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  • Writer's pictureCharles Gosset

The Difference Between Life Coaching and Therapy

While life coaching and therapy do have similarities, it's important to recognize the differences in order to get the best results for your life.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines psychotherapy as “the informed and intentional application of clinical methods and interpersonal stances derived from established psychological principles for the purpose of assisting people to modify their behaviors, cognitions, emotions, and/or other personal characteristics in directions that the participants deem desirable."

It's All About Daily Functioning

Both coaching and therapy are collaborative processes that are client driven and goal oriented. Both have the goal of helping people to live better, more fulfilling lives. The differences essentially come down to the scope and focus of services.

Coaching assumes that a client has a high level of daily functioning in one or more areas of life on a regular basis. Daily functioning (p. 4+) can refer to any area of life, including eating, grooming, work, and personal life.

Unlike therapy, coaching does not diagnose or directly treat mental illness of any kind, including depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, substance use disorder, or others.

Coaching is almost exclusively focused on client actions and results in relation to specific and measurable goals, generally over a designated period of time. Once those goals have been accomplished then the coaching relationship comes to an end.

Therapy, on the other hand, emphasizes psychopathology, emotions, and the past in order to understand the present. Therapists diagnose and directly treat a variety of mental illnesses in order to help clients heal and improve their level of daily functioning.

This may involve working with trauma, mood disorders, and other conditions that prevent an individual from coping effectively with past and present circumstances.

Unlike coaching, therapy may continue for an extended period of time to help clients maintain stability and manage coping skills.

Do I Need a Coach or Therapist?

The decision to seek out a life coach or therapist is a personal one. Consider this analogy (p. 6) from the sports world to help you in your decision making process. A coach is like an athletic trainer, while a therapist is like a medical doctor specializing in sports medicine. Both draw from a similar body of knowledge.

The trainer (coach) assumes that the athlete is essentially sound in body and is focused on improving fitness and performance. The trainer will refer the athlete to the team doctor (therapist) if there is reason to believe he or she has an injury. The doctor (therapist) may refer the athlete to the trainer (coach) when healing has taken place and there is a desire for higher levels of growth and development.

Similarly, coaches and therapists work with the same material but with different skill sets and to different ends. A coach may explore the past, family life, or emotions of their client in the service of understanding the client’s origin stories being told about the present and future. However, a coach does not diagnose nor does a coach offer treatment.

The Best of Both Worlds

It is possible for individuals to experience high levels of daily functioning in one area of life and not in others. Coaching may be an appropriate fit for those who are also seeing a qualified therapist to help them in areas of lower functioning, such as depression or PTSD. Likewise, therapy may be appropriate for some coaching clients when functioning becomes impaired and limits progress on goals.

In either case, the coach or therapist should always consult with the client to discuss the alternatives so that the client can make an informed decision.

To Sum It Up

A life coach can offer guidance by:

  • Clarifying and achieving personal and professional goals

  • Creating personal and professional mission statements

  • Working to improve communication skills

  • Helping you to achieve a sense of purpose and passion

  • Developing work/life balance

  • Launching a new business

  • Developing leadership strengths

A therapist can help you to:

  • Recover from past traumas

  • Explore why past relationships have been destructive

  • Work through depression or anxiety that affect your ability to function at home or work

  • Survive a divorce or loss of a loved one

  • Learn coping skills to manage disorders and addictions

Next Steps

Regardless of whether you would benefit most from coaching or therapy, the most important step is the first one. Reach out today and get the help you need to start living your best life.

Contact me to schedule a free 30 minute consultation and see if coaching is right for you.


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