Coaching or Psychotherapy? Which is right for you?

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       In recent weeks I have had several clients ask me what the difference is between executive coaching, psychotherapy, positive psychology coaching, and supportive psychotherapy. In general many people don’t know the difference between coaching and therapy and find it difficult to decide who to call to successfully reach their goals.

     Due to limited space I cannot describe the differences among these modalities in detail but let me outline a few key distinctions that may clarify the direction you might want to pursue.

   Psychotherapy that explores how the past relates to the present is called psychodynamic, basically exploring the cause and effect of life circumstances. Supportive psychotherapy is more present based, does not delve into the past because the client may not be resilient enough to cope with deeper work, or because the individual does not require more than a supportive relationship to attain their desired outcome. Certified coaches and positive psychology coaches’ focus on present issues related to lifestyle, work situations, health, and personal issues with clear strategies to achieve positive results.                                 

Many clinical psychologists use both psychotherapy and coaching modalities. They decide through a comprehensive evaluation which modality is best suited to a client’s needs and capabilities. Several psychotherapeutic methods focus exclusively on the present akin to the present focus of coaching approaches. Certified coaches are also trained to focus on present oriented strategies and are taught to refer clients to licensed mental health clinicians when history seems to interfere with current functioning.

     In my view there is one major issue that differentiates practitioners and the approaches they use: when to explore the past and when to focus exclusively on the present and future. I have found over the years that clients are often indecisive as to which direction they should pursue. I have interviewed people who think they want coaching when in fact they really need to work out historical hurts that are hampering their current life. On the other hand I have worked with people convinced they need to be-labor the past when they really need to be strategizing on how to establish a healthier lifestyle in the present. Unfortunately if you place yourself in the hands of an inexperienced practitioner you could be headed down the wrong path for a very long time, wasting your resources while experiencing a disappointing outcome.

     So what are the indicators telling you which way to proceed? If you have written a story about yourself that is negative in nature it will dominate your life experience and rob you of ever reaching your potential. If you received an adequate amount of empathy early in life, emerged with a positive story about whom you are and what you are capable of, you don’t need to focus on the past. My golden rule is if the past is interfering with the present it needs attention, if the past is not a factor in terms of current dilemma’s then it is not necessary to focus on history.

   How do you know if the past is interfering in your current life? It is quite difficult to determine alone, as one of my European clients recently remarked, “The camel never sees its own hump”. Ask those close to you if they see a pattern in your behavior. Patterns, good or bad, reveal historical learning’s and certainly reveal the story you have written about yourself over time.

     A client of mine was referred a few months ago by his HR department because he was having difficulty working for a female manager and was not advancing within his department. According to the HR representative his manager is a person who speaks with authority, is known for being a powerful strategist with a no –nonsense approach to those who work for and with her. My client wanted a brief coaching experience to develop better strategies to cope with what he considered her “cold, arrogant and uncaring behavior” as well as his belief that she was limiting his potential. He wanted strategies to address his superior successfully but had little interest in exploring his past or considering how his personal roots may be related to his current perceptions.

    Ultimately he humored me and told me about his family background. His alcoholic mother, an attorney who was noted for being feared in court as well as being feared by her passive husband was the dominant figure in his early childhood. My client grew up feeling anxious in his mother’s presence due to her unyielding perfectionism which was made worse by her lack of affection. My client witnessed his father taking a helpless stance and retreating with obvious dissatisfaction. You get the picture as to how his old story could dominate his current thinking and perceptions. Without re-writing his fictitious account of himself, particularly the chapter that indicated he would be humiliated in the presence of strong woman he would be doomed to continual anxiety and doubt about himself.

     Often there is resistance to exploring the past for fear that one will get lost in an un-ending maze and never emerge with clarity. Conversely there is often fear from those who dwell on the past that they will be expected to change and be held accountable if they move forward. There is a time to encourage people to take action, to develop coping strategies to improve their lives and there is a time to re-visit the past and discover and conquer those aspects of our histories that are inaccurate and holding us in a fixed, unproductive position.

   A seasoned clinician can help you determine the direction that is best for you. Remember, we often want what we don’t need and need what we don’t want. I encourage those of you who realize you’re not reaching the place in life you truly desire to seek consultation in an effort to obtain objective feedback to gain clarity regarding the dynamics that may be holding you back from the happiness and satisfaction you deserve. If I can be of help in your pursuits please feel free to contact me directly. apc

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Arthur Ciaramicoli PhD

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