, working on past trauma might be best for you, and in that case, a therapist will probably be a better fit. But barring that, either a coach or a therapist could work for you when it comes to managing your current challenges and setting goals and looking to the future. It just depends on what specifically you’re wanting to work on, and which individual coach or therapist ends up meshing well with your needs.

So How Do You Choose?

Since this is turning out to be way longer than I’d originally anticipated (which, admittedly, happens with most of my writing ideas), I will save this for next time. With that …

Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll discuss how you can make the best decision for yourself when choosing between a therapist or a coach, or even which specific therapist and which specific coach.

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