Is There a Difference Between a Life Coach and a Therapist?

stick figure with hands on hips looking at question markBoth coaching and therapy are based on continuous, one-on-one meetings between an individual and therapist or coach. Both professions assist individuals who are in need of change. Coaching and therapy are aimed at helping clients discover the right direction for creating growth and healthy change.

However, there are concrete distinctions between a life coach and therapist, especially in terms of conversation, focus, perceptions, expectation, and objectives. The needs of a coaching client and therapy client can differ greatly.

Here is some advice: don’t find out what is better for you by diving into a relationship right away. Take time to understand the differences between life coaching and therapy, so you can choose a specialist whose goals mirror your own.

What is coaching?

Coaches offer ways in which each unique client can better himself or herself, grow, and expand their lives while working toward an envisioned future. In a coaching relationship, the conversation tends to be more active and informal.

The environment is collaborative and open, encouraging task-focused brainstorming and attention to the present moment. Within this framework, the clients are preparing themselves to take substantial action toward personal or professional goals.

Direction

When a client seeks a life coach, they are not necessarily expecting help with an issue or trauma from their past. Although some clients might be feeling stuck or panicked, they are less likely to be stuck in a crisis or going through something radically difficult. Rather, coaching clients seek to maximize fulfillment in their careers, partnerships, and passions.

Coach and client converse collaboratively during sessions to inspire beneficial, strategic action and healthy growth in the client’s life. Together, they focus on the latter’s untapped potential, in order to discover how the client can access it.

The life coach is likely to share concrete ideas and advice, offering tailor-made strategies for achieving objective results. There are often looser boundaries in conversation, which encourages active engagement with ideas around furthering the client’s aspirations.

There is an emphasis on the external situation of the client. Coaches do not focus too much on the client’s past, but rather on objectives and action plans. Coaches tend to understand the inner workings of structures that can lead to success, such as business and finance. Coaches might encourage clients to move beyond their comfort zones, pushing them to face their obstacles to success.

What is therapy?

Therapy clients are more likely to be dealing with something that interferes with their fundamental functioning. They may be suffering from serious conflict in their relationship, depression, anxiety, psychosis, nightmares, or other immobilizing symptoms.

Their feelings of instability may point to an identifiable problem, like post-traumatic stress disorder or a recent loss. They may feel as though they are in crisis, or cannot enjoy what they used to love.

Therapy tends to focus on healing. Therapy is driven by the belief that negative experiences can continue to affect us unconsciously, draining us of energy and making our lives more difficult to navigate. Insight into these experiences can help repair the client’s unconscious associations, which shape their perception, emotion, decisions, and ability to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Focus

Psychological concepts and theories are often embedded into a therapist’s approach. The therapist perceived as the expert in sessions, offering insights and interpretations in session, is in contrast with the open collaboration more inherently found in coaching.

Therapists encourage clients to meet and overcome obstacles to wellness. Many therapists aim to “meet you where you are” internally, which can result in sessions that are much less directive than coaching. Unlike coaching, which tends to focus on certain objectives, therapy might depart from the client’s external, everyday life, focusing instead on memory and emotional processing.

Through various, often proven, modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and psychoanalysis, the therapist works to help relieve symptoms that are interfering with the client’s life.

By uncovering fundamental beliefs and reasons for the client’s current perceptions, behaviors, and fears, it becomes possible to understand what might be limiting them. Sometimes, therapy involves diagnoses and supplementary medicine or treatments.

Why do these differences matter?

Perhaps you are trying to decide whether a life coach or therapist is right for you. These distinctions do matter, because depending on your goals, it will be helpful to find the right treatment.

Therapy goals tend to be aimed at one’s psychological wellness and sense of inner peace. Maybe that sounds like you! If you feel stuck, need help deciding how to take a big risk, or are looking for a sense of greater fulfillment, then coaching might just be perfect for you.

If you feel drawn toward both, perhaps you are in need of someone with both sets of skills.

About the Author

Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with individuals and couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers and intimacy. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance.

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