There's a fine, ambiguous line between coaching and therapy, and people sometimes ask me now that I have professionally worked as both, what's the difference?
What are the role definitions? When do you hire a coach and when do you seek therapy? As a professional, when would it be appropriate to refer to the other? And, how can things get murky fast when it comes to safety and coaching?
I was recently talking with a friend of mine, who like me is both a coach and a therapist. The question of boundaries within the professions came up. After we got off Zoom, I remembered that I wrote a post about this a couple of years ago, and it was really helpful. I couldn't find it in my archives- so for anyone who read that post, this is all new. This article isn't a short read, but whether you are a coach, a therapist or someone who is thinking about hiring a guide to support your journey, this article will answer some questions about the professions.
My professional background includes a Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling and Art Therapy and over a decade working as a psychotherapist in crisis stabilization settings. I was a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in the state of Alaska, and still carry my art therapy credentials (ATR). When I decided to pursue coaching as career, I studied with a coaching academy to understand the difference between the two fields so that I wasn't inadvertently doing therapy with my new coaching clients.
Let me preface this article with the statement that the information here is derived from my experiences as both a coach and a therapist. While each professional industry has flaws, I believe there is a reason to hire one or the other depending on the needs of the client. I write this article from a place of knowledge and professional opinion. If I say something that is triggering, I invite you to do your own research, thinking and work around it.
The Role of a Therapist
To break it down, a therapist is a professional who helps you work through deep layers of emotions, trauma, behaviors and past events to heal and find a clearer way forward. In the United States, a therapist goes through extensive education and training. Typically this includes a four year bachelor's degree that reflects a set amount of credits in psychology, and a two year master's degree with 1500 hours of field training (some specialized degrees may require more, this was the training required for me). A person can pursue further specific training to receive their PhD, but it is not required to be a therapist. A therapist is not trained to administer medications, that is the job of a psychiatrist who has a medical degree.
After education, depending on what kind of training the therapist received, approximately 2,000 to 4,000 hours (about two years) of supervised work is required to receive a state license (in the USA). Then, over the lifespan of a licensed therapist‘s career, she or he is required to maintain a set amount of continuing education hours. Also, in my opinion, a healthy therapist will have professional support by continuing to seek supervision from a group or another liscensed therapist.
A therapist might also be trained in art therapy, music therapy (or any of the expressive therapies) EMDR, hypnotherapy and other modalities to safely support the client to heal, change and grow. For me, my master's degree included both Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Therapies with a Specialization in Art Therapy (that's a mouthful, believe me) and my work allowed me to not only work as psychotherapist but also an art therapist.
The Role of a Coach
A coach, on the other hand, is a professional that takes both her/his life experience and educational experiences to support a client to achieve a specific goal in a certain time frame. Credentials, degrees and a specific amount of training aren‘t required for coaches, however, good ones usually have some kind of combination of life and educational background to lean on inside their work.
Coaches support clients around all kinds of topics, and usually combine strategy and mindset work with actionable steps for a client to reach a desired goal. For example, a person might hire a health coach to implement health and well being focused strategies into her or his life. Or one might pursue a business coach to reach certain professional milestones. A relationship coach is great for working on personal goals to attract in a healthy partner, or to become a healthy partner themselves.
As a coach, I have had a number of clients work with me after they have been in therapy. A few have said that the coaching work that they did with me included results that they just didn't see while they were in therapy. While I feel good when I hear that, I tell my clients that their work with me wouldn't really be successful without their work in therapy.
The Line Between Coaching and Therapy
I believe that both coaching and therapy can be extraordinarily healing, but I also believe there’s fine line between what kind of processing occurs in the coaching setting versus a therapy one. Both coaching and therapy work can be quite deep and transformative. And here is where the line between the difference of therapy and coaching can get murky.
A therapist is well trained over a timespan of years on how to handle deep, emotional work while also being cognizant of safety. A therapist also invests in support to do this kind of work so that they do not cause harm.
For example, let's say a therapist and client are doing some deep trauma work inside a therapy session. During this session, the client becomes triggered, begins to speak of unsafe things and starts having a difficult time dealing with her or his emotions. The therapist has the knowledge and training to best support the client, even if that means referring the client to the emergency department for an assessment or a recommendation for a more restricted level of care.
Because of the structure of the system, including a support network, licenses and insurance, a therapist naturally has the built in support. There are so many ways that things can go wrong when working in a processing capacity, especially around mental health and trauma. A therapist's work is designed to support those issues in a way that keeps both the client and therapist safe.
In my opinion, if a coach is processing trauma or mental health issues with a client, a whole lot of things can go sideways fast. To start, the boundaries and structure of the client and coach relationship can be confusing, which could result in an unsuccessful outcome. And also, the work potentially could get out of control without the coach realizing it, knowing what to do next, or having the support to take the right next steps. Safety issues may occur that the coach isn't prepared for.
This is not to say that offering tools or strategies around healing and mindset shifts are off limits for a coach. No! I really believe some of the tools, strategies and insights offered by coaches are transformative. In my experience, coaches often offer meditations, EFT tapping, NLP techniques, personality reviews, journaling prompts, workshops and other helpful tools for their clients to successfully grow. (Side note here: I also highly recommend that coaches do their own self discovery work to understand how life events have effected their journey.)
But, if a coach is attempting to support deep healing in a way that she/he doesn't have extensive training, support and credentials in, she/he could cause much more harm than good. (When I say extensive training, I mean years.)
Not only is the integrity of the coach questioned in this kind of situation, but safety issues around suicidal ideation or self harm can occur. Legal issues could ensue from not having the training or supports in place if something unsafe happens.
And, to make matters even more confusing, if a client is seeking coaching but really his or her issues require the support of deep mental health or trauma processing, the coaching work can feel unsuccessful. It can be attractive for a client to seek coaching because that might mean she or he can bypass the uncomfortable stuff, but unfortunately that stuff still pops up if it isn't resolved.
The line can feel ambiguous, right? As a coach, therapist or client, how do you decide what is best for your situation?
If you are a coach reading this, I recommend that you are clear with yourself and your clients about what your boundaries are regarding what you talk about, and how you talk about it.
For example, while it may be appropriate to talk about where a belief or an unhelpful mindset started and got locked into a person's psyche, it is not appropriate to do any kind of mental health or trauma processing work without years of training or professional background. It is also not appropriate to do this work if you are a therapist but have been hired to act as a coach.
If, as a coach, you find yourself in a situation where you know it is outside your scope of practice or job requirements, I recommend pausing the coaching work and referring your client to pursue therapy. (I offer a list of reasons therapy might be appropriate for referral below.) I also recommend creating structures and boundaries at the beginning of every coaching relationship you have. You can do this in your coaching contract, in what you discuss in your sessions and how you best support your client.
Even more so, if you are like I am, both a therapist and a coach, it’s your job to know what the structure, boundaries and roles are around the services you provide. If a client is paying you to be their coach, the services you provide need to reflect coaching and not therapy. If the boundaries are not clear, the structure of your work can be confusing to you and unhelpful to your client. Perhaps no damage will be done, but there's a good amount of risk involved.
If you are a therapist and your work with your client feels like it can transition to more goal oriented tasks, I recommend referring your client to a coach. Networking with coaches can be incredibly powerful, and there are so many impactful and successful coaches out there with life changing programs and offers. I list a few ways a client might pursue coaching below.
And, if you are seeking coaching or therapy for yourself, but aren't sure which way to go, it may be as easy as asking your intuition what is best for you. A couple years ago I was dealing with a bit of depression and anxiety that I just couldn't put my finger on. I couldn't figure out why I felt the way I did, and I wasn't feeling better. So, I found a therapist. My intuition told me I needed therapy and not coaching in that situation. And I was right, I had some deep healing work that needed to be done with a safe, trained therapist. At other times, I have wanted support around my money mindset and my health and well being. That's when I looked for coaches.
Reasons to Find a Therapist or a Coach:
I recommend seeking therapy for situations around the following:
Working through anxiety or depression.
Ongoing issues that just don't seem to be resolved (but you just can't put your finger on what it is.)
Childhood or adult trauma.
When kids experience ongoing behavioral issues.
Grief and loss.
Unresolved relationship issues.
(And so much more... this is just a brief list).
And coaching can be great for:
Business strategies and goals.
Leadership strategies and goals.
Attracting a healthy partner.
Self love and self care.
(And much more as well!)
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article. I hope no matter where you are in your life and journey, this was helpful.