Coaching Isn't Therapy

While the title is most certainly true, it’s unfortunately very misleading because of one really important thing: the vast majority of coaches in the United States are counselors.

And now that you know that much at least, let’s talk about why that’s an enormous problem for you, me, and the rest of the uncoached world. To begin, we have to look at psychology and how its undue influence on life and career coaching led to the many reasons we do not currently live in a #coached culture.

PREVIEW: Life coaching is in most cases just a tragic re-branding of therapy.

I can’t begin to tell you how many people I coach start out asking, “So, is this therapy?” My answer is always, "Absolutely not." But if you've got that question, here's the basis for my bold, but rather tricky answer.

I can hear it in their voice when they ask. They’re deeply afraid that our conversation will turn into a therapy session. They’re hesitant about it, unsure about it, curious if it’ll do anything for them, and worried about whether or not it’ll involve “weird” tactics or strategies. To the point, an incredible number of people won’t even consider working with a life or career coach because of the strong association that therapy has with coaching.

The fact is, most people fear therapy, which means that most people also fear coaching. It's actually so much a known fact that most therapists go right out and tell folks that their fear of therapy is completely normal. It's a standard tactic, which signals a standard issue. Would it surprise you if I told you that many life coaches deploy the same sales tactic?

It shouldn't.

Now, what you need to hear—and yes, you absolutely need to hear it—is that life coaching is in most cases just a tragic re-branding of therapy. But it shouldn't be.

And although it would take me days to explain all the reasons why this is so, let me articulate a few of the main points here. Then we'll get to why coaching, real coaching, isn't therapy.

First, it's important to note that the history of psychology is plagued with strange tactics. Lobotomy, which upon its suggestion ought to frighten the heck out of you, was quite literally believed to be one way to fix psychologically faulty dispositions. Check out DiCapprio’s Shutter Island or the enjoyable Nicholson classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for some pop culture takes on a century’s old problematic history. Or, if you really want to get down in the weeds, you could get a wee bit tipsy on a good bottle of Bordeaux and try reading some of Madness & Civilization by Foucault. Expect, however, that by page three you’ll be "mad" just trying to understand what he's saying.

Frankly, it's not surprising that people have a fear of therapy. It's sort of plain and obvious to the point that psychologists even readily acknowledge it.

Despite the efforts of psychologists over several decades to assuage the reasonable fears of therapy that most people have on account of the disturbing past of psychology, people still view discussions on mental health and anything that aims to address it as weird, strange, and abnormal. The psychologists tried to break the mold. They recognized that most of society saw them as mad scientists of the mind and thought they only really dealt with "crazy" people enduring "crazy" conditions. People thought, rightfully so, that psychologists were here to help people who had deeply serious problems.

This meant something serious for those people. It meant that seeing a psychologist or a therapist would mean admitting that they, like many others before them, had deeply serious mental problems. It meant they would have to admit perhaps one of the greatest human vulnerabilities: that they had lost control of their mind, which is quite scary.

Add this scary sense of self-actualization to a precarious disciplinary past and a knowledge that many doctors of the brain today are known to be rather trigger-happy for prescribing drugs to just about any mental condition, no wonder people fear therapy.

Look, when you’ve read as much as I have on the subject, from the likes of Freud, Jung, Foucault, Reiff, and others, you start to understand the broader implications of psycho-analytical treatment in society over time; many of which implications are considerably negative in my view. But one such negative effect of the problems associated with psycho-therapeutics was actually based on a good impulse.

Recognizing their past and how people in general felt about what they did, psychologists wanted to find ways to make their practice a bit more well-rounded and less about the fringe, or the “crazy.” So, they started examining things like collective thinking, organizational behavior, relationships, and decision-making to make the discipline less about the analysis of and tactics for dealing with “madness” and more about a discovery of why people are who they are, also how they interact.

Unfortunately, that positive impulse to broaden the scope of psychology led to a specifically negative effect, which is one of the root problems that life coaching faces today; really, what this post is all about.

But before I get to that, take note: this fear of therapy that most people have is not the reason why coaching, good coaching, isn't therapy. It's actually just one of the reasons why most people haven't been coached yet.

Let me get straight to the point then (since I don’t want you to miss it): there is certainly a place for psychology in our world, but not in life or career coaching. Let me explain.

Seeing so many people in pain, struggling with a myriad of personal and interpersonal issues, psychologists and counselors appropriately sought a new way to think more positively about the human life, life coaching being their genius creation in the '90s. They knew that a genuine fear of psychological treatments of the old school sort undermined the updated methods they deployed in modern counseling, but they also knew that their reputation preceded them in such a significant way that a re-branding of modern treatments would appear more appealing to the masses. Hence, the birth of life coaching was at once both a sales strategy and a turn in philosophy.

But both that strategy and that philosophical shift turned out to be little more than a facade.

For years, folks hopeful of making better decisions and dealing with the issues that arose in their lives turned to so-called "life coaches" for advice and help. What they found was psycho-therapy packaged in a more appealing brand. Even more, which is more than I should say in this post, they found a new kind of aspiring counselor-coach that wanted to get in on all the fun: people who didn't have therapeutic training at all.

What do you think happened? Exactly what did happen. People were disappointed with what they found. They read self-help books by PhDs and booked sessions with life coaches. They looked and listened but found little of what they were after. They wanted what you and I and everyone else have wanted since the earliest beginnings of human consciousness: an opinion, just a little clear help knowing what we should do.

But the self-helpers and re-branded psychotherapists just kept doing their thing. And that thing is really important to understand.

Psycho-therapeutics under the guise of life coaching was both an observational and experiential tactic (of many varying, even odd, kinds) to peer into who you are and why that is. Even more important, practitioners primarily looked at their clients with an eye to the past. And this represents the great problem in using theories of psychology and related quasi-objective approaches to life coaching. Psychology doesn't provide a philosophically coherent starting point for the one thing that coaching ought to do for you: that is, to help you decide what you should do.

Psychology focuses mainly on reflection of the past and tendencies of the here and now to answer questions related to how the mind makes the body do what it does. Where it's tempting to allow for disciplinary flexibility is where psychology becomes a bit more sociological, the lines fairly blurred. What I mean is this.

When you start allowing psychology to venture into the rugged terrain of decision-making, it ultimately requires psychology to do something it's not designed or equipped to do. Psychology does not principally look at things outside of you to understand the decisions you make or the ones you're inclined to make. Instead, it looks at personal characteristics, the "inside" things, to understand how you come to the decisions you do.

This is a terrible problem. Not only does this not address any real, practical evaluation of the things outside you that ultimately cause you to think or act one way or the other, it suggests that your intellectual makeup as it already is can be either A) statically good as it is and just needs to be better understood, or B) understandably weak and needs to be better supported.

Hence, therapy.

In many cases, especially in those where therapy starts to feel more like support and encouragement, we see even less decisions made on the basis of should than even when more traditional methods are applied. But in either case, therapeutic applications of any kind simply fail to see the big picture. They don't help you decide what you should do.

And, to no surprise, those who deploy these faulty versions of life coaching certainly won't tell you what they think you should do. That wouldn't be objective. That wouldn't be in-keeping with science. It wouldn't be acknowledging your full power to be human and make decisions based on "who you are."

Well, here's the truth. Almost everyone I coach hasn't been coached before. They've been tragically afraid that they'd get into a situation where they'd take a ton of time to share a problem, situation, goal, or issue in their life and be completely disappointed in the end because the one person they trusted to lead them forward in their life merely led them backward into a story-time of discussions and reflections on the past rather than productive, specific conversations about the future.

In my experience, the ah-ha moment occurs right at that moment when a new coachee learns that as important their backstory is, what's more important is the new story I'm trying to help them write. Of course, we talk occasionally about the past. Occasionally we use an assessment to jumpstart our thinking and conversation. But what we do with that information is the vast bulk of our time spent together!

When clients see that, when they notice that therapy isn't a part of what I do, they realize that their future, truly the only thing they have left to manipulate for good, is something that I'm going to help them shape better than they would on their own. And they love it.

So, coaching simply isn't therapy. It's a philosophically coherent process of leading others down paths worth taking, paths that make sense and don't waste too much time reflecting on what's already been done.

Coaching is all about looking outside and looking forward. It's about deciding what you should do and why. On almost anything and everything, by the way.


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