Choosing between a life coach and a therapist can be confusing since both offer support and guidance. Life coaches and therapists provide value in different ways.

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Knowing the difference between the two roles is an important first step. It can help narrow down which one is a better fit for you.

A life coach is beneficial when it comes to bettering particular skills and building motivation toward your goals.

“A life coach might be enough if you just want a good grounding in stress management or relationship skills, for example,” says Dr. Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

“They don’t typically have a strong background in deeper psychological exploration or chronic mental health [challenges],” but they do deep dive to develop action steps to eliminate your barriers to success. In this way, 2020 research explains they support positive psychology.

Benefits of life coaching

  • It’s very targeted — you get to decide the area in your life you’d like to focus on.
  • You could have someone cheering you on who can hold you accountable for reaching your goals.
  • You can become more self-aware, learning more about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • You could discover your purpose and gain clarity on what makes you feel happy and fulfilled.
  • You can become more confident.

For many life coaches, their expertise is rooted in personal experience. Whether it’s in the area of relationships, health, or career, they often specialize where they have achieved success in their own lives.

You can listen to Life Coach Mike Bayer discuss how he helps folks with big decisions on the “Inside Mental Health” podcast.

It’s important to note that life coaching isn’t a licensable profession and they’re not regulated by a government agency.

Can a therapist also be a life coach?

Some people are both therapists and life coaches. However, therapists can perform a deeper dive and help you discover the root cause of your mental health challenges.

“A therapist can do basic skills as a life coach can, but a good therapist can also do a more in-depth psychological exploration with you, so if you need to change some deeply-held beliefs or relationship patterns or have a problem that goes deeper than skills, a therapist is probably a better option,” Daramus explains.

In short, a therapist can be a life coach, but a life coach can’t be a therapist without completing the educational and license requirements.

Both serve an important purpose but differ in terms of their approach. A life coach often focuses more on improving certain skills and holding you accountable for reaching your goals. If you’re self-aware and need a confidence boost or help with goal setting, a life coach can be a good fit.

A psychotherapist, on the other hand, uses different evidence-based talk therapies to help you discern the reasons why you think and act the way you do.

The main difference between a life coach and a therapist is regulation.

Some life coaches have a certificate or belong to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), but there isn’t uniform regulated training.

Therapists must complete a master’s or doctorate degree and must follow a set of regulations and code of ethics.

If a therapist breaches their industry code of ethics or violate your confidentiality, there can be legal consequences, so they also have liability insurance. Life coaches aren’t held accountable in the same way.

You can learn more about psychotherapist requirements here. And if you’re looking to vet a therapist, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Life coachPsychotherapist
optional certificate or supplementary trainingVaries by state (mandatory 4+ years bachelor’s)
+ master’s degree (in some states),
+ optional doctorate
+ state-set internship hours required
no license neededlicensed
no global code of ethics (but those certified by ICF have a code based on the honor system)code of ethics
not regulatedregulated with recertification for licensure, continuing education classes, state agencies can strip licenses
not legally bound by confidentiality (life coaches certified by ICF are advised to communicate confidentiality, but it’s not protected under law)yes, with a few legal exceptions
Life coachPsychotherapist
present-, future-focusedpast-, present-focused
goal focusmental health focus
addresses thought patternsaddresses thought patterns
financial guidance sometimesno financial guidance
relationship guidance sometimesaddresses relationship patterns
steers desired behaviorshelps you draw your own conclusions

Typically, most people are a candidate for one or the other. The main question you need to ask yourself is, “What do I want to accomplish?”

If you want to improve skills in one area, a life coach can be a good option. But if you want to change deep-seated beliefs and heal past trauma, a therapist might be better suited for you.

When it comes to comparing life coaching and therapy, one is not better or worse. Each person has different goals and what might work for one person might not work for someone else. A life coach can assist you with setting goals and creating an action plan to reach those goals.

A therapist can help you achieve some of your goals too, but they can offer deeper self-exploration, plus cognitive tools for healing and managing mental health.