One of the questions that many people ask when they are considering starting a personal development process is whether they need therapy or coaching. We’ve heard more or less about both approaches, but still, it is not too clear what the real differences are, or for which one to go if you feel both could work.

Often one of the differential characteristics that is mentioned is that therapy focuses on the past and coaching on the present and future. Nevertheless, it is not really true that therapy does always and only focus on the past.

Actually, the most effective treatment approaches, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy or positive psychology focus much more on the here and now, than the past. They might identify some triggers or vulnerabilities that explain the beginning and course of the current issue, but the main focus remains on how the problem is maintained and perpetuated today, to then design strategies to break the vicious cycle. At the same time, also coaching might go back into the past, for example when there are limiting beliefs that hinder current performance. Limiting beliefs can be adopted at any point in our lives, but they often go back to childhood or adolescence. Just as a therapist a coach will use these insights to help the client overcome the obstacles and change the way he thinks and functions in the present.

There is another differentiation that seems much more valid to make a decision on which approach to choose: the level of interference and suffering that the problem is causing. Take for example the case of Judy* and her low self-esteem. Judy feels uncomfortable in social situations involving the opposite sex and job interviews and has the impression that she is not being who she really is. Despite that perception, she can function normally in her daily life, has many friends and good academic performance. As she is maintaining a sufficient level of functioning, she can perfectly go for coaching. A coach will help her to tap into those resources that she already has and that will be key to increasing her self-esteem. Judy might identify those situations where she does feel confident and secure about herself to then set up strategies that will allow her to connect to this feeling more often and in different environments. In coaching, we assume that the client themselves has all the answers and just needs some guidance to become aware of them and use them in new and different ways. A coach often is a sounding board that provides the space and time where the client can freely think and talk, and by that discovers and chooses the action steps that will lead towards the desired goal.

When there is a high level of suffering and impairment that simply make it impossible to connect to this inner wisdom that the coaching process is built on then we need to consider therapy. Paul* for example had severely low self-esteem that showed up as a constant negative inner dialogue and criticism that hindered him in making connections to other people, pursuing a fulfilling professional career and taking decisions in daily life. He felt there was not anything he could do to feel better about himself and even thought that actually there wasn’t anything good. With someone like him, a therapist will be more than just a guide and adopt a much more direct approach. It will be the task of the therapist to lead the design of an action plan, agree on the steps to take and draw from psychological theory and experience to lead the client to adopt new behaviors and beliefs that will have a noticeable impact on the level of self-esteem. Apart from questions, there will be prescriptions. There might be sessions dedicated to the identification and questioning of negative thoughts, behavioral experiments to see what really happens if Paul started to act on a more positive view of himself and some communication and assertiveness training. Paul will put into practice new ways of thinking and behaving that will make him realize that there are many things he can be proud of and that makes him a worthy person.

Therefore one of the main differences between therapy and coaching is the focus. Coaching focuses on what’s working and leverages the resources and solutions the client already has by providing powerful questions that will allow uncovering them. On the other hand therapy focuses on what’s not working and helps to overcome dysfunctional behavior by acquiring new ways of acting and thinking that the client might never have tried before.

In summary, therapy is meant to help you recover from suffering and feel good again, by applying a personalized treatment that has shown to be effective in other people and is likely to help you, too. Once you feel good about yourself, coaching can help you feel and perform even better, by helping you discover your own solutions and strategies.

*Name changed by the author to ensure privacy

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