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Life Coach vs. Therapist: 8 Myths Debunked
It can be hard to get clear information when you’re trying to choose between a life coach and a therapist. There’s a lot of biased reporting out there, thanks to the rivalry that sometimes arises between therapists and life coaches as they compete for clients.
Some articles suggest therapists are only good at helping people with mental health problems, but don’t really know how to help healthy people set goals. Others imply that life coaches are hacks and unqualified to do just about anything. None of this is true.
If you’ve had enough of these verbal slap fights and want to get some clear information about what makes coaching different from therapy, we’re here to help. Let’s take a fair look at these two rival professions and bust some of the myths that biased sites spread about them.
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- Myth #1: Life Coaching and Therapy Are Exactly the Same
- Myth #2: Therapy and Life Coaching Are Completely Different
- Myth #3: There's a Clear Line of Progression from Therapy to Coaching
- Myth #4: Life Coaching Is Completely Different from Other Kinds of Coaching
- Myth #5: Life Coaches Lack Professional Standards
- Myth #6: Because They Don't Have Licenses, It's Impossible to Vet Life Coaches
- Myth #7: Therapists Only Work with People Who Have Mental Health Conditions
- Myth #8: Therapists Focus on the Past, Life Coaches Focus on the Future
- So, When Should You See a Therapist, and When Should You See a Life Coach?
Myth #1: Life Coaching and Therapy Are Exactly the Same
It’s fair for therapists to say that their training qualifies them to be life coaches. It’s not fair, though, to say that life coaching is the same thing as therapy. There’s a reason a growing number of therapists offer both therapy and life coaching as separate services. Here are some ways to distinguish the therapy from coaching.
Therapy is designed to help you heal. It’s also designed to help you grow and become more self-aware. Therapy is what you need when you want to “feel better.” A therapist creates a safe space where you’re free from the pressure to perform that you have to deal with at work or home—pressure that might be making you feel stressed out, depressed, or anxious.
Life coaching is designed to help you succeed. It’s also designed to help you grow and become more effective. Life coaching is what you need when you want to “do better.” A coach creates an encouraging space where they apply gentle pressure and hold you accountable in your efforts to achieve your goals. A coach can help you make meaningful progress on everything from writing a book to losing weight—and identify which goals you want to make progress on in the first place.
Myth #2: Therapy and Life Coaching Are Completely Different
Therapists already do a lot of what life coaches do. While it’s true therapists are qualified to treat mental health conditions, that’s not the only thing they’re qualified to do. Therapists also know how to help you clarify your life goals and overcome obstacles to achieving them.
This can make it confusing when you compare therapy for personal growth with life coaching. They use different methods, but cover similar terrain and the process for clients can often look the same.
Ethical life coaches know that life coaching is not therapy and refer clients who need therapy to a therapist. However, sometimes there are grey areas.
Is it possible to do work on what’s holding you back from accomplishing your goals without uncovering emotional wounds from your childhood?
Is it possible to clarify what you want without having to deal with why you don’t know what you want in the first place?
Many life coaches end up ushering their clients through these grey areas when their clients aren’t clearly depressed, dealing with trauma, or showing other symptoms of mental health conditions. Yet even when a coach isn’t clearly crossing the line into providing therapy or mental health care, they’re not trained as well as therapists to do this kind of work.
So, if you have personal growth goals you want to achieve, but you also want to address deeper emotional issues, it might make more sense to work with a therapist who also addresses personal growth goals as part of their traditional therapy practice.
Myth #3: There's a Clear Line of Progression from Therapy to Coaching
It’s true you sometimes need therapy before you can work effectively with a coach. It makes no sense to put pressure on yourself to perform when you’re still trying to heal.
It makes no sense to pursue goals if you don’t believe you deserve the things you’re pursuing. It can be harmful to pursue goals if you’re laboring under the painful belief you have to perform or achieve to be worthy of happiness or love.
You Don't "Graduate" from Therapy to Life Coaching
This doesn’t mean, though, that there’s a neat and orderly progression from therapy to coaching, as if you “graduate” from one to the other. Whether you want coaching after therapy (or therapy after coaching) depends totally on you.
It’s also impossible to really “graduate” from therapy. While having therapy goals can give you a clear endpoint, the kind of healing that’s possible in therapy goes so deep that it doesn’t really have an end.
You can do productive work in therapy for years. Whether you continue in therapy often depends more on whether you want to do more work than whether it’s possible to do any more.
Note that this doesn’t mean you need therapy forever. You only need therapy (or another level of mental health care) when there are emotional or mental health issues that are disrupting your life or causing you severe distress. At other times, it’s an optional path to wellness.
Think of it this way. There’s a difference between feeling a little anxious in certain situations and being too anxious to leave your house. There’s a difference between feeling a little “blah” and being so depressed you can’t work, or even shower. In one case, you need therapy. On the other, you don’t (even if it could help).
If you need therapy, coaching is unlikely to work without it. But if you don't need therapy, you can choose coaching or therapy. You don't have to do both or do them in a certain order.
Myth #4: Life Coaching Is Completely Different from Other Kinds of Coaching
Just as it can be hard to distinguish what makes life coaching different from therapy, it can be hard to distinguish what makes it different from other types of coaching.
How Many Kinds of Coaches Are There?
Here are just a few of the different kinds of coaches you might find:
- Life coach
- Career coach
- Business coach
- Health coach
- Wellness coach
- Fitness coach
- Spiritual coach
- Creativity coach
- Writing coach
- Financial coach
- Performance coach
In theory, there’s a different kind of coach for every kind of need, and the specific role of the life coach is to help you clarify and work toward your overall life vision.
In practice, coaches help clients make progress in different areas of their lives. Like therapists, good coaches have a broad skillset, so they rarely limit themselves to a role that’s too narrow.
Coaches don't need to have mastered the same things you're seeking to be able to help you. Coaches are different from consultants.
While consultants lead with their expertise and give advice about how to accomplish specific outcomes, coaches avoid giving advice. Their role isn't to tell you what to do or how to do something. Instead, a coach is there to help you tap into the inner resources you need to achieve the goals you choose to pursue.
For example, a book coach wouldn’t necessarily tell you how to query an agent or get a book published (though some might also offer this kind of concrete help). Instead, a book coach would help you explore why you’re not sticking to your daily word count goals or help you push through the fear that’s keeping your finished manuscript locked up in a drawer instead of out in the world.
Think of a life coach in a similar way. Their role isn’t to give you advice on how to live, but to help you find out how you want to live. They keep you inspired and accountable as you take the steps to achieve your goals. They can check in and nudge you when you get stuck, blocked, or scared. That said, a coach’s role is practical.
Life coaches distinguish themselves from therapists most clearly in their focus on helping clients progress on concrete, specific, action-oriented goals.
Myth #5: Life Coaches Lack Professional Standards
It’s true that therapy is a licensed profession, while life coaching isn’t. This means therapists are required to meet exacting standards to practice therapy, while life coaches aren’t required to meet any standards at all.
Therapists have to get specific degrees, accumulate supervised practice hours, and uphold ethical and professional standards to maintain a license and legally practice therapy. Life coaches don't have to do any of that, because life coaching is an unregulated profession.
This doesn’t mean life coaches don’t do any of these things, though. Like therapists, many life coaches feel called to their field. Like therapists, most life coaches want to do a good job. Just because they’re not required to do so by a licensing board doesn’t mean life coaches don’t opt to get education or training or uphold ethical standards in how they practice. Many do.
Life Coaches Can Choose to Get Certified
In fact, many life coaches choose to become certified by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or by the Center for Credentialing and Education (CCE). Like licensed therapists, CCE- and ICF-certified coaches have to complete education and training requirements and uphold ethical and professional standards.
However, not all coaches pursue certification. Sometimes, this is because they feel like they’ve already proven themselves or already received relevant training elsewhere.
A growing number of therapists are choosing to offer both therapy and coaching services because they see the value of both. Some therapists are leaving the therapy field to become full-time coaches because they feel it’s a better fit for their skill set or because their careers have naturally developed in that direction.
Some coaches transition from other fields like business, teaching, or the arts. They bring the skills and training from their earlier careers with them to their new role as coach—as well as their professional and personal pride.
In other words, just because life coaches aren't required to meet specific professional standards doesn't mean they don't have any standards. It just means it's up to you to find out what standards a specific coach chooses to meet and figure out whether you personally feel they are qualified to help you.
Myth #6: Because They Don't Have Licenses, It's Impossible to Vet Life Coaches
You can vet a therapist by checking their license, but you can’t do the same thing with a life coach—because life coach licenses don’t exist.
This doesn’t mean you can vet one and not the other. Nor does it mean you’re in the clear after you check a therapist’s license. A clear license doesn’t guarantee that a therapist is ethical.
How to Screen a Therapist—or a Life Coach
Both therapists and life coaches can lie about themselves and their qualifications. Both can commit ethical violations and not get caught.
This is why it’s important to screen a therapist in more ways than just checking their license. You can:
- Read websites, online profiles, and reviews
- Schedule phone, video, or in-person consults
- Try some initial test sessions before you commit
You can—and should—do all the same things to screen a life coach.
And, if a life coach says they’re certified, you can check their certification the same way you’d check a therapist’s license. Go to one of these sites to check a therapist’s ICF or CCE certification:
Keep in mind that just because a coach isn’t certified doesn’t mean they’re unethical. But being certified does say good things about them. It also makes it easier to hold them accountable. You can file an ethics complaint against an ICF- or CCE-certified coach:
This means life coaches who get certified are choosing to be held accountable by the organization that certified them. This is one of many ways they can show their commitment to being a good coach.
Questions to Ask When You're Evaluating a Life Coach
Overall, when you’re screening a life coach, consider the following:
- Do they have a relevant degree?
- Did they complete a training program?
- Have they been certified by the ICF or the CCE?
- Have they learned specific coaching methods or skills?
- Do they seek professional supervision, mentorship, or guidance?
- Did they have a previous career that gave them relevant expertise?
- Have they accumulated life experience that gives them empathy and insight?
Whether a coach’s standards are high enough, or relevant to your needs as a client, is up to you to decide. It’s up to you to decide how important it is that a coach has a certain level of education, a specific kind of life experience, or certification as a coach. Just keep in mind you do have ways to evaluate whether a life coach is qualified to help you and is the right match for you as a client.
Myth #7: Therapists Only Work with People Who Have Mental Health Conditions
Therapists do more than treat mental health conditions. They can help you recover your creativity, improve your relationships, and discover your true self.
In other words, they can help you achieve personal growth goals.
At OpenCounseling, we believe personal growth is for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Therapists who focus on personal growth often charge more than therapists who focus on mental health treatment. Life coaches often charge more than therapists. Personal growth, whether addressed and achieved through therapy or coaching, is often treated as a luxury.
Fortunately, the best therapists don’t see it that way. They don’t see your desire to fulfill your potential and realize your dreams as any less important than your desire to recover from depression or heal from trauma. Many therapists offer sliding scales to help people afford to do personal growth work with them. (Some life coaches offer sliding scales, too.)
The only issue is that if you want to see a therapist, but don’t have a mental health condition, that therapist won’t be able to bill your insurance. Many therapists choose not to take insurance for this reason—they want to use the same business structure for all their clients, some of whom have mental health conditions and some of whom do not.
Myth #8: Therapists Focus on the Past, Life Coaches Focus on the Future
In fact, some styles and methods of therapy focus almost exclusively on the present moment. One way that therapists help clients cope with anxiety is by helping them learn how to reconnect to the present. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based therapy help you work with your thoughts as they arise, and they don’t need you to delve into your past to work. It’s entirely possible to get effective therapy without talking about your childhood or your parents.
It’s also not true that therapists don’t look toward the future with you. The only way to measure progress in therapy is to see how much closer you are to the version of yourself you want to be than you were when you started. It’s also untrue that life coaches don’t look to your past to learn more about you. Both therapists and life coaches can help you clarify what you want and help you work toward a better future.
So, When Should You See a Therapist, and When Should You See a Life Coach?
Therapists and life coaches sometimes are allies—or even the same people, as it’s increasingly common for licensed therapists to offer both therapy and life coaching.
At other times, they’re bitter rivals. And far too many articles out there are written by someone with a chip on their shoulder about the other profession.
The truth is, if you don’t need therapy (see Myth #3 for examples of when you do), choosing therapy or life coaching isn’t a matter of choosing which is the best profession—it’s a matter of choosing which is the best fit for you.
Only Therapists Are Qualified to Provide Mental Health Treatment
Only therapists are qualified to provide mental health care. And even if you don’t have a mental health condition, they’re the better option when you’re seeking to heal emotional pain or when you want to create a quiet space in your life where you can figure things out. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and seeking peace and clarity, therapy may be a better fit.
Life coaches specialize in mobilizing you into action. They help you identify goals and come up with action plans. They hold you accountable and keep you motivated. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve something you feel ready to achieve, but feel like you need a little help getting there, a coach might be exactly what you need.
That said, both therapists and life coaches can help you work on personal growth goals. At least in theory, each type of professional has a different way of doing that. But the better choice when you want to do personal growth work may have more to do with the person than the profession.
If you're torn between a life coach and a therapist, compare what you read about them. Compare their education, training, skills, approach, and life experience. Compare their personalities. Compare what they charge. Compare what they claim to do best and see if there are reviews saying whether they actually achieve that with their clients. The person may matter more than the profession.
We’re a little biased, and we think therapists are often the safer choice for personal growth work because of the requirements they must meet to get licensed. However, not all therapists are good at what they do. Not all therapists are helpful. Not all therapists are ethical. And many life coaches are good at what they do and help their clients achieve their goals.
So, in the end, we encourage you to trust yourself and your intuition. Trust your gut when you feel like you’ve found the right person and give them a try. You can always try again if they’re not a good fit. Or they may just be exactly who you needed to find.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.