Image of woman with blue spotlight, representing what is a life coach.

Questions About Life Coaching:

What Is a Life Coach?

What is a life coach? A life coach is a supportive professional who uses a set of tools and techniques to help you get clarity, identify and overcome obstacles, and attain your goals.

Most of us could benefit from the guidance and support of effective life coaching services in building the life we desire for ourselves. If you’re feeling stuck at work, would like to build a healthy relationship, or are just generally feeling unfocused and dissatisfied with your life, your first instinct may be to seek out the services of a therapist. But for high-functioning people who aren’t suffering from a mental health condition, life coaching can actually be a more satisfying experience and a better use of time and money than traditional psychotherapy.

Why? There are so many benefits of life coaching, and the coaching process often feels like a faster and more direct route to helping you make real and lasting positive changes in your life (especially in comparison to slow, introspective, past-or-pathology focused therapy).

Effective life coaching can help you gain insight and get clear about what you want, understand the obstacles in your path, and the best strategies to traverse them. The best coaching experiences are life-changing in terms of personal growth, leaving you with a stronger sense of who you are, what’s most important to you, and how to get it. Working with the wrong coach, however, could be counterproductive, or even dangerous in some cases. 

I hope that, by answering the questions “what is a life coach” and “what does a life coach do” this article gives you a clear idea of what to expect from life coaching, as well as how to avoid some of the industry’s biggest pitfalls.

What Does a Life Coach Do?

Let’s tackle some of these coaching questions together. Broadly, a life coach is a professional dedicated to helping you achieve your most important personal and professional goals, improve your relationships, increase your life satisfaction and happiness, and grow as a person. Unlike therapy, coaching focuses less on analyzing the past, and more on creating new self-awareness and an action-oriented plan to move forward

But in order to increase your understanding of what life coaching is, and what life coaches do, it’s really important to understand what life coaching is not. That will help you achieve clarity and enable you to make informed choices about whether or not coaching is right for you.

What a Life Coach is Not

While there’s much overlap between counseling vs coaching, it is extremely important to understand two things:

  1. The coaching “profession” is not regulated.
  2. Coaching is not mental health treatment.

Coaching is a completely unregulated profession thing that people do. True professional titles are regulated. For example, nobody is legally allowed to represent themselves as “marriage and family therapist” or a “psychologist” unless they have successfully completed all of the requirements set forth by state licensing boards to become licensed as such.

This includes things like getting a graduate degree that covered specific coursework requirements, accumulating thousands of clinical experience hours under the supervision of a senior therapist, and passing national board exams — the whole enchilada. It’s a lot. It took me, personally, over ten years to do all the things I needed to do in order to legally be able to represent myself an MFT and a psychologist.

There is not even a whiff of that when it comes to calling yourself a coach, life coach, career coach, dating coach, etc. Life coaches are not required to have any specific educational background, license, or certification. You do not need a high-school diploma, you do not need to be a citizen, and you do not need to not be a registered sex offender. Literally anyone can call themselves a coach and begin selling their services to potential clients, without taking a class or even reading a book on the subject. 

Want to be a life coach? Poof! [Lisa waggles magic fingers in your direction.] You are now a life coach, just like approximately 15% of the residents of California. Godspeed.

This rolls through to the next important thing to know, which is that life coaches are not mental health professionals, and that life coaching is not mental health treatment.

What a Life Coach Does Not Do

Even if someone goes through the trouble of taking an (also completely unregulated) online course or program to obtain a coaching credential they are not qualified to identify, much less treat, any type of mental health condition.

AND, furthermore, even a licensed therapist who provides coaching, like myself, cannot, and should not, use coaching methods to diagnose or treat any kind of mental health condition. I have people reach out to me all the time for coaching but after learning more about what’s going on, I need to refer them for therapy instead, because I know that coaching will not be helpful for them until their psychiatric symptoms have been successfully treated.

These boundaries and distinctions are so vital to understand, because many people unconsciously lump therapists and life coaches together in one general “mental health professionals” bucket in their mind (along with social workers, who are also trained to do a completely different thing than either therapy or coaching).

This “mental health professionals” bucket sits between the “financial professionals” bucket (containing everybody from the bank teller, the H&R block tax person, the CPA, and the hedge fund manager) and the “medical professionals” bucket (containing the phlebotomist, nurse practitioner, cardiologist, radiologist, dermatologist, person wielding vaccine shots at the Walgreens pharmacy counter, and Dr. Oz.)

Obviously, as we peer into these mental buckets together, we know that these professionals are very different although they occupy the same broad category. Your bank teller, assuming you still engage in such antiquated activities as visiting a bank, has no idea whether you should buy or sell, or the tax implications of either. The person at the Walgreens counter cannot look at an image of your lungs and know whether or not it’s cancer. And, it would be weird to ask them, right?

But people go to self-anointed life coaches all the time for assistance with things that are on the same order of magnitude in terms of importance. “Should I leave my husband? What will this do to our kids?” “What career path should I devote the next forty years of my life to?” “Why do I feel so bad about myself and my life? What is wrong with me?” Concerning, for sure, that people are placing the trajectory of their lives in the hands of “coaches” with a good TikTok game.

But the most important and serious thing to know here is that, unless your coach is also a licensed therapist, they are not qualified to diagnose or treat mental health conditions. If you’re experiencing a mental health disorder, coaching will not alleviate your symptoms, and in some cases could even make them worse. You need (and deserve) competent, evidence-based therapy.

So, with this (hopefully) clear understanding of what a life coach is not, now we can turn our attention to understanding what a life coach is. Next, we’ll talk about what life coaches do, the different types of coaches, and how working with a skilled and competent coach can help you make real and lasting positive changes in important areas of your life.

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The Life Coaching Process

What is a Life Coach? A Flashlight.

At the heart of what it means to be a coach is to have the skills and expertise to guide you towards “self-optimization” in order to get better results. This may involve coaching around how to literally do things differently, like a golf coach might say, “Try holding it this way.” Similarly, a relationship coach might say, “Try communicating it using these words instead. Okay. Better. Now, about your tone…

But good coaching is not all about pointers and strategies for doing things differently. Much, if not most, of the work that coaching focuses on is how you manage yourself internally. Going back to the relationship / communication coaching example: the reason why someone is using a tone that communicates anger (even though they’re using the “right” words) is because they are interpreting their partner’s behavior as disrespectful, hostile, etc. And because of that, they’re feeling angry. When they learn how to understand their partner differently, they can create a much more compassionate story about what’s happening in the moment. This changes the way they feel, becoming softer and more empathetic to their partner. Voila! No communication-sabotaging tone.

A good life coach is a flashlight, illuminating the subconscious blind spots that you don’t even know you have. Coaching must address what is happening in your head, and that is so difficult to gain perspective around when you are swimming in the broth of your own inner experience every day. All we have are our thoughts, really. How do you know if they’re helpful, or misguided?

To do that self-discovery process effectively, any meaningful coaching must involve both insight and self-awareness. A myth about coaching is that it’s not very deep, and that a coach’s sole purpose is to create a plan of action and help you execute it. Yes, that happens too. But in reality, the foundation of coaching is deep self-awareness about what you truly want out of life (like, a really positive and loving relationship with your partner) and insight into the patterns that have kept you from attaining it (like your persecution narrative, or unreasonable expectations).

What is a Life Coach? A Mirror.

Like many people, you may begin coaching from a place of nebulous dissatisfaction, unhappy with what is, but without a clear vision of what you want to create instead. Your life coach will start with an assessment that explores your personal values, the meaningful goals that align with them, and the obstacles in your path. 

Often, people are surprised to learn what’s actually standing in the way of themselves and their ideal reality. It’s easy to point to external circumstances as “the problem,” like simply not having met the right partner, or having been pushed into the wrong career path by overbearing parents. But self-confidence is based on the fundamental idea that we have the ability to create our own reality, and that our internal processes are what truly lead to our outcomes.

These internal obstacles may be related to old patterns of behavior or automatic thoughts, or they may originate with implicit, competing goals battling it out within us. Whatever the cause, powerful coaching will help you see what has led to less-than-satisfying outcomes for you and what is within your power to change.

Furthermore, many people are consciously trying to attain goals that are actually incongruent with their true values, ideals, and motivations. Between our families of origin and the culture we’re raised in, we all get handed a playbook — one with a detailed set of instructions that tell us who we should be, and the way of being that is “correct.” It is scarily easy to get so caught up in these “shoulds” that we organize our lives and ourselves around trying to achieve them… and then wonder why we’re not feeling motivated to go make them happen, or happy when we do “arrive” at the top of whatever mountain we’ve been killing ourselves to climb.

Much there to unpack. But the headline here is that in order to achieve clarity about what you want to build in your life, you need to have clarity about who you are and what is important to you. You. Specifically. A great coach is like a mirror, helping you see yourself.

Building the Skills You Need for Growth

What is a Life Coach? A Teacher.

Once you’ve identified your values, your goals, what is really important to you, and the internal and external obstacles standing your way, a map of what you need to do will begin to emerge. If your goal is to have a better connection with your partner, for instance, you may begin to see that you need better communication skills in order to attain that outcome. But what exactly do you need to do differently? And right now, do you know how to do what needs to be done? 

The answer, in all likelihood, is no. That’s why you’re enlisting help from a life coach, after all. Just like that golf coach is going to have specific recommendations for how to get better results on the course, (“Stand with your feet apart. Stop doing that weird thing with your elbow,”) a good life coach is going to have ideas for things that you can do differently that will help you get better results or make progress in important areas of your life.

This is where coaching and traditional talk therapy diverge, and start to get very different. Traditional therapists have a reputation for being evasive when asked direct questions. They become sphinx-like and turn the question back on you, lest they push you in a direction that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. (Very appropriate to do, in therapy situations, by the way). But not appropriate or helpful if you want and need coaching.

Your golf coach is not going to say, “Hmm, I don’t know, how do you think you could make that ball go further?” (Like a therapist will always do.) A good life coach will have ideas about things you could try in order to learn new skills that will help you get different results.

A good coach will outline micro-skills for you to build, scaffolding your learning to help you incorporate new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving over time. The skills you need to strengthen will build on one another, taking what likely feels like a daunting task and breaking it down into bite-sized chunks that should feel manageable.

Then, they will expect you to practice them.

Creating a Plan of Action

What is a Life Coach? A Coach!

In every boxing movie I’ve ever seen, there’s always that old guy who climbs into the ring during the time-outs. The boxer is panting in the corner and the old guy is dabbing his (or her) bloody face with a towel and reminding them of how strong they are, they can do this, etc. Then the scene concludes with the old guy yelling, “Now get back out there!” And then the boxer is victorious.**

This is a coach being a coach, and this is also similar to the type of coaching that you can expect from your life coach. Minus the yelling. And the blood.

Your coach will ask you to take action. Once you have organized the awareness you’ve gained about yourself, your goals, and your obstacles into a detailed plan of action, with clear steps about how to apply the skills you’ve learned in order to reach your desired outcome…. it’s time to stop talking, and start doing it.

At this stage in the coaching process, you’ll start putting your newfound insights into practice and reporting back on your progress. The real work is happening outside of the coaching office, not in it. Your coach will provide accountability and expect you to take meaningful action — one of the biggest distinctions between a coach and a therapist.

While therapists and counselors are often happy to help you explore your situation and process thoughts and feelings about it indefinitely, a coach should be “working themselves out of a job” by empowering you to learn the skills and strategies you need. At the end of coaching, you should have developed a toolkit of transferable skills that can be applied to many areas of your life.

While accountability is a vital component of coaching, perfection is not the expectation. When you fail to accomplish some step in your plan of action, a good coach will help you step back and understand why you failed, without judgment. You have a place to explore what you were thinking about right before you snapped at your partner, or what led to binge-watching some stupid show all weekend instead of [insert virtuous and productive activities here].

No less than Albert Einstein would like to remind you that “the only person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” It is in the act of trying things that we actually learn how to do them.

Maybe the challenge you’re facing isn’t quite what you expected. Maybe you need to approach it differently, or to simply move slower. Working with a coach can help you transform moments of disappointment into the learning experience that allows you to create success in the future.

(**Except for that incredibly heartbreaking “Million Dollar Baby” movie, which shows us different parts of the coaching relationship).

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Types of Life Coaches

What is a Life Coach? A Specialist!

When choosing a coach, you’ll have a range of specializations to pick from, including life coaches, relationship coaches, career coaches, and more. It’s important to choose a coach whose expertise aligns with your personal goals to ensure they truly have the knowledge to help you reach them. 

Here are a few of the most common coaching specializations, and what you can expect from each. 

Career Coaching

An online career coach can help you get clarity about what you want for yourself professionally and the best way to attain it. This may take the form of “career exploration,” which will help you identify your interests, aptitudes, and opportunities, and translate them into a meaningful career path for yourself. 

Career coaching can also potentially focus on professional growth and development once you’ve already settled into a career. Maybe you’re working a career-track job, but unsure about your next move. Your coach will help you to identify what’s working for you and what’s not, and may incorporate emotional intelligence training, leadership coaching, or personal organization, or resume writing services into your plan to reach your goals.

Dating Coaching

If your ultimate dating goal is finding a life partner, the relationship you choose will have a major impact on every area of your life. A dating coach will go farther than helping you land dates, exploring the type of relationship you want, the qualities you’re looking for in a partner, and the skills you need to develop to build confidence, learn how to find love, and how to sustain a healthy relationship. 

Working with a dating coach will help you explore past relationship patterns and identify opportunities for change. You’ll learn how to set healthy boundaries, communicate effectively, identify attachment styles, and more. 

Pro Tip: In choosing a dating coach, your best bet is to find a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who also provides coaching, and specializes in building healthy relationships. They are true relationship experts who have tons of specialized education and experience around relationships, specifically.

Relationship Coaching

Similar to a dating coach, a relationship coach’s goal is to help you improve the quality of your love life. Unlike a dating coach, a relationship coach will work with you in the context of an established relationship. You can do relationship coaching for couples together with your partner, or you can work with a relationship coach individually in order to improve your approach and get better results with your partner. 

The best relationship coaches will be a licensed marriage and family therapists with years of training and experience helping couples grow together using evidence-based techniques. While relationship coaching has a lot in common with couples or family therapy, the practices differ in intent.

Actual psychotherapy involving couples is referred to as “family therapy” technically, and it is an appropriate method of treating serious issues including psychiatric illnesses that impact couples and families. Relationship coaching is intended to help you improve your relationship and work together toward your goals as a couple. FYI: Family psychotherapy for the treatment of a psychiatric condition is the only way “marriage counseling” is covered by insurance. More on the differences between relationship coaching vs couples therapy here.

Like all forms of coaching, relationship coaching will begin with an assessment of your historical patterns. The purpose of this exploration is to understand your values, obstacles, and skills you need to build in order to move forward and reach your goals. Unlike therapy, which can feel like going in circles to many couples, relationship coaching is a direct, empowering route to improving your relationship.

Good relationship coaching, especially with a talented MFT, is an effective way of helping you improve your communication, helping you feel closer and more connected, identifying common goals for your shared life, and improving teamwork or parenting skills. Your relationship coach will help you make day-to-day changes that prioritize your goals, strengthening your intimacy, fun, and connection to your partner. 

Finding a Life Coach

Now you know what a life coach is, and what life coaches do. Now, you might be thinking about how to find a life coach, and this is a very wise thing to think about. It’s easy to find a life coach. Especially on social media, they’re everywhere. When seeking a coach, don’t base your decision on a snazzy website or eye-catching social media posts. These superficial marketing tools may draw you in, but they won’t tell you anything about whether their “coaching” is worth the cost.

Instead, look for a coach who has, at the very least, gone through the trouble of obtaining a legitimate coaching credential. BCC, ICF, CCC, or CLC are the coach credentialing organizations with the strongest requirements. While these coaching credentials are very easy to get (I got my board-certified coaching credential in approximately four weeks) they are better than nothing.

The best way to make sure your coach is really qualified to help you grow is to choose a licensed mental health professional, like a therapist, who has also gone on to earn a coaching credential. This ensures that you’re working with a professional who will not only be able to coach you effectively, but who has the educational background and experience to spot any mental health problems that may be holding you back and direct you to the proper treatment if needed.

You can learn more about the differences in training, education, and experience between becoming a therapist vs becoming a coach here, if you’re interested.

Here at Growing Self, all of our coaches are licensed mental health professionals who have also received coach training. They are therapists who offer coaching services.

The Value of Coaching

A meaningful coaching experience is about more than setting goals and working toward them. It’s about helping you better understand yourself and the best way to get what you want out of life, during the coaching process and well beyond it. 

A coach is an investigator, a guide, a process consultant, a teacher, an accountability partner, and a celebrator of your successes. A great coach will shine a flashlight into your blindspots, hold a mirror up to help you see yourself, introduce new ideas, encourage you to try new things, and empower you to, ultimately, be your own coach, and feel competent and confident to create the life you desire.

I hope that this article helped you fully understand the answer to our original question of “what is a coach?” plus more, so that you can decide if coaching is the right fit for you.

Your parter in growth,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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My work with [my coach] has been worth every penny. She’s helped me learn how to shift my thinking, set healthier boundaries, and also be more open to new possibilities. It’s definitely exceeded my expectations!
— Life Coaching Client

The therapists and life coaches of Growing Self have specialized education and training and years of experience in helping people achieve their personal and professional goals. We use only evidence based strategies that have been proven by research to help you get clarity and direction, have better relationships, feel happier, and design your ideal life.

This website is devoted to your wellbeing, and offers loads of free information and actionable advice that you can start using today to create positive change in your life. Browse around to meet our experts, get free advice on our blog, listen to a podcast, or take our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz.

Or, if the time is right, you can schedule a free consultation with any of us to talk about your situation — and, most importantly — your hopes for your future.

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