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My Career Is in the Doldrums...
Do I Need a Coach or a Therapist?

By Nina Ham

Is Monday the worst day of your week? Can you hardly remember when you enjoyed going to work? Do friends ask why you seem so down? Maybe this has been going on awhile, and you’re realizing it’s time to do something.

But where do you turn? At one moment you tell yourself “It’s just my career…Change that, and everything will be OK”. Another moment, you acknowledge you’re living under a cloud and a lot of old emotional ghosts are returning. Your friend who’s recommending you consult her therapist may be right.

Your uncertainty is understandable. Work itself is never “just work” but can reach deep into our attitudes toward ourselves and into our sense of belonging in the world. Furthermore, therapy and coaching have much in common and differ primarily in the emphasis each places on action and understanding. Whether you decide to deal with your work issues through a practical approach or a psychological approach is a matter of choice. The questions posed below should help you make that choice.

Are you an action person or an insight person?
Most people are both, in some mix, but they instinctively approach change either by setting it in motion with action or by first assessing and preparing for its emotional impact. A shy mid-level manager, for example, who has taken on new responsibilities that involve public speaking, may gravitate toward a Toastmasters group for help. She would be a candidate for coaching if she wanted to develop her mastery further. Or she might prefer to look toward therapy as a setting in which she could explore her anxieties about being in the spotlight.

What’s your track record for converting personal desires and dreams into real-time? Although all of us may have periods of doubting whether we deserve work we love and are good at, being able to sustain a commitment to having what you want is essential for coaching. If you find yourself stuck in daydreaming about the ideal career, or perhaps avoiding or sabotaging efforts to create it for yourself, it may be that you’re blocked by low self-esteem and/or depression. In this case, therapy might be the better choice, to help you build a positive investment in yourself.

Holding your feet to the fire…too hot?
In the process of revitalizing your career, there’s plenty of research to be done: research into yourself – who you are now and what you want – and research into the marketplace. A therapist would accompany you in researching yourself but would only indirectly participate in your market research. Homework and accountability are generally built into coaching, designed by you and your coach. Whether you find accountability motivating and focusing, or unwelcome pressure, should help inform your decision.

Do you want an expert or a companion?
A therapist will invite you to go deeply into issues that may be blocking or confusing you, and may draw on his or her expertise to challenge your definition of the problem. A coach will invite you to co-create the goals and design of the coaching, and your stated agenda will be the focus unless you decide to change it. Both therapist and coach will help you see what you can’t see, but you remain more explicitly in charge of coaching than you would of therapy.

If you come to the conclusion that you want to look into psychotherapy, it ’s advisable to look for word-of-mouth recommendations whenever possible. Another possibility is to consult your local Mental Health Association. Many people find it empowering to ask for sample visits with at least two therapists before making their decision. If you decide on coaching, be sure to inquire about training, in addition to experience, as you’re looking for a coach. The International Coaching Federation maintains a credential that assures the client of a high level of both training and experience. And remember, nothing precludes doing therapy and coaching simultaneously. Some people find it a powerful duo. Good luck on your quest! 

Nina Ham, certified coach and licensed psychotherapist, is principal of Success from the Inside Out, providing individual coaching and teleseminars to build the skills, attitudes and habits for sustainable success in your career or business. She publishes a free monthly ezine. Visit her website at or email her at

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