Should you work with a therapist or coach?


Therapist. Coach. These words are like mind flames. We attach to them. We have strong views and perceptions about what these things might be. It doesn’t help that the two professions don’t always understand each other that well. So who should you work with?

I imagine it will surprise you when I say - it does’t matter. Actually I just think this is a false choice, a red herring of a question that takes us down an unproductive garden path.

Of course there are times when the answer to the question of coaching versus therapy is clear.

You should see a therapist if you are struggling with addiction, trauma, an eating disorder, abuse, anxiety, depression, or coping with life in general.

You should see a coach if your primary need is accountability, goal setting, or advice on business strategy or marketing.

Then there is the huge middle ground. For everything else. Included in this group are thousands of different ways that people want to grow and change. In this middle ground the question of therapist versus coach is a decoy that leads us into unhelpful generalities. The range of therapists and the range of coaches is so great as to make distinguishing features between the two professions fundamentally meaningless. Therapists range from highly structured approaches to completely open ended ones. As do coaches. The range of theoretical underpinnings of both coaching and therapy is the same and includes positive psychology, cognitive behavioural psychology, psychodynamic models, psychoanalytic models, mindfulness, body work, and spiritual approaches to name just a few.

To add to the confusion they are marketed completely differently. Coaching often makes big statements about outcomes and progress, often in short periods of time. Therapists usually market themselves more subtly.

But in the end we are talking about two people in a room. One having hired the other to help them change. And there are very good people in both professions.

The real question is: Who will facilitate my growth?

You are part of the answer.

This is a process for you and about you. The process of transformation begins with the process of finding a person to work with. The parts of you of which you are aware and the parts of you of which you are unaware will have something to say about your search for this person who will help you grow. Your input is a crucial part of the process. Because the process does not exist without you. Recognizing this process as yours from the beginning and listening to your impressions, intuitions, fantasies, and dreams is crucial to finding the person that is right for you. I wrote more about this here and it applies equally to therapy and coaching.

Notice the difference between a teacher and someone who is there to facilitate your growth.

There is a huge difference here. Anyone who has a process or an assessment that they feature in their advertising is fundamentally a teacher. Teachers are very important to each of us on our journey. Teachers exemplify traits that we recognize in ourselves and thus they inspire us. Teachers offer us ideas and tools that help us to grow. Teachers mentor us and believe in us. You may be looking for a teacher. We all need many teachers - I am always looking for new teachers and I have many teachers at any given time.

Someone who is there to facilitate your growth, however, is a very different type of relationship. This person is trained to go with you where you need to go. They are trained to listen, to observe, to react, to question, to wonder, to remain silent, to hold. This is someone who can take you through a deep journey of change and therefore must be willing to set aside their own ideas of what the process will look like and go through your process with you.

As a therapist I see this every single day: no two therapies are even remotely alike. And any urge on my part to standardize or enforce my agenda undermines the work that my clients are trying to do. This doesn’t mean that I am not part of the mix but it does mean that I follow my clients on a tour of their metaphorical homes, not the other way round. It is a moment by moment process that is creative and alive to what the moment brings.

The question of whether you should work with a teacher only or whether you also want a therapist or coach is worth a serious check-in with yourself. I’ll have more to say about this in future essays but most of us default pretty quickly into student mode, particularly in times of great stress or pain. We think we need to learn something (which can be taught). As opposed to be something (in which case the process of becoming must unfold).

And let me be clear - I am not saying that there is no place for tools - handouts, homework, exercises, assessments, etc. - in transformational work. What I am saying is that the tools can’t run the show. Their use must be a creative response to the present moment rather than a process imposed from on high.

Your therapist or coach should have been through their own formation process.

A zen teacher I heard speak many years ago said this, “If we do not resolve our inner conflicts on our cushion we merely perpetuate the pain in the world which we seek to relieve through our work."

This is the trouble with the helping professions. We are all in them because struggle means something to us. So anyone who you work with had better have struggled long and hard with themselves before running into the world with solutions.

I’m talking about years. And hundreds if not thousands of hours. That continues in the present.

Experiential training for therapists and coaches varies widely. It is not the modality that matters. It is that a person has dug one well deep and struggled, deeply struggled, before coming into the world with their “offerings."

You are starting on an inner journey and thus you are starting on the path to build this capacity in yourself. You need someone who has been down that road before. For a long time.

There is much to gain from working with a person who has done a great deal of work on themselves:

  • They are less likely to thoughtlessly act out their own inner conflicts on you.

  • They are more likely to be able to hold the depths of the process - the parts that you are aware of and many of the parts that you are not. This is really important. You are not entering into this work because you know everything. So you need to work with someone who can remain open to what will emerge.

  • They are more likely to have deep personal and collegial relationships to support their work.

  • They are more likely to be able to provide a sense of solidity when you are feeling unstable (an essential part of change) - they are less likely to be knocked about by the work.

  • They are more likely to be able to see and admit their own mistakes.

Working with people who have done their own work saved my life. They let me question, rail, sob, and rage in all the ways I needed to do. They were not often knocked about by me. My conscious and my unconscious self knew that I had found a place that could tolerate all of me. And that let me do the work that I came to do. Work that I could not have told you about in detail when I embarked on it other than to say, “There is more for me available in this life than I have right now - I know it.” I was right. There was more available.

This morning I asked a whole lot of my own therapist. I have to trust that she can take it. And that she has resources at her disposal if she can’t. This is transformational work.


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