Life coach vs therapist: What is the best option for me?

So what are the differences and similarities between a life coach vs therapist? And what do you need? A life coach or a therapist? Although the question is pretty straightforward, its answer in today’s era unfortunately is not. And there are a couple of reasons for this.

Life coach vs. therapist: 4 typical confusion points

I listed a few reasons why it is difficult to explain the differences and similarities between a life coach vs therapist,

  1. It’s not a protected profession. Probably the most well-known reason: there are currently no legal restrictions surrounding the title of life coach or therapist. Basically, anyone can call themselves a life coach or therapist, and there is a whole diverse spectrum of them out there. This can lead to confusion.
  2. Practitioners practise different models: Out of all of those life coaches and therapists out there, each of them can practice a different model (e.g. ABA, RFT, FC, CBT, DBT, NLP, ACT, FACT, TFACT etc). And these are just a few models I am familiar with, there are many more out there. The model a practitioner practices is not exclusive to a profession. For example, a life coach can follow applied behaviour analysis (ABA) principles, but so can a therapist. This can lead to confusion.
  3. Models can be integrative or transdiagnostic: Some of these models, like Trauma-Focused Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (TFACT) have a very integrative approach. This means that they piggyback on other models, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish what is what. This can lead to confusion.
  4. Variety in experience and qualifications: Practitioners – whether they call themselves a life coach or therapist – all have different experiences, qualifications, and training. Back in the early days – before information wasn’t so readily accessible – it would have been more common for a practitioner to have been specialised in one single domain, for example Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is a typical life coach model, but it’s not exclusive to life coaches. Also, CBT therapists can use techniques from a NLP toolkit. But what you see more often nowadays, is that some practitioners can have quite a diverse, extensive and complementary set of training and qualifications and experience. This can lead to confusion.

How to better approach the life coach vs. therapist question

By looking into what experience, training, and qualifications a practitioner has got to offer, you will get a better understanding of whether this person is potentially a good match for you.  On purpose, I put better understanding here and not total understanding. You can only get total understanding or reassurance that you have picked the right person and made the right decision by exposing yourself to a specific practitioner (and the models that come along with this person). Similar to Wilko’s Pick and Mix, you know which sweets you like and dislike because you tried them in the past. Via exposure, you know what to get and what to avoid next time. In a way, choosing a practitioner is similar. Perhaps you already know what kind of models or qualifications you value because you have come across them before. This can help you to make a decision.

Answering the question from a coach & ACT practitioners’ point of view

Being a life coach and an ACT therapist, my answer on whether there are any differences and similarities between a life coach vs therapist is perhaps an interesting one. Interesting, because I see myself as an amalgamation of the two. I started as a life coach, and still am a coach, but now weave the model of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy into the life coaching services that I offer. One of them leans more on the future, the other more so on the future. And the way I see it, the two models complement each other.  And there are other individuals and companies out there that think the same, companies like Contextual Consulting, for example. 

Three interweaving strands of behavioural change

Three interweaving strands in coaching and therapy

Simplifying things, you could say that three interweaving strands apply to all psychotherapy/ coaching/ therapy work; these are:

  • Healing from the past
  • Living in the present
  • Building the future

Healing from the past

Healing from the past is more so the domain of psychotherapists and counsellors. How the past has shaped your present thoughts, feelings and behaviour. These practitioners work with this history to try to improve your current life. 

Living in the present

The emphasis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy lies very much on living in the present, but this is very much connected to building the future. The ability to live in the present is important because it very much affects your ability to make plans for the future and commit to actions today that build that very same future. Living in the present helps people centre themselves, catch themselves when they are disassociating or disengaging, so they can refocus again on the things that matter, the things that need following up. For instance, changing your habits starts off with becoming more self-aware of the cues – triggers – that put the habit in motion.  Once you become more self-aware, you can more mindfully interrupt the cue. Learning to be more present, paying attention to what works and doesn’t work, and becoming better at noticing what you’re doing on a daily basis is one of the core skills you will learn with ACT.  Bringing the unhelpful subconscious behaviours more to the surface, so you’re conscious of them and can find alternative responses to them. 

Building the future

The focus of life coaching lies very much in the realm of building the future, but also leans on living in the present. It includes a toolkit of exercises to make sense of where you are now and give you an insight and impetus where you want to go; outside your comfort zone. 

A coach or therapist: What is the best option for me?

I hope this information helped you a bit in figuring out the differences and similarities between a life coach vs therapist. And if you’re looking to find one, good luck with making that decision. The life coach directory and ACT directory can definitely assist in that. But I would advise you is to look beyond the typical life coach vs therapist paradigm. Instead, look into what experience, training, and qualifications they have to offer and base your decision on that.


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