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What’s the difference between therapy and life coaching?

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

By Karla Angel, Clinical Intern at Clear Path Counseling and Wellness, LLC

November 6, 2023

Life coaching and therapy are both becoming more accessible, but how do you know if you need a coach or a therapist? As someone who was a coach for 6+ years and is now a clinical therapist intern, here are the similarities and differences that will hopefully help you land in the most helpful spot.

Coaching and Therapy Similarities

  • Both modalities help clients be authentic, feel empowered in themselves and their decisions, and help them reduce tension in their daily lives. However, the tension that they address will likely be quite different and we’ll discuss that more below.

  • Coaching and therapy both require personal reflection and vulnerability. The clients are responsible for helping set the goals and to take action outside of sessions in order to make progress.

  • Both use questions and conversation to guide the process. They also use a variety of tools, though often very different tools, in order to assist the clients. It’s unlikely you’ll find either a therapist or coach who has a playbook or specific steps for everyone to follow in order to be successful (if you do, watch out, you probably aren’t going to get the individual support you need).

  • Both modalities rely heavily on the relationship between the provider and client. Trust is paramount to the kinds of conversations that you’ll be having, so if you don’t trust your person - keep looking.

  • Lastly, both modalities are helpful!!! I believe that everyone can benefit from therapy and coaching at certain times in their lives, depending on what they’re going through. Hopefully, your provider will be teaching you the skills so that you can navigate future situations using what you’ve learned.

Unique to coaching

Coaching is primarily future focused and goal oriented. Example “goals” of coaching include: professional development, stress management, improving relationships, changing one’s mindset, and/or achieving personal milestones.

Often, coaching clients are starting from a stance of, “I’m doing well but want to do better” or, “Almost everything in my life is working right now, there’s just this one thing that I can’t get off my mind.”

The structure of coaching sessions and overall coaching contracts varies greatly depending on who you’re working with, as do the coach’s rates. There are no standard recommendations in the industry so it’s a bit like the wild west out there.

In order to become a coach, you do not need to be certified or trained, though most coaches I know are. International organizations exist to define the industry standards and ethics, but it’s up to the coach whether or not they decide to pursue certifications. This means that you should vet your coach thoroughly before hiring them and make sure they’re qualified to support you the way you want to be helped.

Unique to therapy

Therapy has a much broader scope than coaching does. Back in the day, therapy was stereotyped as working on issues stemming from childhood but, in reality, it is by no means limited to just the past.

Clients often present challenges that they’re facing in their daily lives and use that as a launching pad for deeper self-exploration and healing. This may mean looking into events and relationships from their childhood, but it might not. It’s up to the client and the therapist to determine what’s most helpful.

Therapeutic goals can range from improving one’s mental and emotional health, building one’s confidence, determining whether or not to stay in your relationship, healing traumas from any stage of life, processing grief, changing relationships with family members, healing your relationship with food, and much more.

Therapists go through rigorous training in order to call themselves a therapist and they are governed by state and federal laws. You can trust that if someone says they’re licensed, they have gotten a degree, been supervised for hundreds of hours, and have met high standards for quality when working with clients.

However, there are many different therapy models that therapists use, so it’s still not a one-side-fits-all deal. Doing some light reading on the models of therapy that your therapist uses can help you understand what you’re getting into. Not everyone has that kind of time, though, so always feel free to ask your therapist more about their favorite models.

Logistically, therapy pricing is more standardized than coaching, but there’s still a range. Plus, some clinics accept insurance which comes with a slew of other considerations. Review your clinic’s website for more specific financial information - therapists are required to state what their fees are (coaches are not).

When clients come to therapy, most have a very different mindset than they do when they’re in coaching. Some people may feel like they’re at rock bottom or are completely off track from where they thought they would be. Others may feel lost, hopeless, uncertain. Some may be scared, overwhelmed, or angry. Some might be doing great and want to keep doing really well. However you show up, it’s okay, because therapists have the skills to meet you where you are and help get you where you want to be.

If you’re still trying to choose which kind of support you may need, I’d offer one more distinction. Coaching is helpful if you want to get clarity on your goals and navigate the obstacles that are in your path. But if you’ve done that kind of work before and you keep running into the same obstacles, then you may need to do some deeper work in therapy to generate the progress you’re looking for.

Please reach out with any questions you have, I’ll be happy to answer them!


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