Counseling, Psychotherapy, and Coaching: What’s the Difference?

The terms psychotherapy and counseling are often used interchangeably, but many people believe that there is a difference between them that is important for both clients and clinicians. That is why there are separate degrees and professional organizations for counselors and clinical psychologists.

I personally am a Licensed Professional Counselor, with a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. I am working toward my doctorate in Clinical Psychology, which will enable me to seek licensure as a Clinical Psychologist. So I have been well educated in both counseling psychology and clinical psychology, and I see the distinction between them as this:

Clinical Psychotherapy aims specifically to address diagnosable disorders in a way which decreases the presenting symptoms. For example, a clinician operating from the framework of clinical psychology will diagnose Major Depressive Disorder based on a number of diagnostic criteria, and will introduce psychological interventions targeted at reducing such symptoms as poor sleeping patterns, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. The most common modes of treatment here are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on the way that your thoughts affect your experiences, and relational psychotherapy, which focuses on the ways that your relationships and relational style affect your experiences. Psychodynamic psychotherapy has lost some popularity despite significant advances with substantial research support.

Counseling, while still a form of psychological treatment administered by a licensed healthcare professional, often takes a softer and more holistic approach. The focus on counseling tends to be more on facilitating the client’s own exploration of solutions for their problems. So you’ll often see counseling applied to more self-directed therapeutic goals, such as career counseling or drug counseling.

Personally, I see value in both of these approaches and will often switch between them as a therapy client progresses. Often people come to therapy for relief from a particular symptom, but then realize there are some other things they would like to work on in their lives. So a therapist needs to be flexible, in my opinion, to adjust to the changing needs of each client over time.

Coaching is not considered a treatment for any diagnosable disorder, but often resembles counseling. Coaching is usually aimed at generative change — ways to make your life better, rather than ways to fix things that are wrong. There are some specialized areas of coaching, such as business coaching, which should be administered by someone who is accomplished in both the areas of business that you’re seeking help with and the area of coaching. More commonly, people seek life coaching, and in my opinion this should be done only by people who are licensed psychology professionals. This is because the training that you receive in becoming a counselor or psychotherapist gives you the ability to understand the delicate psychological balance that makes up a person’s style of living, and how to safely make adjustments to that balance.

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