Do I need a Coach or a Therapist?
Raechel Pefanis, BA, MDiv, MSW, RSW
IFC Certified Professional Coach (ACC)
I used to be a Therapist in another life, and in that life, I would complain a lot about how the general public would come into my office with such wildly different ideas about what a therapist is / does. Well...that was just the warmup when compared to the different ideas I came across when I transitioned into professional coaching. Some people think of coaching as therapy "lite." Others think I sell vitamins on the internet. Some think I amass huge crowds like Tony Robbins, and that I cast spells that make problems go away. Even therapists themselves will often tell people that they are coaches too, failing to understand the scopes of practice for each and serve the client well.
What is the difference between coaching and therapy? While most people can probably understand how the two are similar, the differences really matter. Many, many people go to therapy nowadays, when coaching would serve them far better. Simultaneously, many who see a coach would probably be better served in therapy, at least for a while. We've done some thinking about how the two are different.
Therapists today are well trained, skilled people who love what they do and usually do it very well. But that training is done with a specific "lens" through which to look at the people they help. Generally, that lens is one of "brokenness" or "pathology," for reasons that are many (and not because of some flaw on the part of the therapist). So, when people come to their offices, a good therapist will often listen for what is "not working", for "symptoms" and for problems. They tend to meet these things with interventions and solutions. And, when people are in sub-optimal mental states, this therapeutic quest for what would fix things is, of course, a welcome and productive dialogue. If a couple is breaking down, it is correct to find ways to recreate warmth and love. If a new mother is experiencing postpartum depression, it makes sense to plunge into her beliefs and behaviours and "re-structure" the issues, dysfunctions or deficiencies in outlook that have accosted her. The lens, in classical therapy, is through that of what can be done to ultimately correct unhelpful realities the client faces.
While I love me a good supplement from time to time, coaching takes a very different lens. In coaching circles, we refer to a mantra we hang our hats, dialogues, products and services on, which is how the client, client systems and client context is "creative, whole and resourceful." The coach's lens tends to provide an approach that looks not at what is deficient, but at how the client has talents, resources, inner wisdom, energy, and clarity that can be drawn out for a better quality of life. Instead of talking about interventions into problems, we tend to teach clients to trust themselves more. Instead of looking at symptoms, we tend to listen for the many resources that the very strong person in front of us could put to use (intellectual resources, interpersonal resources, etc.). Instead of a quest for what is causing mental decline, we tend to get creative with the client to figure out not only how to prevent any mental decline, but rather how to boost mental strength and performance to new heights.
In therapy world, I was burning out, along with the roughly half of the mental health workers out there (Morse et al., 2012). I've thought a lot about why that was, for me or for others. My predominant theory is that my burnout was happening because, along with most other health care providers nowadays, the mental load that comes with framing the world through "symptoms and causes" makes for a long haul in this type of work. There are some who love this work for a lifetime (particularly those that work with trauma). For the first ten years, most of us love it (I sure did). But as one's worldly wisdom and own sense of strength kicks in, many of us come to want to change the dial. In my case, beyond emotional burnout, I came to a sharp, career changing insight, which is that critical mistakes are made by the runaway train of therapy, that has become a catch all for every problem under the sun. There are real consequences that come when the public, via therapy, receives a "pathologizing" of normal hardships and stressors. And so, coaching -at least my brand- is about other more wholesome approaches -think heart-to-heart-over-the-fence exchange with a kind neighbour from years past- or a mentoring cup of tea with someone we respect deeply. I came to feel that this -conversations about life that pull on strength, wisdom, quick wits and connection- was important. And I came to feel strongly that more innovative resources need to blot our communities than just therapy, as good as it can be for so many. I have known a lot of top tier therapists in my day, but even the best chef cannot make a meal to remember when he only has one or two ingredients to work with.
My innovative way of responding to the mental health "epidemic" (more on that inaccurate categorization in another blog) was to go to workplaces, the most viable place I currently see for rebuilding community. I know it's a tall order, and perhaps even idealistic. My friends will tell you I am a shameless idealist that once bordered on naiieve.. But I came to a palpable vision of workplaces as rehumanized places of care and development for everyday people. In fact, for the foreseeable future, the workplace is the place for people to deeply connect to purpose, meaning, and attentive development of their talents. In one provocative way of saying it, I sort of feel that "work is the new church," where our spiritual selves -our values, our attachments, our contribution to something bigger than ourselves- is given an outlet. And so, therapy has it's role. But if you're looking for a place to have a soulful conversation about where you are whole, creative and resourceful, and a conversation that unleashes that might on the problems at work, well...we're here, carefully building a team of likeminded others to help you do so.