Life Coach vs. Therapist: 8 Myths Debunked (Plus How to Choose)
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.
On This Page
- 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. Each one helps you do something different.
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.”
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. They can help you make 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
As long as they’ve been around, therapists have helped people with personal growth. They still do.
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 gray areas. You don’t feel great, but you’re not ill.
Many life coaches end up ushering their clients through these gray areas. When a client isn’t clearly depressed, dealing with trauma, or showing symptoms of another mental health condition, a coach may not see the need to refer them to a therapist just because they’re facing something painful.
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.
What Are the Gray Areas Between Therapy and Coaching?
It’s important to remember that while life coaches can help you work through some emotional issues, they’re not trained or qualified to provide mental health treatment.
Figuring out what crosses the line between what a life coach could help you with and what requires a therapist’s expertise can be confusing. For example, consider these questions:
- 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 fully understand what’s blocking you without needing to explore or understand your psychological defenses?
- 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?
It’s not always easy to tell whether coaching or therapy will be a better fit. One often leads to the other—and that’s the good news. If you start in the wrong place, you’ll probably eventually find your way to the right one. An ethical life coach will refer you to a therapist if they notice you’re dealing with issues that require therapy. An ethical therapist will give you a referral if they aren’t meeting your needs.
We recommend going with your gut and starting where you think you need to start. But if you’re not sure, it probably makes more sense to start with therapy. If you have personal growth goals you want to achieve, but you also want to address deeper emotional issues, you can 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’s hard to pursue goals if you don’t believe you deserve the things you’re pursuing. It can even be harmful if you’re laboring under the painful belief you have to perform or achieve to be worthy of happiness or love.
This doesn’t mean, though, that there’s a neat and orderly progression from therapy to coaching. You don’t “graduate” from one to the other. They’re different services that help you do different things. Whether you want coaching after therapy (or therapy after coaching) totally depends on you.
When and How Therapy Ends Is Up to You
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 keep going to therapy as long as you feel like you could know yourself a bit better or like there’s something in your life you could change or improve. Depending on who you are and how you approach therapy, that could mean you go for six months or go for a lifetime.
Ending therapy at the right time is important. Therapy can be counterproductive or harmful if you’re going at the wrong time or for the wrong reason. There are ways to tell when it might be a good time to quit or take a break. But how long you go to therapy is ultimately up to you.
You can do productive work in therapy for years. Whether you keep going depends more on whether you want to do more work than whether it’s possible to do any more.
This doesn’t mean you need therapy forever. You only need therapy when there will be serious negative consequences if you don’t deal with a particular emotional or psychological issue—when that issue is 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 so anxious you can’t 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. In 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
Life coaching has a lot in common with therapy for personal growth. It also has a lot in common with other types of coaching.
In general, life coaches distinguish themselves from therapists most clearly in their focus on helping you make progress on concrete, specific, action-oriented goals.
This is the same thing all coaches do—it’s just that many coaches focus on helping clients in one specific area. Sports coaches help you meet athletic performance goals. Career coaches help you achieve career goals. Financial coaches help you achieve financial goals. (You get the idea.)
Life coaches help you achieve life goals, but of course those overlap with all the specific goals that other kinds of coaches can help you with. For example, your biggest life goal might be to write a book. In that case, should you get a life coach or a book coach? Sometimes it can be really hard to tell.
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, you don’t need to hire someone different for every specific goal you might have. Whether you might want a life coach or someone with a more specific focus mostly depends on how specialized you need the help you’re getting to be.
Coaches don’t need to have mastered the same things you want to master to be able to help you. They’re different from consultants.
While consultants lead with their expertise and give you advice on how to accomplish specific outcomes, coaches avoid giving you advice. Their role isn’t to tell you what to do or how to do something. It’s to help you tap into the inner resources you need to achieve your goals.
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, they would help you explore why you’re not sticking to your daily word count goals or examine 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.
Myth #5: Life Coaches Lack Professional Standards
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 good 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
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.
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.
So, a coach doesn’t have to be certified to be a good or ethical coach. Whether you want to find a certified coach depends on what you’re looking for. Client reviews and testimonials—and your own interview with a coach—can help you get a sense of whether you feel like this person could help you.
A growing number of therapists are choosing to offer both therapy and coaching services because they see the value of both. Some therapists leave 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.
Therapists who become coaches don’t see their training and experience as irrelevant. They see them as strengths that can make them better coaches—in the same way coaches that come from different backgrounds see their prior experience as relevant. Many coaches believe nothing qualifies you as much to help others as having walked the same path they’re walking.
So, 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 has chosen to meet and to 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 that there’s no way to vet a life coach. It also doesn’t mean you’re in the clear after you check a therapist’s license. A clear license doesn’t guarantee that a therapist is ethical.
You have to have other ways to vet a therapist besides checking their license to get a sense of whether they’re a good one—and most of those are methods you can use to vet a life coach as well.
How to Screen a Therapist—or a Life Coach
Therapists can lie about themselves and their qualifications. They 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.
For more detailed information on how you can background check a therapist (or life coach), you can read our article, “Five Steps to Background Check a Therapist.”
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. Just like you can file a complaint against a therapist, you can file an ethics complaint against an ICF- or CCE-certified coach. Go to either of these pages to learn more:
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.
One of the ways to vet any coach whether they’re certified or not is to interview them. This gives you a chance to learn about other ways they may have invested in being a good coach. You can read the tips box below for some sample questions you can ask.
Questions to Ask When You're Evaluating a Life Coach
When you’re screening a life coach, consider all the different ways they may have gained expertise and training that qualifies them to help you. For example, consider asking:
- Do you have a degree that supports your role as a coach?
- Did you complete a training program to become a coach?
- Have you been certified as a coach by the ICF or the CCE?
- Have you learned specific coaching methods or skills? How?
- Do you ever seek professional supervision, mentorship, or guidance?
- Did you have a previous career or life experience that you draw from as a coach?
- What have you learned in your life that’s relevant to the specific goals I want to achieve?
- How have your experiences given you empathy and insight so you can understand me?
The most important thing to focus on is what’s most important to you. Make sure you feel like this person is someone who can help you with the specific goals or problems you have.
Whether a coach’s standards are high enough for you, or relevant to your needs as a client, is up to you to decide. Whether it’s important that a coach has a certain level of education, a specific kind of life experience, or certification as a coach will depend on your perspective and needs.
The important thing to keep in mind is that 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.
Therapists 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 as well as work on mental health issues with them. (Some life coaches offer sliding scales, too.)
If Personal Growth Is Your Goal, Which Should You Choose?
Both therapists and life coaches can help you work on personal growth goals.
So, if one’s not significantly more affordable, you don’t think you need treatment for a mental health condition, and you want to work on personal growth, which should you choose?
Our best advice is to look at the person and how much of a match they seem to be to you. Do they share your perspective, beliefs, background, or anything else that might help you forge a better connection with them? The person may matter more than the profession.
That said, there are some differences in how therapists and life coaches approach personal growth work. In general, therapists:
- Focus more on feelings
- Work more slowly and dig more deeply
- Are interested in finding out where your blocks or inner obstacles come from
- Can help you uproot persistent issues and experience change on a profound level
The kind of work you can do in therapy can help you shift not just your behavior, but also your identity and sense of self. This comes from the slow, methodical work you’ll do to understand and heal what’s been limiting you.
Coaches tend to:
- Focus more on actions
- Work more quickly and dig less deeply
- Are less interested in the origin of your issues and more laser focused on results
- Can help you change habits and experience a significant shift in your everyday behavior
Once you’ve identified the goals you want them to help you achieve, a coach will put together an action plan to help you make immediate changes in your behavior. So, they often can help you get results faster, but the source of the change may not be as deep.
One approach isn’t better than the other. Sometimes, you do need to address deeply rooted issues to change; sometimes you don’t. If one approach sounds better suited to your current needs or just seems to fit you more in general, go with that one.
The only time you have to have a mental health condition to work with a therapist is if you want to use insurance to cover your therapy sessions.
Insurance won’t cover therapy unless you’re diagnosed with a mental health condition (and it doesn’t cover life coaching at all). 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.
Some therapists specifically focus their work on areas other than mental health treatment and market themselves to self-pay clients who want to work on something else. So, it’s definitely not as simple as, “See a therapist if you need mental health treatment, see a life coach if you don’t.”
Myth #8: Therapists Focus on the Past, Life Coaches Focus on the Future
It’s true that therapists can—and often do—help you delve into your past. They can help you make sense of it and heal from it.
That doesn’t mean they always do. In fact, some styles and methods of therapy focus on the present moment almost exclusively.
One way therapists help you cope with anxiety is by helping you 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 talk about your past to work. It’s entirely possible to get effective therapy without talking about your childhood or your parents.
Do You Have to Talk About Your Past in Therapy?
It’s a myth that you have to talk about your past in therapy. You don’t.
But it’s not wildly inaccurate to say therapists tend to want to delve into your past. They do.
A therapist’s approach is to help you change by helping you understand yourself better. That often—but not always—requires you to spend at least a little time exploring your past. Some therapists and some methods focus more on what you think and believe in the here and now, but those present beliefs often point to past events.
For more information on when it’s helpful—and when it’s not helpful—to talk about your past in therapy, you can read our article, “Do I Have to Talk About My Past in Therapy?”
It’s 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. The only way a life coach can help you change your behavior is to understand why you haven’t gotten the results you wanted in the past.
The difference is that each has a different focus and way of working. Therapists focus on changing how you feel and helping you understand how you got here, while coaches focus on changing how you act and helping you understand what works and what doesn’t.
In the end, though, both can help you do both—change how you feel and how you act. Both can help you clarify where you’ve come from, what you want now, and how to work toward a better future. Both can help you gain insight, change your behavior, and achieve your goals.
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.
Therapists specialize in prompting you into reflection. They help you understand why you feel or act the way you do. They help you change not by pressing you to take action, but by helping you work through your inner blocks until change starts to naturally happen. If you feel like you need healing, therapy may be exactly what you need.
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. And ultimately, getting the best results in coaching or therapy depends on working with someone who’s a good match. So, in the end, the person may matter more than the profession.
The Person May Matter More 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.
In the end, if you feel that you could work with either type of professional, and you’ve found a few who seem qualified and competent, spend a little time seeing how it feels when you imagine working with one over the other. Does one just seem to feel right?
For more information on how to get a feel for a therapist (or life coach) who might be a good match, you can read our article, “How to Find the Right Therapist by Using Your Intuition.”
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.
Therapy and life coaching can both help you change. There’s not a simple answer as to which is best. You might not be able to tell which approach suits you better until you try each one. After some trial and error, you may be able to determine whether therapy or life coaching is the right fit—or if either would work and you just need to find the right person.
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 match. Or they may 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.