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Life Coach Versus Therapist: Which Is Right for You?

Life Coach Versus Therapist: Which Is Right for You?

Learn the similarities and differences between a life coach versus a therapist. Find out how both professionals help clients.

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Life coaches propel their clients toward positive changes, over obstacles, and to a place of greater overall wellness. These coaches help clients pinpoint strengths and weaknesses to progress toward their goals. 

Therapists do similar work. They acknowledge client struggles, create space for them to explore, and provide tools and plans that ultimately help them enjoy happier lives. 

While therapists also help clients improve well-being and devise tactics for tackling life’s issues, the roles and training of a life coach versus a therapist are quite different. This is an essential distinction because coaches best help their clients and minimize risk when they understand their role’s boundaries. 

Both therapists and coaches can profoundly impact a client’s life — it’s not a question of whose work is more influential. The emphasis should be on understanding the difference so we know how our practice can best serve our clients. 

Below, we’ll explore the difference between coaching and therapy. 

What’s therapy?

Therapy and counseling are processes guided by a healthcare professional with deep knowledge of mental health conditions and behaviors. In therapy, mental health professionals help patients identify harmful behaviors, thought patterns, and beliefs or work to improve their well-being by learning about their trauma, relationships, and unhealthy habits. Therapy focuses on helping clients understand the past and why they feel or act as they do. 

It’s worth stressing that life coaches aren’t mental health professionals. Providing unlicensed psychological services is illegal and can have potentially dangerous consequences for clients. 

What does a life coach do?

Life coaching focuses on helping clients work toward goals and overcome obstacles related to personal or career challenges. Life coaches help their clients pinpoint roadblocks and progress toward their goals. Coaches are guides, not analysts. And life coaches don’t have mental health training or license requirements, so they shouldn’t provide advice on related conditions. 

Understanding the differences between a therapist and a life coach helps illuminate what life coaches do for their clients. Here are some ways these professions differ:

  • Therapists help their clients understand the past, while coaches focus on reaching future goals.
  • Life coaches usually work with clients on short-term programs, while therapists may work with the same client indefinitely.
  • Therapists are psychologists with MAs or PhDs in mental health-related specialties like psychology or social work and have pursued licensure in their field. While great coaches also study for their careers, they aren’t held to specific educational requirements. They can complete coaching courses or accreditations to improve their knowledge and credentials. 
  • Coaches focus on reaching goals, not fixing problems or modifying behaviors. 
  • Therapists are expert analysts and mental health care providers, while life coaches are largely motivators and accountability partners.

Coaching versus therapy: the similarities

Therapy helps individuals learn more about their emotional states and learned behaviors, while coaching helps them identify what their roadblocks are and how to move forward. While clients might not be confident regarding what they need, most people would benefit from either. Combining them ensures that clients learn how they ended up here while also deciding where they want to go.

Here are some overlapping areas: 

  • Both therapy and coaching can bring about positive change
  • Therapists and coaches work closely with clients. 
  • Life coaches and therapists both try to understand their client's needs on a deep level.
  • Clients may feel more productive, motivated, and content with their lives due to coaching or therapy.
  • Both therapy and life coaching sessions are safe spaces that respect client confidentiality.
  • Therapists and coaches can provide in-person or virtual sessions.
  • Both professions offer customized programming for each client.

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When to see a therapist

As coaches, we must recognize when we’re out of our depth. Life coaching isn’t psychotherapy; if we feel we’re wading into those waters, it’s best to stop and make a referral. A client is better suited to a licensed therapist when they: 

  • Want to diagnose or treat mental health issues (like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation)
  • Are having trouble navigating emotions and controlling behaviors
  • Want to explore and heal trauma or understand their past 
  • Need counseling or intervention in a relationship 
  • Have a mental illness that’s negatively impacting their physical health
  • Are not meeting basic home-life, work, and self-care functions 

When to see a life coach

Attending therapy and seeing a life coach aren’t mutually-exclusive acts. Clients may attend therapy sessions for their whole life, but that doesn’t bar them from having a positive experience with a coach. The critical distinction is that people who need therapy shouldn’t seek out life coaches as alternatives. Motivational coaches can help clients who: 

  • Want to set goals and define action plans
  • Are feeling stuck 
  • Don’t know how to motivate themselves toward a career, wellness, or life goal
  • Want to foster healthier habits (especially at the request of a licensed healthcare professional)
  • Want to advance in their professional lives (or aren’t sure about the next step)
  • Feel overly critical of themselves 
  • Need inspiration or want to unleash their creativity

The take-away

Unsatisfied individuals can make strides for the better through therapy or coaching, but this doesn’t imply that the two services are the same. Both coaches and therapists should guide clients toward the right service for them. 

A great way to ensure your program is a good fit for a potential client is to implement a proper vetting process. Client intake forms and pre-coaching questionnaires help confirm your services are best for an individual. These documents help clients paint a picture of their needs and expectations. 

You can only serve a person well when working within your knowledge area and limits. If you're looking to expand your client base to reach more people, let Practice help you.

Free coaching contract templates

We worked with our lawyers to create coaching contract templates, free for any coach to use. Plus, a couple of sample agreements.

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