Psychotherapy vs Life Coaching: The Confession of an Old-School Therapist
I was educated in the IV league. That’s right, its “IV” like the roman numeral for four and not “ivy” like the plant. That means I attended one of the top four universities in America. That is old school pretentious. I used to be old school pretentious as a psychotherapist. I preached that you must have an efficacious methodology and adhere to strict protocols. I knew the best and only way to treat my client population. Then I actually practiced for a few years and got over myself.
There is no perfect way to practice. There is no one size fits all; that’s why most self-help books don’t typically help. There is no single, perfect client-therapist dynamic. There isn’t even a perfect method for treating everyone with the same diagnosis.
Yes, one’s work should always be research- and evidence-based. However, clients are all their own unique collections of ideas, perspectives and beliefs. So, every client needs to learn and change in their own individual way. Their own personal “best way”.
Back when I began in 1999, we all laughed at practitioners who called themselves life coaches. However, over the years as I learned to hone in more on how my clients learn, I then stared to understand the appeal of life coaching. Self-improvement is not just about what a client needs to learn and practice, but how that client learns best and best retains the new information. This made me see that once a week of talk therapy just does not work for everyone.
Like learning a foreign language, many benefit greatly from being immersed. That means weekly sessions with almost daily exercises that explore and reinforce that week’s topics (as in the Goal Solution Life Coaching styles). Also, these exercises are tailored to that specific client. If you think that sounds like a college course with you as the subject, then you’re right. I had to accept that this is sometimes called… life coaching, Ugh!
Many non-pathological clients (meaning people in general) don’t really need or benefit from classic psychotherapy. What they are looking for is a neutral party who is not involved in their day to day lives to work through issues with. This neutral person ideally has knowledge, experience, and information that they can tailor to that specific individual’s needs. They know how to guide clients to their own answers. These clients want to improve their lives now, rather than have a weekly touch stone for years to come. These are coaching clients.
It is the general consensus that issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma do benefit most from long-term weekly sessions. These types of issues are ingrained in our thinking style and it does take time to untangle them. There is no quick fix to building new neural pathways and unlearning faulty beliefs. These are therapy clients. However, changing habits, patterns or learning new skills may be done more quickly. So, who do I see as a therapy client versus a coaching client? Here are a few examples I give to my clients.
- Have a diagnosis (such as depression or anxiety) that interferes with their functioning.
- Engage in abusive relationships.
- Have experienced clinically traumatic events that impact them at present.
- Have personality or characterological issues that harm themselves or others.
- Experience crisis.
- Dysfunctional “family of origin” issues impacting the present.
- Have circumstances that they are currently seeking to change or cope with, such as work or a challenging relationship.
- Need better social or communication skills.
- Have difficulty expressing or asserting themselves.
- Feel stuck or ineffective in the short-term.
- Are feeling overwhelmed or angst.
- Are failing to meet goals, such as career goals or dating.
- Issues with confidence or self-esteem.
Advantages of Psychotherapy Over Coaching:
- Ongoing support.
- Help healing deeper, long-standing issues.
- Someone observing your patterns, choices and reoccurring issues long term.
- Deeper self-knowledge and awareness.
- Relapse prevention skills (including mood disorders or making harmful choices).
Advantages of Coaching Over Psychotherapy
- Faster results.
- Maintaining motivation.
- New healthy habits.
- Learning from many sources beyond talk such as: articles, exercises, mood tracking, prescribed journaling, creative expression and so on.
- More upfront cost — but cheaper long term.
These past few years I have learned to meet with a client a few times before discussing the possibility of coaching. I find that more than half of my coaching-appropriate clients choose to begin a coaching program rather than continuing their weekly therapy sessions. Some coaching clients come back to check in here and there. Some even come back to focus on therapy-appropriate issues once they have their lives in better shape.
I am happy to have made these changes in the way that I approach helping people. I am also grateful to have two decades of therapy practice backing up my coaching work. Still, old me would be freaking out that I have added life coach to my title and I am sure Freud is rolling in his grave. Oh well, I can’t help people change for a living and not be willing to do it myself. I believe one day soon old-school universities will come to the same conclusion. Life coaching has a legitimate place in the mental health field.
Glass, R. (2018). Psychotherapy vs Life Coaching: The Confession of an Old-School Therapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/psychotherapy-vs-life-coaching-the-confession-of-an-old-school-therapist/