What’s the Difference Between a Therapist and a Life Coach?

A professional in gray suit gives a talk at a podium in a bright roomIf you are looking for help with life’s ups and downs, there are more options than ever. Psychotherapy has been the traditional choice for decades and has a well-established track record. Life coaching, meanwhile, has emerged in the past 20 years as an alternative and has been growing rapidly.

Both therapists and properly trained coaches can help individuals who want to make changes in their lives. If you have a mental health diagnosis (such as anxiety or depression), it might be best to see a therapist who has the licensure, education, and training to address your specific issue. As for coaching, one of the reasons for its increasing popularity is it remains largely insulated from the stigma that keeps many people from seeking a therapist.

As both a licensed therapist and a certified life coach, I hope to be able to clarify some of the issues worth considering when deciding whether a therapist or a coach is the best choice for you and your circumstances. The main, broad differences between therapy and coaching follow:

Regulatory Standards

Therapists are licensed and regulated by the state in which they practice and must have the required levels of education, training, and continuing education to use the title of psychotherapist.

While many coaches seek specialized coach training and certification, there is no state board that requires this. In fact, anyone who wants to use the title of coach can do so because coaching is an unregulated industry at this time.

Goals and Expected Outcomes

People typically see a therapist because they have symptoms of a mental health issue and want to feel and function better. Therapy also helps individuals by increasing insight and self-awareness by identifying the roots of issues and problematic thinking.

Coaching tends to focus on the present and future rather than the past. Coaches help people identify their goals and the obstacles they are facing. Like therapy, coaching involves guidance and support but also places a great deal of emphasis on accountability, enabling people to do more than they might on their own.

Scope of Practice

Therapists work with individuals with mental health conditions, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, trauma, grief/loss, and a wide variety of day-to-day challenges and struggles. A therapist’s training allows them to work with people who have severe mental health issues, but they also work with individuals who are highly functioning but want more out of life by utilizing coaching tools and techniques.

If you are more comfortable knowing that the person helping you is a highly educated professional who is licensed and regulated by the state, shares a common language with other health care providers, and is trained to deal with the symptoms of mental health issues as well as the dramas and traumas of ordinary life, a therapist is your best bet.

Coaches work with people who are basically healthy and functional but not reaching their full potential. Coaching almost always addresses an individual’s mindset and attitude by uncovering self-limiting beliefs and negative self-talk. A person being coached is assumed to have all the answers they need within them; the coach’s job is to facilitate the discovery of those answers by asking the right questions.

Location and Format

Therapy most often takes place in the therapist’s office, and sessions are typically 45 to 50 minutes once a week. Therapists can only operate in the state in which they are licensed. A growing number of therapists now offer sessions by phone or online, but this is also regulated on a state-by-state basis.

Coaching sessions typically take place over the phone, but they can also occur in an office or online. Many coaches work with people on a weekly basis, but due to the lack of regulations in the coaching industry, there are no set standards or expectations. Coaching services can be offered in person, over the phone, via video chat, by email, by text message, or in any combination the coach chooses.

Fees and Coverage

Insurance companies set a range they consider “reasonable and customary,” and the marketplace tends to establish the value of therapy services based on the cost of living, the number of therapists in the area, and population density. Coaching services typically vary more widely in pricing; it may cost less than therapy or considerably more.

Another difference is that while therapists tend to charge by the session, coaches often price their services as packages or programs, ranging from six weeks to six months or longer. This is an important consideration because therapy is more of a pay-as-you-go expense, whereas coaching might be a larger upfront expense, requiring a more substantial financial commitment.

Therapy is often covered by health insurance because therapists are able to use reimbursement codes for the treatment of specific mental health issues. Coaching is not reimbursed by insurance companies at this time because coaches do not assign diagnoses.

A Matter of Choice

If you are more comfortable knowing that the person helping you is a highly educated professional who is licensed and regulated by the state, shares a common language with other health care providers, and is trained to deal with the symptoms of mental health issues as well as the dramas and traumas of ordinary life, a therapist is your best bet.

If you don’t need (or want) a mental health diagnosis, are not looking for insurance reimbursement, and want someone who will push you to move toward your goals rather than facilitate insight into your past, a growing number of coaches are waiting to work with you.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Stef

    August 23rd, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    How about a life coach fitness trainer wrapped up in one package? I’m pretty sure that’s what I need! lol

  • Josephine

    August 23rd, 2016 at 2:06 PM

    Just like with anything else you have to think clearly about what you would like to get out of this experience. If you are looking for goal setting and motivation then maybe a life coach will be the way to go. But of you are looking for something that is more in depth and maybe even a little more complicated then I think that I would consider going with a therapist instead. Again it is all about defining what you would like to get from the experience and then finding the best person who can help facilitate that with you.

  • lena

    August 24th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    Sometimes it is not the label that matters, just whether this person is a good person for you to have in your life and if they are helping you who cares what the job description is anyway.

  • Trinty

    August 24th, 2016 at 2:24 PM

    I always feel a little better working with a person who I know has had a lot of time and professional training in a given area. It is not that I don’t trust that another person like a life coach could help to motivate me, I think that in some ways I just think that I need a little more. Someone who has experience working with people who are pretty messed up because honestly that’s how I feel most of the time.

  • deb

    August 25th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    I love my life coach!
    I am telling you that she has given me the confidence to be a producer and a go getter like I never could have been before and as a result I am going further in my career today than I ever thought that I could.
    It doesn’t take much for someone to make you feel terrible about yourself, but it takes a whole lot more for someone to help you regain the self esteem that you had lost all those years ago.
    I feel so much better today, physically and mentally, than I have in a very long time and I truly give her all the credit.

  • Diann Wingert

    August 25th, 2016 at 12:12 PM

    Stef, There ARE life coaches that are also fitness trainers ! Life coaches come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. You might want to do a search for Health & Wellness coach to steer you toward the right person for you. Good luck ! Diann

  • Diann Wingert

    August 25th, 2016 at 12:15 PM

    Josephine – You are SO right ! Knowing what you want, need and expect from the relationship is the best way to find the right person for you, whether they are a life coach, a therapist or both. It’s also helpful to know what you don’t want and what you are willing to do to reach your desired outcome. Thanks for your insightful comment. Diann

  • Diann Wingert

    August 25th, 2016 at 12:17 PM

    Lena – Good point. You sound like a person who is less concerned about credentials and more concerned about “goodness of fit”. And guess what ? It turns out THAT is truly the most important factor in determining whether it will be a good experience that will help YOU. Thanks for writing ! Diann

  • Diann Wingert

    August 25th, 2016 at 12:19 PM

    Trinty – You are making a good point. There are great coaches and great therapists, as well as mediocre coaches and mediocre therapists. If you feel more comfortable with someone who you know has completed the education and training required of all therapists, so that mental health issues won’t be missed, you are probably better off hiring a therapist or a therapist who is also trained as a life coach. I appreciate your comments. Diann

  • Diann Wingert

    August 25th, 2016 at 12:29 PM

    Deb – After being a licensed therapist for many years, I hired a life coach myself, not really knowing what to expect. I found it to be a very powerful relationship that really helped me move forward in ways I had not been able to do on my own. This experience influenced me to get trained and certified as a life coach myself, so that I could offer coaching as an alternative to therapy for interested clients. I will be writing more articles as a Good Therapy topic expert on life coaching, in order to help more people become more familiar with this option, so stay tuned. I am so happy you shared your positive experience here. Thanks ! Diann

  • Sofie

    August 25th, 2016 at 1:50 PM

    The difference?
    A couple of dollars per hour I would suspect.

  • Diann Wingert

    August 26th, 2016 at 2:07 PM

    Sofie, Thanks for your comment. Pricing for both therapy and coaching really do run the gamut, but generally speaking, more skilled and in demand individuals tend to command higher fees. Also, as with other fields, specialists tend to charge more than generalists, whether you are seeking a therapist or a coach. That being said, you generally find professional fees for therapy do not vary too widely within a specific geographic community. There may be a broader range among coaching fees at this time, which may party be due to the unregulated nature of the coaching field, but also that coaching is a new field, so most consumers don’t really know the value of coaching, as compared to therapy. Another distinction is that coaching services tend to be sold as packages or programs , whereas therapy tends to be priced by the session. Either way, the true value of the service is in the eye of the client.

  • Penelope

    August 26th, 2016 at 10:43 AM

    I know that certifications are not the end all and be all but I just think that I would trust someone’s ability to help me a little more if I knew that they had spent years learning the profession.

    I always sort of feel like, and this may not be fair but I’ll put it out there, that just about anyone could call themselves motivational or a life coach without ever having any formal training.

    That kind of scares me thinking that someone could really be fooling others under the guise of helping them.

  • Diann Wingert

    August 26th, 2016 at 2:20 PM

    You are absolutely right. Because coaching is an unregulated field, there are no credentials to be earned and no specific educational or training requirements. Many coaches, myself included, do go through coach training and decide to become certified, but they would not be breaking any rules, laws or even ethical guidelines if they did not. As a consumer, you should do your due diligence and ask questions about training, certification and personal and professional experience, whether the professional is a coach or a therapist. Some people would not hire a life coach because they are not credentialed, but some people also would not hire a marriage counselor who has never been married or a therapist who specializes in treating children who doesn’t have kids. A professional who is not comfortable answering questions about their background might not be the right one for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the conversation on this topic ! Diann

  • Jean

    August 27th, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned or not, but you know that insurance companies if they reimburse for any service like this at all would probably be more willing to do it for a licensed therapist or counselor.

    I hate it that getting help for ourselves often boils down to what insurance will or will not pay but for the majority of us this is a big part of our medical decisions that we make.

  • Diann Wingert

    August 27th, 2016 at 7:19 PM

    Hi Jean, I did mention this is the article, but at this time, there is no insurance procedure code for coaching and for any counseling service to be reimbursed, a mental health diagnosis must be assigned. Unless a coach is also a licensed therapist, like myself, they are not eligible to diagnose. Depending on the state and the type of license (professional counselor, clinical social worker, psychologist, marriage & family therapist) coaching services by a therapist may or may not be covered. It’s always best to check with your insurance company to make sure. Hope this helps, Diann

  • AliceG

    August 29th, 2016 at 3:28 AM

    Hi Diann!!
    I thoroughly enjoyed the content you have put on here.It is truly a great help us to differentiate between life coach and therapist. I think If we are looking for goal setting and motivation then maybe a life coach will be the way to go. But if we are looking for something that is more in depth and maybe even a little more complicated then I think that I would consider going with a therapist. You can explore to enoughisenough.org.au/ for more tips on therapist and counselling. Thanks for sharing this post.. Keep sharing more information with us.

  • Diann Wingert

    August 29th, 2016 at 1:27 PM

    Alice, I appreciate your feedback. I am a big fan of BOTH coaching and therapy and as someone who is trained in both, I see a lot of confusion that prevents people from getting what will really help them most. My goal in writing these posts is to help people be better educated about their options and the difference between them so they can truly make an informed choice. It’s hard enough to ask for help, I’d like to make getting the right kind of help just a little easier. Diann

  • Miles

    August 31st, 2016 at 11:40 AM

    Very useful info, thanks!

  • Diann Wingert

    August 31st, 2016 at 4:25 PM

    Thanks for the comment. I am glad you found the article worthwhile !

  • Sara

    December 13th, 2016 at 11:58 AM

    Great article – thanks!
    You can think of life coaching and counseling similar to how you’d think of an NFL football coach and physical therapist. The footbal coach is there to make the team better so that it can win a game. A successful coach looks at what’s missing from the game, rather than what’s wrong. He isn’t there to help swimmers learn how to play football. He’s already working with highly-skilled football athletes to make them better.

  • Diann Wingert

    December 14th, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    Sara – Love your comments, especially the point about coaching focusing on what’s missing instead of what’s wrong. We can be more successful when we move toward completion than correction. Thanks for sharing your thoughts !

  • Heather

    February 13th, 2017 at 6:14 AM

    I’m struggling with not knowing where I should start. I’m definitely in a rut and my health and quality of living is suffering from it. I’m not seeking a medical condition/diagnosis but I also want to feel that if my current behavior stems from past issues, that I am able to delve into those and gain understanding so that I can better identify triggers in the future. Wouldn’t that be necessary before being able to address current behavior and goal setting? I almost feel like I need both… It’s confusing.

  • Diann Wingert

    February 13th, 2017 at 2:07 PM

    Thanks for writing Heather. This is an excellent question and probably the one I am asked most often. The majority of therapists are not trained coaches and the majority of coaches are not licensed therapists. Working with an individual that has both is probably your best bet. I am a master’s certified coach with over 20 years experience as a licensed therapist prior to my coach training. Feel free to contact me through my website at diannwingert.com if you’d like to find out more, or search online for a therapist/coach near you.

  • Jay

    September 12th, 2017 at 5:15 PM

    It’s good to know that you can get both a therapist and a life coach. Both seem to have their benefits. It’s also important to know what they can or can’t do. I really didn’t know before reading this. Thanks for the tips. This will help me in my search!

  • Diann Wingert

    September 12th, 2017 at 9:09 PM

    Jay – I’m glad the article was helpful. Good luck in your search for the “just right” professional for you.
    Diann Wingert

  • Folakemi

    June 28th, 2018 at 9:16 AM

    This has been so helpful Diann. Thank you.
    I wonder if there have been more modification to how therapists are licensed now, especially as it relates to cross border access. I ask because online platforms are becoming quite reliable in dispensing mental health care especially to parts of the world with lower availability of qualified therapists.

  • Diann Wingert

    June 28th, 2018 at 1:58 PM

    Folakemi, Yes, it’s true that online counseling is opening up mental health services to people who have not had access in the past. Every country has different requirements and standards and at least for the time being in the US, a therapist cannot provide clinical services outside the state(s) in which they are licensed. My hope is that we will make considerable progress in increasing access to services globally, while still insuring quality and ethics as we do so. Thanks for your comments !

  • Aaron Lal

    December 1st, 2018 at 1:46 AM

    Thanks for the informative blog. I found your information in the blog worthwhile. You have shared an important topic ever body might love to know. Keep up the good work.

  • Diann Wingert

    December 3rd, 2018 at 4:49 PM

    Thanks for your comment Aaron. I’m glad you found it worthwhile. As more and more therapists are becoming coaches, there is a growing need for reliable information on the topic. I’m glad to be able to contribute.

  • San Diego HC

    August 27th, 2019 at 8:28 PM

    Nowadays most people take the advantage of supporting themselves with the help of a counselor, coach or therapist through the challenges life throws at them at some stage. For people new to the field of self-development the question ‘What is the difference between a counselor and coach?’ comes up often. Lets find some distinctions that might be helpful to you.

  • Reese

    February 21st, 2021 at 10:26 PM

    Wrote an excellent post about the difference between a therapist and a life coach.

  • Evan

    December 14th, 2021 at 8:38 PM

    Hello, I am a life coach specializing in breakup recovery. I just wanted to point out that there are some ways to determine if a life coach is experienced and has training. The first thing that I wanted to point out is that although there is no training or credentials that are specifically required to be a coach, there is a body that is the the gold standard of coach credentialing. It’s called the International Coaching Federation. They offer 3 levels of credentialing, which are ACC, PCC, and MCC. I am currently getting certified at the ACC level, which requires 60 hours of training with an accredited program, 3 group mentoring sessions, 3 individual mentoring sessions, 100 hours of coaching experience, and you have to take a test on Ethics and Coaching from the ICF. PCC requires more training and 500 hours of coaching experience, and MCC requires even more training and 2500 hours of coaching experience. So looking for those credentials can be a good indicator. Another is to look at their website. Is it professional? Have they been published? Have they appeared on podcasts? Most coaches also offer a free consultation call, and this provides an opportunity to ask about their training and how long they have been coaching for. Hopefully as coaching grows as an industry, it becomes more regulated and therefor more trustworthy, because I completely understand the reassuring feelings the guarantee of a therapist’s training provides. I hope that helps gives some insight. For the record, I am involved in and love both Therapy and Coaching, and think it’s just a matter of finding the right fit with the right person.

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