Therapy or Coaching? How to Determine Which Is Best For You

Therapy helps clients feel better, and coaching helps clients do better. Learn more about the differences, similarities, and benefits.

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Sean Robinson, PhD, PCC, TICC
Program Director & Professor

The difference between therapy and coaching

When someone is struggling with their mental health, it can be difficult to reach out for help, and even harder to know exactly what kind of support they need. Both therapists and coaches provide a safe space for their clients to process and explore their feelings, create goals and action plans, and keep them accountable.

The difference is how each professional works in that space.

What is therapy?

At its broadest definition, therapy is about dealing with clinical mental illness. It’s often recommended for people who are experiencing some form of emotional pain, or are in distress and looking for relief or healing.

Generally, individuals seek therapy when their daily functioning is interrupted by challenges or circumstances they can’t seem to resolve, or to work through psychological or emotional pain they’re experiencing—due to either recent events or the surfacing of prior traumatic experiences that are currently impacting the individual.  

People go to therapy for a variety of other reasons, including to:

  • Heal from trauma
  • Process and work through interpersonal conflict
  • Dealing with addiction disorders
  • Seek support while navigating a difficult experience, like a loved one’s death

Benefits of therapy

Therapists help their clients do the deep work required to resolve issues from the past that are getting in the way of daily activities.

Therapists help individuals understand their thoughts and emotions, better manage heavier emotions like anger, find relief from depression, anxiety, and grief, and become emotionally stronger and more resilient. The life-long coping skills that clients learn in therapy generally last far beyond the course of treatment.

Working with a therapist can also help increase healthy functioning, such as:

  • Improving communication, decision-making, and interpersonal skills
  • Boosting confidence, problem-solving, and conflict resolution abilities
  • Increasing satisfaction in both work and life, and achieving a greater sense of purpose

People can benefit from therapy along a spectrum:

  • As an intervention for illness—particularly for symptoms that are interfering with their daily functioning
  • For maintenance—putting new skills into practice
  • For prevention—to ensure they’re managing well during a disruption or stressful time in their life, or to simply have a 'tune up'

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What is coaching?

Coaches use tools and strategies to help their clients break through what’s holding them back from becoming the best version of themselves. Therapists help clientsfeelbetter, and coaches help clientsdobetter.

Coaches help their clients set and achieve personal goals, build new skills and healthier habits, and achieve balance, which bolsters their mental health and overall wellness. In addition, they can provide support for personal development, building stronger parenting skills, developing healthier relationships, and overall wellbeing.

Benefits of coaching

People seek coaching when they want to do and be better, not just feel better.

Coaching is about thriving and flourishing. A coach’s job is to help clients move from doing good work to great work, and from surviving to thriving.  

Both coaches and therapists focus on mental health and wellness, but coaches aren’t trained to do the deep psychological work that therapists do. Coaches generally focus on broad two areas:

  • Mental fitness: strengthening skills we already possess, or developing new skills
  • Resilience: tapping into personal resources we have but are unable to recognize or acknowledge

The overlap between therapy and coaching

Despite the distinct differences between therapy and coaching, as coaching continues to evolve, so do the similarities. A fair number of therapists have also become certified coaches as the demand and professionalization of the coaching arena grows.

How coaching is evolving

In addition to the ICF, the Institute of Coaching at McLean, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate, is also a global organization dedicated to ensuring scientific integrity in the coaching field. They’re doing this by encouraging the development and dissemination of applied research, theories, and models that support and inform coaching practices.

One of their new programs offers mental health literacy training for coaches. The program teaches coaches to recognize the signs of depression, anxiety, trauma, bipolar disorder, and addiction/substance abuse so they can build a deeper understanding of how it can show up, and more importantly, how to help their clients work through it.

In addition, Moving the Human Spirit is the earliest and most well-known ICF accredited training program that offers trauma-informed coach training, preparing coaches from the start to work with trauma survivors, building resilience and working toward solution focused, positive outcomes.

The old way of thinking about coaches is that one would only seek their help if they were in a good place mentally, and goals were behavior oriented. As the field of professional coaching evolves and deepens, however, the overlap between therapy and coaching is becoming greater.

Evidence-based coaching

While most coaches don’t have the extensive clinical training that therapists have, they are beginning to employ evidence-based practices with their clients, developed through empirical research, much the same way that therapists are expected to.

There is a lot of work being done around recognizing and addressing a low-level set of clinical issues, and knowing when to refer clients to a therapist when they fall outside of that.

Therapy and coaching can work together

Throughout our lives, our needs are continually shifting. Therapy and coaching complement each other, and can both be a part of someone’s mental health and wellness journey.  

For example, if an employee is working with a coach to improve their time management and organizational skills, and then loses a loved one, the coach may suggest therapy in addition to coaching—especially if the client is experiencing deep depression or grief.

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About the Author
photo authr
Sean Robinson, PhD, PCC, TICC
Program Director & Professor

Sean is an award winning and seasoned educator, therapist, trainer, and professional coach based in Washington, DC. After 15 years as a licensed therapist, Sean made the transition to coaching, working with individuals to transform their lives by helping them understand their purpose, develop their vision, and harness their strengths to create the life they truly want. Sean is a frequent diversity speaker and trainer, and has published over two dozen articles on LGBTQ+ identities and creating inclusive spaces and organizations. In addition to his coaching practice, Sean is a professor of leadership studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where his main emphasis is on teaching educational leadership and administration.