Life Coaches vs. Counselors: What’s the Difference?

With life coaching having grown considerably in popularity in recent decades, it might leave you wondering what all the hype is about and what a life coach does. More specifically, you might be wondering what the difference is between a life coach vs. a counselor (a.k.a., therapist). 

Your questioning is warranted, because there are a lot of similarities between the two professions; but there are also some key differences, ones that should be considered before deciding which type of professional to work with.

I’ll start by addressing the similarities and taking a look at some of the basic things you can expect from a therapist or life coach—what they can help you with, what a session will be like, etc. Then I’ll go into the differences, discussing what makes each one unique so you can decide which will be the right one for you.


Purpose and Proficiencies

When you come to therapy or life coaching sessions, it’s because you want change whether that change is to overcome anxiety or to take your career to the next level—or anything else in between. 

The purpose of both life coaching and therapy is to help you achieve that change and make your life more pleasant and successful, whatever that might look like for you. As such, both life coaches and therapists can help you overcome obstacles and challenges, deal with transition and change, and even become more emotionally and relationally fulfilled.

Moreover, a good coach or therapist will give you tools for success and will help you develop the skills and proficiencies you need in order to achieve your desired change. These tools could be as simple as helpful information or as involved as certain exercises and practices designed to help you develop insights or unlock your potential. 

Similarly, the proficiencies they help you develop can take various forms, such as cognitive reframing techniques (to help you shift your perspective) to behavioral modification techniques (to help you achieve your goals) to networking techniques (to help you build connections that will foster success).

Basically, coaches and counselors do for your mind, career, and relationships what physicians and personal trainers do for your body.

Session Format

Most coaching and counseling sessions will be conducted in a similar manner. The topics of discussion might vary widely, as might some of the techniques used, but, for the most part, sessions will be conversation-based: you talk with your coach (or counselor) to work through your challenges and work towards your desired change. This can be done in groups or in one-on-one sessions.

An important part of this conversational format is honesty and trust between the coach and the coachee (or the counselor and the client). After all, if you’re going to be working through deeply personal issues, you’ll need to be honest with your coach (counselor) about what those issues are so that you can deal with them effectively, and you’ll need to trust that your coach (counselor) will be respectful of you and your issues. In fact, the strength of this coaching (counseling) relationship just might be the most important factor in seeing success from your sessions.


Licensing and Education

Arguably, the most notable difference between life coaches vs. counselors is in their educational and licensing requirements. Therapy is a regulated field, meaning that therapists must be licensed in order to practice, and they must follow various rules and guidelines (e.g., ethics, codes of conduct, HIPAA regulations). 

Life coaching, on the other hand, is not a regulated field, meaning that anyone can be a life coach, no license necessary. That being said, there are schools and certifying organizations that offer certifications for life coaches; it may be a good idea to get such a certification as it may help you get clients, especially if you don’t yet have many years of experience to put on your résumé.

To meet the extensive licensing requirements, and to be educated enough in the field to provide effective counseling for mental health issues, therapists must be highly educated; most have at least a master’s degree in psychology or social work. Moreover, therapists often specialize in certain areas (e.g., grief, eating disorders, PTSD) and will have quite a bit of expertise on those topics.

While some life coaches may have a similar educational background, this is neither required nor necessary. Others may simply be educated from the school of life, which is one of the best when it comes to gaining practical wisdom. (After all, Tony Robbins, arguably the most successful and well-known life coach and motivational speaker, never attended college.) 

Furthermore, life coaches may not have as much topic-specific expertise as therapists do, but that’s not as important for coaching. After all, a career coach can’t be an expert in the career field of each of their clients; instead, their expertise is in equipping their clients with the tools they need to succeed and in helping them be the person they need to be to make that success happen. A coach’s job is to help find solutions, not to give answers.

Topics Covered in Sessions

Therapists are trained to deal with mental illness. As such, therapy sessions can address topics like depression, anxiety, OCD, and more. They may also cover topics like fulfillment, personal growth, well-being, and relational health. Life coaches, on the other hand, are neither trained nor certified to treat mental illness. Most coaches will instead cover topics concerning growth and success, such as achieving your goals, growing in your business/career, finding your purpose, and deepening your relationships.

Within these broad areas, individual therapists and coaches might be quite specialized. For example, a therapist may be specialized in treating bereavement-related depression or school-related anxiety. A life coach may specialize in mid-life career transition or in self-discovery for young adults. So see who’s out there and who’s best equipped to help you with specifically what you need.

Focus of Sessions

In addition to the topics that are covered, counseling vs. life coaching differ in how they approach topics—that is, in what they focus on during sessions. Counseling is more problem-focused, whereas coaching is more solution-focused. 

Counseling typically involves dealing with issues from your past (loss, trauma, etc.) that are causing you distress or dysfunction (depression, anxiety, etc.) in the present. Coaching, on the other hand, generally deals with finding ways to get you from where you are to where you want to be; it’s focused on finding present solutions to help you have the future you want.

Goal of Sessions 

Lastly, and similar to the different focus of counseling vs. life coaching sessions, therapy is more oriented towards health and healing, whereas coaching is more oriented towards growth and success. You can think of it as a survive vs. thrive objective: counselors aim to help you be healthy and functional in your daily life (survive), whereas coaches aim to help you find the abundant and successful life you desire (thrive).

Final Remarks

There can be a lot of overlap when it comes to life coaching vs. counseling. The format of sessions will be pretty similar (i.e., conversation-based), they will address some of the same topics (e.g., growth, transition, relationships), and the techniques used to address those topics may be similar (e.g., information, exercises). Moreover, while both aim to achieve positive life change, the goal of that life change is slightly different (i.e., survive vs. thrive) and the way topics are addressed can also be different (i.e., problem-focused vs. solution-focused).

The big difference is that a therapist can treat mental illness; their goal is to make you healthy. So if you struggle with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or something else, we recommend that you seek out a counselor who’s trained and specialized in that area. A life coach, on the other hand, has a goal of seeing you thrive, of taking your life to the next level. So if you’re unhappy with where your life is but aren’t necessarily struggling with mental health, check out a life coach.

To conclude, an analogy might help: counselors are to physical therapists what life coaches are to personal trainers. If you’re physically injured and need help rehabilitating in order to perform daily activities, you’d see a physical (or occupational) therapist; similarly, if you’re mentally ill and need to work through trauma/depression/anxiety/etc. in order to function in your daily life, you’d see a counselor. On the other hand, if you’re in good enough physical condition to be active and mobile but want to take your fitness or sports performance to the next level, you’d work with a personal trainer; similarly, if you’re mentally healthy enough to function in daily life but want to take your happiness or goals or career to the next level, you’d work with a life coach.

If that’s you today—if you’re looking to boost your career, or discover your purpose, or pursue some new goals—check out our online life coaches at ZentasticFit. You’ll get all the same great coaching as with in-person sessions, but with the ease and convenience of doing it virtually from your own home and on your time and your terms.


By Dustin R. Meriwether

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