The ambiguous land between coaching and therapy

by | Oct 5, 2022

Jill Mueller is a trainer, coach, and learning experience designer dedicated to helping people teams become high performing by being Thoughtfully Fit.


“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! That’s not appropriate here.”

I paused and looked at Beth for a moment, waiting for her to continue. Beth looked down at her shoes, visibly embarrassed.

“We don’t need to talk about my frustrations with my dad saying I should get a real job instead of pursuing my passion.” She glanced up at me.

“I mean, you’re not my therapist, Jill.”

And so, once more, I found myself as a coach in that ambiguous land where coaching and therapy seem to intersect.

Beth was right – I’m not a therapist. But coaches talk about feelings too. You know, feelings sparked by that voice in your head that sounds an awful lot like your mom when she’s mad. Or that girl from middle school who raised her eyebrows during your presentation and made you feel about two inches tall. Because these voices often bring up difficult feelings, and they come up in coaching all the time.

Here at Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting, we’re big believers in the value of both coaching and therapy. Indeed, both Darcy and myself have had numerous coaches and therapists ourselves. But they’re valuable for different reasons.


Therapists are trained to help you unpack things from your past. Depending on your situation, that could include trauma you want to heal from so you can have a more functional life in the present.

This doesn’t mean the only people who go to therapy are those with psychological disorders. Sure, if you’ve experienced things like PTSD, depression, anxiety, BPD or schizophrenia, you can benefit from therapy that’s specifically tailored to your situation.

But there are also plenty of high-functioning people who go to therapy (I raise my hand here!). Sometimes, there’s value in talking things through to get another perspective, or to process feelings, or because you don’t want to lean solely on your spouse and friends. For some people, therapy is a regular part of their self-care.

Compared with friends and family, a therapist is more likely to explore your situation from a specific psychological perspective. Often, they’ll draw from one or more scientifically validated schools of therapy to do this, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Rational-Emotive Therapy, or Family Systems Therapy.


As coaches, we’re not here to diagnose our clients as a therapist might. A therapist’s diagnosis comes from their extensive training and expertise about what constitutes psychological wholeness, and so they work with the client to move them in that direction.

When you come to coaching, you are the expert in your life, not your coach. Notably, this is true even if it’s not clear what you want to do – or if you don’t feel like an expert! We make the assumption that you’re already naturally whole, as well as creative and resourceful.

Whereas therapy often (but not always) looks back at your past to help you heal, coaching is generally forward-looking. A good coach will look at who you are today, explore who you want to be in the future, and help you design actions and accountability to achieve that vision and reach your goals. Often, working to get Thoughtfully Fit in coaching will involve discovering a new perspective you hadn’t considered before.

As the story of Beth shows, sometimes people think that emotionally-charged subjects don’t belong in coaching. But this isn’t true. I’ve witnessed emotions across the spectrum – from tears of sadness to tears of joy – and all the shades of gray in between. Both coaching and therapy are places of vulnerability.

As coaches, we acknowledge the impact of feelings and address what needs to happen moving forward. But we won’t dig deeper into things that may have happened in the past to influence those feelings in the way a therapist might.

The interplay between coaching and therapy

Have you ever found you can talk about the same issue with two different friends, get two very different perspectives, and appreciate both of them? That’s a bit like how the relationship between coaching and therapy works.

I’ve had clients who worked with a therapist in parallel to our coaching, because there was value in exploring their topic through multiple lenses.

Other times, clients have hit the pause button on coaching, gone to therapy, and then came back to the coaching afterwards. For some topics, like self-esteem or family of origin dynamics, time spent looking at the past in therapy can provide you with a beneficial foundation to look towards the future in coaching.

I can even think of one particular client where we coached around the value of therapy. They had been struggling to pull the trigger on an important decision and realized some past trauma was holding them back. Unpacking the issues behind that decision in therapy helped make it possible for them to start making the changes they were desiring.

Wrapping up

Ultimately, every person’s journey is different, so the interplay between coaching and therapy will look different from person to person. What we can say is that both therapy and coaching can be life-changing experiences – albeit in different ways.

In Beth’s case, I conveyed to her that therapy would be a great place to dig into why her feelings about her father were coming up for her and where that stems from. But the topic wasn’t off limits in coaching. We explored how she wanted to navigate those feelings moving forward – without getting into the history of where they generated.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how our coaching works, please feel free to send us a message. We’d be honored to support you and would love to work with you!

PS: Do you want to learn more about the difference between coaching and therapy? Darcy recorded a YouTube video about that – go check it out!

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