Coaching is Cool

I posted this quote from last week’s blog post on Instagram that sparked some fascinating discussion in the comments:

Mental health coaches can do what they can do because they are completely unregulated, unlike therapists who are highly regulated by laws, boards, and ethics.

Taken at face value, this reads like an attack on coaching. It comes off as a suggestion that a regulated industry is better than an unregulated one, that therapy is better than coaching, that therapists are better than coaches. I don’t think that – at least I don’t think that anymore. 

I used to think that therapy was better than coaching. I used to think regulation meant a guarantee of safety, or at least a guarantee of fair consequences if safety was violated. I used to equate regulation with good mental health treatment. I learned to think this way from a myriad of sources, but to name a few: 

  • Graduate school teaches a deep bias toward measurables and systems in power. Higher education and state governments as well as national and state boards determine what must be taught in mental health graduate programs in order for them to gain and retain accreditation. These programs must be accredited to attract students who must become licensed to attract clients who must be insured to seek treatment. Round and round we go.
  • Capitalism depends on rats running the race. A race full of obstacles to overcome and hoops to jump through and fees and fines and distractions. It teaches us to chase money, but to do it a certain way, and if we don’t do it the “right” way, we can’t be trusted. Feels like a Catch-22 for most of us.
  • Cultural biases, especially in my family of origin, family in law, and religion of origin, heavily favor formal education and professional work. In both families, going back generations, and in the greater religious community that surrounded these families, everyone goes to college. Everyone is expected to seek out a high-paying, respectable profession. There is heavy bias toward Ivy League schools, graduate level degrees, and professional titles. I’ve heard life coaching mocked as not real work by multiple people in my personal life.

Some of the comments on last week’s post were from therapists who had to work through similar internalized messaging before they were able to become coaches. I so relate to this; I had my own battles to fight to directly confront all those powerful influences listed above. I remember saying to my business coach that becoming a coach felt like giving myself a demotion. (I cringe at that now; I was basically telling her that her title as a coach was lower than mine as a therapist.) My coach validated my fear (and didn’t take it personally), then, over the course of several months, helped me unpack all the messaging and biases that were driving that fear. She helped me get to the perspective I hold now.

Which is this:

Mental health coaches can do what they do – work freely with anyone, anywhere; find the right-fit clients without the bounds of geography; help more people more efficiently; bring new skills and resources to their clients without waiting for the sign-off of a supervisor, board, or program – because they are completely unregulated. Lack of regulation means lack of obstacles to overcome and hoops to jump through. Lack of external regulation means self-regulation and self-accountability get to move to the forefront. Lack of distracting obstacles and high hoops means more time, energy, and money for training and experiences that can serve clients rather than licensing boards. Therapists are highly regulated by laws, boards, and ethics – which means they are regularly pulled from their businesses and clients to attend required training or risk losing their license. Their rates go up in order to fund increasing licensing and continued education fees rather than to further improve their applicable skills and expand their businesses. Instead of spending money on serving their clients, therapists are spending money on preserving their licensure. Between increasing fees, the threat of audits, and necessary legal counsel, therapists are spending much of their time, energy, and, yep, money on avoiding a regulation violation. Time, energy, and money that could be used to build better businesses and help more people.

Laws, ethics, capitalism, and fear keep therapists on a very short leash. In other words: “Our licensing boards are crippling us.”

Coaching offers the freedom to not only work with anyone, anywhere, but to practice self-trust and -determination. Coaches get to design their own careers, create innovative business models, and offer imaginative services; in fact, coaching as a field tends to support innovation while the therapy fields smother innovation. Therapy training favors the blank-slate mentality and encourages therapists to leave themselves at the door.

These comparisons are broad stroke generalities at best and perhaps grotesque oversimplifications at worst. I don’t pretend to know everything, but what I know for sure is that all of the therapy supervision I’ve had, with little exception, has been encouragement coated with fear. The concern around licensure dominated every interaction with supervisors, whose licenses were on the line if any of their interns committed a regulatory violation. The coaching I’ve had (to help me become a coach) has been full of fuck-it dreaming and scheming. I’ve felt nothing but supported, lifted up, and celebrated as I evolve toward coaching. 

I want to echo one of the generous commenters from last week’s post: Rather than trying to determine whether coaching or therapy is better overall, the better conversation to have is whether coaching or therapy is better for you. Rather than pitting coaches against therapists, let’s work together to better serve our communities. Let’s together adopt an abundance mindset: There’s plenty of business for us all, there’s plenty of help to go around, there’s plenty of work to be done.

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