What’s the Difference Between a Therapist and a Coach?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “What’s the difference between a therapist and a life coach?” It’s a great question, and there’s no wonder that there’s a lot of confusion out there about it.

I once paraphrased a comedian who compared coffee and wine to different types of therapists. I like to compare coffee and wine to coaches and therapists. Coffee is like a life coach. It gets you moving and says “Alright, buddy. Get out there! You can do this. The only thing stopping you is you!” Wine is like a therapist. It says, “You’ve done everything you can. Your best is good enough. Let’s explore what’s causing you to lose faith. We can take it easy.”

(Side note: you’ll notice I typically don’t use the term “life coach”. I find it kind of cheesy and borderline insulting — more on that another time. You’ll see “life coach” show up on my Web site occasionally, but this is primarily for search engine optimization.)

The analogy really is a joke, but it does help clarify the different roles. As a psychotherapist and counselor as well as a life coach, I have had to make clear the distinction between the two for myself, as well as my clients.

Life coaching is for psychologically healthy, high-functioning individuals who would like assistance achieving a goal. Usually, that goal is specific. It can be something like increasing income, building a business, writing a book, or losing weight. There are, however, instances where self-esteem and confidence would be appropriate life coaching goals. Typically, life coaching involves more contact with the coach outside of the typical 30-minute session. This is usually through e-mail. Some coaches will also bring in accountability check-ins where they follow up with what you said you would do. (It’s worth mentioning that there’s controversy in the value of accountability. Not all coaches adhere to this principle.) Life coaching is more guided and directed than therapy. Life coaching is not covered by insurance, except for a few Employee Assistance Programs. Coaching is usually for a set period of time. Clients often purchase packages of coaching sessions.

Counseling (sometimes called psychotherapy or therapy) has a different come-from than coaching. Counseling is designed to treat a specific, usually diagnosable problem that a client is experiencing. Counseling is a heavily regulated field that requires permission from the state (whether it be a license or registration) to operate. The time frame of therapy is usually open-ended, and concludes when the symptoms of psychological difficulty subside. Examples of counseling goals might be to cope with the loss of a spouse or a child, manage depression and anxiety so that they do not interfere with daily life, or severe psychological disturbances such as hearing voices, hallucinating, or suicidal thoughts. Counseling often deals with unconscious motivators and events from the past in an effort to bring peace of mind to the present.

You can think of life coaching and counseling similar to how you’d think of an NFL football coach and physical therapist. The footbal coach is there to make the team better so that it can win a game. A successful coach looks at what’s missing from the game, rather than what’s wrong. He isn’t there to help swimmers learn how to play football. He’s already working with highly-skilled football athletes to make them better.

On a football team, however, you might have a physical therapist. The therapist is there to assist a player in recovering from an injury. If your ankle is broken, you might have to sit out from the game for a season and take some extra care so that you can heal. After the healing, you’ll be ready to get back in the game.

Both counseling and coaching are valuable tools. One is not better than the other. In fact, they’re often difficult to compare. Confusion arises when one fails to understand the purpose of each, and most of us will need either a life coach or a therapist (sometimes both concurrently) in our lifetime. The key to maximizing results is understanding the services that each provide.

As a coach and counselor in Denver, Colorado, I provide both coaching and counseling. If you’re looking for a coach or counselor, I am happy to have a free consult with you to determine what would work best for you. I also have an extensive referral list of coaches and counselors nationwide.

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

2727 Bryant St. #104
Denver, CO 80211


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