QQ: What’s the Difference Between a Life Coach and a Therapist?Help is on the way, dear!
If it feels like life coaches are ruling your social media feeds, you are not wrong. #Lifecoach has a whopping 6.1 billion views on TikTok and 16 million posts on Instagram. But if you’re anything like me, you’re watching these videos wondering, Wait, what is a life coach?
Also valid questions: Can a life coach change my life? Also, like...how? And with what training? And are they the same as a therapist? Or are they people with nice lives who want to make some coin?
If you're looking for life guidance (TBH, aren’t we all) or struggling with your well-being, sifting through tons of titles like empowerment coach, money coach, or relationship coach to determine who fits your needs can sometimes leave you even more confused.
Here’s a quick primer though: While there are various certifications that people can take to hone their coaching skills, the field of life coaching is largely unregulated. That means pretty much anyone can claim to help you get your shit together, whether they’re a well-meaning influencer or a licensed mental health pro who also offers coaching. It’s broad, I know, but we’re about to explain what life coaches really do and how they compare to licensed therapists with the help of two mental health professionals (who also happen to be life coaches).
Life coaches can help you get from point A to point B.
Yes, this does sound obvious, but indulge me for a sec. If someone is solely a coach (as in, they’re not also a licensed therapist or psychologist), their main job is to focus on helping you live your best life.
For example, if you need assistance carving out work-life balance, finding purpose, or being more assertive, they can offer gameplans for ending your Sunday Scaries, exploring what lights you up, and strategies to quit people pleasing. These advisers can also serve as accountability buddies as you work on goals like that, says licensed therapist and life coach Corey Yeager, PhD. Once you devise a plan and timeline, the coach will check in to see how you’re progressing (or not progressing) and find ways you can take action between sessions.
This aspect of coaching is why some licensed therapists have also become life coaches. As a coach, they’re able to help people who don’t have psychological symptoms or mental health concerns, explains licensed psychologist and life coach Susan Pazak, PhD. “Coaching is a way to work on changing thoughts and behaviors and attain life, career, and relationship goals totally separate from reducing psychological symptoms or improving mental health,” Dr. Pazak adds.
But they can’t help treat or diagnose a mental health concern.
A life coach without legit mental health credentials can’t tackle the mental health origins of your struggles. So if your biggest issues are wrapped up in symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, there’s not much they can do for you. They’re not qualified to provide mental health advice or make a diagnosis, Dr. Yeager says.
On that note, they also can’t develop treatment plans, Dr. Yeager says. Life coaches can technically give tips on things that might help with your mental health (like deep breathing exercises that might help anxiety), but they can’t claim to treat any conditions, Dr. Yeager explains. And, TBH, it’s probably a red flag if they say they can do things like “eliminate your anxiety” or “cure your insomnia.”
So, if you think you have psychological symptoms that need addressing or want help with a diagnosis, a psychologist or therapist is a better bet for you, says Dr. Pazak. If you aren’t dealing with mental health symptoms and just want general life guidance and advice, you might thrive with a coach, she adds.
The field of life coaches isn’t regulated.
As Dr. Yeager teased, the biggest differences between therapists and coaches are: regulations (or lack thereof), training, and price. To become a therapist, an individual must undergo specific schooling, training, and exams to get licensed in their state and go into practice. This takes years (and lots of caffeine, probably).
When it comes to life coaches, because the title isn’t regulated by a governing body, anyone can call themselves a coach after doing any amount of training from any program (or none!). Yup, even your toxic ex who just bought a podcast mic. Plus, there are so many different coaching certifications and programs that someone can pursue, but there’s no real consensus on what counts as gold star-level training. And this lack of oversight makes it tough for the consumer (you!) to know what you’re getting when you hire a life coach.
Due to all that, it’s important to thoroughly vet a coach before you decide to work with them. Try requesting a sample plan or approach that the coach would take and clarify expectations of working together, Dr. Pazak suggests. If they’re not down with that, you should at least ask how their experience can address your concerns and seek references and reviews from former clients for insight into their coaching process, Dr. Yeager adds.
You should also dig into what certifications your potential coach has and research what these certifications mean (see: what they actually entail). You can sleuth Reddit threads, search for the courses on the Better Business Bureau, and sift through Google reviews to check any dialogue about scams related to the certifications. (BTW, you can take the exact same steps to research the coach you’re considering.)
FWIW, one of the most well-known and well-regarded coaching organizations is the International Coaching Federation (ICF), says Dr. Pazak. That org requires a minimum of 60 hours of “coach-specific education,” 100 hours of “client coaching experience,” and for you to pass a performance evaluation and written exam. You can also use the ICF site to check whether someone’s certification is accredited by the ICF, which emphasizes a strong code of ethics.
If they don’t have any certifications, references, and/or relevant experience these are red flags. Thank you, next!
Life coaching can take a lot of different forms.
You might notice many coaches offer online courses or workshops. Both Dr. Pazak and Dr. Yeager agree that this isn’t necessarily a red flag or a scam. “A coach may have found a niche or technique that they know is effective, developed a class syllabus, and it makes more sense to offer the skills in a class setting rather than individually,” Dr. Pazak says.
That said, dropping a hefty one-time fee for a program that you haven’t seen before can be a risk, so Dr. Yaeger suggests people start with individualized coaching rather than an expensive one-size-fits-all venture that may not actually suit their needs.
Speaking of expensive, coaching services aren’t covered by insurance, Dr. Pazak says, and they can pretty much charge whatever they want. Prepare for a jaw drop: She says she’s seen life coaches charge up to $1,000 a session. But more likely, you’ll pay anywhere from $75 to $200 a session, with $150 being pretty average, Dr. Yeager says.
Of course, therapy from licensed professionals isn’t always covered by insurance either, and if a therapist is out of network or doesn't accept insurance at all, the price can be similar if not more expensive than coaching.
Life coaches shouldn’t be digging around in your trauma.
Unless they’re also a licensed mental health professional, life coaches shouldn’t be diving into things like your history of trauma, family dynamics, or other things from your upbringing that could contribute to your current vibe and struggles, Dr. Yeager says. They technically aren’t trained to deal with whatever tough emotions or potential trauma responses might emerge from these conversations.
Instead, life coaches tend to be more goal-oriented and focused on future-driven work. Depending on your situation, this could be a pro or con. But if you have unresolved trauma or symptoms you need help managing, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not getting into that.
You can see both a life coach and a therapist!
If you struggle with your mental health, have big goals, and are really looking to revamp your life, you might even consider seeing a therapist and a life coach (or someone who does both). These professions can benefit you in different ways. Dr. Pazak says sometimes people will have a life coach to help with specific intentions and a therapist to work on reducing any psychological symptoms that are present. Regardless, she says that both life coaching and therapy allow for you to talk, process feelings, and learn new skills—which can ultimately lead to positive changes in your life.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.