Life Coach vs. Therapist: What's The Difference?

When seeking professional help for emotional wellbeing and personal growth, the default option you may think of is therapy; but recently, you may have also heard people talk about working with a life coach.

Life coaches are professionals who help you achieve personal or professional goals. While approaches to life coaching vary, most focus on personal empowerment, motivation, and strategies to define and reach your dreams.

Sound similar to therapy? Here are key differences between life coaching and therapy, and how to choose one over another.

1. Topics: Therapy focuses on mental health; life coaching focuses on goals

The major difference between therapy and  life coaching is the focus of the work: therapy focuses on mental health and emotional healing, while life coaching focuses on setting and achieving goals.

While therapists are trained mental health professionals who are in the regulated field of healthcare and require licensure, life coaches do not have mental health training and are not equipped to diagnose or treat mental health conditions (unless a life coach was previously trained as a therapist, which is also common).

Consider therapy if you want to heal or get help with a mental health concern; try life coaching if you need help getting “unstuck” or realizing a fuller potential.

When to see a therapist

When to see a life coach

2. Skills: Therapy helps you learn to heal; coaching empowers you to achieve goals

Therapists help clients look to their figurative yesterdays in order to overcome deep-rooted issues, whereas life coaches are there to help you jump off today's launching point to succeed tomorrow.

The skills you learn from a therapist are designed to foster healing from whichever challenge you are facing. Coaching, on the other hand, sets you up with tools to reach bigger dreams or break free if you feel stuck on repeat in your life.

Therapy helps you heal from mental health challenges

In therapy, you will address mental and emotional health challenges you're facing this by learning therapy techniques like:

Success in therapy is measured by things like improved mood, lower anxiety levels, healthier eating habits, and a greater sense of happiness.

Life coaching teaches you how to achieve big dreams and/or break free if you feel stuck

On the other hand, most life coaching focuses on helping you pursue your passions, or break free of stagnation or "stuckness."

With a life coach, you might work on discovering your passions, strategizing a path to achieving them, and building the positive mindset that will empower you to achieve them.

A typical life coaching session includes:

3. Tense: Therapy is rooted in the past and present; coaching focuses on the future

In therapy, you face the past in order to move forward  

The therapy that most people are familiar with presents an opportunity to look at what's going on inside – emotionally, psychologically, or interpersonally.

In therapy sessions, you’re often returning to the emotional experiences, the patterns, the trauma, the learning, and the beliefs that you had in the past – and connecting the dots to understand how they have now brought you to this time with challenges.

The goal of therapy is to release any places where you're blocked so you’re able to be happier, more settled, and at peace. Therapy, at its core, is working on the psychological problems from their source and doing healing work.

Essentially, in therapy you’re deeply examining the questions and solving them, so that so that you feel free to move forward.

Coaching focuses on improving the “here and now”  

Coaches (including therapists who practice coaching) will absolutely be interested in what some of their clients’ “source material” is, and will want to know what life experiences have brought you to where you are.

That said, the goal in coaching is not to necessarily go back and address it, or to heal it, or to change it. Instead, it’s just referenced.

What you’re working on in coaching is: Where are you now, and where do you want to be?

4. Structure: The format of therapy sessions depend on the modality; coaching sessions often clear structures

Therapy session structures depend on the type of treatment

Therapy typically begins with a longer initial session, known as an intake. In this session, clients and therapists have the opportunity to get to know one another better, and assess whether there’s a fit.

Subsequent session structure depends on the therapist’s approach. For example, in art therapy, you may spend your time creating and discussing your art; you could discuss the thoughts and feelings that emerge as you draw, paint, or sculpt, as well as memories that arise during the creative process.

This, of course, is a different structure than that of, say, EMDR therapy, in which your therapist guides you through a series of eye motions or movements designed to accelerate your processing of past trauma or conflict.  

Coaching sessions are structured to facilitate progress

Life coaches also often begin with a longer initial session to gather information about the client’s life goals, obstacles that have gotten in the way, mindset and behaviors that have been helpful or harmful to the client.

Subsequent sessions are designed to prioritize the client’s strengths and values, visualize their future, and learn science-backed strategies for cultivating happiness.

The point of coaching is constant progress, so sessions are geared to nurture your strengths and use that learning to get you forward in an effective, practical way.

5. Duration: Whereas therapy is not usually time-limited, coaching is often short-term

Therapy often has no set “end date”

Therapy is often not time-limited. Sessions can continue for months, or years, in an ongoing fashion.

(Notable exceptions include highly structured formats, like pure cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT] and premarital counseling.)

Coaching clients often enroll in short-term package sessions

Coaches often offer their services in packages. From 6-10 weeks up to annual options, coaching packages are varied but more commonly short-term.

One would sign up for their coach’s package and upon completion decide if they would like to continue working with their coach by signing up for an additional package or transition to as needed sessions.

6. Fit: When assessing fit with a therapist, prioritize your comfort level and their expertise; for life coaches, seek inspiration and check credentials

Look for a therapist you feel comfortable opening up to, and who has direct expertise with your presenting problems

When searching for a therapist, prioritize comfort and fit. This concept, known as the therapeutic alliance, refers to the idea of a strong, productive relationship between therapist and client.

Additionally, when searching for a therapist, you’ll want to prioritize someone who has experience (or even specializes in) the presenting issue you’re seeking help with, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma, or any other mental health condition

If applicable, you may also want to work with a professional who can prescribe medication, such as a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner.

Related: What, Exactly, Should I Look For in a Therapist? 3 Important Factors

Seek a life coach who has qualified credentials, and whose philosophy inspires you

There are no specific requirements to become a life coach, and the field is not regulated by any governing body. While many coaches do elect to become certified, literally anyone can call themselves a life coach.

Working with a coach who has completed the required education, training, and standards that a therapist, masters level or doctoral level clinician would have helps clients feel assured that they are in qualified hands.

Also, seek a life coach who has the following qualities:

Finally, note that coaches all have different coaching philosophies – and this will guide your partnership, so make sure to select a coach whose approach resonates with you!

When it comes to self-care and seeking help, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. What works for others might not work for you.

This truth applies even at different points of your own life: Whereas in the past, you might have thrived under the holistic lens that therapy provides, now you'd benefit more from a little nudge here and there. Or vice versa: Maybe you've never sought therapy before, but your situation or health has changed, and you find yourself needing the full-on support that therapy affords.  

No matter your incentive for seeking help, it's helpful to understand where the roles of a life coach and a therapist splinter, so you can make an informed decision on which is right for you!

No matter which provider type you choose to work with, remember to keep personal fit and licensure in mind when starting your search. Then pat yourself on the back: You're taking an important first step in self-improvement and empowerment!