What’s the Difference between Coaching and Therapy?

Because of my passion and advocacy for people who live with mental illness, and their loved ones, people sometimes assume I’m a mental health professional. I’m not. But neither am I simply a writer and speaker. I am engaged in another supportive profession: life & leadership coaching. And because of my passion and my family’s history, one of my specializations is coaching people whose lives have been affected by mental health challenges, either their own or those of people they love.

I’ve been in countless conversations about coaching, and I know that the distinctions between coaching and therapy can be confusing, especially because coaching is a newer and less familiar profession. Many people simply don’t know what coaching is, so they relate it to a profession that sounds similar. But coaching and therapy are quite different, and I respect mental health care enough to want to make sure people know I’m not providing it. I also like to be sure people have the information they need to make a good decision about what is the right process for them. So whenever I talk with someone who’s interested in coaching, I clarify the difference. And I thought it might be helpful if I were to explain the difference here too.

Simply put, therapy is about healing. Coaching is about optimization.

Therapy is a process designed to heal, perhaps to help you move from a place of non-functioning or partial functioning to a place of full functionality. Therapy will help you explore the sources of pain that must be addressed in order to make healing possible. In therapy, the relationship is not between equals–the therapist is a healer who brings a definite set of healing arts to offer the client, who is in need of wholeness. So if you need healing or need to move beyond a place of dysfunction, therapy is appropriate. Likewise if you need to develop a set of emotional or mental resources you have not had access to before. Therapy is like a tool that helps you fill in the potholes on your life’s journey, making it smoother and ready to help you move forward.

Coaching is more like a tool that helps you build on that smooth surface and move faster on your journey. You can’t do it well if the ground is full of holes. That’s why coaching doesn’t work well for people who are not functioning well.

Like many experiences in life, coaching can have a therapeutic element. But it is not designed to heal, “fix,” treat, or bring wholeness; it is designed to help whole, healthy people move to a new level of functioning and achievement. Coaching will not diagnose or treat anything. When I work with clients, I assume they are whole and functioning people, even while I acknowledge they have areas of pain in their lives (and imperfection and struggle and ongoing growth). I sometimes work with clients who are also working with therapists, and I have seen the two relationships complement each other nicely.

Coaching is a process designed to help you move from where you are to where you want to be. Sometimes that means I will help you find a vision for where you want to be; sometimes it means I will come alongside you to help you move toward a place you’ve already determined you want to go. The relationship is one between equals, and the power lies in the relationship itself, with both coach and client making an investment to see it produce results on behalf of the client. I bring tools as well, but those tools are to help you discover what you already have access to, not to provide resources that are not present. If you want to move toward a more fulfilling, balanced, purpose-filled life, coaching may be the right solution.

Coaching assumes you are at a healthy level of functioning and want to move to the next level; therapy will help you get healthy.

If you want to know more about this difference, or about how coaching works, I would welcome a conversation with you. In fact, if you care to take me up on a free sample coaching session, I’d love to hear from you.

Regardless of where you are and whom you have enlisted to support you, I hope you are moving toward taking ownership of your purpose, moving forward, and living true.

  1. This is so helpful and clear! I know you’re an amazing writer (and editor) and I’m now getting more insight into how you must also excel at coaching! Sharing generously.

  2. Amy says:

    Thanks, Dorothy! I’m so glad this was helpful and you feel it will help others.

  3. Colleen Ward says:

    Amy, this article is very helpful and I would like to ask if I can have a free sample coaching session. Please email me at your convenience.

© 2016 Amy Simpson.