Therapy vs coaching…an age-old question!
If someone feels confused in their sexuality, or stuck in their partnership, it can be so beneficial to reach for external support.
However it’s not always obvious what type of support to call in. Should you work with a coach, a therapist, a healer, a shaman, a mentor, a teacher? The list goes on!
In this article I’ll talk about the 6 main differences between the most popular options: therapy vs coaching.
I’ll note upfront that I myself am a coach. And I became a coach because it was my work with coaches more than anything else that led to my most profound healing, growth, and clarity. I definitely have biases on this topic! That said, I’ve also worked with very skilled therapists, and have some impressive therapist friends. And I’ll try to write this post as objectively as possible.
I’ll also note that this article is premised on generalizations. The range of people who practice therapy and coaching is so broad, it’s guaranteed that there are plenty of counter examples to everything written below. Nonetheless, I’ll try to create distinctions based on what may be typical for therapy vs coaching.
What do therapy and coaching have in common?
Therapy and coaching are far more similar than they are different. Both a therapist and a coach could be described as:
A professional who has cultivated the ability to help other people ___________.
Simple as that. The “___________” could be: reduce anxiety, have better sex, make more money, find more purpose in life, communicate more effectively, or anything else.
While a coach may be better suited to some of those hypotheticals, frankly you could go to a coach or a therapist for any of those desires.
Now, let’s look at the differences.
1. Healing vs growth
Therapy tends to focus how your past experiences shape your present reality. Therapists use techniques to heal past trauma in order to create a better relationship with yourself and more agency in the present.
So if your goal were make more money, a therapist may be less oriented towards the external goal, and instead may look internally as to why you want money, and what old experiences may have shaped your relationship with money.
Coaching focuses more on how you want to grow – what parts of your experience do you want to expand? What fears do you want to push into? What type of sex life and relationships do you want to have? Coaches will tend to focus on moving towards a desired future by working with your real-time worldview, actions, beliefs, and emotions.
So if you go to a coach to make more money, they will also likely go into your past experiences, and your beliefs, and relationships, but they will do so to also actually help you make the money. Many coaches understand that external desires are really a carrot that motivates a client to do some deep internal work – but (some, but not all) coaches do still focus on external growth.
I’d probably go to a coach, over a therapist if I wanted to lose weight. Though If I wanted to find more self body-love and explore how my family impacted my views on my body, then either option would be appropriate.
It should also be noted that growth will inherently happen through healing, and healing will inherently happen through growth. It’s just a matter of where the focus is put.
When contemplating therapy vs coaching, consider if you feel more drawn to heal your past or to grow in new ways.
Sex educator/coach Charlie Glickman speaks to this distinction well in this post.
2. The relationship between client and professional
One of the biggest difference between therapy vs coaching is that therapists tend to hold the container from the outside, whereas coaches can step into the container.
Let me unpack that one.
The therapy container is one where the therapist tries to act as a blank slate, refraining from bringing their own emotions into the space, and limiting how much of their own experience they reveal. This can have huge benefits.
The theory goes that the less the client knows about the therapist, the more likely the client is to imprint unhealed dynamics (called transference) onto the therapist, which reveals relational wounds for the client to heal.
The blank slate approach also creates a safe, and clean space that is dedicated solely to the client.
In the same vein, therapists cannot be friends with their clients, to keep the dynamic uni-dimensional.
Coaches on the other hand are not bound to the same guidelines. A coach can share their internal experience, use their emotions to serve the client, and lead with their identity. This creates two main effects:
- As a client, you may actually want to work with a coach who has experience in the area you are working on. For example, maybe you are thinking about changing your relationship paradigm with your partner; it may help you to know that your coach is happily polyamorous. While therapists attempt to be blank slates, coaches can act as way-showers. Someone who is on the same path as you, but further ahead.
- The second effect of coaches sharing their inner world and emotions with the client is that it can create deeper intimacy, which can lead to a more profound experience for the client. It is my belief that client transformation happens through connection. Think about it – all of your most impactful experiences with other people – friends, family, mentors – have taken place in a moment of deep connection. If the coach is well-versed in communication and consent tools, then the more of themself they skillfully bring into the container, the more intimacy and connection they are inviting into the space, the more potential there is for your transformation as a client.
It’s also possible for coaches to work with friends, and to hold both relationships side by side. Different coaches have different views on this. I can personally say I’ve coached friends, and paid coaches who were also my friends. I like complex, multidimensional relationships. While working with my most recent coach, we also maintained a healthy friendship, and produced a meditation retreat together. Lots of clear communication, expectation-setting, and boundaries are required, but hiring a friend as a coach can certainly work.
When contemplating therapy vs coaching, consider the type of relationship that would feel most beneficial to you: a therapist who will act more as a blank slate for your healing, or a coach who you may share more intimacy with and who may also act as a role model for your desires.
3. Money norms
Pay-per-session vs coaching packages
Most therapists offer a pay-per-session style. Where a client need only book one session at a time, and a session may cost anywhere between $75 and a few hundred dollars. Many therapists also allow health insurance to pay for the client’s therapy.
Some coaches offer this payment style, though many coaches offer a “coaching package.” A coaching package means that the client and the coach develop a set of goals and commitments for the client to achieve in their time together, then they pick an amount of time to work together (say 3, 6, or 12 months), and then the client will pay the coach for the entirety of that package – either upfront or in a payment plan.
The cost of a coaching package can range dramatically from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars (I know, that’s a lot of money!).
The ups and downs of the pay-per-session model
The advantages of the therapy model are accessibility and flexibility. If someone wants to work with a therapist, they can find a way. This is great, because it means more therapy for more people. The therapy payment model is also flexible, so clients can come and go as they wish, working their sessions into the natural fluidity of their life.
The downside of the therapy payment model is commitment. When a client is only paying for one session at a time, they could leave at any moment. Any session could be the last. This openended format can limit the amount of depth that can be achieved between the therapist and client.
The ups and downs of the coaching-package model
The coaching package solves for this issue. When a client pays for an entire package, they are committing to doing the work on themselves for an agreed-upon duration. So when a dip naturally happens in their growth, they won’t be tempted to leave the work, they know it’s just part of the journey of their package.
The package payment style also allows the coach and client to collaborate on building a transformational container that will hold the entirety of the process. It’s hard to explain, but there is something magical about a coaching container. A skilled coach will help the client discover how they want to transform, and what in them wants to blossom. The seeds of those desires and intentions are then embedded into the container. They will be put verbally into the contract and even felt through the money exchange. The coach’s commitment and integrity is what holds the client accountable to co-creating this space of transformation.
When a container is threaded with this much intention, there is often a feeling of stepping through some kind of threshold once the payment is made, and the work together becomes official. It can feel like the client is entering into a different realm – a several month-long ritual space where their intentions are pouring out in real-time. When the container ends, it is then the coach’s job to set the client up to integrate this altered reality into their life going forward.
Sometimes when a client pays a chunk of money upfront, it can also create an emotional commitment to the work at hand. Imagine the feeling of paying a ton of money for a house or a gradschool program – there’s a symbolic walking through a threshold into a new life. That said, payment style is definitely not the only way to create a commitment between coach and client, and some coach’s rely too heavily on it.
The main downsides of the coaching-package model are that it can be expensive, and you don’t know beforehand if the bang will be worth the buck. That’s why it’s important to do your research ahead of time: visit the coach’s blog, watch their videos, voice any concerns you might have. Only commit to working with a coach or therapist if you are a full “yes.”
Final comparisons between the one-off payment and the coaching-package payment
Different payment models also bring up the interesting question of: what is the client actually paying for? With the pay-per-session model, the implicit message is that the client is paying for the therapist’s time. With the package model, the implicit message is that the client is paying for the container (ie the fruition of their goals and intentions).
Once last way to look at the pay-per-session vs pay-for-package styles is to imagine you are purchasing a gym membership, and you can either pay to commit to an entire month of membership, or you can pay each time you go to the gym. If you pay for a whole month, you might have a very concentrated month of working out where you get your money’s worth, instead of only going when you’re in the right mood. And sometimes that in-the-right-mood pacing is what you need.
There’s really no better style of payment. The one-off therapy model works better for certain people at certain points in their life, and the package arrangement works better for others. The most important thing is that whatever method of payment feels good to the you as a client, and feels supportive of your healing, growth, and transformation. ✨
4. Personality types
Coaches are entrepreneurs
The coaching career path is a blend of spaceholding, thoughtleadership, and entrepreneurship. Coaches are likely to hold the values of an entrepreneur, which includes thinking outside the box, innovation, comfort in uncertainty, and carving their own path.
While any good coach will have taken many trainings and learned many modalities, many coaches strive to create their own signature system that they not only use with their own clients but may teach to other coaches or therapists. Think Tony Robbins. Or frankly even the Buddha was a coach of sorts (just follow these 8 steps and you’ll reach enlightenment! 😛).
Therapy on the other hand is focused more on the spaceholding aspect and less on the entrepreneurship.
Therapists are academics
Therapy is a subset of our academic institution, and it could even be said that therapy is our culture’s main institution for “spaceholding.”
There’s nothing inherently good or bad about an institution. Institutions are society’s organizing structures that help people meet their needs – any society will have them.
For example, in the US the institution of medicine aims to keep people healthy. The financial institution aims to create individual and collective thriving. The institution of the family aims to foster intimacy and procreation.
For everyone who loves our current institutions, there’s someone who wants to replace them. Holistic medicine over pharmaceuticals, cryptocurrency over central banks, community over nuclear family.
Our academic institution aims to educate people and prepare them to earn money, and our spaceholding institution (therapy) aims to support people to lead fulfilling lives.
This neither validates nor invalidates the efficacy of therapy. I only bring it up because those who want to help people through an institution will have certain values and strategies for their own life. Some therapists wholeheartedly support our academic system. Other don’t like it, but see the value in it. Other want to change the system from the inside out. But the thing all therapists have in common is that they are choosing to use our academic institution in some way or another.
You can love our institutions, or you can hate ’em. But it’s worth recognizing that how you view institutions may be one factor in determining if you’d resonate more with a coach or a therapist.
When considering therapy vs coaching, reflect on your own personality type, and who you want to draw in. Someone who feels similar and relatable, or someone who can pull your life to a new value-set.
5. Training for therapy vs coaching
To earn their license, therapists must earn a masters degree, get their work supervised, and apply for a license. This ensures a large degree of commitment to their profession.
The coaching industry is not regulated in the same way. There is a certification process, though many coaches choose not to get certified because they view it more as hoops to jump through than an impactful experience in itself. Of the most transformational experiences I’ve had with coaches, none of them were certified. That’s not to say coaches don’t train. Any good coach will be attending new trainings every year to upgrade their skills, emotional intelligence, and coaching ability. Any good therapist will do the same.
Because therapy training is contained through the academic system, the training will be cerebral in nature. Therapists will be well-trained on theories, ideas, and frameworks.
Coaching training tends to be more holistic and experiential in nature – often integrating a blend of mental models, philosophy, embodiment, intimacy skills, and spirituality.
6. What happens in a therapy vs coaching session
Difference in therapy vs coaching techniques
Due to their licensure and regulation, therapy sessions exist in the domain of talking. A lot can happen through talking – including guided embodiment activities.
Coaching is not bound in the same way, so a coach could also witness a couple sharing affection, or bring in touch-based somatic activities (eg using touch to help a client grieve or express their anger).
Part of the reason I love coaching is because I can pull wisdom and exercises from so many different arenas to support a client to find more freedom in themself or in their relationship. In my past work with clients I’ve:
- employed therapeutic parts-work to help a client understand their inner landscape,
- used touch-based consent exercises to support a client’s embodied knowledge of their “yes” and “no,”
- played improv games to help a client open their creative wisdom,
- guided meditations to help a client come in touch with their deeper awareness,
- walked with a client around downtown as they talked to strangers to help them lean into their fear and social anxiety,
- used cannabis together to create a ritual for deeper energetic work.
Length of sessions
Therapy sessions tend to be 50 minutes, whereas coaching sessions can vary greatly. I like to work with my clients in 90-minute sessions, though I’ve participated as a client in paid coaching sessions that were one, two, and three hours respectively.
In between sessions, therapists tend not to be available for further communication, while coaches often are. For coaches this could be email coaching or spot phone calls for support.
So…therapy vs coaching? More than anything, go with who feels good
Research suggests something that seems intuitively obvious to me — that the relationship between therapist and client is more important than whatever technique the therapist uses.
So despite all the differences between coaches and therapists, the most important consideration when choosing between therapy vs coaching is to pick the professional who feels like a “yes.” Can you trust them? Do you feel safe around them? Does your body feel expansive and relaxed when you think of working with, or tight and contracted? Do you like their vibe? Do you align with their values?
I hope this article was valuable in your quest to find a therapist or coach.
In the event that my style feels like a good fit for what you’re looking for, you can check out my offerings below. I’d also be happy to refer you to colleagues of mine if you send me an email.