Life coaching is viewed by some as an alternative to therapy. Actually, coaching was one of many cognitive behavior therapy methods I learned to practice in graduate school. Thirty years into my career as a psychotherapist, I coach clients toward achieving their goals when they’re likely to benefit from this approach.

Certainly, neither coaching as a separate practice nor psychotherapy has a monopoly on traits such as wisdom, intuition, kindness, or empathy. Practitioners in both disciplines may be good listeners, supportive, and encourage clients to set goals. So how do you decide whom to trust for help with relationships, addictions, work situations, parenting concerns, anxiety, depression, or other personal challenges?

Former life coach client Jesse Harless, who is now a life coach himself, describes his experience receiving coaching: “I felt like I had some control over my life for the first time. What I realized in working with a life coach over the past few years, is that we have a tremendous amount of untapped potential. It’s just waiting to be brought out of us.

He cites these benefits of life coaching:

  • You get to choose what to work on.
  • You gain “immediate” clarity on your actions and goals.
  • You connect with someone who cares about your well-being, hopes, and dreams to whom you’re accountable about what matters most.
  • You gain greater self-awareness. I would have missed the opportunity to overcome one of my biggest fears and live out my life’s purpose had I not worked with a life coach.
  • “One of my favorite reasons for working with a life coach is I have someone cheering for me. I think we all need someone in our corner who will help us celebrate our small victories.”

People benefit similarly from good therapy. So what’s the difference between a coach and a therapist if both approaches help people in these ways? A key difference is that standards for practicing differ widely, as shown here:

Standards for Coaches and Therapists

Formal Education No formal education or training is required, Anyone can call themselves a coach, life coach, or personal coach. Quick basic training can last a few hours. A certificate can be earned in a couple of days. Additional training can last at least six months.

No coaching program requires years of masters or doctorate degree level training.

At least six years of formal education is required: a four-year college degree and at least two years of graduate school. Graduate school typically includes at least two years or more of internship placements to gain supervised practical experience.
License needed?No.

No coaching program requires years of masters or doctorate degree level training.

Yes. After earning a masters or doctorate degree, at least two years of supervised clinical work establishes eligibility to take the licensing exam which consists of intensive tests.
Code of Ethics No code of ethics exists for all coaches. However, coaches who join the International Coach Federation (ICF) are expected to adhere to its code of ethics.Yes. Licensed clinical social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and professional counselors must adhere to their profession’s code of ethics.
Regulation No regulation exists for coaches to assure that ethical and legal responsibilities are upheld.Regulation exists for psychotherapists. Agencies such as California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences require therapists to take continuing education classes regularly in order to maintain their license to practice. These agencies also investigate complaints and institute disciplinary measures when appropriate.

Many people can benefit from coaching, depending upon the kind of challenge they face and upon the sensitivity, education, training, and experience of the practitioner. Although coaches are not subject to the strict standards, legal licensing requirements, and high education and training requirements of psychotherapists, this is not necessarily a reason to rule out seeing a coach who is a good fit for you and your situation.

Clinical social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and other professionals must adhere to strict standards. Yet a license to practice psychotherapy does not automatically mean that its possessor will be more helpful than a coach for someone’s particular situation.

Coaching used to be associated with training for athletes and team sports. Coaches for baseball, basketball, football, and so on, are typically people who earlier excelled in that sport. Similarly, executive coaches are usually qualified as mentors because of their real life achievements.

Therapists and coaches often specialize in helping people deal with issues similar to those that they’ve dealt with successfully themselves, e.g., weight loss, relationships, addictions, depression. Therapists who specialize in treating people with depression or anxiety may well also have become experts in these areas after having succeeded in dealing with related challenges in their own lives.

As a therapist, I can’t help but be biased toward my profession when it comes to aiding people with a wide range of personal or emotionally laden issues. As my colleague, Patricia Ravitz, MFT, puts it, “Once you complete all the education and training involved to be a therapist, you become a different person. You’re transformed.” Consequently, a good therapist is likely to be well equipped to help people grow and succeed in areas that reflect the fullness and complexities of life.

Author and former accountant Francine Falk-Allen, says she has had excellent experiences with both a psychotherapist and a coach. Yet not always. She says, “I’ve also experienced coaches who treated everyone the same way without regard to individual differences and needs, and I’ve seen a therapist who didn’t understand my issues.” Her advice to someone looking for a coach: “Get recommendations from people who’ve found coaching helpful and ask the coach about his or her education, training, and experience in coaching people with issues similar to yours.” It’s probably a plus if the coach is a member of a respected organization that fosters high standards for coaches.

Debunking Misconceptions about Therapy

Although everyone has issues that they can benefit from exploring and working toward resolving, too many troubled people think, “I don’t need therapy; I’m not crazy.” They may have issues that call for a sensitive, well-trained therapist, but not get the help they need because they view receiving therapy for emotional support as a stigma.

Another false belief about therapy is that it focuses on the past instead of helping people move forward in their lives.

Good Therapy Fosters Personal Growth and Solutions

The truth is that good therapy includes goal setting, clarity, personal growth and solutions.

Therapists typically ask clients what they hope to gain from therapy, i.e., their goal.

Reaching one’s goal can include some looking back to earlier influences. This kind of reflection is useful when something from the past causes us to behave in ways that block us from achieving what we want. We may need to find out what’s holding us back before we can move forward. This is how we can get “unstuck” from an old, unproductive behavior or thought pattern. As another person who’s benefited from both therapy and coaching puts it, “Therapists go deeper.”

The trusting relationship that typically develops over time between the therapist and client can be enormously helpful for repairing trust that was broken in a person’s past.

Example: How Knowledge of the Past is Helpful

Someone might want to be more assertive and gain self-esteem, but something’s getting in his way. Perhaps as a child he was criticized by his parents for expressing feelings or needs that they were uncomfortable hearing. They told him he was bad, selfish, inconsiderate, or wrong and maybe they punished him. Suppose a therapist encourages him to express himself constructively, but he’s still hearing old, competing messages in his head telling him not “burden” others with his thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs.

By recognizing what’s getting in their way of changing, many people move from prohibitions to permission to change. Some coaches may be able to help clients identify and move past what’s blocking them. Good coaches know when to refer a client to therapy rather than practice beyond their knowledge or skill level.

Whether you choose to receive coaching or therapy, it’s important to find someone who’s a good fit for you. You want to work with someone with who you’ll be comfortable opening yourself up about what you’re struggling with and what you want to accomplish. That’s the first step toward gaining confidence and a more meaningful life.