A session with a therapist, coffee with a friend, an appointment with a life coach, or even simply petting the dog can all be therapeutic - they provide help and support or even have physiological benefits to your mind and health.

However, when most people think about addressing emotional and mental issues in their lives, they think about two things specifically: life coaching and therapy.

Within both of these approaches there are different specialties. Some therapists may specialize in addiction therapy. Some life coaches may target specific demographics. But at the most general level, there are some essential things that each approach offers.

This article breaks down those essential differences with the intention of helping YOU understand if a therapist or a coach might be best suited for you or a loved one. I’ve even included a handy comparison chart at the bottom of the article to help in your decision-making.

Although this article may help you determine what your general needs are, I cannot emphasize enough that you should meet or “interview” your prospective therapist or coach before entering into a relationship with them. It is not only important that you are looking for the right kind of help, but also to make sure it’s the right fit for your wants and needs.

Definitions of Therapy & Coaching

Therapy, in particular psychotherapy, is ingrained in our public consciousness. We have visions of couches and Freud and Xanax. But to set the stage, psychotherapy is, as defined by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on the psychcentral.com website:

a process focused on helping you heal and learn more constructive ways to deal with the problems or issues within your life…Generally psychotherapy is recommended whenever a person is grappling with a life, relationship or work issue or a specific mental health concern, and these issues are causing the individual a great deal of pain or upset for longer than a few days.

Many non-pathological clients (meaning people in general) don’t really need or benefit from classic psychotherapy. What they are looking for is a neutral party who is not involved in their day to day lives, someone with whom to work through their issues.

Life coaches have knowledge, experience, and information that can be tailored to a specific individual’s needs. They know how to guide clients to express their own issues clearly and come to their own solutions. Often, the ideal coaching clients want to improve their lives now, rather than have a weekly touchstone for years to come.

Life Coaching is…

So, what does life coaching look like? It can look different from client to client. In fact, it should look different because life coaching is personalized for their specific needs and strengths.

In general, life coaching:

  •  Motivates and offers emotional support in order to boost confidence improve success
  • Focuses on creating a new life path in order to achieve goals
  • Helps clients determine which changes they want to make in their lives and formulate the steps needed in order to reach these personal goals
  • Guides clients in identifying their goals and their obstacles
  • Provides guidance and support but also places a great deal of emphasis on accountability, enabling people to do more than they might on their own
  • Encourages and counsels clients on a range of professional and personal issues
  • Helps the client come up with their own answers or solutions that best meets their needs (distinct from giving advice, consulting, counseling, and mentoring - doesn’t GIVE the answers)
  • Works with the client as a partner, knowing that the client has the answers needed to create the changes they seek

I have a client who has had some addiction issues. She was required to have a therapist upon leaving a treatment facility. However, she insisted on working with a life coach. She said, “I’m tired of talking to therapists about my problems. I want to talk to a coach to help me take action in my life.” To me, taking action is the essential distinction of working with a life coach.

But buyer beware when it comes to finding the right coach. There are no formal education requirements needed to become a life coach. There are even some questionable certifications out there. My advice for those seeking a coach is to make sure they have an ICF (International Coach Federation) certification. This ensures the coach in question is well-vetted and works within certain ethical guidelines.

It’s All About the Clients’ Needs

When it comes to those who benefit most from seeing a therapist, there are usually clear-cut reasons why they are there in the first place.

The most common of these would be if they have a clinical diagnosis that interferes with their functioning. These will often fall under depression or anxiety disorders. Addiction issues, whether it be drugs, alcohol, or eating disorders, should also seek therapy to help with uncovering the roots of their diagnoses.

There are other issues best addressed through therapy. If clients:

  • Engage in abusive relationships
  • Have experienced traumatic events that impact them at present
  • Have personality or characterological issues that harm themselves or others
  • Have experienced crisis

Coaching clients on the other hand, are looking for guidance on how to set and attain goals in either their personal or professional lives. Sometimes they want to work on both.

Often, they are failing to meet goals (such as career goals or dating), they feel stuck or ineffective in the short-term, or they are feeling overwhelmed or angst about where their life is. Essentially, they have circumstances they are seeking to change or cope with.

A good coach will steer their client to the most essential problems and brainstorm realistic and attainable solutions to these issues. There are reasons why their client is not having the success or living the life they want.

Through coaching, there are some core issues that are commonly addressed. Many clients feel they:

  • Need better social or communication skills
  • Have difficulty expressing or asserting themselves
  • Can’t create a viable work/life balance
  • Want to improve communication in their existing relationships
  • Must find a way to attract and maintain healthy relationships

Of course, there are some specialized techniques that are crossovers between therapy and coaching. Most notably, Neuro-Linguistics Programming (NLP), Timeline Therapy, and Hypnotherapy can be very effective tools for coaches helping individuals looking to make breakthroughs and address their limiting beliefs.

So, depending on what you want to address in your life, you must first decide which path is going to best suit your needs.

Please, utilize the ‘cheat sheet’ I’ve included below to help you manage your search for guidance.