There’s a meme promoted by some life coaches going around social media that is full of misinformation about psychotherapy, while comparing it to the benefits of “coaching.” In most states, coaching remains an unregulated field that allows anyone to hang up a shingle and call themselves a “life coach.” Therapists, on the other hand, need to be licensed in order to practice.
This leads to much confusion — confusion that is amplified by coaches themselves, as they try and market their services as something better than psychotherapy. Coaching is indeed different from psychotherapy, but there’s no research to suggest it’s better.
Psychotherapy is no longer some mysterious process where you lie down on a couch and recount your dreams to an analyst — and it hasn’t been that way for many decades. Instead, it’s a research-driven treatment that involves active engagement from a person in order to feel its benefits. Here are some of the common myths I’ve seen repeated on social media and elsewhere about psychotherapy.
One of the more popular misconceptions is that psychotherapy primarily focuses on a person’s past and is a passive experience for the patient. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
While it’s true that some very specific types of psychotherapy — such as psychoanalytic therapy — focuses on a person’s past, most modern forms of psychotherapy spend very little time on a person’s past. Modern, popular forms of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and solutions-focused therapy.
A client who is passive in their therapy sessions will gain little benefit from treatment. Psychotherapy only works when the client is active and engaged, working toward mutually-agreed goals with the therapist.
I hear this one all the time as well. “Therapists don’t want their clients to get well, because then they lose a patient.” Well, true, but it’s the best kind of loss possible — one where the client has successfully completed an important chapter in their life.
Trust me when I say that few therapists look forward to the type of client who comes into their office every week and never changes their thoughts or behaviors. In fact, the best therapists use a treatment plan with defined objectives and goals for the client to meet over time.
Imagine what a horrible therapist a person would have to be to sit in their office everyday and just regurgitate what they learned from a textbook in graduate school. Obviously, few therapists do this — especially if they’re more than a few years out of school.
Of course therapists bring everything they’ve learned from their multitude of experiences, not only from their own lives, but with the work they’ve done with dozens or hundreds of previous clients. In addition to that, their licensure requires them to take continuing education classes every year in order to keep their license valid. This means a therapist isn’t just bringing real life experiences into the session, but updated techniques and learning throughout their professional life.
As in any broad-based profession, there is a wide range of concerns that therapists can focus on. This includes everything from professional career development and improving communication in a relationship to helping a person reach their best potential in their personal and family life. There are dozens of specialties in psychology alone that focus on different aspects of understanding individual human behavior.
Yes, most therapists also treat people with diagnosable mental health concerns. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also work with people who don’t qualify for a diagnosis. Most therapists that practice work with both kinds of people. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness in order to engage in and benefit from psychotherapy.
Remember cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)? You’ll notice that it’s called cognitive — or thoughts — not feelings. While feelings can be important to process in therapy (and there are some infrequently-practiced forms of therapy that do focus more on feelings), most therapists today spend most of their time focusing on a person’s irrational and dysfunctional thoughts. And just as importantly, helping the person change them.
Coaches like to emphasize their “hands-on” approach to helping their clients, and sometimes suggest that therapy is just a lot of talking with very little doing. Good psychotherapy, however, requires both. A client who simply comes to therapy every week and talks without making any effort at change in their life in-between sessions is unlikely to heal or feel better.
But clients who actively engage in the psychotherapy process — which is actually most people in psychotherapy — do get better. They take an active role in their treatment, during therapy and in-between sessions.
This is an odd myth to come across, given that there’s an entire type of therapy practiced by some therapists literally called “client-centered therapy” (or Rogerian therapy). Even for therapists who don’t engage in this specific approach, most therapists don’t barrel into each session with their own agenda and focus. Instead, a good therapist takes their cue from the client, and paces the session based on the client’s needs.
Unlike coaching, however, therapists aren’t there to simply listen to whatever is going on with the client and give them advice. Instead, therapists work with clients to help them find proactive approaches that are going to work best for them and their situation, and help them learn new techniques to improve their life, communication, or relationship skills.
While I don’t see much benefit in engaging a life coach, some people do. I think that’s great. But I also think that it helps to understand that anything you can see a life coach for, you can also see a therapist for too (while the reverse is most definitely not true). Therapy encompasses a wide array of professions and professionals, many who focus on areas of self-improvement, personal development, and growth.
While therapists may not be as good at marketing themselves as life coaches are, they are usually the safer choice. Psychotherapy is well-regulated and licensed, and a therapist’s experience is notated by their educational degree and professional training.
Looking for a new therapist? We’ve got you covered with the Psych Central Therapist Directory!
Related: 6 Common Therapy Myths