Setting The Record Straight On Therapist Versus Coach

What is the difference between a Coach and a Therapist? Well, that depends on who you ask. Because I continue to hear so much chatter about this subject, I have decided to voice my opinion following a long list of those who already have. The difference is that unlike some I am immersed in both worlds and can speak with some authority on the subject. Recently, the Wall Street Journal had an excellent article about this issue. The title, ”Executive Coach or Therapist? It’s Getting Harder To Tell The Difference,” could not be more fitting. Indeed, the lines are often blurred. Although many coaches recognize their limitations when it comes to discussing deeper issues, others often take on the role of therapist lite. How can they not? Coaches become confidants which is no different than their more substantive siblings in the world of relationships.

Yes, therapists frequently deal with heavier matters such as trauma, addictions and major mental health issues. Like coaches, they also work with the worried well. Sometimes the so-called worried well do not reveal weightier concerns until they can trust their confidante whether it be a coach or therapist. Yes, the differences between these two can become a slippery slope.

Coaching is a relatively new profession and has developed schools and certificates over the last couple of decades.

Therapists have been around since Sigmund Freud. Thankfully, they have evolved from being an austere blank slate to a more engaging collaborator just as coaches purport to be. Yet, coaches are winning the battle of words hand over fist on who to choose when seeking professional and personal advice. Why? Therapists continue to do a less than favorable job on marketing this part of their professional identity and of reminding people of the following: Most coaches are not therapists and lack the training to refer to themselves as one. Many therapists are also coaches, and if not, they have the ability and skills to add this to their role.

There is a false perception of therapists often a fault of their own and promulgated by coaches. Here are a few:

Coaches are strength-based. Therapists focus on pathology. FALSE. Therapists have a greater understanding of pathology, but many if not most emphasize strengths especially if they are in the discipline of Clinical Social Work.

Coaches are about the present while therapists discuss the past. FALSE. Therapists often explore the past, sometimes very briefly, in order to understand the background and consequential blocks. Many, however, are focused on the present and assist the client in maneuvering the world in which they live now.

Coaches see people who are healthy and goal-oriented. Therapists see people with deeper problems and encourage them to continue therapy into perpetuity. FALSE. Yes, therapists are capable of seeing both, but many see an extremely high-functioning population with the same problems which brings an individual to a coach. In addition, as with coaches, therapists help clients develop goals and often see their clients intermittently.

With these misconceptions, why aren’t therapists doing a better job in marketing their true colors? Good question! Many years ago, long before the coaching world became so populated, one of my colleagues wrote an article in a monthly publication challenging the premise that we cannot do both. He was always ahead of his time. Perhaps a few people listened, but most have not.

Yes, therapists are capable of wearing many hats. As I stated above, some are doing coaching already without even referring to it as that. We have training and expertise in the areas of human behavior, relationships, and communication and are expected to continuously hone our skills. Even with such a prodigious background, most therapists continue to lose ground to their sassier and more hip siblings in the coaching world. The coaches have marketed well and mastered their message. Consequently, many people, especially professionals, are often willing to receive the services of a coach but not a therapist.

Many therapists refuse to heed the warnings that they are falling behind in the revenue and marketing arenas.

If therapists want to remain competitive in the world of coaching, they need to consider highlighting their coaching skills. Unfortunately, I am not sure they will. Many therapists refuse to heed the warnings that they are falling behind in the revenue and marketing arenas. Others remain insulated and refuse to circulate in a world that has increasingly encroached on theirs. Although it is my humble opinion that therapists have needed an image redo for quite some time, I have decided not to wait. If you can’t beat them, join them. I now refer to myself as a Success Coach with much training and vast experience to substantiate this. With that said, I will share a secret with you. I will always be a therapist at heart. It has been my professional identity for over thirty-five years as well as the foundation for the professional and, to a degree, personal journey in my Book of Life. You might even say it has been and will always be my calling, and I have no doubt that most therapists would agree.

For those of you in the therapy world, what are your thoughts? Do you recognize that you have the skills to do coaching? Do you believe therapists could do a better job marketing themselves? Are there other ways to get our message out? I invite you to consider and comment.


Darlene Corbett
Darlene Corbett
Darlene Corbett views herself as a life-long learner, a pursuer of excellence, a work-in-progress, and a seeker-of-the-truth. She is also referred to as the "Unstuck Expert" in her many roles. Why? Because for over thirty years, she has been assisting people to get unstuck. Darlene's primary roles are now Therapist, Hypnotherapist, and Author/Writer. Although she loves speaking, it is now secondary and done mainly through her podcast, "Get Unstuck Now. Because of her wealth of experience, Darlene began putting her thoughts on paper.  Many of her blogs can also be found on Medium, Sixty and Me, and Penning these articles set the stage for her first book, "Stop Depriving The World of You," traditionally published by Sound Wisdom. Being a believer in pushing oneself as long as one has life, Darlene has tried her hand at fiction, hoping to have something completed in the no-so-distant future. Over the years, Darlene has been described as animated or effervescent which contradicts the perception of a psychotherapist. She firmly believes in the importance of being authentic and discusses platinum-style authenticity in her book.

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  1. Thank you Darlene. As a recently certified professional life coach and as one who spent many years in therapy, your article hit close to home for me. From my perspective, if our ultimate, collective goal is to elevate our fellow human, we are all “winning”. And I applaud you for the number of years you have given to help people like me heal into healthy state of being.

    • Thank you, Laura, for reading and commenting on this article. Congratulations on your new role! Welcome, to the field of helping professionals. To me, doing one’s own work is most important. Socrates was right on when he said, “Know thyself.” I appreciate your lovely, closing sentence. Yes, it is beyond a career. “Calling” is the more appropriate identification. I imagine your clients will benefit greatly from your help and healing. Thank you again!
      With a smile,

  2. As an executive leadership coach, Darlene, I appreciated your piece. A few points come to mind:

    “Coaches are about the present while therapists discuss the past. FALSE.” Agreed. As a coach, I’ve found it impossible not to know something about my client’s past. How does one just start with a clean slate – the present – and imply that what came before is not relevant to the discussion? That doesn’t mean that I dwell on the past, but I believe it does give important context to the coach-client partnership.

    I’m clear when taking on a new client that I’m not a therapist, but what I do can be therapeutic. If a client works through their issue, problem, situation with my help, how is that not therapeutic?

    That said, the insurance industry doesn’t yet recognize our work. Some potential clients may be motivated to work with a therapist simply because insurance is paying for X number of sessions. Those same potential clients may and do balk at paying a coaching fee out of their own pocket – regardless of referred value. That paradigm has to change.

    • Thank you Jeff for your thoughtful comments! Perceived value is often ignored with regards to therapists and coaches. All we can hope is that people will eventually recognize the benefit of this invaluable service by listening to others and how they benefit.?

  3. Coaches do play pivotal roles in many aspects of society. I lean heavily to the opinion that therapists play even more pivotal roles in society. A therapist in private practice will need to do more to.draw in more clients than those who work in a clinic setting will have full caseloads and as such do not need to market themselves unless they are moving into private practice or going to another facility. Some therapists do see clients on their own time while continuing to work full time elsewhere. Great article, Darlene.