Help! I need a therapist, a coach, a mentor … someone!

Apr 04, 2024

9 mins

Help! I need a therapist, a coach, a mentor … someone!
Rose Costello


No matter how focused and determined you are to succeed in your career, there comes a point in most people’s lives when you feel a bit stuck or that things are not working out the way you want. The lucky few have a wise elder on hand to dispense sage advice, whether that’s a parent, boss, or family friend. While we could all do with access to our own version of Professor Dumbledore—headmaster of Hogwarts and an example not just to Harry Potter but to us all—that’s not going to happen.

For the rest of us, there are experts in such areas as therapy, coaching, and mentoring. Evidence shows that each approach has value. Studies consistently show that behavioral and emotional interventions “work just as well or even better than medication to treat mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” according to Mental Health America. Coaching has been shown to have “a significant positive effect on individual effectiveness,” according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology that examined studies conducted over the past 30 years.

Mentoring is also effective, which is probably why 92% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs, with all of the Fortune top 50 using them as an “engagement and retention strategy.” Mentorship has an “outsize impact on a worker’s career across several measures,” according to research conducted for CNBC. More than nine in 10 workers (91%) who have a mentor are satisfied with their jobs, including more than half (57%) who are “very satisfied,” it says. In an earlier study of 1,000 employees conducted over five years at Sun Microsystems, 25% of those in the company’s mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared with 5% of those not in it, and they were promoted six times more often than their colleagues. Of the 1,348 chief executives surveyed for the 2020 Vistage CEO Confidence Index survey, 86% agreed that mentors have been a critical part of their career accomplishments.

That all sounds encouraging, but how do you know whose expertise is best suited to your needs? To help you answer that question, we canvassed experts in these three areas for their advice. 

How do you know which way to turn?

The roles of a psychotherapist, career coach, and mentor are fundamentally different, according to Jennifer Nurick, a psychotherapist, counselor, and author of Heal Your Anxious Attachment. A psychotherapist helps you to understand and resolve personal and mental health issues and emotional distress. “[Therapy] provides a safe space to explore your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and learn coping strategies to improve your mental health and overall well-being,” she says.

A career coach focuses on your professional life, helping you identify career goals, navigate career transitions, and improve job performance, she adds, but they might not recognize underlying issues that are causing you to falter. A mentor is typically someone in your field or industry who offers guidance, advice, and support based on their experience.

There are a few signs that you might benefit from therapy rather than going straight to a career coach or mentor, she says. “The first sign is experiencing considerable emotional distress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues that negatively impact your ability to function at work,” Nurick shares. “When personal issues—such as relationship problems, grief, or past traumas—start to affect your professional performance, a therapist can help you address these underlying issues.”

Another sign that therapy can support you at work is if you notice that “receiving feedback or handling conflict at work triggers disproportionate emotional responses or distress,” she says. Therapy can help explore and address these reactions.

You can assess what kind of support you need by being mindful and thinking about your feelings and behaviors and how you cope with challenges at work and in your personal life. “Pay attention to persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or stress, especially if they’re affecting your work or personal relationships,” says Nurick. “Reflect on whether the issues you’re facing are primarily personal, emotional, or psychological, which might indicate a need for therapy, or if they’re specifically related to career development, suggesting that a career coach or mentor would be more beneficial.”

Nurick gives the example of how therapy helped her with an issue that was holding her back professionally. “The first time I had to record a video for a project I was involved in at work, I re-filmed it about 15 times and cried when I showed it to my husband, ” she says. “When I sat down to film myself, I would get a headache, I would put on this ‘fake self’ presenter voice, and I couldn’t seem just to be myself.”

In therapy, she discovered she was terrified of being seen and judged, so she was adopting a ‘fake self’ on camera. “[I] remembered my dad’s fear of being seen and how he would scold me for being too loud or standing out too much. These younger parts of me had internalized his voice and ideas about being seen as dangerous.” Once she understood what was going on, she could deal with it. “Within two months, I had recorded about 20 short videos, six long-form videos of about 40 minutes each, and a whole online course with about 12 hours of video! I couldn’t believe it. The change was remarkable,” she shares.

This shows how “unhealed parts of our psyche when triggered, can take over,” she says. Rather than getting upset when this happens, use it as an opportunity to get curious and see a therapist, she advises.

Asha Tarry, a therapist and chief executive of Behavioural Health Consulting Services, notes that while anyone can call themselves a coach or a mentor, a therapist is a medical

professional who has undergone four years of undergraduate training and possibly two to four years of graduate training. “They have thousands of hours of clinical training … They diagnose. They design care or treatment plans to work with goal-specific needs for people to heal, sometimes medical and mental health conditions,” she says.

Tarry, who has been a therapist for 23 years, is also a certified mental fitness coach. “I have a really strong skill set in identifying what people’s problems are and being able to direct them towards either therapy or coaching,” she says. “We don’t sit with their feelings about the past as a coach, we don’t deal with the trauma of the past. It’s more based on the now and how we move them ahead in the future.”

Where coaching adds value

There are about 11,000 career coaches in the US offering what the Association of Coaching defines as, “A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated, and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.” Much like a sports coach, career coaches try to guide their clients to come up with their own solutions, whether they are not hitting targets or are suffering from work-related stress or a heavy workload. It’s up to the client to do the work.

Ryan Renteria, an executive coach and founder of Stretch Five, helps clients maximize performance and growth by acting as a trusted sounding board on personal and professional matters. “I spend the bulk of my time asking the right open-ended questions to gather information, raise awareness, and give them a chance to reflect and arrive at their own answers,” says Renteria. “Then I use my business experience to guide them with evidence-based options in a way that gives them ownership of the decision.”

One client of Renteria’s who was struggling to motivate and inspire his executives needed to learn how to listen. “I asked a set of open-ended questions until he realized that communication during conflict was where interactions usually went sour,” explains Renteria. “As I probed deeper, he acknowledged that, when his direct reports were talking, he spent more time trying to think of his counter-arguments than truly listening to what they were saying … [He was] immediately saying ‘yes, but’ and then launching into his points.”

Renteria helped the client to understand how to listen and digest his team’s points and to use specific language to validate and consider these points before following with his points. “As he made his team feel more heard, he increased their engagement, loyalty, and results,” he says.

Coaching is optimal for someone struggling at work, he says, as “good coaches have the training and commitment to you to pose the right questions to help you overcome challenges and maximize performance.”

What makes mentoring different

What distinguishes a mentor from a coach, these experts agree, is that they tend to provide long-term career advice, rather than working on specific short-term goals or projects. They can help you work out what to do at a crossroads in your career or if you feel it’s stagnating. Mentors are often in the same industry or even the same employer, such as those Forbes 500 companies. And their wisdom is offered for free. Renteria adds that as mentoring is a less formal relationship and senior leaders are quite busy, you may not get to meet with them as often as you need.

In Everyone Needs a Mentor, David Clutterbuck writes that coaching “focuses on skills and performance” whereas mentoring focuses on “capability and potential.” He adds, “Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge and skill more widely again, having the judgement to draw meaningfully on experiences in one or more situations to completely new contexts . . .[Effective mentors] recognize that the greatest value to the mentee is to develop his or her own wisdom, not to borrow that of the mentor.”

Janice Omadeke, the author of Mentorship Unlocked: The Science and Art of Setting Yourself Up for Success, says you know it’s time to get a mentor if you’re working on a career goal that requires learning from an expert in that space. You might be preparing for a promotion, changing careers, or re-entering the workforce after time away. “[You need a mentor] if you’re feeling isolated in your career development and want someone who is invested in your development and can share their lived experiences with you as a way to help you grow,” she says.

Recently, she was involved in the Austin Business Journal’s Mentoring Monday where she mentored women in rapid six-minute sessions over an hour. “Discussions varied from scaling marketing practices and improving delegation skills to becoming more effective mentors for team members,” she says. “Key outcomes included guidance on applying for new roles, enhancing team communication through better reporting systems, and refining development goals for direct reports to align with leadership’s vision.”

If you lack clarity on your goals or receive feedback indicating a need for development from your boss, then you may need a mentor, explains Dara Greaney, the founder and president of Greaney, who has more than 20 years of e-commerce, business strategy, and marketing experience, has mentored a lot of employees over the years, especially younger ones. “Feedback at performance reviews indicating that you are not making the progress you should be making can be a big indicator that you need a mentor,” he says.

Once you get a mentor, don’t be afraid to ask for their opinion or feedback, he adds. “The mentor should not be chasing the mentee,” says Greaney. “The mentee should be pursuing a mentor out of the desire to get better and become a lifetime learner. It shows a genuine desire to want to change for themselves not because it is forced.”

Don’t expect mentoring to solve all your problems—you may need coaching for a specific issue, training, or therapy too. “Mentoring should not be relied upon as the sole source of innovation or problem-solving,” he says. “It becomes a limitation if it is your only source for guidance.” That holds true for the other interventions too. 

Ultimately, the decision between seeking therapy, career coaching, or mentorship depends on your challenges and the type of support you feel will best address your needs, says Nurick. All of these are complementary and so a combination of resources might be appropriate at different times or for different issues.

Where should you go to find support?

All of these experts agree that the best person to help you out is one who comes with a recommendation, so try asking around first—whether you want a therapist, coach, or mentor. “If someone has had a great experience, that is the best recommendation,” says Nurick. Failing that, check out the online directories of specialist associations such as the American Psychologist Association,, the Coach Foundation, or

To find a therapist

It’s best to start with a clear idea of your needs, says Nurick. “If your core issue is childhood trauma, then look for a trauma specialist, if it is an addictive pattern, find an addiction specialist,” she says. “If you have lots of things you are working with, look for someone who has been in the field for a while and has a range of experience and tools.” 

A great way to get a feel for a therapist is to check out their social media, website, and any interviews they have done. “Be willing to try someone out for a few sessions. It’s often difficult to know from the first session if you’re a good fit,” says Nurick.  

To find a coach

Renteria advises asking your manager or HR department whether the company has executive coaching referrals. Or they may be able to recommend a coach in your area.

“Interview multiple executive coaches to ensure the right fit,” he says. “Probe them on their business experience and their mix of question asking vs. direct guidance.” Make sure to check out their online presence too. 

To find a mentor

Explore different avenues, including networking, says Greaney. Ask around for recommendations, and be open to using multiple mentors who offer diverse perspectives catering to different aspects of your growth.

Omadeke advises evaluating what you want to work on with a mentor first. “I believe in choice-driven mentorship, allowing you to have options inside your current employer and outside of it, to find mentors who align deeply and can help you grow,” she says. “Understand how you learn [and] communicate, what makes you feel insecure when interacting with people, and the types of people you enjoy spending time with, and use that list to refine the types of people you consider as mentors on top of your list of what you want to work on and their professional proficiencies.” The worst they can do is say no, but if they say yes, you may find yourself with a whole new sense of purpose.

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