Disclaimer: This is NOT about which resource is better. This is meant to help those looking for support determine which resource may be best suited best for them! Please remember that there is always nuance; things are not always black and white; the things I’m saying are based on my experience and relevant research/training/education; not all therapists + not all coaches fall into these labels or descriptions; there are similarities and differences and it’s all okay, both coach and therapist have different tools and resources to help support their client.
This information comes from my own experience as a therapy patient as well as a coaching client, the things I learned during my life coaching certification, and my own research and discussions with clinically trained therapists.
Before I get into the similarities and differences, I want to briefly explain my experience with both therapy and coaching, for some perspective. Or, you can jump ahead…
So let’s start from the very beginning.
I definitely considered myself the “therapist friend” growing up. From a young age I intuitively understood how to listen to others through the lens of compassion and empathy, while also remaining semi-neutral and objective. Or maybe that’s because I’m a libra. In any case, even as a kid, I enjoyed helping others—even when I felt like I couldn't help myself. Maybe in some way being in service to others helped give me some sense of purpose and direction, to help me feel like I was capable of something, that I was actually good at something after constantly only hearing about my faults.
But it always felt like everyone came to me for advice, but I couldn't talk to anyone—not because they wouldn't be supportive, but because I didn't want to feel like a burden, because I had tried so many different times to talk about what I was experiencing and was shut down, dismissed, or told "other people have it worse." For long I wanted, and needed, to feel seen and heard, to feel less alone.
Fast forward to my second year of college, at the lowest point of my life, I started going to secret therapy sessions. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that therapy saved my life. I was finally given a safe space to talk, to use my voice, to share my story without being judged, dismissed, or even told what I should or shouldn’t do. But once I completed my “goals” and was no longer showing depressive symptoms, my therapist and I had to end our relationship.
A similar situation happened last year. I started therapy when I had hit really bad burnout and anxiety and was unable to function in my day-to-day (psst, you don't have to go to therapy only when you feel like you've hit rock bottom), but when I was "able to function" again (aka high-functioning depressive or anxiety) my therapist had to be honest and say she could no longer provide care under their therapy model—which was geared more toward short-term support rather than long-term (again, nuance).
So in some therapy models, it’s more symptoms-focused. But if you just look up “symptoms of depression” or “symptoms of anxiety” you might get a lot of overlapping and similar results! In some cases, if a patient doesn’t show progress after treating a certain diagnosis, they may be labeled as ‘resistant,’ which may not feel empowering at all!
Now, there are also faults with coaching. But before I get into that, let me give some backstory as to how I learned about coaching and then myself became a coach...
In movies and TV shows, we sometimes see life coaches in more of a motivational speaker role or as a caricature of what life coaching can really be. And while yes, some of the job is being a cheerleader for the client, there can be a much deeper emotional and energy exchange!
When I started my instagram page in October of 2019, I followed many therapists, mental health advocates, and coaches. But I wasn’t exactly sure what a coach was in relation to the self-healing or mental health journey.
It wasn't until I listened to a live Q&A between Gabby Ortega (founder of OM Therapy Coaching) and Emmy Marie (founder of Blooming with Emmy) that I learned more about what coaching is and how coaches play an integral and pivotal role on people’s healing journeys.
During that talk, something inside of me lit up. I hadn’t felt such a strong connection to my intuition, to my gut, to my heart than I did while listening to them talk about coaching. It was such an intense, burning passionate feeling, but also a light sense of clarity and relief.
So I enrolled in Gabby’s IGNITE program and got the foundations of my coaching business set up as well as learned the coaching basics.
But because I didn’t have any formal education in psychology or experience as a therapist, I felt like I wasn’t “good enough” yet (oof, that Imposter syndrome amirite?). I had my own lived experience, but coaching isn’t about telling people what to do based on what worked for you, but it's about meeting them where they are, holding space, and helping reconnect them to their own inner wisdom and power. But, I had no idea what that meant.
So as a way to get more experience, training, and confidence, I enrolled in and received my trauma-informed coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit! And through this program, which is ICF accredited and facilitated by ICF accredited coaches, I not only learned a lot more about what coaching means and looks like, but I also got to practice! It was definitely a different experience than what I had anticipated, so I’m really glad I took the course before diving into coaching—and possibly re-traumatizing someone because I was centering myself over the client’s needs…
And that’s one of the biggest faults I’ve found with coaching (and therapy). Not everyone who wants to be of service (genuinely or otherwise) understands the tremendous impact trauma can have. Trauma isn’t something we can just “get over” by simply reframing our thoughts or repeating affirmations and mantras. Trauma also lives in our bodies; it’s complex and multi-layered.
I think another fault some people may see is the fact that you don't have the accredited or licensed to be a coach—but that doesn't always mean they're not good coaches!
Okay, anyway, that’s the long-story-not-so-short of my experience with therapy and coaching and hopefully provides some perspective on why and how I perceive therapy and coaching in these ways. Again, I understand that not all therapists or not all coaches strictly fall into these categories.
So, first of all…
What’s trauma-informed coaching?
“Trauma Informed Coaching is the practice of understanding the presence of trauma in a coach-client relationship and how to use it as a guide for resilience and solution forward resolution. It works the same as regular coaching with the addition of knowledge and tools for what to work on when moral injuries hold back progress.” (Moving the Human Spirit)
Then what is regular life coaching?
The ICF (International Coaching Federation) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
In my experience, coaching can help facilitate amazing, life-changing perceptual shifts and mind-blowing insights by challenging limiting beliefs and helping the client find a new perspective.
So how is coaching different than therapy?
Here’s a quick snapshot:
Therapy diagnoses and treats mental illnesses (which can mean a more symptoms-focused approach)
Therapy focuses more on the past
Therapists may be only accessible during appointments/sessions
Therapy is better suited for those in-crisis or for those who are unable to function in their day-to-day tasks
Therapy is better suited for those who may feel urges to harm themselves or others
Coaching can look at how the past is affecting the present, but is more focused on the present and immediate future
Coaching can support the person as a whole: mind, body, spirit
Coaching does not diagnose
Coaches may be available for support outside of appointments/sessions
Coaching can be better suited for people who have already built awareness of past trauma and wounds and/or have begun their own healing
Coaching can be better suited for people whose ability to function in their day-to-day is not impaired
One of my favorite ways that I’ve heard the difference explained is that therapy can be the WHY on our journey and coaching can be the HOW.
By exploring and healing the past in therapy, we can see why we are the way we are, what experiences and events have influenced why we think, act, or speak the ways we do. And just by having a space to speak about those things without fear of punishment or scorn can be so healing.
Through coaching, we can focus on how we want to change and challenge current limiting beliefs to help create the future we want as well as how we want to carry the past with us and what strengths we can bring forward (e.g. resilience, bravery, courage, resourcefulness, etc). Sometimes simply knowing there’s someone in your corner can be so healing.
For those who are starting to recognize unhelpful patterns and cycles and are at the beginning of their journey, therapy may be a better fit. For those who have a little more awareness and are looking for accountability or support as they put what they learned in therapy to practice, coaching may be a better fit.
It’s not about which one is better than the other, but about which is best suited for where you are in your current stage of healing.
There are also different modalities within the therapy space (CBT, DBT, EMDR, etc.) and different niches in the coaching world (spirituality, business, inner dialogue, etc). It may be that you need to experience a few different modalities to find the thing that works for you—and that’s totally okay. Needing to try out a few different options doesn’t mean you’re too much or too broken for support. Find what works for you!
And remember, both therapist and coach have the same goal: to support their client by providing a safe, nonjudgmental space to be seen and heard.
Of course, please do your own research and due diligence to find what may work best for you.
Thanks for making it to the end of this post! I hope it brought any clarity you may have been seeking. Sending you all love and healing.
EDIT: It is more than okay to work with both a therapist & coach at the same time! There are many instances in which having both as part of your support network can be beneficial to and enhance your healing.
Does coaching sound like the kind of support you would benefit from based on where you currently are in your journey? You can book a discovery call with me to see how I can support you where you are on your way to where you want to be! Or to just chat more about whether coaching may be a good fit.