Tag Archive: choosing a therapist

Coach or Therapist? When to chose one or the other

Coach or Therapist

I’m both a coach and a therapist.  Even when I was offering only therapy, I would often get asked the question “Maryanne, what’s the difference? Why would I choose one over the other?”

I was asked this three times this past week, so I thought I’d address it in my blog, even though it’s dissimilar to what I usually talk about.

A therapist, meaning a psychotherapist – at least in Ontario – is a trained professional who is licensed by a regulatory body to practice. She has proven competencies and a minimum number of practice hours in the field of psychotherapy. A coach isn’t regulated, and the level of training and experience of a coach can vary widely – anywhere from a few weekends to a few years.

I’m going to assume for the purposes of comparison that both coach and therapist have comparable training and experience. So when would I want to see one over the other?

A coach is active, a therapist is more a listener.  Some, including many coaches, believe that therapists see “sick” people, and that coaches see “healthy” people.  I just heard that from a prominent international coach, who always gets this question.  This isn’t true.

What is a “sick” person anyway?  If you’re depressed are you sick?  What if you’re anxious?  Who isn’t depressed or anxious at times?  What about being stuck over some issue that ends up being a huge distraction? If you follow the medical model, then you might believe that someone suffering from depression is “sick”.  I’m not one of those who do follow that model, and there is a growing number of professionals who no longer follow it.

Why? Because labelling someone as sick when they are having emotional issues doesn’t help: if we decide a person is sick, then we look for some external source – like a drug – that will make them better.  But research is proving that no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, on its own, works.  The only thing that works is the therapy that accompanies the drugs: it’s the trusting relationship that is built between the therapist and client that eventually leads to relief for the client (and growth for the therapist, because a relationship is always a two-way street). By the way, this is also true for the relationship built between a coach and client.

With this in mind, when to go to a therapist and when to go to a coach becomes a little clearer.  As a therapist, I work with someone at their pace to help them get unstuck from a very stuck place. I am limited by my regulatory college in what I can do, and it can often take some time before my client is able to resolve the issue they came with. As a coach, I offer a set number of sessions with a specific goal in mind: I give my client weekly actionables, with the expectation that they already have the ability to deal with whatever issues are blocking them with little or no resistance. If in the course of the program, we hit something deeper and less movable, then we can take some time out to deal with it, or I refer her to a therapist colleague, who deals with that issue separately.

If you’re stuck in a place that has you going nowhere and are wanting to know which to see – a therapist or a coach – ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I hurting enough to be willing to do whatever it takes to resolve the issue; or am I reluctant to let go of the coping strategies that I’ve put in place, even if they make me miserable? This may seem like a no-brainer, but those strategies were put in place for a reason, and it’s scary to let go of them.  Are you ready?  If not – if you feel you need to deal with this at a slower pace, then a therapist might be the better answer.
  • Am I willing to take the time to work with a coach for 2 to 3 hours each week over the next 3 to 4 months? Therapy takes longer, and this might be the better option for you.  Coaching is more action-oriented – there’s more homework – and correspondingly leads to faster results.
  • Am I willing to commit to a 3 to 4 month program? Therapy sessions are one at a time (so that there is no pressure to achieve major changes in a set period of time), and paid for one at a time; coaching comes in packages and are typically paid for up front.  A good coach will be investing a great deal of their time in designing and facilitating a program for you, and to make it worthwhile, will ask for commitment in the form of compensation up front.

No answer is better than any other.  The only criteria are an honest assessment of your needs.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .