Do I Need a Coach or a Therapist?

Patrice Ford Lyn CPC


Do I Need a Coach or a Therapist? How do I identify the person who is right for me?

That is a big question.  Whether you’re looking for support as an individual or a couple, both coaching and therapy can require significant financial resources and emotional engagement. And, the needs that brought you to this search can make the pressure to find the right person particularly intense.

When it comes to telling the difference between a coach and a therapist, definitive answers are hard to find.  Let’s start with some opinions from folks in the field. In Psychology Today, therapist Michael Bader D.M.H.posits that the differences between coaches and therapists are overstated. “Coaches say they work in the future and therapists work from the past. This is really dependent on the coach and the therapist and the needs of the client.”   

Others say the difference between coaches and therapists is that coaches work to make healthy people more fulfilled whereas a therapist works with pathology and illness.  However, the line between sadness and depression, overwhelm and anxiety, healthy and struggling can also be blurry. Adding to the confusion, coaching now utilizes understandings and techniques traditionally thought of as therapy.  It just isn’t clearcut.

Nevertheless, that isn’t to say there aren’t important distinctions.  Certified life coaches are trained to support clients through common life stressors and transitions, like the ways we feel stuck in our life, work, and relationships whereas, therapists have mental health training to address significant impairment in functioning.  In addition, the regulatory environment for mental health practitioners, is different than the one coaches have.  Some people’s experience with therapy leads them to coaching.

Similarly, sometimes coaching can be a pathway to therapy.  The most concrete guidance from the internationally recognized coaching certification body, the International Coaching Federation, provides four guidelines for coaches to know when they need to refer individuals they are working with to therapy.  The issue is:

  • outside of a coach’s competency and experience level

  • interfering with the daily functioning of the client

  • a barrier to making progress in coaching

  • psychological in nature and deals with deep-seated emotions

As you can see, this guidance and others rely on making a judgment call but ultimately the call is yours. Whether you decide to work with a coach or a therapist, I’ve developed a few questions that will help you to figure out if that person is right for you:

  1. Do you feel safe? Are you comfortable talking to this person? Do you feel judged? Do you believe they can hold space for your hardest truths?

  2. Do you need someone who has direct personal experience with the issue you are facing?

  3. Do you feel heard, seen, and understood?  

  4. Does the initial interaction feel like a transaction (interview) or conversation (learning about each other)?

  5. Do you feel rushed or do you feel you have the person’s full attention?

  6. Do you value the coach’s/therapist’s insights? When you first talk to them, do they provide you with feedback that resonates?  Do you think they can help you?

  7. Does their style work for you? Is it too mellow or too aggressive?

It can feel daunting to figure out how to get the support you need.  Hopefully these insights help. Procrastination is like perfectionism. It saps your joy and possibilities. Don’t delay in moving forward.  And try not to be discouraged if it takes more than one attempt to find the right person. Solicit friends to help vet potential coaches/therapists if needed.  It is truly critical that you get the support that is right for you.

Patrice FordComment