Purposeful Recovery: What’s Coaching Got to Do with It?


Living a life with purpose gives you a reason to wake up in the morning. It tells you where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Purpose isn’t genetic or something that happens suddenly—it takes time, life experience and soul-searching. Choosing to live a life in recovery is a tremendous achievement, and with it comes limitless possibilities. Walking down new, sober avenues requires an open mind, an open heart and the willingness to step into uncharted territory.


Life’s way too short. The recent untimely loss of Steps for Recovery publisher, Jason Levin reminds us that we never know when it’s going to be our time to go. Yet, many of us live our lives in automatic pilot without considering what makes life worth living. Jason dedicated himself to being of service in the recovery community by providing experience, strength and hope through this publication—a poignant and vivid example of purpose, passion and contribution.


The purpose of this article is to offer a fresh perspective on the recovery process by introducing Recovery Coaching. Powerful, thought-provoking questions—both existential and spiritual—are an integral part of the coaching relationship and these conversations add a new dimension to the quality work already going on in the recovery community.


Currently, there’s confusion over the differences between coaching and therapy. Although coaching borrows from the world of psychotherapy, there are some specific distinctions. As a credentialed coach and licensed psychotherapist, I keep my two practices completely separate for legal and ethical reasons. I come from a psychodynamic background as a therapist—exploring the influence of childhood on clients today. The following chart outlines the contrast between coaching and this particular school of therapy.


 Coaching  Psychodynamic Psychotherapy
 Focus on the present toward the future  Focus on the past toward the present
 Strengths-based, wellness model  Deficits model focuses on healing
 Highly-structured with assignments  Process and feelings-oriented
 Phone-based or face-to-face  Face-to-face
 30-45 minute appointments  50 minute sessions
 Short-term  Short-term or Long-term
 Unlimited email contact between meetings  Minimal contact between sessions


The International Coach Federation (ICF) is a nonprofit organization formed by professional coaches worldwide and has over 12,000 members in 42 countries. The ICF defines coaching as follows: Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaching is an ongoing relationship which focuses on clients taking action toward the realization of their vision, goals or desires. Coaching uses a process of inquiry and personal discovery to build the client’s level of awareness and responsibility and provides the client with structure, support and feedback. The coaching process helps clients both define and achieve professional and personal goals with more ease than would be possible otherwise.


According to a recent ICF survey, the average coach is 46-55 years old with 5-10 years coaching experience, and 53% of coaches have a graduate degree. Coaching clients tend to be 56% female and 44% male with an average age between 38-45 years old.


Twenty-five years ago executive coaches were being utilized more and more in the corporate world, and in the 90’s life coaching rapidly emerged. Now in the 21st century Recovery Coaching has entered the scene. In 2005 I co-founded Recovery Coaches International (RCI) to bring together a community of coaches working in the recovery field, and in 2006 a certified Recovery Coach training program was established by RCI’s other co-founder.


Just as every therapist is different, every Recovery Coach is different. For instance, I choose to work with clients who are clean and sober, and other coaches may work with those who are trying to get sober. At this time screening tools are being developed to help potential clients determine if they’re good candidates to benefit from coaching. The ICF suggests that to be successfully coached clients must be able to partner with a coach and to develop specific goals. I’ve found that 3-6 months of sobriety seems to be the basic foundation necessary for a client to benefit from coaching within my model. A solid foundation in recovery tends to make room for more clarity of purpose and expansiveness.


Recovery Coaching helps clients:

  • Clarify a vision for the next chapter of their life.
  • Define specific goals and action steps to support this vision.
  • Stay accountable toward these intentions.

As a result, purpose, passion and priorities unfold. If your goals and action steps are in alignment with your values, priorities and purpose, you’ll feel hopeful and energized. If not, you’ll tend to feel flat and stuck.


“What gives your life meaning?” can be a daunting question, but the coaching process encourages clients to examine big ticket items such as joy, purpose and balance. Questions such as “What do you really, really want?” shapes the course of the coaching process. It’s interesting to note that the Positive Psychology community supports the efforts of coaching through its research of topics such as gratitude, forgiveness and resiliency. Dr. Martin Seligman who coined the term Positive Psychology describes it as the science of What Makes Life Worth Living.


Once you choose to live an addiction-free life, a blank canvas appears where you get to design your future paths. With the guidance of coaches, sponsors, therapists and trusted confidants, you clear away the cobwebs of the past, become more aware of the essence of who you are and move forward with purpose and direction in this next chapter of your life and recovery.


The following tools will give you a flavor of Recovery Coaching:
1. Take a Joy Inventory
How many of us stop to look at what’s going right in our lives? A joy inventory is a chance to recall what has brought you joy in the past, what brings you joy currently and how you would like to invite more joy and fun into your future.
Write down all the joys of the past and present. After brainstorming the past, make a list of all the fun, joyful, fulfilling people, places and experiences you would like to invite into your life from now on.
Note: Because many people in recovery forget how to have sober fun, this exercise challenges you to create more balance in your life.
2. Get Clear and Take Purposeful Action
Now that you’ve written down what brings you joy, take one item from your list and be even more specific. For example, a client of mine wanted to spend more time at the beach because she felt lighter and more playful by the water. After brainstorming ways of creating more quality time at the beach, she decided that she wanted to spend time at the beach weekly with a friend. Throwing a Frisbee, walking her dog, putting her feet in the water were all listed as possible activities and she decided she wanted to set up “playdates” for herself with a friend each week.
Note: You may consider bookending your intention. For example, let someone you trust know about your intention for weekly beach time. Go ahead and take that action and let this same accountability person know when you’ve completed it. Bookending is a tool of accountability.
3. Create your Vision
What do you really want in this next chapter of your life and your recovery? Let go of any of the shoulds or supposed to’s, and take time now to write about what you want in the following areas: friends, family, career, money, spirituality, health, fun, love and romance. Don’t hold back even if you think it’s not possible now. Give shape and voice to your vision of life 1 year from now. (If 1 year feels too long, shorten the timeline to 90 days.)
Note: It’s not that anything has to happen—it’s simply what could happen.
Coaching asks you to stretch beyond your comfort zone while keeping your feet firmly on the ground. Deepak Chopra in his book Overcoming Addictions, reminds us that “the absence of joy is the cause and the effect of addictions,” and coaching encourages you to invite joy into your sobriety. With joy comes purpose, and as you open your heart to purposeful recovery, you’ll find more meaning, intention and direction in everything you think or say or do.

Andrew Susskind, MSW is a Recovery Coach, licensed psychotherapist, and author with a private practice in Los Angeles.