Happy National Mental Health Month! Since this is a month we’re all given the opportunity to consider our mental health, and its role in our wellness and the wellness of those around us, I thought I’d explore the questions that often comes up when I’m speaking with new clients.
- Should I get a therapist or is coaching enough?
- If I’m seeing a therapist do I need a coach?
- What’s the difference between coaching and therapy?
- How can I work with a coach or a therapist most effectively?
NOTE: I’m not a therapist so this article only reflects my experience as a coach. If you have questions about therapy, please ask a therapist!
In the end, most of my clients seem to sort these questions out for themselves, but I’m always amazed at how–when my clients are seeing me for coaching and simultaneously seeing a therapist for deeper, more personal and/or physical issues–they make amazing progress extremely quickly.
Because of my own positive experiences with both coaches and therapists, when people ask me whether coaching or therapy would help them most, my answer is “yes!”
If they begin coaching with me and still wonder whether a therapist would help them, I have them explore my core coaching lesson of emotional detriggering. If they can name their emotions and identify emotional triggers effectively, then we can continue on a coaching basis. If they find their triggers too overwhelming and uncomfortable, I encourage them to seek a therapist to explore this unconscious territory with in greater depth.
What’s really going on here? How are these two similar ways of helping people reduce stress, build positive relationships, find confidence and find happiness differ? How are they the same? To be honest with you I’m not always sure. I think it has a lot to do with the chemistry you have with the people you’ve asked to help you, regardless of their discipline. But there’s a bit more to this distinction.
Coaches are really good at helping you navigate the nuts and bolts tricky territory of your work relationships, including how you want to play in the game of office politics; they’re awesome at guiding you through sorting out a personally motivating definition of success; and they’re excellent at helping you craft your authentic-to-you leadership style. Therapists tend to go more deeply into the dynamics that have made you who you are. They help you unearth and deal with family trauma, and they help you (and your family) understand any clinically identifiable conditions you have and develop treatment approaches to manage them.
However, many of the techniques coaches and therapists use can be similar and there are three ways you can approach either engagement to help you gain maximum benefit for yourself. Here are three approaches that I find are most helpful when dealing with both a coach and a therapist, but sometimes for different reasons.
While people are willing to share personally intimate matters with me, usually having to do with people in their work environment, I know they go much more deeply into their own vulnerabilities–including family trauma–with their therapist. This is as it should be. Licensed therapists are trained to understand the intricacies of what’s happening “below the surface” in the human psyche in a way that coaches are not. The best coaches are highly intuitive and can work with what we see “above the surface” to accomplish a lot with you, but we’re not trained to dive that deep.
However, neither a coach nor a therapist can help you if you’re not willing to open up and share what makes you uncomfortable. I know this because I’ve personally refused to open up to therapists and coaches. I’ve also opened up to them. What I learned from these experiences is that I felt better faster when I chose to be vulnerable. The same is true for my coaching clients.
The bottom line is that no one–no matter how good they are or what their discipline is–can help you become stronger until you’re willing to be vulnerable and open up to looking at your own weaknesses. It’s in your vulnerability that you can see options open to you that are simply not visible to you when you’re shut down.
The key is to be with someone who makes you feel safe. If you’ve never felt safe before, this may be something you have to learn but the right coach or therapist can help you. You just have to ask yourself, “do I feel emotionally and physically safe with this person?” If the answer is “yes,” go ahead and start opening up to see how they react. It’s ok to test that safety so you feel comfortable in it.
The act of opening up to anyone who creates a safe space for you, begins the healing process. Pick who you become vulnerable with wisely, but pick them.
I used to believe that good coaches and therapists were mind readers and could intuitively understand how I was feeling (or what I should be feeling) just by looking at me. After being disappointed by them for a while, I realized the mind-reader standard was unrealistic (thank goodness!). No one can peer into your mind and see anything you don’t tell them. This means you can fool them if you want to. But why would you want to? They can’t help you if you’re fooling them. You need to tell them what’s going on inside you.
But sometimes when you’re working on yourself it’s hard to be clear. After all, if you had it all figured out why would you need someone else’s help? No matter how unclear you feel, however, you can always find a little clarity even if it’s just describing how confused you feel. When you’re as clear as you can be, then both coaches and therapists can help you. The best coaches and therapists are trained to “meet you where you are.” which means they aren’t trying to convince you to be anything you’re not. But they can’t help you get from where you are to where you want to be unless they can understand where you are in the first place, so you need to try to be as clear as you can be about how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what’s going on in your life.
This is where coaches and therapists perhaps differ most. They’re trained to understand different aspects of “where you are” so when you do your best to explain, they see and hear different things and begin walking you through different kinds of processes to find what you seek. Both the therapeutic and coaching process are beneficial! This isn’t an either/or thing. You’ll benefit from both. Be as clear as you can with a therapist and a coach about what you’re not happy with and where you’d like to go. This gives them the information they need to talk to you about their process and how they can help you. Different therapists and coaches have different approaches, too, so you may need to talk to a few people in different disciplines and specialties before you find the right person or people to help you.
Most of us want a pill. We are hurting and we want to stop the pain. We are sad and we want to snap our fingers and be happy. We are angry and we want people to stop pissing us off.
It doesn’t work that way. You have to acknowledge and allow your pain without judgement to create the space for the healing change to begin. This allows you to take the appropriate level of responsibility for your own pain, sadness, anger and everything else you wish would change with the push of a button or swallow of a pill. When you accept that your pain, sadness, anger and everything else is part of who you ARE (at least in this moment), that is when you gain the power to begin to change it. Just like when you accept your vulnerability, therapists and coaches can help you much more quickly and effectively when you stop fighting the reality of how you are BEING. Becoming aware of, and allowing, how you ARE also helps you feel the choices you have to change how you want to BE.
I know this seems a little existential, but I promise you that any coach or therapist will advise you to try it and see what happens. If it feels scary, do it when you’re with them so they can keep you in a safe emotional space while you explore what’s going on inside you. Walking to the edge of a cliff with someone there to pull you back is a great way to discover the ledge just below the lip that you couldn’t see until you get closer.
There are wonders inside you. Go find them!