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When I began training in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, I had been a life coach for over 6 years. I had a schtick that was focused on structure, strategies, and accountability. And it worked well for most of my clients.

But some of my clients found it difficult to keep their commitments or change their behaviors. They all hired me to help them make changes in their lives but often my approach didn’t make much of a difference.

Then I started using what I learned in my IFS training with my coaching clients. What a difference this made!

In the following article, I explain the difference between therapy and coaching and even more specifically about the difference between IFS Coaching and IFS therapy.

If you are thinking about making some changes in your life and are convinced that your efforts to make those changes on your own aren’t working, it may be time to find some support. My hope is that this article will help you decide which approach better fits your needs – therapy or coaching.

In my opinion, the difference between therapy and coaching is that therapy is primarily for healing and coaching is primarily for personal growth and development. In my experience, a degree of healing is required to make personal growth and development possible.

But this distinction gets blurred when a coach is trained as an IFS Practitioner to help the client heal the past.

Now, when trying to understand and explain the difference between coaching and therapy, the answer is more blended and not so black and white. I will, then, attempt to identify a clear distinction between IFS therapy and IFS coaching.

If a client needs some degree of healing, that need will be revealed in the coaching process. A life coach helps the client identify the gap between the life they have and the life they want and then helps the client close that gap. That means that the client will be challenged to change and grow.

Eventually the client will experience some internal resistance to change and growth. Some clients may be able to push past the resistance and take the actions necessary to effect the desired changes and get the desired results. But in many cases, enough resistance shows up to stop the client from making progress.

That’s where IFS helps in coaching. What part of the client is resisting? What parts of the client are threatened by the change? Using the IFS model, resistance can be understood, appreciated, and eventually transformed into a more unified internal response to the growth and development process.

To heal means to restore to wholeness. Someone who is not psychologically whole (someone who needs to heal) is someone who views and responds to life from conflicted states of mind. This conflict of the mind influences thoughts, emotions, impulses, choices, and reactions.

That is why healing the source of those conflicts is required to increase capacity for personal development and growth. Restoring wholeness results in a more cohesive and unified internal response to life’s circumstances.

A whole and unified mind could also be thought of as an integrated mind. The words integrated, integrity, and disintegration all point to a degree of wholeness. An individual with enough wholeness (most parts are integrated with the whole) will respond to the circumstances of their lives in a way that accurately reflects those circumstances. This individual has the capacity for personal development and growth.

But an individual with unresolved past experiences has some degree of internal disintegration. Parts have broken away from the whole to manage the beliefs and emotions that were never resolved. This diminished internal integrity impacts thoughts, emotions, impulses, choices, and reactions so that the client’s state of being is more reflective of the unresolved past than of present circumstances and conditions.

The internal resources devoted to managing the fallout of the unhealed past can change the way a person views the current circumstances of their lives.

We all do our best to manage our internal conflict. Some can do this with a high level of functionality. Others struggle to function well in one or more areas of life.

For example, someone who excels in their career may struggle with personal relationships. Someone who seems to do well in relationships may struggle with career. Someone who seems to have it all together may secretly struggle with anxiety or depression.

IFS enables the coach to prioritize the client’s personal growth and development while meeting the need for healing when it reveals itself. But when the need for healing becomes greater than the capacity for growth and development, it may be more appropriate to make a referral to an IFS trained therapist.

The balance between the need for healing and the capacity for growth is determined by the degree of resistance to personal growth and development and the success that use of the IFS model has in resolving that resistance.

If a client’s need for healing is greater than their capacity for personal growth and development, the coach and client are at a choice point.

  • Is the client better served temporarily with a season of therapy to increase their capacity for personal growth and development?
  • Will a combination of coaching and therapy work best?
  • Is it within the capacity and skillset of the coach to provide healing sessions using IFS until the client’s capacity for growth and personal development has sufficiently increased?

A frank and candid discussion between the client and coach and a consultation with a therapist will help inform this choice.

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