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How is Coaching Different from Therapy?

The difference between coaching and therapy is a source of confusion I've come across often from those who are new to the concept of coaching, and I don't blame them! For anyone who has not personally participated in coaching and/or therapy before, it is plausible that these two things might seem interchangeable.

If you are unclear about how coaching differs from therapy, let me clear it up for you!

Coaching and therapy both involve a professional guide facilitating a client or multiple clients through a supportive conversation, with the goal to help them gain clarity, feel heard and seen, or simply have a safe space to talk things out. Both types of practices have an understanding of confidentiality, respect, and support.

While the "look" and structure of a coaching session and a therapy session may be similar, the fundamental focus of the conversation or subject matter discussed in detail is the area in which these two practices begin to differ. And there are some important things to note here about licensure and liability.

Typically speaking, the goal of a coach is to help a client figure out where the snags are in their overall approach to an issue in their life, and help them see more clearly where things may have gone wrong in the past or present situation, and help them come up with strategies for a better way for their future, implementing ideas for new solutions, and resolving any fears or blocks that stand in the way from that person making positive change.

Therapy on the other hand is designed to help a person reframe their past experiences, work through difficult emotions, and process events -- even traumas -- from a person's past or present.

This does not mean that a coach does not care about acknowledging a client's emotions, or that a therapist does not care about helping a client succeed in the future. It's that the focus of the work being done within the session is differentUnless they have the proper licensure, coaches are not trained to properly handle or address trauma in a client. That is the main feature I want to point out.

Let me organize this information in a way that is summarized and concise:

Coaching is...

  • Typically more present & future oriented
  • Primarily focused on implementing strategies to accomplish goals

Coaches are not licensed to treat mental illness. Coaching businesses do not require a certification or specific schooling.

Therapy is...

  • Typically more present & past oriented
  • Primarily focused on reframing past experiences and processing emotions

Therapists are licensed to treat mental illness. Mental health specialists are required to obtain the appropriate licensure.

Therapy is the appropriate place to process and heal from trauma.

If you are someone who is looking for support in the areas of processing past events, emotional experiences in day to day life, or navigating through a particularly challenging mental or emotional space, or working through a traumatic experience with the hopes of healing your mental or emotional well-being, therapy is the most suited to your needs.

If you are someone who is looking for support in the areas of how you approach your life -- your relationships, career, or well-being -- and want support and encouragement in taking action despite fears that come up within you, a coach might be what you are truly looking for.

As a coach myself, speaking from my own experience, coaches are trained to have conversations with clients that help them self-reflect, come up with their own solutions, and guide them towards a better way when helpful. To encourage them to push past fears like fear of failure, rejection, or the unknown. Coaches are there to help keep you accountable towards the goals you set for yourself. We are trained on success strategies that we can share with our clients, and tend to have an expertise in areas like business, health, or relationships.

And as a general note, coaches are there to help guide you towards your own personal work, not try to heal you themselves or process your ideas or feelings for you. Just like a coach of a football team, we are there to talk strategy and outline specific plays for you to go try out on the field, but we cannot go out and do the work for you. If we did, it would lose its value. The value comes from you going through the personal growth process yourself.

Coaches are not typically trained (unless they seek additional specific certifications) to help clients heal from trauma, are not necessarily trained in psychology, and do not have the authorization to prescribe medications, diagnose a client, or even give out meal plans or dietary recommendations (again, unless they have gone through a specific and additional certification or obtained the appropriate degree).

So do your research and make sure the type of practice you are hoping to find is suited for your needs and goals, and that the specific person you find has the necessary qualifications to address what you need help with.

As an example, let me tell you about my certifications: I am a certified Holistic Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. This may sound like I had extensive knowledge in nutritional coaching, and can design meal plans for my clients -- which is incorrect. These are assumptions based off of the name of the school and title of my certification. In reality, I prefer to think of my title as "Mindset and Wellness Coach". Why? Because this is truly what I am focusing on when I work with clients. What I was trained in during my certification process are the ways in which we as human beings can support our entire well-being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The term "nutrition" in this case refers to all the types of ways in which we as human beings are nourished: food, yes, but also things like relationships, career, spiritual practices, exercise and movement, and much more. It was a widespread and all-encompassing education on how to support health and happiness through several different angles and lenses of wellness.

Through my own personal life experience, discovery of the trait, and training in the wellness field, I have also learned how integral it is to address our mindset, and how much wellness and mindset are tethered together and really work in tandem with each other. Which is why my approach includes both. Interested in learning more about mindset and wellness, and why each is so important for our success and health and happiness in life? Check out this post:

Coaching is not better than therapy, and therapy is not better than coaching. It all comes down to what exactly you want help with, and what type of support you are seeking.

I hope this clears up any confusion you've had about the difference between coaching and therapy. Thanks for reading!

- Tiara Ariel

Learn more about Tiara Ariel's coaching program and course offerings:

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