Life Coach vs. Therapist

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Do you need a life coach, or is a therapist the key to addressing your concerns? The answer is, “It depends.” 

When it comes to life coaching vs. therapy, both fulfill important but different roles. And you don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other. A person might need the high level of care a therapist provides while also benefiting from the niche services of a life coach. In fact, one of our founders has a therapist and a life coach.

Knowing how to choose a life coach means understanding the difference between the helper roles available to you and what each specializes in. 

What is a Life Coach?

A life coach is a wellness professional whose goal is to help clients find greater fulfillment in their routines and relationships. 

A life coach might assist in areas like:

  • Career or leadership
  • Relationships and dating
  • Health and wellness
  • Life skills
  • Finances
  • Sobriety
  • Sports 
  • Spirituality
  • General emotional health

Life coaches aren’t licensed to treat mental health disorders, but they can support people coping with mental illness. Coaches focus on the future and how to meet specific goals through action. They believe in the potential of every client to become empowered enough to reach their goals. Life coaches use their training and experience to offer clients a new perspective. 

When it comes to choosing between a wellness coach or a life coach, remember that wellness coaches specialize in issues relating to health or fitness. A life coach might be qualified to help you reach wellness and general life goals. 

A coach can help you stay focused and accountable so you can reach your goals faster. One study on coaching found that clients who participated in group and individual coaching sessions reduced procrastination and improved their ability to achieve their goals. 

So, what does a life coach do for you? A coach helps their client identify where they are and where they want to be, and then they help their client develop a plan to bridge the gap. 

For example, if you are 30 years old and working a standard 9-to-5 job and want to retire in comfort at 50, a financial coach can help you set and reach the goals needed to make that a reality. 

Coaching is a way to help people identify the obstacles preventing them from excelling. Once obstacles are identified, the coach and the client work together to overcome them. 

A life coach doesn’t tell clients what to do or influence their path. Instead, the role of a life coach is to help the client connect with their own wisdom and be proactive in their lives. 

What is a Therapist?

The term “therapist” describes a wide array of mental health professionals. Therapists who are mental health professionals diagnose and treat emotional, psychological, and behavioral issues. 

When discussing the difference between life coach and therapist roles, it is crucial to clarify the types of counselors and their jobs. 


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing, preventing, and treating mental health conditions. After completing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic degree (DO), a psychiatrist must complete a four-year residency where they learn to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. Psychiatrists can also prescribe medications. 


Psychologists use therapy to assist clients with mental health symptoms. They have completed graduate school and have either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. They can diagnose mental health conditions. 

In some states, psychologists with special qualifications can prescribe medication, but in most states, they can’t write prescriptions or order lab tests. 


Counselors may provide similar services to a psychiatrist or psychologist, but there are distinct differences in their training, education, and licensure levels. 

Counselors typically have a master’s degree in counseling. They can’t prescribe medications and often work with a psychiatrist or psychologist. 

Social Workers

Social workers advocate for their clients and help them navigate behavioral, physical, mental, or emotional health issues. Social work requires a bachelor’s degree and maybe a master’s of social work (MSW), depending on the location. Social workers often work in teams or as part of larger mental health treatment organizations.

Methods Therapists Use

Therapists use various therapeutic approaches to assist their clients. Some of the most common modalities are:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Psychoanalysis (talk therapy)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Therapies are typically provided to individuals but may be done with couples, families, or groups.

Like life coaching, therapy is a collaborative experience with therapists and clients working together to define goals and create personal growth and healing strategies. People with deep-rooted mental health concerns may need long-term therapy to learn to control symptoms and make lasting positive changes in their lives. 

5 Key Differences Between a Life Coach and Therapist

Both life coaches and therapists can play important roles in coping with stress, enhancing relationships, and improving your wellness, but they provide different services. What do life coaches do? These six key differences will help explain.

1. Focus

Life coaches focus on goal-setting, motivation, and personal development. Sessions are centered around present and future needs, not healing past issues. Therapists are trained to address mental health concerns and emotional well-being.

2. Scope of Practice

Life coaches work with functioning clients who want improvement in specific areas of their lives. Therapists work with clients experiencing all levels of psychological distress or mental illness that may make it difficult to function in their day-to-day lives. 

Life coaches are not trained to diagnose or treat mental health disorders. Therapists are equipped to diagnose and provide medical treatment for various psychological conditions.

3. Accreditation

Therapists must be licensed by the state or states they see clients in, but life coaches don’t. A coach may also be a licensed and certified psychotherapist, but no governing body regulates the coaching industry. 

Some life coaches have a high level of training. They may meet the rules for credentialing by the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC) or the International Coaching Federation (ICF). But when it comes to choosing a coach, you’re responsible for vetting their experience and qualifications.

4. Timeline

Some forms of therapy can last months or years, depending on the client’s needs. Working with a life coach is typically a short-term process that rarely lasts longer than a year. Coaches provide tools to help their clients move forward. Once clients master those skills and begin making progress independently, coaching is no longer necessary. 

5. Methods

Coaching techniques include making action plans and finding ways to stay accountable. Approaches used by therapists may include various approaches like trauma therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications, and more.  

How to Know if You Need a Life Coach

If life coaching is new to you, you may wonder if you need one. There are many reasons a person would find a life coach to work with.

You may want a life coach if you’re:

  • Feeling “stuck” or unfulfilled
  • Unclear goals and priorities
  • Seeking personal growth and development
  • Lacking motivation or accountability
  • Going through life transitions
  • Balancing many life areas
  • Needing objective feedback

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these issues, working with a life coach can provide the extra support and structure you need. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or struggle to cope with day-to-day responsibilities, seek treatment from a qualified therapist. 

What to Expect From Your Work With a Life Coach

Working with a life coach doesn’t mean all your obstacles will automatically be removed or that some wise person will give you the answers to life. Coaching is an effective process, but only if you are willing to put in the necessary work. 

When working with a life coach, expect to:

  • Set goals and understand why you want to accomplish those things
  • Create action-oriented strategies and plans
  • Be held accountable for progress toward reaching those goals
  • Have conversations about progress toward goals and obstacles
  • Develop skills to overcome obstacles
  • Work to release self-limiting beliefs
  • Receive objective feedback, support, and encouragement  
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Enhance decision-making skills
  • Build confidence
  • Recognize personal strengths
  • Complete homework and goal-related tasks between each session
  • Grow and change
  • Work toward no longer needing the coaching relationships

A life coach will provide ongoing support while you work through challenges. They are available to motivate, encourage, and help you stay on track to make your goals a reality. 

How to Choose a Life Coach That Fits Your Needs

If you decide you want to work with a life coach, the next challenge is finding one who is the right fit for you.  

When choosing a life coach:

  • Reflect on your specific goals and know what you’re seeking from a coach
  • Check credentials and certifications
  • Ask for referrals from friends, family members, colleagues, and people you admire
  • Read client reviews and testimonials from their clients
  • Take advantage of free or low-cost consultations to gauge compatibility

Finding a coach to work with is an individual process. Even a highly recommended coach may not be the right person for you. If a potential coach’s communication style or approach doesn’t appeal to you, it doesn’t mean you are difficult or that they aren’t good at their job. It simply means they aren’t the right person for you. 

Trust your instincts and find a life coach with whom you feel comfortable, understood, and supported. 

Red Flags to Watch for When Choosing a Life Coach

Along with the positive things to look for, there are some red flags to be aware of when you’re searching for a compatible coach to work with

Avoid working with a life coach if they:

  • Lack proper qualifications or certifications. 
  • Avoid answering questions about their training or certifications 
  • Have a lot of negative reviews or a limited number of online reviews
  • Refuse to provide client references
  • Say they can cure a mental health disorder
  • Tell you they can treat pretty much anything

Life Coaching Process and Techniques

Understanding how a life coach works will help you get the most from your sessions. So, what can you expect from coaching sessions? 

Every coaching relationship should begin with an assessment. The coach may ask questions about your goals and challenges and what you see as your strengths or weaknesses. Getting to know you better and understanding your needs gives the coach better insight into how they can support you. 

After the initial assessment, you can expect a “check-in” at the beginning of each session. The check-in lets you and the coach discuss your progress and adjust coaching techniques if needed. 

Then, common coaching techniques for individual sessions include accountability, progress tracking, and discussing your mindset. 


Accountability refers to following through with the actionable steps laid out in the previous session. The coach may ask questions about what worked and what didn’t, what you learned, and how you overcame any obstacles. 

Progress Tracking

Progress includes tangible and emotional achievements that bring you closer to your goals. Tracking progress provides a new baseline for creating the next actionable steps in your journey. 


Keeping clients motivated is one of a life coach’s responsibilities. Your coach will want to discuss your mindset, including any self-limiting beliefs holding you back. They may work with you to develop strategies to overcome a negative mindset. 

Setting New Goals

The last step in a coaching session is typically to set new goals based on the progress a client is making. Goal setting includes new (or continued) actionable, achievable steps that build confidence and bring the client closer to their ultimate achievement. 

How to Prepare for Your Life Coaching Journey

Working with a life coach is not a passive endeavor. To get the most from the experience, you need to be a full participant and be willing to embrace change and personal growth. If you are open, honest, clear about your goals, and committed to the process, working with a life coach can literally be life-changing. 

To prepare for each session:

  • Reflect – What do you hope to achieve? What have you done since your last session? How is the process going for you? What obstacles have presented themselves that you need guidance overcoming?
  • Be Open – You won’t get nearly as much from coaching if you go into a session closed off to the possibilities. Be open-minded about approaching challenges in new ways.
  • Commit – If you run in the door for each session and spend the whole time thinking about what’s next in your day, you’re unlikely to get the most from the experience. Commit to setting aside the time for reflection, coaching, and action.
  • Engage – Bring a list of questions or concerns to work through in each session. This approach helps you be an active participant in the session.
  • Focus – What does success look like from your coaching experience? Focus on achieving that success in each session and overall.

Remember that the goal of coaching is to reach your goals and move on from the process, not to invest time and resources in coaching from now on. Think about how best to go about that and ensure you get the most from each session.

Ready to Enjoy the Benefits of Life Coaching?

A life coach is not a doctor or therapist, though some credentialed therapists do offer coaching services. Life coaches are professionals who help people overcome obstacles and reach goals. 

Coaches take a positive, stay-in-the-present approach. Their goal is to help clients identify obstacles as well as the strengths they have to overcome them. 

People with a mental health disorder may enjoy working with a life coach, but coaches are not mental health professionals. They can’t diagnose or develop a treatment plan for mental illness.

Whether you need a life coach or a therapist or both depends on your unique needs. If you’re looking for a therapist, All Counseling can help. Search our therapist directory to find the best fit for you.

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