What’s the Difference Between Counseling, Therapy, and Coaching?

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So you finally decided to get professional help with a mental, emotional, or psychological issue that you are dealing with. While there are many kinds of mental health professionals, three approaches 一 counseling, therapy, and coaching 一 have grown in popularity alongside the increased awareness of the importance of mental health in the modern day, as well as its strong association with the overall state of well-being. Many individuals seek the services and support of a counselor, therapist, or coach for a wide range of issues, from managing mental health symptoms to cultivating better health and wellness. However, have you ever wondered what exactly each of these types of professionals can do for you, and how they differ from each other? Learning this can be a key factor in determining whether a counselor, a therapist, or a coach would be best-suited to help you. 

It is totally understandable to feel confused about the differentiation between these professions, as they all serve the same ultimate purpose: to help one be mentally healthy.  The distinction between them is often also ambiguous to many of us, since their roles sometimes overlap with each other. All three primarily heavily use conversations with their clients as part of their process, for instance. By distinguishing what makes each one unique, you can clear the blurry lines between these three approaches, and more confidently answer the crucial question “Which one can help me?” Read on to learn about the differences between counseling, therapy, and coaching; the relationships each of them involves; and how to choose the right approach to fit your needs.

What Is Counseling?

Counseling focuses on issues that have happened in the past, and how those experiences contribute to an individual's current state. It is a healing process that aims to solve problems involving negative feelings and poor mental health, and it helps a person to reduce their pain and to stay mentally healthy. A client may expect the counselor to follow a standardized procedure during the process. As a result, counseling is a little similar to therapy, although the latter adopts a more strict and structured approach. 

While both counseling and therapy aim to heal an individual, they are different when it comes to the severity of the issues 一 counselors generally deal with less complex matters compared to therapists. For instance, people who seek help from a counselor tend to be less likely to be diagnosed with serious mental health issues, and for this reason, counseling typically requires a shorter period than therapy.

Counseling

What Is Therapy?

Therapy can be very similar to counseling since it also deals with how past events have contributed to the present, and how these experiences can lead to the onset of one’s current psychological state. In general, therapy addresses the deep-rooted causes of the problems 一 for example, a couple’s therapist might work with an adult who had unfortunately experienced childhood abuse that makes them struggle to trust and build intimate relationships. Meanwhile, a play therapist could work with an autistic child who has been lacking sufficient social skills to bond healthily with their peers. One significant difference between therapy and counseling is that therapists tend to work with people who have more complicated mental health issues such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. For this reason, the process of therapy typically lasts for longer than counseling and coaching 一 and it is common for someone to see a therapist for years at a time. 

Becoming a therapist requires higher levels of education (a master’s degree or higher) 一 as well as more intensive training 一 than being a counselor or a coach. It is also important for therapists to gain licenses and credentials throughout the course of their professional development, since they often work with and maintain close contact with vulnerable individuals. Education and training also enables therapists to gain the essential skills and in-depth knowledge to perform diagnoses 一 using well-recognized diagnostic manuals 一 for people who have been referred to them, or those who suspect that they may have mental health issues. It is believed that therapists design treatment plans specifically suited to a client’s needs that not only allow an individual to heal from the pain, but also helps to analyze the root causes thoroughly.

Therapy

What Is Coaching?

Coaching focuses on the future rather than the past, and it helps an individual maximize their potential. It asks “What do you want to achieve and accomplish?” and “What can you do to move towards that goal?” Simply put, instead of healing, coaching aims to help people grow into a better version of themselves. While counseling and therapy are intended to help people to recover from mental health issues, coaching tends to be more appropriate for individuals with struggles that do not interfere with their ability to function normally on a daily basis. For example, this could involve someone who feels stagnated in their career development and would like to be more competitive in the job market, or those who lack the motivation to exercise and want to overcome this. 

There are many types of coaching that can benefit different aspects of one’s life. Some common types of coaching include:

  • Life Coaching: This helps people enhance their overall development in all areas of life. Life coaches may discuss topics that help one set life goals, designed to encourage someone to create their ideal future. 
  • Wellness Coaching: This helps to improve one’s mental and emotional health. Clients may expect wellness coaches to offer lifestyle tips to cultivate good habits. 
  • Fitness Coaching: This can guide people to become healthier by developing a more physically fit and active lifestyle. It constitutes coaching and/or personal training, and usually involves helping an individual design a fitness plan or program to lead them to their desired results.
  • Nutrition Coaching: This helps one to develop healthier eating habits, for a variety of dietary purposes be that better gut health, food intolerances and sensitivities, skin issues, weight issues, or simply feeling better overall. A nutrition coach offers knowledge on anything from calories and nutrients to digestive health, and can help clients create a healthy eating plan for a better diet. 
  • Career Coaching: This helps an individual improve their competitiveness in the job market. Topics might include building a more effective CV, improving one’s interview skills, and helping someone figure out what is ー and how to get ー their dream job. 
  • Relationship Coaching: This helps people learn communication skills for building stronger and more long-lasting relationships. This can include finding a romantic partner, communicating more effectively with one’s partner, or getting over a breakup. 

Coaching is typically more relaxed than counseling and therapy: the latter typically follows the most structured and strict procedure. Coaching sessions usually come in a package within a short period ranging from three to six months, and as a result, people tend not to see a coach on a long-term, regular basis for the same issue, as they might with counseling and therapy. Since the coaching industry is still in its infancy, and coaches don’t diagnose mental health issues like therapists do, specific education is not necessary for someone to become a coach. Thus coaches may or may not have a globally well-recognized license or certification received from organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA) and the ​​British Psychological Society (BPS), as counselors and therapists would. Overall, coaching is about helping an individual to realize their potential and discover their strengths 一 and in doing so, boosting their self-confidence, enhancing their life, increasing their happiness, and making way for them to thrive. 

Coaching

The Relationship Between Counseling, Therapy, and Coaching

Still confused about the nuances between the three? Take a look at the graph below for the similarities and differences between the three approaches, and how they interact with each other:

Venn Diagram - Counseling, Therapy, Coaching

The relationships between counseling, therapy, and coaching are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these therapeutic approaches sometimes overlap. For example, counseling and therapy both attempt to heal an individual, and therapy and coaching both design very clear goals and action plans that encourage someone to move forward in their life. When looking at their role on a spectrum, they might seem very different at first ー but looking closer, all three approaches are beneficial and serve the same purpose: they help individuals to move towards a healthier and more fulfilling life. As a result, you can gain benefits from any of these services, but if you want to make the most of them, it becomes particularly important to decide the most appropriate option for your current situation. 

Counseling, Therapy, and Coaching: Which Is Right For You?

Although these three approaches serve the same purpose of improving your health and well-being, choosing the most suitable one can not only help you to solve your problems more effectively, but it can also allow you to reach your goals and become a better version of yourself. Below are some tips that can help you to determine which is the best option for you:

  • The Presence Of Any Mental Health Issues - Is your current problem affecting your ability to live your day-to-day life? It should be noted that counseling and therapy are options deemed medically necessary 一 meaning that it is something required by an individual 一 as opposed to coaching, which is an approach used for issues that are considered to be more optional. If the issues you want to solve are not associated with mental health issues, and what you seek is more about something that you feel like is holding you back or preventing you from achieving your goals, then coaching can help you to overcome these obstacles.
  • Your Commitment -  Therapy typically requires an individual to stay committed throughout the whole process 一 for instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) typically lasts for up to 20 weeks, and long-term psychodynamic therapy can last for more than a year. There are also more take-home assignments if you go for CBT, for example, so consider whether you will have time to complete them as diligently as possible. If your schedule is packed and you struggle to manage your time well, counseling or coaching might be better options.
  • Choose Carefully - Once you have chosen which approach is the right one for you, the next step is to choose the right individual among those professions to suit you 一 after all, they are still human beings! Just like you would when choosing a friend or choosing a partner, the same principle of choosing to work with someone who shares the same values as you, and who you feel comfortable, safe, and accepted around, applies here, whether you are seeking help from a counselor, therapist, or a coach. Recognize that their role is to help you with your problems, so if their approach does not resonate with you, or their services are not meeting your needs, don’t be afraid to let them know. This way, you can perhaps try to find a more workable solution, or barring that, end the relationship to find someone who suits you better. You deserve someone who can work well with you, and someone who can walk alongside you on the path to a better and healthier future.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Counseling/Coaching in Chronic Aphasia - Getting on With Life; Visiting a Counselor vs. Psychotherapist; Coaching vs Therapy: Do I Need Therapy, or a Coach; Gender, Power, and Trust in Couple Therapy With Survivors of Childhood Abuse; Aquatic Activities As Play Therapy Children Autism Spectrum Disorder; Everything You Need to Know About Bipolar Disorder; Schizophrenia; How To Become a Therapist: Requirements, Degrees & Experience; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) Overview; Coaching Versus Therapy: A Perspective; Coaching Psychology; Life and Wellness Coaches; What Is Fitness Coaching?; What Is a Nutrition Coach and Why Are They Important?; Do You Need a Career Coach?; What Is a Relationship Coach?; How Long Does a Coach Work With an Individual?; American Psychological Association; British Psychological Society; What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

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