Understanding Differences: Therapy vs. Life Coaching

I have spent over 30 years as a Registered Social Worker and I'm in training to become a Certified Life Coach. While my two areas of expertise complement one another, they are distinct in their use as well as their process. It's important to understand the unique benefits of each type of support in order to determine which is right for your individual needs. In the most broad sense, life coaching focuses on helping people determine and achieve their goals while therapy is a general term for treating mental health issues through the use of psychological techniques.

Understanding Therapy

Therapy focuses, primarily, on examining the past and looking for a solution to the mental health concerns of the patient. Therapists seek to identify emotional, psychological, or relationship dysfunction and then address those issues. If problems with addiction are present, therapy also addresses those struggles. One of the primary roles of therapists is to identify unhealthy and negative thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours and help their clients replace them with healthier responses. This is achieved through the use of specific therapeutic techniques to increase the client's ability to cope. Therapy takes on the structure of formal assessment followed by the application of an appropriate methodology. Therapists first explore and evaluate the problems being presented by their client, their history, coping methods, and what has, or has not, worked in the past. Following this assessment period, therapists may use specific therapeutic methodologies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy, talk therapy, or art therapy.

Understanding Life Coaching

Life coaches work in partnership with their client and encourage them on matters having to do with career, life changes, and goals. Life coaching focuses on discovering and creating new life paths and opportunities. It helps their clients in the process of setting manageable goals and then achieving them. This is especially helpful for clients who don't know where to start when setting goals, or don't know how to tackle significant life changes. Life coaches harness their clients’ natural creativity and resourcefulness. They use these skills to help the client develop strategies and solutions to their challenges. One of the primary roles of coaches is to provide support to enhance each client's existing skills. Life coaches generally work on 4 areas, beginning with helping their client define their goals. They then help the client formulate a plan based on the client's current strengths. They strive to hold the client accountable for their progress and provide structure. Finally they take on the role of key supporter of their client and celebrate their successes.

Relationships in Therapy vs. Life Coaching

The therapist-client relationship can be significantly more formal and structured than that of a life coach with their client. The therapist takes on a more directive role and clearly outlines what sorts of skills and strategies need to be learned. The relationship between a life coach and their client is usually more co-active. Coaches work with their clients as a team and in a less formal format. Both therapists and life coaches provide their client with positive reinforcement as well as emotional support.

Why Seek Therapy vs. Life Coaching

While they have some similar aspects, life coaching and therapy serve different roles. While life coaches can assist with a variety of problems from stress, to difficult relationships, the typical client of a life coach is healthier and overall,  is functioning better than those clients who are in need of therapy. In general, life coaches work with clients who are looking to improve their circumstances and achieve new goals. Therapy, on the other hand, deals more with specific and severe mental health concerns. These can include anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), personality disorders, and addictions. Therapy is also better suited for situations where there are violent or abusive relationships.

Can The Two Be Used In Conjunction?

The short answer is yes, they can. While clients may have to reach a certain level of mental health and stability to find value from a life coach, the two practices can be used in conjunction. Therapists focus more on healing from the past while life coaches focus more on goal setting and the future. The two practices complement one another and clients can benefit from seeking both forms of support.