Woman balancing on colorful circles, representing differences of life coach vs therapist

Questions About Life Coaching:

Life Coach vs Therapist

If you’re hoping to work on yourself, grow, and make positive changes in your life, your relationship or your career, you may be considering getting involved in either counseling services or life coaching services. Which path is right for you? Understanding the differences between life coaching and therapy, and what you can expect from a life coach vs therapist, are essential to making an informed decision.

Both therapy and coaching can be very effective avenues of personal growth, and methods for creating positive change. Evidence-based therapy and coaching have many things in common, including the same deep roots in psychological research. Sometimes therapy and coaching can feel similar, and even look similar in the room, especially in the beginning stages of the coaching process. But there are many important differences between therapy and coaching. They are not the same thing. Depending on where you are in your life, and what your hopes are for this, they might not be equally effective for you.

My hope is that, through this article, and other “coaching questions” and “therapy questions” articles I’ve written for you, you’ll gain clarity about the similarities and the differences of counseling and coaching so that you can decide which approach would be most genuinely helpful for you.

To begin, let’s talk about some of the differences between therapy and coaching. For this, I like to use the “hole and the mountain” metaphor.

Filling the Hole: When Therapy Is the Right Choice

When people are really struggling emotionally, or they’re dealing with symptoms of a mental health condition, I think of it as being “in the hole.” I think that we can all relate to being in this space at some point in our lives. When you’re in the hole you may be feeling depressed and anxious, traumatized by difficult life experiences, haunted by painful events from your past, struggling with an addiction, or dealing with paralyzing anxiety. More often than not, multiple problems are compounding on one another when we find ourselves at one of life’s low points. 

If you’re feeling beaten down and overwhelmed, it can be tempting to hire a Denver life coach or an online life coach to help you bring about the positive changes you may believe will make you feel better. You may think immediate action is the antidote to your suffering, and that once you find a new relationship, or a better job, or accomplish some goal that proves your belittling parent wrong, you’ll finally have the happiness and peace that have long been eluding you. 

Sometimes making concrete changes really is the answer to finding your way back to happiness. In those cases, coaching will be more helpful. But if you are really in the hole — dealing with mental health issues or more serious problems — not only will it be extremely difficult for you to make any practical changes, you are unlikely to feel better even if you do.

Your circumstances are not the problem.

When we don’t feel good, we look for “reasons” why… and we can always find them. It can be difficult, when you’re in the hole, to recognize that it may not be your circumstances that are making you feel bad. The pain you’re feeling may be living inside of you. If this is the case, pushing yourself too hard at a vulnerable moment can backfire.

For example, if you decide to try life coaching anyway, and if you’re faced with (normal and expected) setbacks through the coaching process — which are always a likelihood, but even more so when you’re not at your best — you’re likely to feel defeated, and more hopeless about your future than before. Even if you achieve the goals you set out to achieve through coaching, you may find the internal ache hasn’t gone anywhere, despite changes in your external circumstances. 

A compassionate, highly trained therapist is what you really need to climb out of the hole and back onto solid ground. The first stages of good therapy are often introspective and subtle, less about achievement and more about healing. A therapist can offer a safe space and guidance intended to support you on the path of mental and emotional wellness.

Making real and lasting change happen is always challenging, but if you’re currently being tormented by emotional storms that make it difficult to function, it’s darn near impossible. If you’re feeling that way now, working with a Denver therapist or a competent online therapist can help you get to a better, stronger place. Focus on feeling better first, so that you can make big, external changes in the future.

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Climbing the Mountain: When Life Coaching Is Right for You

If you’re ready for coaching, you don’t need to spend a lot of time connecting the dots and trying to figure out why you feel the way you do, and you don’t need to “heal” and regain your ability to function. You are not in need of therapeutic treatment, because you’re not sick. You’re fundamentally already on solid ground, but you want more out of life. You just need direction, or help getting unstuck, or support in developing new skills and strategies so that you can start climbing the mountain to reach stay motivated and reach your life’s most important goals. You wan to focus on a few specific areas to achieve specific goals.

Now, you may also certainly be experiencing feelings of sadness, “depression,” and anxiety related to the things in your life that are currently not feeling good for you. It’s completely normal to feel upset and anxious when your relationship is on the brink, and of course you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning when you are in the wrong career and hate your job.

But these feelings are actually circumstantial, not the result of your having major depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder. These are not feelings to try and make “go away” or treat through therapy. This is your healthy, well-functioning emotional guidance system telling you that something isn’t right, and you need to do something about it.

There may be many things that motivate you to consider coaching. All growth and innovation occurs because of dissatisfaction. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your current circumstances and want to make some changes. Maybe you’d like to improve your process in relationships (like in the way you communicate, or in your emotional intelligence skills) in order to be more effective and get better results interpersonally. Or maybe you’re realizing that your current workplace is toxic and you’d like to find a job you love.

In these cases, coaching may be much more helpful to you than introspective talk therapy.

Why not therapy? Rehashing the past, analyzing the present, and conceptualizing your feelings as “disordered” can feel, at best, like going around in circles for clients who are ready for a more action-oriented approach. At worst, it’s disempowering. You don’t need to talk about your childhood, or stop feeling depressed about the job that you do actually, legitimately hate. You need to get clarity about what you want out of life and create a plan to achieve it.

Working with a coach can be much more satisfying and effective than therapy in these cases, and a better use of your time and money. Learn more about the coaching process in these articles, if you’re interested: “What is a life coach?” and “What does a life coach do?”

A good coach will help you see what your mountain looks like, and all the small steps you need to take to ascend it. Then they’ll support and encourage you as you climb to the top.

Coaching vs. Therapy: The Problem With Coaching

So, after reading my “hole and mountain” metaphor you may have thought, “Great! I get it! Easy peasy! I now know that I need a ___.”

But… (sorry)… when it comes to personal growth, making real and lasting change, and attaining mental and emotional wellness, it gets more complex. For starters, how do you know for sure whether you need therapy or coaching? Are you laying in bed because you truly hate your job? Or are you laying in bed telling yourself you hate your job because you are in the midst of a major depressive episode?

Not only is it extremely difficult to peel that onion by yourself, if you take one course of action over another in that moment you could stumble into trouble with out realizing it.

For example: While hiring a therapist when you’re in need of a coach can feel frustrating like you’re spinning your wheels instead of moving forward, hiring a coach when you’re in need of a therapist can be downright dangerous. 

Why? There is a major problem across the coaching profession: There are many coaches serving as de facto psychotherapists and marriage counselors, without the any of the necessary qualifications to do so. This is inappropriate and can cause real harm to vulnerable people — especially those who are in the hole. Unfortunately, because coaching is an unregulated profession, it’s not illegal. 

To become a coach, you don’t need to have any professional credentials, education, training, or experience. You don’t have a degree in psychology or even a certificate from an online coaching program. While it’s illegal to practice counseling or therapy without jumping through all the hoops (education, experience, supervision) to attain a license, many self educated “life coaches” are essentially doing exactly — with uninformed, unsuspecting clients. 

Unfortunately, some people who find themselves severely in the hole may seek out a life coach rather than a therapist, if they don’t understand the differences between counseling and life coaching. They can incorrectly assume that it’s basically all the same. People are often shocked to learn that you need zero education or credentials to be a life coach. But even for people struggling with big issues and in need of mental health treatment, it can feel better to say “my coach” instead of “my therapist.” 

If these clients are lucky, their coach will notice that they’re wrestling with something more serious than can be handled with coaching, and direct them to a mental health professional who’s qualified to help them with issues such as depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, many coaches don’t know enough to know when they’re out of their depth. They may have become self professed “coaches” and started working with clients after just a few weeks of online training — if even that. (It is scarily easy to become a credentialed coach, too.) Eventually, they’re bound to come across a client that is not in a healthy place to receive their coaching, but they may not realize their own limitations. 

Therapists, in contrast, have to attain a Master’s or Doctoral degree. The best therapists have spent significant time and energy in learning about research based, evidence supported strategies to help people. They then must go through a licensure process in order to begin seeing clients. This difference in experience is highly significant. In the personal growth world, choosing a coach when you need a therapist is like putting your life in the hands of the bud-tender at your local dispensary rather than a board-certified physician. 

A colleague of mine told me an anecdote recently that highlights the problem. She was in a coffee shop, within earshot of a life coach working with a woman at the next table. The coach seemed to be clumsily attempting to conduct therapy, while the woman was clearly struggling with major depression, a potentially life threatening condition. Unlike this clueless life coach, a trained therapist would never hold a session in public where others could overhear. An ethical therapist also wouldn’t work with a client suffering with something beyond their scope of competence — and any mental health condition is beyond what a life coach can do

Self-trained “relationship coaches” can present serious risks too. Many couples on the brink of divorce only get one chance to turn things around. If marriage counseling fails they feel like they have legitimately tried everything, and there is no hope. The next stop on that train is divorce court.

When couples facing serious challenges seek support from a “relationship coach” rather than a licensed marriage and family therapist, they’re putting their marriages, and the trajectory of their lives into the hands of someone who’s not qualified to provide meaningful support and guidance. I have personally seen a number of couples in my practice after failed attempts at “relationship coaching” almost destroyed their marriage. I have worked with numerous clients for breakup therapy and divorce counseling after relationship coaching or couples counseling with an unqualified provider failed. Scary, but true.

If one of your goals is to feel more secure in your relationship, here’s an article with information on how to find a good marriage counselor (or relationship coach, for that matter).

While no one becomes a life coach to make peoples’ lives worse, that’s exactly what may happen when unqualified coaches work with clients who are truly in need of therapy. It’s a real issue in the personal growth world, and something to be conscious of if you’re deciding between working with a coach or a therapist.

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Coaching vs Therapy: The Problem with Therapy

As unsavory as the life coaching industry can be, the truth is that therapy isn’t right for everyone either. There are many ineffective therapists out there — warm, well-intended, ineffective therapists — particularly those who place a high value on “processing” and “working through issues” at the expense of seeking real world, positive change. Clients who are ready to take a more action-oriented plan may find the process of therapy both tedious and disappointing, not to mention expensive in more than one way. More on that subject in “How Much Does Therapy Cost?”  

While people who are suffering with serious mental health issues (or going through something terrible like the loss of a loved one) can benefit enormously from having a gentle, emotionally supportive relationship with a non-directive therapist devoted to their healing, this approach is not helpful for everyone. There are highly effective forms of evidence-based approaches to therapy that are genuinely helpful in the treatment of mental health issues and serious situations, but many therapists do not practice them. Many clients who approach us here at Growing Self have already spent months or years in therapeutic relationships that did not help them make positive changes. And they’re frustrated about that!  They have a right to be!

Many of our clients seek us out specifically because we offer coaching services, including online life coaching, in addition to therapy services. They want real guidance and direction, not months of free-associating to a nodding, sympathetic, sphynx-like therapist who answers their questions with questions. They find the “talk” portion of talk therapy to be a dead end, and they’re frustrated at not learning the skills and strategies that will actually make a difference in their lives. 

Worse, not all therapy is created equal, and some people get involved with licensed therapists who use questionable methods in efforts to “help” their clients. Unlike the medical field, there is little to no regulation around regulate what kinds of therapy are used, and nobody knows what happens behind the confidential door of the counseling office. Unfortunately some therapists decide for themselves what is helpful for clients, like energy grids from magic rocks, past life regression, or spiritual exorcisms (seriously, I’ve heard it all). 

People can spend years and piles of money on ineffective therapy, endlessly dissecting the symbolism of their dreams or exploring their feelings about their father — as their real lives in the here and now are falling apart. I personally believe that this is a disgrace, and feel that it’s just as unethical and potentially damaging as getting involved with a self-anointed life coach who’s “credentials” are a good TikTok game and not much else.

Ethics has two sides: Malfeasance and Beneficence. Therapists are obligated to “Do No Harm,” but also to “Do Good.”

Therapy can be extremely helpful and effective, but only when it’s based on research backed, evidence based therapeutic practices that are proven to be helpful. Here’s a resource if you’re interested in learning more about evidence-based approaches to therapy (or coaching, for that matter), and also more information on how to find a therapist if you’re leaning in that direction.

Our Solution: The Best of Counseling and Coaching

So, which approach is going to be best for you? Should you work with a therapist, or with a coach? It can be difficult to know, truly. One way to hedge your bets is to work with a competent, ethical, licensed therapist who also provides coaching services. This will allow for flexibility, but also for accurate understanding of which approach would be the most genuinely helpful for you. 

For example all of the practitioners on the Growing Self team are therapists first, with degrees in counseling psychology, a robust understanding of evidence-based approaches, and are licensed to provide behavioral healthcare. But our practice also emphasizes a positive, strengths based, and action oriented coaching approach. Many therapists are adding coaching services to their repertoire, and, while still relatively rare, it is becoming easier to find a therapist who offers coaching.

This is a huge advantage, because if allows for accurate assessment — so vital for either high quality therapy or coaching. This can show up in two different ways.

“I’m here for coaching… but I really need therapy.”

Sometimes, prospective clients reach out to us for our coaching services: Life coaching, dating coaching, relationship coaching or career coaching… but in speaking with one of our coach / therapists, it emerges that they actually have underlying mental health issues that require treatment. In these cases, we can suggest therapy (either through us, or through another practice if that would be more beneficial). 

For example, Jim might show up for career coaching because he is very unhappy with his job. But in working with one of our career coaches (who have a background as therapists), we might learn that he’s experiencing symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety that are creating significant issues for him — both on the job and off.

He’s feeling hopeless, has zero energy, can’t sleep due to catastrophic thoughts about his future, and cannot follow through with taking action right now. Career coaching isn’t appropriate for Jim yet. He needs psychotherapy. His career coach would understand that and redirect him. But think about what could happen to Jim if he’d connected with a basic career coach with a background in HR and no other education or experience? That’s troubling! 

“I’m here for therapy… but I really need coaching”

In other cases, we have people who reach out for therapy, but in speaking with one of our practitioners, discover that a more action-oriented, results focused approach is what would actually be more helpful to them. In these cases we can recommend a coaching approach to help them achieve their goals for themselves, their careers, or their relationships. 

For example, Jane reaches out to us for therapy because she’s feeling really unhappy. In exploring things with her, it emerges that she too is really dissatisfied with her job. She’s an attorney, but does not feel passionate about her job and the long hours she spends at the office are interfering with the quality of her personal relationships. She feels stuck! But Jane doesn’t need mental health treatment. Jane needs assistance in getting clarity about her values, figuring out what she wants to do with her life, and then constructing a plan to make it happen.

A combination of career and life coaching would be much more helpful for Jane than symptom focused psychotherapy designed to help her feel better. She feels bad for a reason! A coach would help her listen to those feelings and take positive action, rather than providing “treatment.”

Think about what might happen to Jane if she connected with a standard-issue therapist who wants her to talk about her parent’s divorce and emotionally distant father, instead of helping her get clarity and take action to get on a different career path? Not helpful! It would be a big waste of her time, and her money.

Life Coaching vs Therapist: Finding a Middle Path

To sum all this up: both coaching and psychotherapy can be very useful, but different approaches are better suited for certain situations. It can be hard to know which approach is best for you, without the opportunity to dig into your situation and get recommendations. 

I personally believe that the “middle path” is to reach out to a qualified therapist who also provides coaching. They would be able to identify any underlying mental health issues and recommend treatment, if that would be best for you. They could also help you determine if a coaching model that emphasizes clarity and forward movement would help you achieve your goals more expediently than traditional talk therapy would, and if that’s the case, serve you as a coach.

Furthermore, choosing a therapist who offers coaching services means that you’ll working with a licensed provider who has dedicated significant time and energy into becoming a truly qualified and competent helping professional. This reduces the very real risks of getting involved with an unqualified coach.

Additionally, at least in my experience, therapists who are interested in learning the art and science of coaching psychology are typically just as annoyed with passive, non-directive, unfocused talk therapy as I am. Even if it turns out you’d be better served by therapy (and wind up working with them as a therapist) they are likely to utilize more active and effective approaches to therapy. This reduces the risk of getting stuck in endless navel-gazing that does not translate into positive outcomes for you.

By choosing this path, you’re covering all your bases on both sides, and increasing the likelihood that — no matter what you need — you’ll have a positive and productive experience. You deserve that.

Just for fun, you are welcome to take this “Do you need therapy or coaching” quiz to learn more about whether coaching or therapy might be right for you. It is in no way meant to be a professional assessment, but it might be an interesting starting point if you’d like to learn more about whether your current needs would be better served by a life coach vs therapist.

If you like the idea of taking that “middle path” you welcome you to schedule a free consultation with one of the “coachy therapists” on the team here at Growing Self to talk about your hopes and goals for your personal growth work, and discuss which approach would be most helpful to you.

I hope this discussion helped you learn more about the difference between therapy and coaching, so that you can make empowered, well-informed decisions.

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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