It’s a good question, especially because coaching is a newer profession than therapy, and less familiar to many people. In order to begin to answer it, though, I have to ask a different question:
How are you defining “therapy” and “coaching”?
There are a wide range of approaches in both therapy and coaching. An art therapist is not the same as a somatic therapist is not the same as a Jungian psychotherapist. Similarly, a writing coach is not the same as a financial coach is not the same as an Integral coach.
As a result of this, coaching and therapy can be extremely different (e.g., there might be very little overlap between a business coach and an art therapist). Or they may have many similarities. To be honest…
The modality of the practitioner likely matters more than therapist vs. coach.
I’ve been in therapy, and worked with a range of coaches. The first coach I ever worked with was an Integral Coach, whose work really changed my life. Several years later, I worked with a therapist who worked across a range of methodologies. While there were some important differences — which I’ll discuss below — there were more similarities, and I had a positive experience with both.
On the other hand, I briefly worked with a business coach, and that experience was extremely different from either my Integral Coaching or therapy experiences. I’d also imagine that if you worked with a Cooking Coach, for example, it would also be quite different from therapy.
For the rest of this essay, I’ll be talking about the differences between Integral Coaching and therapy, because that’s the form of coaching I am most familiar with — I’m a trained Integral Coach, and I’ve worked with several Integral Coaches.
Please remember that there are as many different types of therapy and coaching as there are practitioners, so for everything I say about therapy or coaching, there will be many exceptions. However, I think it can be useful for some people to understand some broad differences, so I’ll share how I best understand those differences:
Some differences between Integral coaching and therapy:
1. Coaches and therapists specialize in helping different kinds of clients.
Therapists are the only ones who are trained to help people who suffer from psychological disorders and serious trauma.
If you suffer from schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, anorexia, bulimia, or another psychological disorder, a therapist will be best able to support you. Therapists will also be best qualified to help those recovering from serious trauma or childhood abuse, or folks who struggle with suicidal thoughts or depression that is so extreme that they haven’t gotten out of bed for weeks. Coaches are not trained to best support people who are struggling with these types of issues, and coaches are not able to diagnose mental disorders.
Coaches focus on helping on people who are already basically “functioning” in the world.
By “functioning in the world,” I mean that you are generally able to show up to work, make and fulfill commitments, and form relationships. You don’t have to be a superstar — in fact, you can absolutely feel stuck or sad or anxious or down — but you’re able to generally do what is needed. Part of that is because more is expected of you in a coaching relationship (see #2).
Coaches specialize it working with a person at this point of development. But, if you are at this level of development, you can, of course, also see a therapist. It will simply depend on what you are looking for.
Here’s one way of better understanding the difference between who coaches and therapists serve:
Imagine a line from -100 to 0 to 100. If you were at “-100”, you would be really struggling with a serious psychological disorder. If you were at 100, you would be extremely highly functioning, and living a life of depth, meaning, and joy. If you were at 0, you would be in the middle. This example radically oversimplifies people’s struggles, so please don’t take it too literally. However, it’s a helpful simplified model for thinking about coach vs. therapeutic interventions.
Coaches are not trained to best support people from -100 to say, -30. Those folks would be best served by a therapist.
But from, say, -30 to 0 to 100, you could work with either a therapist or a coach. It would depend on the coach and their type of work, as well as what you wanted from the experience.
2. A coach may expect more engagement from you.
A coach will invite you to be an active participant in the process, which will involve doing things between sessions like reading, journaling, or trying new practices. In my own life, I’ve found that taking action between sessions tends to produce greater change, and I prefer it.
On the other hand, some folks may simply not have the energy to take on actions between sessions. In an Integral Coaching relationship, it’s okay if you don’t currently have the capacity to take anything on, but that would probably be something we’d work on together. We’d like for you to eventually have the energy and space in your life to take something on, but understand that it’s important to meet you where you are, for now.
However, some folks may not want to do anything at all between sessions — they may simply want to show up each week to talk, indefinitely. In that case, they may find that therapy may require a bit less of them. Many — but certainly not all — therapists may not explicitly expect anything more than you showing up to talk each week. For some folks, this is a good fit. They simply don’t have the energy to do much between sessions.
3. Coaching may be more structured. Therapy may be more open-ended.
Part of the first few weeks of your coaching relationship will include defining the skills or capabilities you want to develop. Once these are defined, you and your coach can check in with them throughout your work to see if you are progressing in the right direction. Even more importantly, they will help you know when you are done with your coaching program! — because you will have achieved your desired outcomes, or moved in a measurable capacity in that direction.
Therapeutic relationships, to my understanding, sometimes involve defining target outcomes or goals with a patient, but often do not and are a bit more open-ended. I want to emphasize that this can be great, too!
But part of this difference, in my understanding, means that at least sometimes, you might spend longer working with a therapist than you might with a coach. However, there are absolutely exceptions to this, as well!
One more thing:
One additional thing I sometimes share with folks who are curious about the difference between therapy and coaching is a bit about the origins of the fields:
Therapy’s roots are in the medical field. One of the major guiding forces of the field is and has been the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which classifies mental disorders. Of course, not all therapists prefer to think of their clients in terms of the “mental disorders” they have, but the roots of the field do follow this path, and this is why only therapists are qualified to support folks who struggle with mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Modern coaching has a number of different origins, but one major origin is sports. As a result, there is a history of working with people who are already competent — and sometimes quite highly functioning — and helping them reach the next level. There is less of an interest, in the history of the field, in thinking about disorders, and more of an interest in just figuring out what is blocking functioning people and helping them grow.
A final caveat:
As a smart reader, I’m sure you’ve realized: I’m a coach! So I’ll acknowledge that I may be biased, but I’ve also strived to be as factual as possible. For example, for certain types of people — such as those struggling with serious mental disorders — therapy is truly the best option.
For others, it will depend on what you’re wanting from the experience. For example:
Is there a particular methodology that interests you?
Is there a particular practitioner who resonates with you? One helpful way to assess this is to see if they have a blog (like this one!)
How do you feel when you talk to the potential practitioner? How do you want to feel? E.g., supported, comfortable, etc. Most therapists and coaches will speak to you for free, to give you a sense of how they work and to see if you feel a connection. Take advantage of this!
Do you have an interest or willingness to put in effort between sessions?
How do you want to meet with your practitioner (e.g., in person, on the phone, over video conference?)
How much are you able or willing to pay?
In the end, I think you should trust your gut. There are great practitioners in both professions. Good luck!
(And, of course, if you're curious about coaching, here's more about my approach, or you could schedule a short, free call with me to ask any questions you have.)