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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

Life Coaching versus Therapy

What's the difference and which one should you choose?

It's a question I get a lot and it's really a tough one to answer. In truth, the work that therapists and life coaches do is so similar, it is often intertwined, making it difficult to truly differentiate the difference.

In this article, we're going to tackle this delicate topic and help you gain a better understanding of the work that therapists and life coaches do. Then, we'll tackle how to determine if you need therapy or if coaching is a better option.

1. Life Coaching and Therapy are Different Services with Similar Objectives

Though the line between these two services is thin, they are, in fact, different services.

Psychotherapy (also referred to as counseling) is a service designed to help individuals achieve three primary goals:

1. Healing

2. Growth

3. Self-awareness

Life Coaching (also referred to as coaching) is a service designed to help individuals in the following goals:

1. Growth

2. Success

Notice that both services share a common goal: growth. And that's where things become sticky.

All therapists have the training to serve as a life coach, helping you achieve personal growth goals and become more successful in all avenues of your life. As such, therapists already do much of what life coaches do, but they have the added training to assist clients with mental health conditions.

Unfortunately, it is often claimed (usually by life coaches) that therapists only help you with mental health problems and cannot assist you beyond that. This is a myth and hugely untrue. In fact, therapists were the original life coaches, and their training (more on that later) qualifies them to coach and provide therapy services.

At the end of the day, what makes psychotherapy and life coaching different from one another is the tools and techniques that are used. Both services, however, can address similar requests, including: growth, success, self-discovery, and improved effectiveness.

Life Coaching is not intended, however, for clients seeking emotional healing or relief from mental health symptoms. Ethical life coaches know when a client is not a good candidate for coaching, and will refer that individual to therapy.

There are, however, many life coaches who advertise as individuals that treat trauma, depression, and anxiety, among other things. Although there are many life coaches who are fabulous and can navigate this terrain effectively, it is recommended that individuals seeking this type of support be referred to a therapist since coaches may not have the formal training and clinical experience needed to do this kind of work.

With that said, it should be noted, however, that there are many life coaches who were classically trained as therapists. These individuals are certainly more qualified to take on coaching clients with these concerns.

2. Life Coaches and Therapists Have Different Training

Although therapy and life coaching might be incredibly similar, the training the practitioner receives is very different.

Therapists undergo years of education, achieving a minimum of a Master's degree in psychology or related field. As part of their education, they are required a minimum number of practicum hours (usually around 3,000) where they work with real clients under the guided supervision of a licensed therapist.

Following completion of their training, they must then pass licensing exams governed by the state, and then must maintain their licensure through the regular completion of continuing education. They are strictly monitored by their state and have rigorous ethical codes they must uphold. Failure to do so risks their license.

Life Coaches are not required to obtain any kind of training, certification, or supervised experience in order to market and serve as a life coach. Many of them, however, have great life experiences that they use to help others achieve similar success.

For example, a Business Coach may not be formally trained, but she may own several successful businesses. Her experience and hard-earned knowledge of starting and growing successful businesses is invaluable to someone seeking success in starting their own venture. In fact, one might even argue that the Business Coach, is a much better fit for this individual, and would be a much better option than a therapist.

Many life coaches also choose to become certified through programs such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or the Life Coach School (LCS). These programs help coaches learn basic skills in guiding others toward personal growth and success. They are not, however, monitored by any governing body, and there is no set standard for certification programs.

Finally, many therapists see the value of coaching and understand the nuanced differences between these services. As such, more and more therapists are choosing to offer life coaching through their practices, or choose to leave the field of mental health to pursue life coaching fulltime. Therapists that choose to do this, usually do it it because they feel it is a better fit for their skills or style.

3. Coaching is Future Focused, Therapy Focuses on it All

It's a big misconception that therapy only focuses on the past, and it's a myth many coaches claim. Therapy is a service that does explore the past and helps you process and heal from hurt and pain that lies rooted in your history. But therapists are also interested in helping you achieve emotional wellness in the present moment and into the future.

In fact, there are many therapy modalities that only focus on the present and the future, and leave the past right where it is.

In my own practice, for example, I have several clients that are working on personal growth and transformation. Though we might look at the past to see where some of their struggles are rooted, we focus on the present moment and how to get "unstuck" so they can achieve success in all areas of their life.

Looking at coaching, it is true that life coaching focuses on the future, and for good reason. Remember we said life coaching is focused on two goals: growth and success? It's hard to grow and succeed if you're constantly digging around in the past!

That doesn't mean, however, that a coach won't ask you questions about your past. They might want to know where trouble first started or what you've already tried to be successful. But they won't hang out there for long. Coaching usually keeps a forward focus and pushes you to think about how you're going to do things differently to achieve your goals.

4. There is a Specific Time to Hire a Coach, But Therapy is Always an Option

There are many life coaches and therapists that work together. And, there are many therapists that provide both services, such as myself at Balanced Life Counseling. But it's clear that therapy and coaching are very similar services, much like two different sides of the same coin. This makes it difficult to know when you should hire a life coach versus a therapist.

In order to address this, you can ask yourself a series of questions to help differentiate what choice might be the best for you. Let's try it.

Do you need therapy? YES or NO

YES - Although you can participate in therapy at any time, there are specific situations where hiring a therapist is strongly recommended. You only need therapy when your emotional or mental state is making it difficult to function in your daily life or is causing you severe distress.


Your depressed mood makes it difficult for you to get out of bed and go to work.

Your child's anxiety is so bad, they are refusing to go to school or it's causing them to fail on their exams.

You're too anxious to drive or leave your house.

You've stopped going out with friends because you feel too "blah."

You have thoughts about hurting self or killing yourself.

Your girlfriend broke up with you because you're "just too negative."

These are all examples of how an emotional concern can have a direct impact on your life. And in situations like these, you need to hire a therapist, not a coach.

Remember, only therapists have the training and clinical experience to provide mental health care.

NO- If you do not have any mental health symptoms that are are impacting your ability to function in your daily life, then you can consider hiring a therapist or a coach. Either one may be appropriate for you.

As Stephanie Hairston says at Open Counseling, "There’s a difference between feeling a little anxious in certain situations and being too anxious to leave your house. There’s a difference between feeling a little “blah” and being so depressed you can’t work, or even shower. In one case, you need therapy. On the other, you don’t (even if it could help)."

Now, it's important to remember that, even if you don't have mental health symptoms that are severe or causing dysfunction in your life, a therapist might still be a better option. A therapist can work with you regardless of how severe you are, and can continue to provide you services even if you have no symptoms at all and are just looking for personal growth.

Are you looking for help with a specific goal, such as writing a book or starting your own business? YES or NO

YES- Although a therapist can help you pursue a specific goal, this is where coaching can really shine! Most coaches have a niche (or specialty) and will call themselves accordingly. For example, you might see people advertising themselves as:

~ Business Coaches

~ Writing Coaches

~ Fitness Coaches

~ Career Coaches

~ Spiritual Coaches

~Health Coaches

Many focus on a specific topic because that's what they're good at. And, typically, the coach will have first-hand experience in navigating the specific topic.

For example, a Writing Coach will (most likely) have experience writing books and getting published. Their experiences and advice can be incredibly valuable because their past history gives them knowledge that only "living through it" can provide.

I, myself, chose to purchase a coaching program when I wanted to start my therapy practice. I didn't hire a therapist. I had a specific goal (i.e. wanting to grow a successful private practice), and there were no mental health symptoms impairing my life. Hiring a coach was an ideal option for me. And I don't regret it at all!

So, if you're looking for help in achieving a very specific goal, then coaching might be the better option for you.

NO- If you're not looking to achieve a specific goal, and you're more interested in pursuing a more generalized personal growth goal, then therapy or coaching can help you. Your choice might come down to price, the qualifications of the person you are interested in working with, as well as the personality of the individual.

Are you hoping to use insurance to cover the cost of services? YES or NO

YES- These services can be very pricey. So it is likely that you are interested in using insurance to cover the cost of the services you receive.

If you want to use insurance, your only option is therapy. Because coaching is an unregulated profession, insurance companies do not cover the cost of coaching. As such, your only choice is to hire a therapist.

But, this is where things get tricky, because insurance will not cover the cost of counseling if you don't meet certain criteria.

Remember that first question we asked: Do you need therapy? The answer to that question is key!

Insurance companies will only cover the cost of counseling for as long as you need the service. That means your symptoms need to be severe or cause a dysfunction in your life.

This is a harsh truth, and many individuals feel dejected when they learn that they can't use their insurance to cover the cost of services. Unfortunately, insurance companies follow a medical model and will only pay for treatment that is clinically indicated (i.e. is severe or impairs you in some way). If you don't fit this criteria, you will not be able to use your insurance to cover the cost of therapy.

So remember, if your hoping for insurance to cover the cost of services, your only option is to hire a therapist. But remember, just because you've opted to work with a therapist, that doesn't mean that the insurance company will automatically cover the cost.

NO- If you are open to paying out-of-pocket or don't want to use your insurance, then your options are wide open. You can choose to work with a coach or a therapist depending on how you answered the previous questions.

5. The are Good and Bad Life Coaches and Therapists

No matter how much education or credentialing a profession has, you always get "bad seeds." Just like there are bad doctors, bad teachers, bad bosses, etc., there are also really bad therapists and life coaches. Trust me, I've met several!

But just like there are bad ones, there are also really really good ones! In fact, hiring a really good life coach is 1000x better than hiring a bad therapist. The reverse is also true. Hiring a really good therapist is a 1000x better than hiring a bad life coach.

So, if you had a bad experience with a therapist, don't assume that all therapists are terrible. And the same goes for life coaching. Just because you had a bad coach, that doesn't mean all of them are bad.

No matter how many gatekeepers there are for a profession, bad ones still manage to slip through. The best way to help yourself find someone who can really help you is by doing some research.

Look up reviews, get referrals from family and friends, and take a look at the professional's website.

If they have a blog, take time to read the articles or sign up for the individual's newsletter. Reading their articles or emails can give you a taste of their style and thinking. This can help you get a better idea if you like the way they think, educate, and motivate.

And finally, if they offer a free consult, sign up for it! Talk to them, ask questions, and see what they have to offer you. You'll quickly discover if you like working with the person or not just through a short phone call.

Regardless of who you choose to hire, remember that really good therapists and coaches are worth every penny you pay for them. So, if you find one you really like and feel very aligned with, then you might want to make some serious considerations on whether or not you want to pass up the opportunity to work with that individual.

It's a Tough Decision to Make

It's not easy knowing which professional is the best option, but I'm hoping this article helped to demystify the differences between life coaching and therapy.

Remember, both services can be valuable! There are specific times, however, when a life coach is the better option, such as when you're pursuing a specific goal. A therapist, however, is always an option for you, regardless if you have severe mental health symptoms or are simply looking to discover yourself or pursue personal growth.

Regardless of who you choose, be sure to do your research by reading reviews, reading emails or articles written by the professional, and signing up for a consult to see how you like working with them. Doing this homework can help you feel more confident in the choice you are making, regardless if they're a life coach or a therapist.

With that said, if you think you're ready to work on yourself and meet your goals, then sign up to for a free consultation with me. As a licensed therapist and life coach, I can help you determine which service is the better option for you, and get you where you need to be.


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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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