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Coach vs. Therapist

We all need a little help sometimes, especially when it comes to journeys of self-discovery. Whether your goal is to be more confident or to find fulfillment in a passion project, it can be pretty tough to figure out how to get from point A (identifying a goal) to point B (actually going after and achieving that goal). That's where a life coach comes in. Like a therapist, a life coach is someone who can help you identify strengths and weaknesses and overcome obstacles holding you back. But who you should see depends on your issues and what you're hoping to achieve. So here’s what you need to know before you reach out.

What Does a Life Coach do?

Well, you know what a sports coach does: They help an individual or team identify a goal (i.e. winning) and then they develop a plan for that person or group. It’s pretty straightforward—and the same holds true for life coaching. Think of them like an action-oriented mentor who can help you reach your goals.

Life coaching focuses on what's happening right now, what a person wants next, and how that gap can be bridged.

Coaching is about helping people to identify the obstacles that keep getting in their way, assisting them with finding motivation, and pinpointing any resistance to change. A life coach is a broad term. You can also find business coaches, executive coaches, leadership coaches, and health coaches, but a life coach is typically most helpful when you’re thinking about your overall future.

Coaching is really centered on four things:

  • Helping someone expand an idea

  • helping someone understand what their present experience is with mindfulness

  • exploring mindsets to help someone ‘see’ options differently

  • helping someone understand personal value and belief systems, and how these show up in all areas of our lives

How is a Life Coach different from a therapist?

Coaching can be therapeutic, but there are some major differences between life coaching and therapy. A coach looks at your present to help you create the future you desire, while a therapist looks at your past to help you manage your present.

A session with a life coach will feel a lot different than one with a therapist—one provides structure and accountability while the other is more open-ended. Coaching sessions are very directive—clients complete questionnaires to identify goals and always have homework to accomplish between sessions. A coach is learning what they have or haven’t done since our last session.

In therapy sessions, clients decide which direction they would like to go in, and conversation is usually determined by how they’re feeling in that moment, any insights they gained since the last session, and what people or events may have triggered their feelings.

Life coaching sessions tend to be more direct.

You’re also not going to go to a life coach and get a diagnosis. A licensed therapist is someone who has been trained, gained clinical hours they diagnose disorders, have the skills and tools to work with traumas, and work with short-term behavioral modifications.

So which one is right for you?

Actually, you don’t have to choose—it’s totally fine to see both. A good rule of thumb is that if your issues are disrupting your personal or professional life, you should consider working with a therapist (although you don’t necessarily have to be going through a huge life event to benefit from therapy).

Many people seek coaching after or alongside therapy, as it builds upon the healing that can take place in the therapy process. The important thing to keep in mind is that the two shouldn’t overlap, and a life coach won't address clinical issues. A great life coach will know the boundaries of coaching and will refer you to a therapist if and when clinical work is needed.

Excerpts from The Oprah Magazine article "A Life Coach isn't a Therapist, But This is What They Do".

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