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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Mentors, Career Coaches, and Therapists: Which One's Best to Get You Out of Your Rut?


So, you’re having a problem navigating a tricky situation at the office and you know you need help figuring it out. That much is clear. What’s not so clear is who you should ask for help: a mentor, a career coach, or maybe even a therapist?

Trust me, you’re not the first person to struggle with this conundrum.

After studying Psychology & Science, Technology & Society at Stanford, coaching Microsoft's Academy of College Hires, and marketing consumer apps around the world as a Tech Evangelist, I saw too many friends, co-workers, and mentees struggle with unsupportive managers and underwhelming roles. So much so that I founded a company with a mission to rebrand mental health, and make trustworthy support more accessible, especially for 20-30 something professionals and entrepreneurs striving for more life and career satisfaction.

Unfortunately, too many struggle privately for far too long and end up feeling stuck, or worse, spiraling downward. For too many reasons, people don’t give enough credit to the incredible strength it takes to reveal your concerns and ask for help or support.

Blind referrals, difficulties scheduling, and incompatible matches have also made finding professional support unnecessarily harder for too many people in vulnerable times.

While I can’t jump inside your head and make the decision for you on whether to reach out for more support, I can provide you with information that’ll help you get there on your own.

When You Should Talk to a Mentor

If you’re just starting to feel like something might be off, a mentor could shed light on how your experience compares to other companies or roles in your industry. An outside perspective can help you learn from other people’s mistakes, experiences, and professional training. Mentors also blend professionalism and authenticity in ways that not only lead to smarter business, life, and career decisions, but also often open doors for you once you’ve risen above your challenges.

For example, when Kelly*, a consumer technology marketer wanted advice on navigating her career and getting past an unsupportive manager, she wished she could privately consult someone more experienced, senior, and familiar with her company culture. Since confidentiality can be such a grey area at work, she also preferred to talk with someone outside of her organization.

Kelly’s mentor met with her monthly and encouraged her to realize her full potential, despite her challenges. Armed with a trustworthy confidant fluent in reading between the lines of corporate emails and disappointing management, Kelly’s self-confidence and drive super-charged.

Although your life can change after one 45-minute mentoring call, mentors typically volunteer to "stop by" monthly or so to discuss interesting challenges you’re facing and brainstorm your career steps.

Just two notes: Because you’re likely going to try to impress your mentor, you’re more likely to downplay potential issues. So, be aware of that if you’re entering into this type of relationship. Also keep in mind that as awesome as a mentor can be, finding just the right person who shares your values and ambitions, plus cares enough to support you takes time.

When You Should Talk to a Coach

Coaches, on the other hand, aren’t typically tied to potential job opportunities and don’t often share professional contacts with you. They also don’t have any conflicts of interest when they’re hired individually. So, if you’re looking to consult someone weekly or every other week with fewer strings attached, this could be a better option.

You can think of these people as supportive cheerleaders. They can empower you to achieve your goals through action-oriented tips and tricks, train you on new skill sets, assist you with your job search, do negotiation role play, and even help you get through those tricky situations in the office.

When Matt* struggled to find an engineering job after finishing a coding boot camp, for example, a resume and interview coach offered him actionable strategies on positioning his experience more confidently. Throughout this process, Matt wanted a constructive, independent appraisal from a former engineering hiring manager (not more friends or family), and that’s exactly what this coach provided.

Ready for the downside? This option can be expensive, since coaches often have significant industry or entrepreneurial experience and charge accordingly. They’re also not covered by health insurance.

When You Should Talk to a Therapist

While coaches focus more on optimistic, forward-facing business and career challenges, therapists concentrate on more of the personal core beliefs potentially holding you back.

The longer you’ve been unsatisfied, the less optimistic you might be. When negativity and frustrations are left unaddressed for too long, physical “stress-induced” pains start getting louder too, and your body’s alarms signal for things to change.

Although therapists typically can’t offer as much business guidance or career-planning advice as coaches or mentors do, most specialize in helping you when you’re:

  • Feeling stressed and overwhelmed
  • Having trouble sleeping, socializing, relaxing, or focusing
  • Noticing changes in your appetite, hygiene, or lifestyle
  • Experiencing back, neck, or shoulder pain as well as muscle tension
  • Struggling with unusually low self-confidence
  • Having trouble connecting with other people
  • Spiraling into potential signs of depression or anxiety

When Michael*, a software engineer, struggled with some of these early signs of depression, he knew it was time to speak to someone who specialized in the topic. He’d struggled with low energy, self-defeating thoughts, insomnia, and high irritability for months already. He was sick of it. This wasn’t him. He was ready for a change.

After just a couple sessions, Michael shared that the experience made him realize that he wasn’t clinically depressed, but rather just needed to quit his job. His company’s hiring bar had significantly dropped, and he was left to pick up the team’s slack. Without many teammates left to consult or learn from, he found himself demotivated and increasingly more resistant to taking on more work.

After seeing a therapist, he realized his frustrations centered around needing to break free. Michael explained, “I realized there’s nothing actually wrong with me...They can keep asking me to stay, but I am going to travel the world like I’ve always wanted.”

As far as costs go, therapists really range depending on where you’re located and what your insurance deductible is. However, many offer sliding scale rates, which means they are open to negotiating their bill rate, especially if you’re going out of network or truly can’t afford it.

Fight the Stigma

My dream is that one day, people will feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it—because it actually takes great strength and vulnerability to realize you can't get where you want to go in your life or career on your own.

Ask any successful person how he or she got there, and you’ll almost always hear about someone who opened a door, offered advice, or gave a necessary confidence boost at a critical time.

So, now that you’re armed with all this info, give a mentor, coach, or therapist a try.

*Please note that some names and other identifying details have been altered to protect the confidentiality of our clients.