As a transformational therapist and a mindful-empowerment coach, I am often asked to explain the difference between therapy and life coaching. It makes sense people would want to know. After all, when you have life goals you want to achieve, it behooves you to make an informed decision about which professional is most suited to help you reach those goals.
Therapy and life coaching differ in some notable ways.
Education and Training
Therapy, sometimes called psychotherapy, is generally a highly regulated profession by state. Therapists are either master’s degree holders (MA, MSW) or doctoral degree holders (PsyD, PhD). They usually have attended anywhere from two to seven years of school past their undergraduate degree. Depending on the state, they will have a license commensurate with their degree and certain qualifications met postgraduate training. For a licensed professional counselor (LPC) license, for example, a person is required to complete the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) exam. In Colorado, where I work, therapists are required to renew their license every two years by completing and accounting for continuing education (CE) credits, which allows us to stay current on best practices.
Life coaching, however, is relatively unregulated. You can find coaches who have taken various trainings and received certifications. There are even membership and training associations, such as the International Coaching Federation. But there is no central, regulating, or accrediting body for coaching professionals. There is also no licensure and no requirement for continuing education. Coach training programs range anywhere from one weekend to several weeks. The instructors of these programs may have any level of experience.
Focus of Sessions
Therapists are highly trained in clinical psychotherapy. Good therapists should be competent at working with a variety of mental health-related issues, including managing chronic conditions, trauma resolution, coordinating care with psychiatrists and other mental health care providers, and people looking to do depth work or focused growth work.
Coaching would not be appropriate for people still learning to manage mental health issues or processing trauma.
Coaches may have varied levels of training, so it’s always important to check their background and education. This may or may not be important to you, depending on what you intend to use the coach for. Coaching is not a replacement for therapy. Coaching generally focuses on your future goals and the steps and practices to get you where you want to go. Coaching would not be appropriate for people still learning to manage mental health issues or processing trauma. People ready for coaching are generally optimally functioning, goal-focused, personally driven individuals.
There are other differences as well, but we’ve covered some of the biggest.
Is a Coach Who Was Trained as a Therapist Right for You?
Some people interested in coaching prefer to hire a coach who was also trained as a therapist. There are many reasons a person may choose to do this, including:
- There may be comfort in knowing the coach has extensive training in direct service to people.
- If the person brings matters more appropriate for therapy, the coach-trained-as-therapist should know when to redirect and refer.
- Coaches without therapeutic training may not realize when a coaching session is beyond their scope of practice (i.e., may not know when to refer).
- Even if a coach trained as a therapist won’t be able to do trauma resolution or manage chronic mental health issues with you, they should have a deeper level of understanding about those experiences and any processing you may have already done in therapy.
If you’re not sure whether it’s best to find a therapist or a life coach, the best advice I can give is:
- Write down what you hoped to have achieved when the therapy or coaching relationship is over.
- Bring that list of goals to the first therapy or coaching session.
- Discuss your goals with each professional you interview.
- Ask each professional how and if they can help you achieve those goals.
The answers to those questions will give you valuable information about whether that professional is the right fit for you.
- Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies – State Board of Licensed Professional Counselor Examiners: Laws, Rules and Policies. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/dora/Professional_Counselor_Laws
- International Coaching Federation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coachfederation.org/
- National Board for Certified Counselors. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nbcc.org/exam/statelicensureexamregistration
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