What Is the Difference Between Therapy, Coaching & Mentoring?

I often have clients asking me, "What is the difference between therapy, coaching and mentoring?"

Here's how I see it.

Artwork by Silver, illustrating the difference between therapy, coaching and mentoring.
When things happen in the present that turn us to the past, in ways that impede us, we are in therapy territory.

Therapy helps us to integrate the past into the present. 

This is particularly relevant to coaching and mentoring. "How so?" you might ask.

Well, we could be working on a goal that you want to accomplish in your life but you constantly find yourself:

  • Coming up against narratives that keep holding you back, like, "You're not allowed to, you're not good enough, how dare you..." 
  • Experiencing overwhelming feelings of helplessness and worthlessness, or anger and frustration, or fear and anxiety, that impact your ability to move forwards with ease.

That's very often indicative of work that needs to be done in a therapy session with your licensed mental healthcare professional.

Sometimes, the indicators may not be so obvious:

  • Obsessing about the future is never about the future. Often, it is about inability to stay in the present due to unresolved woundings from the past.
  • Chronic distractibility that refuses to respond to any methodologies in the present are often legitimate neurodifferences that are also interacting with past woundings.

Therapy provides a safe space and container with professional guidance where you will have the support to gently understand how the past is impacting you in ways that are contrary to your present day needs and wants. Most importantly, therapy helps you learn how you can heal and resolve the wounds, ghosts and echoes that linger in you, so that you can integrate past into present compassionately and be free to move on joyfully.

When we want something in the future, we turn to the present to make it happen. This is coaching territory.

Coaching helps us to grow our future from the present.

Where therapy looks to the past, coaching looks to the future.

Some visualisation methodologies extol needing to know exactly how you want your future to look and feel in exquisite detail in order for you to create it. Not necessarily, and for some of us, that simply doesn't work.

Sometimes, when you want to get somewhere truly new in your life, you need to not know because what you know is not what you want. So, if what you know is all you know, what then?

As a child, I read something in a fiction book that has stuck with me ever since:

"Create a better present. Then our future will be as wonderful as we can possibly make it."

Our future is born from our present. We don't have to know what our future will be in order to create it and know that it will be what we want.

A client once asked me, "How can I know how to get to where I want to be?" Do your best in the now, create a better present, moment by moment. That is how you grow the space from which your future will be born. 

This is where, and how, coaching work takes place. We work on your future, from the now.

This is not about controlling outcomes, for we cannot. Rather, this is about consistently laying a strong foundation in every moment from which your future can and will emerge.

When we reflect on both past and future to bring wisdom from both into the present, we are in mentoring territory.

Mentoring gives us the long view of both past and future in the present.

It reveals the long patterns in our lives, the types of patterns we rarely see on our own due to our natural blindspots. It requires for someone to observe and get to know you over a period of time, while also seeing the best in you and believing in your inherent capability and resourcefulness to get to where you want to be.

Mentoring is like the meta, or mindfulness, for both coaching and therapy, bringing the wisdom of both past learnings and future wants into the present for reflection.

In therapy, we take action to integrate the past. In coaching, we take action to actualise the future. These are spaces of doing. Mentoring is a space for being. It is the overarching container for both therapy and coaching that empowers both.

In mentoring, we sit and observe past, present and future from a space of wonder and curiosity. Insights arise from this meta space that provide powerful guidance and direction in often unexpected ways and forms. We learn to witness our life as a compassionate cheerleader and be open to serendipitous wisdom.

In my personal opinion, mentoring is where the magic happens, yet it is rarely visible. To me, sometimes, mentoring is like having a benevolent being sit in-session with us—coach and client—smiling, listening silently and intently. Then all of a sudden, gently leaning in with a pithy insight that drops like a bomb for both coach and client! Boom!

Therapy, coaching and mentoring provide three very different yet equally vital supports for our work as leaders.

All are invaluable professional supports for thriving as individuals, because, in my view, because no matter where we are, and what we are moving towards, we will always be working with the past, present and future of our lives in different ways.

As leaders, however, I strongly feel that having therapy, coaching and mentoring are not only vital, but indispensable, to helping us do our best work, for our communities and for the world.

Leadership challenges us to bring our best and whole selves to the work we do, and we cannot, should not, do this work alone. We need networks of support, both personal and professional. Therapy, coaching and mentoring fall under professional supports.

Being a leader, at any scale and in any domain, is confronting work. Without dedicated inner and outer work and support, all of us are vulnerable to letting our unconscious, shadow parts hijack our best intentions and influence our actions.

Therapy can help us as leaders to:

Leadership asks you to lead from the cutting edge of an often still emerging future. As leaders, we do our best work when we are comfortable with sensing into the unseen and uncertain, pulling forth that which is unknown and unformed and making it real for ourselves and for others.

Coaching can help us as leaders to:
  • Ground and centre our decisions, actions and work in the present, as whole, multi-dimensional and embodied beings, while looking to the emergent future for inspiration and guidance, and
  • Work with creativity, the art and science of bringing the unformed and intangible—ideas, feelings and sensations—into tangible form for others to interact with and benefit from,

Finally, leadership requires us to sense and work with scales far beyond the self. Leadership requires for us to learn how to set self aside without abandoning self, in order to witness and work with conflicting dimensions mindfully and compassionately. 

Mentoring can help us as leaders to:
  • Become more aware of our blindspots of differences of experiences, diversity of dimensions and vastness of scales outside of our narrow self and world view through reflection and mindfulness, and
  • Be open and receptive to intuitive and serendipitous wisdom that shows up at unexpected times (the shower, or the toilet, anyone?) and in unexpected forms, even unexpected means.
Are you a neurodifferent leader looking for coaching and mentoring support?

I provide an integrated coaching and mentoring approach to support neurodifferent adults who wish to live and lead with integrity and authenticity, and have meaningful connection and relationship with others, in their personal, professional and global lives.


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