Most People Don’t Know This Is the Real Difference Between Therapy and Coaching

“What’s the difference between therapy and coaching?”

It’s the first question someone asks when they find out I did therapy for years before I switched to coaching founders, creators, and entrepreneurs.

It’s a simple question, but if you Google it, you’ll get 24,200,000 search results—and virtually every single one of them is wrong.

Most of them claim therapy is focused on the past and understanding how your childhood affects you as an adult, while coaching focuses on building a better future.

This might’ve been true 50 years ago when therapy meant lying on a couch as you droned on about your relationship with your mother to a balding, bearded, bespectacled dude with a clipboard—but this Freudian approach has mercifully become a relic of the past.

Nowadays, therapy looks much different. So why do over 24 million search results still get it wrong?

Because the people writing them—therapists and coaches—understand one side, but not the other. Most therapists never coach, so they don’t understand how coaching works. And most coaches have zero mental health training, so they have no idea what goes on in therapy.

So I’m going to set the record straight, once and for all—I’m a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Certified Professional Coach, so I have skin in both games.

But before we can appreciate what makes each unique, we have to understand how they’re similar.

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How Are Therapy and Coaching the Same?

Therapy and coaching focus on understanding and changing human behavior, so they’re both rooted in psychology and philosophy.

Both use Socratic questioning to help the client understand themselves and their motivations better to foster insight, identify thinking and behavior patterns, and collaborate with their client to develop a strategic plan of action to achieve specific goals.

Therapists and coaches are thought partners—they offer a fresh set of eyes to help their clients uncover blind spots and offer neutral observations about how the clients’ behaviors may be impacting their lives.

And, most importantly, therapists and coaches both prioritize helping their clients feel supported and provide accountability to keep them on track.

But that’s where the similarities end.

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What Makes Therapy Different?

Therapy, at its core, is about bringing someone from dysfunction to functioning, aka “normal.”

This means helping someone overcome things like severe anxiety, depression, trauma, and addiction.

The gold standard of therapy right now is CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on understanding and improving your thoughts and habits to help you feel better and live better. You only talk about your past if it’s relevant, and a lot of CBT focuses on helping you build a better future—which is the opposite of the Google results you’ll find.

When I did therapy as a Clinical Psychologist, I was trained to treat people through the lens of pathology, aka illness. In therapy, wellness is defined as the absence of pathology—meaning you’re deemed “well” when you can function about as well as the average person.

See the flaw with this approach?

Therapists understand what wellness isn’t, not what wellness actually is.

Wellness is so much more than just the absence of illness.

But there’s a deeper, darker difference—one that drove me to abandon practicing therapy.

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Why I Stopped Being a Therapist

Insurance companies, at least in the U.S., rule all. They only pay for certain diagnoses and for a certain period of time.

So when you go to therapy and start feeling better, you become subclinical. This means you might still be a little depressed, but because you no longer warrant a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, single episode, mild, your insurance company stops paying for therapy.

And even if you can afford to pay out-of-pocket, remember: the goal of therapy is to help you function.

As a therapist, I was only ever allowed to help people survive. I couldn’t use my skills to help them thrive, optimize their performance, or pursue self-actualization.

Time and time again, I’d help someone overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, only to have to abandon them as soon as they could keep their head above water:

The Teenager With ADHD:

We worked together to help him develop skills to stay focused, be more productive, and learn to work with how his brain was wired—without needing medications.

We focused on developing powerful skills to help him ace his exams and get into a great college.

But as soon as he wasn’t failing his classes—as soon as he was functioning—that was the end of therapy…I couldn’t help him optimize his habits to reach his potential.

The Woman Who Went Through a Bitter Divorce:

She came to therapy because she didn’t know who she was anymore—her identity had been tied to being a wife.

Through therapy, she developed a new identity of empowerment and independence.

But as soon as she no longer met criteria for a diagnosis, we were done. We couldn’t work together to help her build a meaningful life or discover her purpose.

The Woman Who Struggled With Addiction:

She wanted to rebuild her life and start a new business.

But as soon as she had been sober long enough, that was it.

We couldn’t work on helping her clarify what a purpose-driven business looked like for her because it was beyond the purview of therapy.

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After countless experiences like these, I realized I couldn’t help people pursue self-actualization. All I could do was help them function, to survive, to be ordinary.

I wanted—I needed—to help people become the best versions of themselves, reach their potential, and build a meaningful, purpose-driven life of fulfillment—to be extraordinary.

I had the skills to help people rise to their potential, but therapy shackled me to the floor.

So when I left my last job and dove head-first into entrepreneurship, I decided to become a coach.

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What Makes Coaching Different From Therapy?

High-performing business leaders have coaches.

World-renowned creators have coaches.

Visionary founders have coaches.

Why?

Because they want to optimize their performance and pursue meaningful, purpose-driven work that fulfills them.

Coaching is about helping someone who already functions pretty well develop better mental models and habits, so they can flourish.

While therapy focuses on illness and areas of weakness, coaching takes a strengths-based approach.

Instead of asking, “What’s going wrong in your life right now? How can we avoid this happening again?” like therapy, a coach asks, “What’s going right? What are you good at? And how can we double down on these?”

But unlike therapy, which has rigorous training and licensure requirements to practice, coaching is an unregulated field. This is why anyone with internet access can whip up an Instagram account, post some bullshit motivational quotes, and call themselves a life coach.

Quality control is a big issue in coaching.

But high-quality coaches choose to go through rigorous training and credentialing to position themselves in the upper echelon.

I take helping my clients achieve their goals seriously, so I went through the College of Executive Coaching to get specific training in personal and executive coaching that went beyond the 14+ years of psychological training I already had.

This training helped me let go of the pathology model of therapy and adopt the strengths-based approach that defines coaching.

Now, I use many of the same techniques I used in therapy, but instead of using them to help people keep their head above water, I use them to help people live more intentionally and pursue meaningful, purpose-driven work that fulfills them:

The Serial Entrepreneur Who Was Burnt Out:

The last brand he built didn’t feel authentic. So we clarified his core values and strategized how to build a new business aligned with them.

A few months later, his new business was generating 10x his investment in coaching every month.

Since his work aligns with his values, he’s more invested in maximizing his potential. Not only does this translate to more money in his pockets, but now he spends every day doing fulfilling work.

The Tech Founders Who Want to Revolutionize Their Niches:

So we collaborate to help them prioritize tasks, clarify their strategies, and develop their storytelling skills to build a brand narrative that positions their company as the go-to trusted authority.

The Multimillion-Subscriber YouTuber Who Isn’t Sure Which Path to Take:

Should they keep their channel focused on current content, outsource or sell the channel, rebrand it, or abandon it altogether?

We work through my GOLD Framework to clarify their values and choose the best path forward for them—one that leads to a purpose-driven business aligned with their vision of the legacy they want to build.

These are the topics I have the privilege to help my clients work on as a coach.

Most of the work I do now revolves around helping my clients build businesses aligned with their values, be more intentional with their habits, maximize their most precious resource—time, and build truly transformational companies that align with their values and allow them to scale the final and most elusive tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy: self-actualization.

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Takeaways

For the person wanting to become a client, the difference between therapy and coaching comes down to where you’re currently at and where you want to go.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues and need help dealing with them to function in day-to-day life—go to therapy.

If you already function pretty well and want to optimize your performance, clarify your values, become more intentional with how you live, or pursue meaningful, purpose-driven work that fulfills you—hire a high-quality coach.

For the person wanting to become a therapist or a coach, the difference comes down to who you want to help, how you want to help them, and how much training you need to do it.

Becoming a therapist takes years of study, rigorous licensure exams, specific credentials, and rigid standards and regulations. You need to be passionate about helping people develop coping skills to deal with mental health issues that prevent them from functioning “normally.” If you want to work in the medical field (like I used to) then you need a license.

Becoming a coach takes nothing…

But becoming a great coach takes the willingness to seek world-class training that isn’t required, the dedication to constantly improve in an industry without clearly defined standards or regulations, and the desire to help people become the best versions of themselves using a strengths-based approach.

In essence:

Therapy is about functioning.

Coaching is about flourishing.

Which is right for you?