Life Coach vs Therapist

Life Coach vs Therapist – Understanding the Difference

Like most people, you probably already know the benefits of working with support professionals, namely therapists and life coaches.

But which professional do you really need – a life coach or a therapist? Keep reading to discover the differences between the two and how to choose the most suitable option for your needs.

Life Coach vs Therapist: Definitions

According to the International Coaching Federation, a life coach is a trained professional who inspires clients to reach fuller personal and professional potential.

A good coach adopts thought-provoking techniques to develop the client’s skills and guide them on their journey toward a clearly defined and specific goal. Life coaches work with clients within a short timeframe in most cases.

On the other hand, a therapist works with their therapy client, usually on a long-term basis, to diagnose and resolve psychological problems.

Therapy or psychotherapy digs deep into a client’s past to discover possible reasons behind current beliefs and behavior. By modifying thought patterns and behaviors, a therapist helps clients resolve past issues, stop self-destructive habits, and create a more fulfilling future.

There are a few similarities and overlaps in how both professionals work, but one of their major differences is the focus of their work.

While a life coach focuses on a client’s current situation to improve the future, a therapist usually explores past circumstances and thinking patterns to understand present behaviors and then suggests coping methods for the future.

Keep in mind that therapists are licensed and regulated professionals in the mental healthcare field. This is not the case with life coaches.

Licensing is not legally required to be a life coach, and the practice is not regulated by any state or federal law, at least for now.

For this reason, I recommend choosing a life coach carefully. Consider partnering with a reputable coach who’s successfully helped people reach similar goals as yours.

Here’s a summary of what these trained professionals in the coaching business help clients with:

Life Coach

  • Help clients clarify personal and professional goals
  • Create workable plans for reaching goals
  • Help clients achieve healthy work/life balance
  • Help improve communication skills
  • Develop realistic business plans
  • Help new and existing businesses to grow


  • Work through issues (such as trauma and anxiety) interfering with clients’ daily functioning
  • Help clients overcome or recover from traumas
  • Explore reasons past personal or business relationships were unhealthy
  • Help clients manage emotional and mental health issues
  • Help clients survive the pain of losing a loved one or ending a relationship (such as divorce)

Life Coach vs Therapist: 5 Major Differences

female psychologist and patient discussing mental problems

A therapist readily comes to mind when most people want to make positive life changes. Psychotherapy or talk therapy has been around for ages but was made popular by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century.

However, the 1980s saw the rise of life coaching, and the practice has continued to gain popularity considering its huge success.

While both trained professionals help clients achieve better overall well-being using talk sessions, their approaches are very different. Here are six major differences between a life coach and a therapist.

1. Goal-Oriented Program Versus Mental Health-Oriented Program

Life coaching focuses on helping clients to set and achieve personal and professional goals. The work entails identifying and addressing possible behaviors that can hinder or slow down clients from reaching their dreams.

In a nutshell, the work of a life coach centers on finding the most effective and efficient ways to achieve goals. The program is heavily invested in various processes for working toward goal attainment.

On the other hand, therapy focuses on helping clients improve emotional and mental well-being. The therapist analyzes thought patterns and feelings from the client’s past to understand how they affect current behaviors.

2. Short-Term Engagement Versus Long-Term Engagement

Life coaching engagements are usually short-term, lasting between one to twelve months in most cases. Sessions are geared toward motivating clients to achieve specific time-bound goals.

You should have made significant progress toward your goals by the end of the coaching period.

Therapy engagements are typically long-term with no fixed duration. Think about it this way: professionals can estimate a date for achieving a goal but usually can’t tell when a client will get over trauma, anxiety, or depression.

While working through psychological issues might take a while, the results are often worth it.

3. Structured Sessions Versus Open-Ended Sessions

Sessions with a life coach are designed to help clients reach clarified goals as quickly and efficiently as possible.

However, initial sessions might be longer because the coach must understand the client’s goals, habits, and mindset to identify potential obstacles hindering the desired results.

Successive coaching sessions are structured to speed up progress toward the client’s goals using proven strategies, such as honing goals, visualization, and encouraging momentum.

On the other hand, therapy sessions depend on the type of treatment and the therapist’s approach.

There is usually no fixed goal for each session, as clients are free to discuss thoughts and feelings to give the therapist as much information necessary to help them explore deep-rooted issues. This is one of the reasons therapy often lasts longer than coaching.

4. Present/Future Focus Versus Past Focus

A life coach uses your current situation as a springboard to launch you into the future. This approach doesn’t require changing or healing the past. Instead, it focuses on where you are now and how to get to where you want to be.

Therapists address psychological issues, so it is necessary to focus on the past to better understand the present.

5. Action-Oriented Goals Versus Intangible Goals

Working with a life coach involves reaching for clarified goals using practical actions. The strategies include processes, how-to’s, etc., so you are more likely to have a practical activity that improves your strengths and moves you toward your goals.

Therapy sessions don’t always have actionable takeaways, especially when the work involves digging into what’s happening inside the client’s mind or exploring past experiences.

The goals are usually intangible, but the results are positive and life-altering. You should be able to understand your triggers and manage difficult emotions by the end of the sessions.

When to See a Life Coach

men having conversation with friend

Consider working with a life coach and receiving coaching services if:

  • You want to clarify your goals or need help setting realistic goals
  • You have clearly defined goals but need to figure out how to achieve them
  • You need help giving up unhelpful habits and developing new, helpful ones
  • You need help stepping out of your comfort zone
  • You want to be more accountable to yourself.
  • You want to speed up personal and professional growth
  • You need inspiration and motivation to keep you reaching for greater heights

When to See a Therapist

man in black suit jacket lying on bed

A therapist is your best bet if:

  • You want professional help navigating depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues affecting your quality of life
  • You want to professional support healing from past trauma and hurts and problematic behaviors
  • You want to learn strategies for coping with specific triggers
  • You need counseling for your relationship issues
  • You want to better understand and navigate difficult emotions
  • Want to learn more about emotional healing

Life Coach vs Therapist: Which Do You Need?

Deciding between a life coach and a therapist comes down to your needs.

Do you need help reaching your full potential? Does it feel like you are struggling to get past a blockage and need a professional to help clear the haziness? A life coach can help you navigate mental blockages.

Consider working with a therapist if you have mental health issues and mental disorders or want to move past emotionally difficult situations that may be holding you back. A therapy session can be a good step toward emotional healing.

However, partnering with a support professional doesn’t always have to be an unavoidable choice between a therapist and a life coach. You can use the services of both professionals simultaneously if you need to and can afford it.

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