What’s The Difference Between Counseling, Therapy and Life Coaching?

June 9, 2020
Life Coaching

Here’s a question we get a lot! One of the most commonly held beliefs 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 the common desire to make progress in their lives. And while practitioners in each of these areas do share some overlapping tools, there are very real differences between them. Depending upon where you are starting from, as well as the end result you’re looking for, those differences can be significant. Let’s break it down!


“Therapy” has become a catchall term that runs the gamut of mental health services and techniques.   In reality, 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 dive into the workings of your mind. Therapists help to explore and process 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 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. 


Mental health counselors work with clients to address specific issues that may be hindering them. 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 like those used by therapists, and they also pay attention to the client’s past to help understand the client’s present behavior and mental state. Like therapists, counselors are also licensed, and can be found in various fields including schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, mental health clinics, and social service agencies.

Counselors are trained to support clients experiencing psychological illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and 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 in both one-on-one as well as peer group settings.

Life Coaching

There are many different types of coaches practicing today. Here at JRNI, we have 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 coaches serve may be diverse, there are common threads that run through all forms of coaching. 

Unlike counseling or therapy, coaching assumes a baseline level of emotional wellness, and focuses on the present and on co-creating the future.

Here’s where coaching clearly diverges from mental health counseling. Coaches may not spend a great deal of time exploring the past. Instead, they primarily work with clients to define a future vision, and develop a tactical action plan to achieve those goals. A good coach understands theories and models of change, and brings tools for self-inquiry, focus, and accountability to the table. The coach’s techniques are similar to a therapist’s in that they are often research and evidence-based, and rooted in positive psychology.

A therapist explores the question “How did you get here?” The coach will ask: “Where are you headed?”

Another significant difference between therapists, counselors, and coaches has to do with the level of training required to legally practice under these titles.  Counselors and therapists must meet certain educational and licensing requirements before they can work with clients. Coaches, on the other hand, are largely unregulated 

What does this mean? Simple. Your neighbor can wake up tomorrow morning, say she is a life coach, and start building her business. There’s nothing stopping her from doing so if people are willing to pay for her services. There is no universal standard for what it means to call yourself a coach. 

So how do you know a coach is the real deal? 

This is where the International Coach Federation plays an important role. The ICF is a non-government organization dedicated to professional coaching. And with the number of coaches growing every year, clients are learning the importance of seeking ICF-certified coaches, or those who have studied with an ICF-certified coaching program like what we offer here at the JRNI Coaching Intensive. When choosing a coach, do your homework.  You’ll want to see that they have invested in their own training and education, and possess proven skills that will help you achieve your goals. 

Which One Is Right for You?

To be clear, there is no right or wrong choice. There are many kinds of therapists, 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 may just be right for you! 

Coaching, therapy and counseling are all investments in your growth, and should result in increased life satisfaction. As with any investment, take your time. 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. Yes, intuition is the real deal, and it can be a very helpful screening tool! The more you listen, the louder it gets.

Ready to take a deep dive and become a life coach? Check out our ICF Credentialing life coach training now and launch your coaching career the right way with The JRNI Coaching Intensive.


Sign up here and we’ll keep you up to date on the very best of JRNI, live events and everything you need for your own journey.

Remarkable inspiration delivered weekly to your inbox. No spam, we promise.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.