Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/8/2021
Therapy and life coaching are two popular mental support structures in modern society, and chances are that in contemporary culture, you’ve heard one or more friends, family members or others casually mention that they’re working with a life coach or a therapist to improve themselves.
Good for them. And if you’re considering the same services for your own personal growth, good for you.
Picking the right support for your growth goals is crucial to success, so it’s no wonder that people may struggle to find the right person to take them where they want to go (or where they need to be).
These days, the struggle may start as early as choosing the right qualifications and the right title for your support structure.
You may be inclined to avoid therapy, given the stigma associated with seeking the help of mental health practitioners.
You may also be inclined to avoid life coaches for the mid-level-marketing aura and the stigma of pseudoscience commonly ascribed to them.
In both cases, you’d be wrong.
Therapists and life coaches may both be valuable assets for helping you get to the ideal version of yourself.
But picking the right one isn’t a simple process, especially if you don’t even understand the difference between the two roles.
The first and most important distinction between a therapist and a life coach is that a therapist has a higher and more rigorous standard of training and regulation.
Therapists will typically have, at a minimum, a master’s degree, and will undergo an additional three years of education and approximately 3,000 hours of supervised clinical internships.
Clinical psychologists may take six or more years to graduate, and exceed 5,000 hours under supervision, depending on the state where they are licensed.
Likewise, therapists are trained to deal with and ultimately silence their own emotions within the therapy space — it’s just one of many additional training elements that are learned over a longer period of education, but a crucial element of making a client feel safe, comfortable and unjudged.
More broadly, the major difference between therapists and coaches is how they approach problems.
Therapists, simply, are dealing with the past. They want to help clients understand and ultimately learn from their past traumas to produce a new, more self-aware version of themselves going forward.
Likewise, therapists are focused on the “why” questions — why you get anxious around large crowds, or become aggressive and defensive at even the smallest criticism.
Their purpose is to help you be able to self identify these things within the broader context of their origins and, in the process, learn to better manage those feelings and triggers.
A life coach, meanwhile, is less concerned with the past, and more with the present. They are focused not on the causes of your current issues, but how to deal with those current issues in real time.
That’s the other element of coaching — where therapists deal with “why?” coaches look at “how?” but the differences don’t stop there.
“How?” becomes a process of affecting change in the conscious mind. You’re asked to challenge your assumptions and dig into how you avoid work or emotionally distance yourself from people. Their focus is affirmation, goal-oriented refocusing of your thoughts and emotions.
It’s unfair to call coaching an unregulated industry. Coaches may have significant experience, may have accredited coaching certification and training of between six months to several years, but there is no set standard for their education (though an effort is underway to do that).
In the end, coaches are there to facilitate accountability for their clients.
An article published last year outlined some important points about the current state of the blurry space between these two professions.
The article’s author explained that life coaching is expanding to fill an “unmet need” and to respond to frustration with “traditional models” of mental healthcare.
Unfortunately, as a result, in many cases the blurred lines are causing concerns among the medical community about a lack of regulation in the coaching space (at least, in comparison with therapy professionals) and a lack of education about that on the part of vulnerable patients.
The article went on to further outline that a lack of requirements for licensing, education, training or supervision for coaches, and no legal protections for any harmed clients was the most concerning element of the current status quo.
Put simply, the difference between these two professions isn’t so much their intent with regards to helping, as it is the amount of training, oversight and liability or responsibility they assume for the consequences of ineffective support.
Are we suggesting that life coaches are incompetent or fake? Not at all.
In fact, there’s also reason to see the life coaching field as a net benefit for people seeking support.
After all, the stigma of professional medical care for mental health still lingers, whereas the euphemistic term “life coach” sounds more positive, and doesn’t culturally suggest any weakness or illness.
What we’re getting at here is that, while both offer benefits, confusing the purpose of the two may be potentially dangerous for your mental health.
The “easiest” option is likely not the best option, as life coaches are not prepared and trained to deal with the hardest mental health problems — and their untrained opinions could very well exacerbate them.
The biggest question you need to answer to decide whether you want coaching or therapy might not be which one of these is best suited to help you, but whether you see yourself as generally mentally healthy or not.
As such, we return to the earlier “stigma” issue of whether therapy is solely for folks who are mentally unwell.
Life coaches are trained to push mentally healthy clients with evocative and provocative questions, whereas therapists are generally understood to be better qualified to work with individuals who may need more help finding their footing, and may therefore push their clients forward more gently when broaching sensitive topics.
To be fair, unpacking a deeply problematic childhood trauma should require more delicacy than asking you to set professional goals for how you respond to your boss’ notes on your last report.
The best answer really might be both. If you’re seeing areas where you feel a need for help, and you likewise have goals you’d like support in achieving, working with one of each may give you a powerful set of skills and support structures to achieve your goals and learn more about yourself.
Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are best served by a therapist, while working through your self doubt to hit your sales goal for the year is a problem that coaching techniques will best benefit.
Mental health disorders should always be the domain of a therapist or other trained mental health professional. Period.
But, the truth is, not everything that you want guidance on requires a therapist. Your daily life may necessitate guidance, and your life goals may necessitate coaching techniques that help you employ tools and techniques to help you push forward.
Goal setting in the arena of a professional counselor is very different from that of a licensed therapist, and coaching sessions are very different from the time you might spend in therapy practices.
As much as we’d like to give you a simple one-or-the-other coaching versus therapy answer, the reality is that you’re best served by beginning your search by identifying exactly what it is you need help with.
The difference between in person or online therapy and coaching on paper may be easier to explain, but you may respond better to coaching than therapy (or to therapy than coaching) depending on your needs.
The one thing we can tell you is that if you’re experiencing a mental health issue, a therapist is the way to go.
The various types of therapy are designed to treat a wide range of mental issues, from depression and anxiety to other behavioral issues.
It’s a safe space to be vulnerable with what ails you, and to get help with things like bipolar disorder and other serious issues. But you don’t have to have a serious issue to benefit from therapy.