I walked into my very first appointment with a therapist around the age of 12. I don’t remember if there was a particular instance that led my parents to make that appointment for me. But that session kicked off the start of a long relationship with various therapists’ couches that would go on for the next 30 years, leading me to wonder: was therapy keeping me stuck?
I regularly saw therapists through my 20s. After an unexpected and painful divorce in my 30s, those appointments became staples in my weekly schedule. But once I hit my early 40s and found myself on yet another couch, talking about the same issues (my childhood, my weight, my divorce), I became frustrated. It felt like I was on a hamster wheel that only went in the direction of my past. I had heard about life coaching, which, truth be told, sounded fairly ridiculous, totally self-serving, and probably something only people in higher income brackets would consider. But I wanted off the hamster wheel. What would happen if I quit therapy and hired a coach instead?
Therapy versus coaching
It’s important to distinguish between the work done by therapists and coaches. According to Tony Robbins International, therapy, often called counseling, “is a long-term process in which a client works with a healthcare professional to diagnose and resolve problematic beliefs, behaviors, relationship issues, feelings, and sometimes physical responses.” Key words here are “medical professional,” “diagnose,” and “long-term.” Psychologists (talk therapy) and psychiatrists (who have the ability to prescribe medication) have gone through years of schooling to be able to do what they do. They have to pass board exams, regularly prove their credentials through re-certifications, and keep up on trends within their industry.
Coaches, on the other hand, can fall into a wide range of education and experience. Some might have just as much schooling as a therapist, while others may have simply slapped together a website and added “Coach” to his or her title. Also, insurance usually covers therapy but not coaching, which is something to consider when looking to hire a coach.
Focusing on the NOW
The biggest difference between the two is that coaching deals almost exclusively with the NOW. Coaching relationships can be long or short-term, but the focus is generally on clarifying goals and removing obstacles to those goals. Coaches tend to look at the client as whole and undamaged from the start, whereas therapists often focus on healing specific wounds from the past (like childhood issues and other traumas). Therapy can entail a lot of introspection. For instance, some methods, like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), mentally guide the client back to traumatic events in the hopes of finding a resolve.
Bridge over troubled water
In my case, by the time I’d reached my 40s and had logged countless hours re-hashing my past pains, I hit the proverbial brick wall. I saw no end in sight to fully and truly moving past my injuries. I still talked about how my struggles with self-esteem stemmed from never feeling good enough as a young girl – good enough in areas like my grades, my friends, or my appearance. This manifested itself in many ways, most notably a terribly low sense of self-worth, anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, and a bit of alcohol abuse for good measure. I was a master at using just about anything to numb out from my uncomfortable emotions. I thought I was too weak to handle anything.
My story is far from unique. Many of the women I know – hell, probably MOST of the women I know – battle with the same demons. But, at some point, we have to get to the place where we can put that heavy baggage down, know it’s not ours anymore, and walk away.
Forging a new path
Of course, it’s not that easy to simply walk away from behaviors and thought patterns ingrained in our psyches through years of practice. Think of it like a path leading from our house to a lake. If we walked the exact same path every single day for years and years, our feet will know the way without giving it much thought. One day, we decide we’re sick of stumbling over the same branches and getting the same brambles stuck in our socks. We start to look for another path that can take us to the lake.
Creating that path involves hacking through the tall grass and moving the rocks out of the way in order to build the smooth road we’re after. We can’t do all that in one day. But with practice and coaching, we can get up every day and walk that new path until it becomes the well-worn road to our beautiful lake.
Narrow the focus
Recently I have worked with two coaches, both focused on physical and mental health. Sure, my relationships with my parents and ex-husband came up, but it wasn’t the focus. The focus was and is on what I can do today to move closer to my goals. My coaches both had structured programs that involved a combination of recorded lessons, writing, and regular one-on-one check-ins through Skype. One had a private Facebook group where I could connect with other people also forging their own new paths through coaching.
How to hire a coach
Curious how coaching may work for you? Get started with these tips:
- Determine a specific future-focused goal you’re ready to work for. Many coaches specialize in areas such as career, health, or relationships. Hire a coach who is experienced in helping people achieve their specific goals.
- Decide if you want a local, face-to-face relationship, or if working remotely with an online coach will meet your needs.
- Check accreditation. While there isn’t much regulation on the coaching industry, an organization called the International Coach Federation accredits coaching programs and vouches that they meet certain standards.
- Investigate the coach’s methodologies. Ask about the structure of the program and see if it matches up with your preferred learning style.
- Be willing to set a time frame to achieve your goals. And commit to actively working toward them every day.
- Evaluate cost and availability. Going broke to hire a coach isn’t the idea! Make sure payment fits in your budget. Find out if the coach will be reachable on a schedule that works for you.
- Schedule a consultation. Most offer a free, short initial session. Use this time to gauge if you feel safe and comfortable. Let your gut and intuition tell you if it’s a good fit.
There may come a time where some old pattern becomes so much of a hindrance that I find myself back on a therapist’s couch to work through it. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean I failed or am regressing. I firmly believe I needed those years of therapy in order to get to a place where I could set down that baggage and walk away. That’s something I may need to do again.
In the meantime, I’m hacking away at that tall grass and moving the rocks out to the way on my new path, with no hamster wheel in sight.