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Life coaching vs psychotherapy

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

I’ve often been asked about the difference between psychotherapy and coaching. And it can be a tricky and contentious question to ask. But here is my attempt.

Psychotherapy (also called therapy or counselling) tends to look back and derives from a medical model whereby a lot of healing can be done by exploring an individual’s past and conditioning (often the very early formative years) to help explain certain present patterns or behaviours. The goal of psychotherapy is often the management of symptoms, such as ‘managing’ your anxiety or depression.

In this model, emotional disturbances, if they affect your ability to live your life adequately (maintain healthy relationships, work, care for yourself etc) can be the sign of a disorder (for instance an ‘anxiety’ disorder or a ‘mood’ disorder or a ‘personality’ disorder. In some instances, psychotherapy will absolutely be the best course of action for some, when the main goal is to help someone manage their symptoms, and start operating at a ‘normal functioning’ level.

However, emotional challenges are also a normal part of life and not every challenge faced by an overall healthy mind is to be interpreted as a pathology. The assumption in coaching is that the individual as he/she/they is/are whole and clients tend to already be operating at a ‘functional’ level. Unlike psychotherapy, the coaching model isn’t so interested in the individual’s past to seek to address the origins of the disturbances but more on supporting the individual achieve certain goals for the future, which sometimes require to understand how a pattern or habit came about (and thus can involve some exploration of the past, but with an overall different objective). In my experience, a client who is seeking coaching usually will have already done some level of inner work and has a certain level of self-awareness, and will tend to be operating from a very functional level in their life. The coach is more a guide helping you deeper your inner work and access your inner wisdom. Once the goal has been reached and there is no further need for coaching, then the client is equipped to move on with his/her/their life.

This is different to therapy which tends to be more open-ended. Usually clients approach coaches when they have a goal in mind or are facing an immediate challenge that prevent them from reaching that goal. This could be anything from wanting to be more present with emotions, to navigating a transitional time, such as becoming a new parent, or wanting to follow a calling.

Finally, psychotherapist is a well-regulated profession (different in every country, and or/states) while coaching is not regulated. There is an accreditation system called ICF (International Coaching Federation) which is considered the gold standard of coaching but unlike psychotherapy anyone can call themselves a coach. Saying that there are some outstanding coaches out there and the best thing you can do is ask for an introductory call and understand what their experience, working assumptions and credentials are.

Whether you pick one or the other or both - what matters is that you have a choice and that the person you choose to work with is upfront and honest about what services they can offer

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