Do I need coaching or counseling?

As a trained psychotherapist who has practiced community mental health, I understand there is a legitimate question as to whether you may need mental health services or whether coaching is appropriate. Feeling depressed or anxious, for instance,  is a natural part of life that may get in the way of feeling satisfied with your life or pursuing your goals.  So you may wonder what is the best experience to resolve your dissatisfaction or help you pursue your goals?   Unfortunately the answer is not clear-cut and varies from person to person and at different times in your life. A well-trained coach can assist with learning what’s best for you during an initial interview or in the course of coaching. Being honest and clear with yourself is critical for your optimal and long-term wellness and success.

What coaches are not

Coached by Christine Coach training does not involve a study or a treatment of mental health diagnoses, as coaches are not licensed to provide diagnoses or treatments of anxiety, depression, trauma, bi-polar disorder, substance use or abuse, and many more conditions. Someone with any of these challenges should consult a licensed mental health professional, such as a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed clinical psychologist, or licensed medical doctor whose specialty is psychiatry (MD). Mental illness has patterns and origins that all of these skilled professional have studied and practiced so they can help you navigate towards stabilization and wellness.

What coaches are

Coach training explores patterns of human behavior, especially pertaining to uncovering mental and emotional blocks, neutralizing limiting beliefs, negotiating the journey to desired changes, strategizing for self expression, mastering new competencies, and improving communication with loved ones and colleagues, to name just a few themes. Coaches provide opportunities to get honest with yourself, name the direction of the coaching, and get support to accomplish this goal.  coached by christine

Coaches are popping up everywhere across many fields. Did you know you now can find relationship coaches? How about a coach to develop your intuition? Of course, you have heard of business coaches and nutrition coaches, but there are also coaches to help you love your body and feel more sensual, learn to manage your life in another country, start your own on-line business, or help you follow through with your retirement planning.
Coaching is the opportunity to explore how you operate and move towards your desired outcomes with a recognition of self-responsibility, a focus on self-exploration, and how to take realistic actions. Those ready for coaching have intermediate levels of self-control and self-mastery in most sectors of their lives, which they can draw from to analyze and reorganize themselves and experiment with new approaches to behaving, working, and seeing the world in ways that benefit them. They are frequently motivated by a vision of what they desire and a capacity to introspect.

Similarities between coaching and counseling

coached by christineThere are core experiences where coaching and counseling might look similar. Sometimes coaching will happen in a counseling session. For instance, if you are working with an LPC on issues of trauma related to past sexual abuse, your counselor will help you renegotiate the way you manage your emotions when you are triggered, so you can build capacity in your nervous system to tolerate tricky situations. You learn you don’t have to bolt out the door to feel safe. After gaining this stabilization, you can challenge yourself to try new situations, such as apply for a job you may have previously considered to be beyond your reach. Your counselor then shifts into coach mode, supporting your exploration of how you will imagine success and planning how to achieve this. Your counselor remains encouraging, explores setbacks, and supports your refocus when you get off track. If you are triggered again and feel the flight/fight impulse interfering with your forward momentum, your counselor shifts back to mental health mode to continue working towards your wellness, resolving the remnants of the trauma,  so that you can get to that job interview. Coaching is well within the counselor’s skill set and objectives to support you.
coached by christine

Sometimes counseling moments happen in coaching, but it will be still be coaching because it is designed to limit deep exploration of unresolved past issues that are associated with significant pain. A counseling moment might be characterized as providing deep empathy and validation and is a natural response from the coach when there is a strong emotional response to a life event or an important matter that arises during coaching. For instance, you are getting coached on how to divide responsibilities more fairly in your home by breaking the long-standing patterns that are interfering with your self-care and wellness. The coach asks you, “How important is this to you?” At that moment, a wave of emotion wells up and you feel the magnitude of how much you have been over-performing at home to make up for weak communication with your partner. You shed a tear or two, you feel heat all over your body.  The strong emotion was unexpected, but did not overwhelm you. You take a few minutes to feel the wave, then gradually compose yourself and sigh, realizing how happy you are to have a coach help you navigate the changes that you need to implement. The coach validates the strong feelings and importance to you and then asks, “Where do we begin?”

Which is the better fit?

Sometimes it’s tricky to know if you might need counseling or coaching. Here are some examples of where coaching may be the best fit:

  • You are currently working with a licensed mental health professional and want to work with a coach on building specific skills, executing actions toward goals, developing new habits.
  • You have completed some episodes of care with a licensed mental health provider and feel ready to tackle specific topics that represent forward motion.
  • If you have learned to live with chronic anxiety or are functioning with depression and know how to use your excellent coping skills, you may be ready for coaching.

Here are some examples of when counseling sounds right:

  • If there is long-standing anxiety or depression that has not been treated and is interfering your ability to work, socialize, stay well, and maintain a positive outlook on life.
  • If you exhibit bi-polar or manic behaviors with or without medications.
  • If you have challenges with substance use or abuse even if you are functioning on a daily basis.
  • If you sustained a recent trauma from any type of accident or assault or even have experienced difficulty with immigration, dealing with law enforcement, or natural disasters, and have flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, have trouble sleeping, or have noticed mood changes since the incident.
  • If you are encountering difficulty after the loss of someone to divorce, separation, or death and are having difficulty moving forward after several months.

During the coaching process, will I need counseling?

During the coaching process, anyone can encounter some challenging issues that trigger sadness, anger, shame, guilt, and anxiety. This is the time for the coach to invite the client to track himself and discuss the impact of their strong feelings and sensations.

coached by christine

If the client can self-observe, self-monitor, self-stabilize, and share aspects of the experience, he is likely demonstrating he can remain in the coaching relationship while processing important but difficult experiences.

Some clients may recognize a tender or vulnerable part and make the connection with a past hurt, trauma, or missing experience. If this recognition is pervasive and requires exploration of the past with a need to process the associated pain, it may be moving beyond the scope of the coaching process. A coach is equipped to walk alongside the client and help them attend to their whole person, but are equipped only so far to provide appropriate evidence-based treatment for acute or chronic mental health states that interfere with a client’s forward momentum.


It is time for referral to a mental health professional, if you are:

  • Frequently triggered during a coaching session and lack a self-soothing capacity;
  • Unable to manage feelings of sadness, shame, depression or anger during a session;
  • Severely derailed by remembering the source of the triggered emotion;
  • Demonstrate frequent resistance to coaching techniques;
  • Repeatedly fail to reach your own goals;
  • Notice shifts or changes in your outlook on life that includes feeling hopeless or suicidal;
  • Hold a blame-centric point of reference and are unable to take responsibility for yourself;
  • Experience episodes of being intensely productive followed by depression.

Each client is unique in their presentation and the challenges they face; their mental health shifts and changes during the course of their lifetime based on experiences, their biology, and the way they view themselves. Anyone may benefit from mental health care and, or, coaching at different times and fortunately now there are many types of counselors and coaches to meet everyone’s needs.

Looking for a counselor? One of the easiest ways is to ask a good friend for a recommendation. Otherwise, many of my colleagues list themselves on the directory sponsored by Psychology Today.

Need a coach? Coach training has proliferated recently. I recommend that you seek out a coach certified by the International Coaching Federation that accredits coach schools and requires completion of hours and an exam to become a Certified Professional Coach. They also provide a directory to help you find a good fit with a coach.

Written by Christine Brodmerkel MACP, a Certified Professional Coach from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching. She comes to coaching after receiving her Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the Institute on Transpersonal Psychology and serving in community mental health in Charlottesville, Virginia. Christine specializes in connecting clients to their inner wisdom to make excellent decisions and enjoy life to the fullest!

Author: Christine Brodmerkel

Transformational Life and Leadership Coach

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