One of the most commonly held misconceptions about life coaching is that it’s "just another form of therapy".
It’s easy to understand why. People who seek out life coaches, therapists, and counselors are all linked by a common desire to make progress or experience some form of change in their lives.
So what’s the difference between a therapist and a life coach?
While practitioners in each of these areas share some overlapping tools and frameworks, there are very real distinctions between them. Depending upon where you are starting from, as well as the end result you’re looking for, those differences can be significant.
Whether you’re considering joining one of these professions, or just looking to hire the right practitioner to meet your current needs, it’s useful to understand what sets each of these modalities apart.
“Therapy” has become a catchall term that covers a wide array of mental health services and techniques. Generally speaking, a therapist is trained in the workings of the human mind, and has a particular license to practice psychotherapy. These professionals have undergone advanced training, usually at the master’s or doctoral level.
A therapist is who you’d see if you want to take a deep inward dive.
Talk therapy most often focuses on exploring and processing the events and influences of your past, and how those experiences may be shaping your behavior in the present. A therapist is also who you’d want to check in with if you are experiencing emotional or behavior challenges that interfere with your ability to function at your best.
Therapists are licensed to treat mental illnesses using psychotherapeutic methods, and help their clients achieve and maintain baseline mental health. Psychotherapy includes treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other diagnosable conditions.
Only therapists and counselors are qualified to determine and diagnose mental illnesses. This is exclusive to the practice of psychotherapy, and wholly outside the scope of practice for life coaches.
Life Coach vs. Therapist, a practitioner’s perspective:
“I see therapy and coaching as being on a continuum, both equally important and beneficial, but at different points in a person's life. If your desire is to get where you NEED to be (back to baseline), hire a great therapist. If your desire is to get where you WANT to be (your best possible future), hire a great coach. That being said, I also believe that coaching and therapy don't have to be mutually exclusive. There are many people who could benefit from having both simultaneously - if done mindfully, intentionally, and with a fairly tight focus on the desired outcome.” - David Kessler, therapist and JRNI coaching graduate
Counseling is similar to therapy in many ways, but is generally considered a shorter-term intervention than working with a therapist.
Mental health counselors often utilize psychotherapy methods, and they also pay attention to a client’s past to help understand the client’s present behavior and mental state. Like therapists, counselors are also licensed to treat mental illness. These practitioners can be found in various fields, including: schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, mental health clinics, and social service agencies.
A mental health counselor is who you'd turn to when there's a specific issue that's hindering you.
Counselors are trained to support clients who are experiencing common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. They can also help people work through emotional problems, self-esteem issues, alcohol and substance abuse, and marital challenges.
While therapy is typically conducted in one-on-one sessions, counseling is common both one-on-one as well as in peer group settings.
There are many different types of coaches practicing in the broader wellness industry. Here at JRNI, we train life coaches representing a wide range of specialties: executive coaches, fitness coaches, self-love coaches, couples coaching, writing coaches, and more! While the interests and niches that our coaches serve may be diverse, there are common threads that run through all forms of life coaching.
Unlike counseling or therapy, life coaching assumes a baseline level of emotional wellness.
This is where coaching clearly diverges from mental health counseling. Coaches are not qualified to address mental health problems, or traumatic stress disorder. The focus of life coaching is on the present, and in co-creating the future.
While our past does inform the present, a life coach generally doesn't spend a great deal of time mining a client's stories. Instead, coaches help others articulate their desired future vision, and develop a tactical action plan to achieve specific goals.
A THERAPIST explores the question “How did you get here?” The LIFE COACH asks: “Where are you headed?”
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as: partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
Well trained life coaches understand theories and models of change, and bring tools for self-inquiry, focus, and accountability to the table. A coach’s techniques are similar to a therapist’s in that they are research and evidence-based, and rooted in positive psychology.
Should symptoms of a mental health issue arise during a session, the professional standard for life coaches is to note it, and refer the client out if they need further support.
Again, the job of a coach is not to make a mental health diagnosis. The expectation is simply that a coach will know when an issue falls outside their scope of practice, and provide the client with whatever support, resources, and practical tools that they are qualified to offer.
Life Coach or Therapist? A practitioner’s perspective:
“Coaching uplifts people by focusing on clients' strengths. While therapy offers this in part, it is not usually the center of practice, as it is in coaching. While some therapists utilize solution-focused therapy, it is often not the entirety of the therapeutic practice. Discussing what therapy and coaching is or isn't - that's such a challenging topic! It is not black or white, and there are many therapists now practicing from a coaching-mindset.” - Amy Pandolfi, MSW mental health clinician & JRNI coaching student
Another significant difference between a therapist, counselor, and certified life coach has to do with the level of training required to legally practice under these titles.
Counselors and therapists must meet certain educational, supervisory, and licensing requirements before they can work with clients.
Coaching, on the other hand, is largely unregulated.
While anyone technically CAN call themselves a coach, we don’t advise it! Becoming a successful coach requires hard work, serious study, and a business mindset.
The theoretical roots of coaching stem from sports psychology, goal setting theory, human development models, positive psychology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. Understanding why coaching works, alongside the application of those techniques, is a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor.
“Don’t call yourself a ‘coach’ simply to negate the fact that you don’t have credentials in another discipline.” - Noelle Cordeaux, JRNI Coaching CEO
Life coaching is a job, just like any other job. You need to develop expertise in change theory and human development in order to be effective. Serious professionals show up better in the coaching space with the increased confidence that comes from having a handle on both the theory and practice of coaching. Which all leads to more positive outcomes for our clients!
For more on coach-specific training and how to become an ICF Certified Coach, check out: What Certification Do You Need to Be a Life Coach?
So how do you know who is actually qualified to coach?
This is where the International Coach Federation (ICF) comes into play. The ICF is a non-government organization dedicated to professional coaching. With the number of practicing coaches growing every year, clients are learning the importance of seeking out those who have been certified through an ICF accredited coach training program.
If you’re considering hiring a coach, check out their credentials and client testimonials! You’ll want to see that they have invested in reputable training and ongoing education, and possess proven skills that will help you achieve your goals.
LIFE COACH VS. THERAPIST:
Which Path Is Right for You?
1) If you're looking to hire a practitioner
To be clear, there is no right or wrong choice. There are many types of therapy, diverse forms of counseling, and a vast array of talented coaches out there. Only you can determine whether to seek out a therapist, a counselor, or a coach.
Some questions for consideration might include:
- Are you struggling with strong or dysregulated emotions on a regular basis, or experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression? A therapist could be the place to start.
- Are you hoping to work through a challenging experience or addiction with peer support? Group counselling might be a good fit.
- Do you want support defining a goal, putting an action plan in place, and an accountability partner to help you achieve it? Coaching is the place to start!
Coaching, therapy and counseling are all investments in your growth, and should result in increased life satisfaction. As with any investment, take your time and do your homework.
Common reasons people hire life coaches include:
- Career advancement
- Health and fitness goal attainment
- Intentional life design
- Rebuilding after a breakup or divorce
- Launching a new business
- Establishing clarity around life vision and goals
- Accountability in achieving a goal
- Stimulating artistic or creative self expression
- Improving relationships (family, friends, significant other)
Research the different modalities and approaches. Understand how each service functions, and what you can expect. Explore practitioners’ websites and social media to discover whose style and approach feels like a good fit with your personality and needs.
Schedule a series of complimentary sessions with therapists, counselors, or coaches that appeal to you. Talk through what you are looking to achieve, and find out how they can serve you.
From there, listen to your gut. Your intuition is the real deal, and can be a very helpful screening tool!
2) If you're considering career options in these fields
If you'd like to train as both a therapist and a coach, it’s perfectly OK to do both simultaneously! Having multiple streams of revenue and modes of practice is fabulous... you’ll just need to clearly delineate those offerings.
When it comes to setting up a dual practice, here's some technicalities to be aware of:
- It’s critical to know and follow state laws and regulations.
- Two different practices are required. From a consumer perspective, it must be clear that coaching and therapy are two distinct offerings.
- Separate billing under a different LLC is preferred.
- Most insurance companies don't reimburse for coaching services.
- It’s recommended to have different websites, entry points, and marketing for your coaching and therapy services.
- You cannot treat and coach the same person - your clients must stay on one side of the fence or the other.
- When coaching, your coaching techniques should be specified in the client contract. This is protective for you both, and will make it clear that you are not conducting therapy in the coaching relationship.
- If conducting therapy, this must be explicit when contracting with a client.
- You can bring coaching techniques into your therapy practice, but it is unethical to use therapy techniques in coaching.
Educate your potential clients about the limits of coaching as a service, and how you will proceed if it becomes clear that they need therapy.
3) For therapists thinking about adding life coaching to your toolkit
Training as a life coach is a dynamic way to expand your professional practice, allowing you more choice around who it is that you want to serve, and how. As a coach, the relationship with your clients is more flexible, as are the rules around where and how you can see clients.
Adding new tools to your arsenal is not only intellectually stimulating, but can help stoke your inner fire and reduce the risk for burnout.
One of the things our therapists-turned-coaches enjoy the most is the increased sense of freedom that a coaching practice can bring. Coaching allows you to be creative in how you present yourself and your offerings.
For another therapist’s perspective on the topic, check out JRNI Coaching co-founder John Kim’s blog talking about why he made the transition: Yes, Therapists Can Be Life Coaches Too! Here's How.
Life Coach or Therapist? A practitioner’s perspective:
“I'm a licensed therapist turned life coach and have worn both hats for a decade. I got my clinical hours. I took the exam. I worked in non-profit. I worked in high-end rehabs. I had a full practice. But then I started burning out. And I realized this wasn't how I wanted to help people. I felt like I was limiting myself and my creativity. I understood that it didn't have to be coaching vs therapy. So I called myself a life coach and started helping people in a way that felt more honest to me. - John Kim, JRNI Coaching co-founder
Want to Be a Coach?
Launch your coaching career the right way! Check out the JRNI's Life Coach Training - a program that's every bit as unique as you are. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world of coaching.