Who do I choose?!
One of the many questions I get from the parents of my teen clients and my adult clients is: what is the difference between therapy and life coaching, and which one do I (or my child/loved one) need? It’s a great question, and my honest answer is… it depends! Good therapy and life coaching will undoubtedly overlap, as they are both very similar in many ways while also being distinctly different. Clear as mud… right?! And let’s be honest… teasing the two professions apart can start to become a little fuzzy and confusing. The more research you do, the more confusing it gets. In this blog, I will highlight the three biggest differences between mental health therapy and life coaching, including a few important factors that one should consider before making a final decision.
License to Practice
This is one of the most important factors to consider when it comes to deciding between a therapist and a life coach. The biggest difference between the two professions boils down to having a license to practice. I often use the example of your primary care provider. Would you prefer to work with:
Doctor #1: they have graduated from medical school, received proper clinical training, and works under a board who holds them accountable.
Doctor #2: they did not graduate from medical school, they do not have a license to practice, but they’ve obtained medical knowledge based on their own independent research and personal experience.
If you prefer Doctor #1, then I would point you in the direction of a licensed mental health therapist. If you prefer Doctor #2, then I would inquire more about what the focus of your work will be, as this will make a difference in which professional is better suited for you.
The Mental Health Therapist is licensed by the state in which they reside to legally provide mental health treatment and services. There is a state and national board that holds therapists accountable for their actions, treatment, and services. If a therapist breaks a state law or violates the Code of Ethics, then that therapist can have their license revoked. In order to keep their license, therapists must obtain a certain amount of CEUs (continuing education units) in order to stay up to date with the latest research and therapeutic modalities. If the therapist fails to meet the CEU requirements, they can have their license revoked. It takes effort to obtain and hold an active license! One cannot label themselves as a mental health therapist without having successfully completed all of the education requirements, clinical training, and ongoing education units.
At this time, There is currently no license required for Life Coaching. Life coaches have the option to obtain a certificate in life coaching, however, this certificate is optional and not required. That being said, anyone can technically label themselves as a life coach and provide services, including those who have not received any educational training. Unfortunately, this has led to the life coaching field becoming largely unregulated. However, if having a license is not important to you, then I would recommend being very picky with choosing a life coach. It would be worth it to spend some time ensuring that you work with someone who, at the very least, has gone through a life coaching certification program.
Different Education Paths
Another important factor to consider when deciding between therapy and life coaching is to look at the difference in the educational paths of both professions. Mental health counselors have obtained a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters degree in mental health counseling, and must accumulate 3,000 clinical hours under the supervision of a licensed supervisor for a minimum of 18 months. In addition, there are a few national and state exams scattered throughout this process which the counselor must successfully pass before becoming licensed by the state to provide mental health services. It’s a very intense process, as it should be!
The field of life coaching has an optional certification program and little to no educational requirements. Don’t get me wrong, there are programs out there that offer education and training for life coaching, and again, these programs are optional. For this reason, life coaches are unable to provide treatment for mental health, as training to provide such services requires one to take a long educational journey through graduate school.
The Focus of the Work
What are you looking to accomplish during your time with a professional? What is the presenting concern that is bringing you to a life coach or therapist? If your concern(s) involves mental health symptoms that are causing distress in your life (i.e. anxiety, depression, bipolar, eating disorders, trauma, etc.), then it would be most appropriate to work with a licensed mental health therapist before beginning life coaching. Life coaches cannot diagnose or provide treatment for mental health concerns, as one must obtain a license to do so.
In short, therapy focuses on emotional healing and mental health; life coaching focuses on setting and achieving goals. Therapy sessions can be structured or unstructured depending on the therapeutic approach; life coaching sessions are structured in order to facilitate progress. Therapists are going to help you heal and assist you in getting to a place where you are ready to make changes and reach goals; life coaches are going to help you make moves to achieve those goals. If you’re in a good place with your mental health and you’re wanting to chase your dreams, longing for change, and want to embrace personal empowerment, then reaching out to a [certified] life coach might be helpful. If you have found a therapist who you love working with, then it could be worthwhile to ask your therapist if they are licensed in life coaching, if they have any life coach referrals, or if they can assist you with these goals.
There is beauty in both of these professions and both compliment each other quite well. Regardless of the type of professional you choose, the best thing that you can do is ensure that you work with someone who you have a connection with and you look forward to seeing every week. Once you find that person, do a little bit of research on them to make sure that they have some education in the area in which they are assisting you with. Be picky, be particular, and always trust your instincts… because you are worth it and you know what is best for yourself and/or your loved ones!
If you’re interested in learning more, check out The Coach’s Circle Podcast – brought to you by Life Coach Path, an online resource for anyone who is curious about the field of coaching and would like to learn more about turning their passion for helping others into a career as a coach. Their blog is full of valuable information on topics like certification, becoming an entrepreneur, and real-world interviews with coaches who are making it happen every day. You can check out their latest blog post here.
I had the privilege of having a great conversation with the host of Life Coach Path, Brandon Baker, regarding therapy for teens, sandtray therapy, and much more! Check it out here.
If you and your family are in the Austin, TX area or you are a resident of Texas, I highly recommend checking out Barb Steinberg’s website. Barb is a LMSW, tween/teen girl expert, parent coach, and speaker. Click here for Barb’s detailed description of the differences between life coaching and therapy.