Life coach vs. therapist

One of the most common misconceptions about life coaching is that it is therapy in disguise or worse yet –therapy from an unlicensed practitioner. In reality, life coaching is truly its own unique service designed to help ambitious achievers meet the outcomes that will bring them success and fulfillment in any and all areas of life. Here are some of the differences between a life coach vs. therapist and a basic guide for when each service is appropriate.

Defining terms: life coach vs. therapist

What is therapy? Therapy, also called counseling or psychotherapy, is a long-term process in which a client works with a healthcare professional to diagnose and resolve problematic beliefs, behaviors, relationship issues, feelings and sometimes physical responses. The idea behind therapy is to focus on past traumas and issues to change self-destructive habits, repair and improve relationships and work through painful feelings. In this sense, therapy focuses on the past and on introspection and analysis, with the hope of resolving past issues and creating a happier, more stable future. 

What is life coaching? In life coaching, a client works with a coach who is not a healthcare professional to clarify goals and identify obstacles and problematic behaviors in order to create action plans to achieve desired results. The main way that a life coach vs. therapist works is that the life coach takes the client’s current starting point as an acceptable neutral ground and is more action-based from that point onward. A life coach enables the person receiving treatment to take control of their life and take action to steer it toward their goals.

Get results starting right now with Tony’s priming exercise

Learn About Priming
Differences between life coaches and therapists

Although life coaches and therapists occasionally help clients with similar problems, their work is not the same. Here are the main differences between a life coach and therapist.

Difference one:

Focus of the program

The focus of life coaching is one of the main things that distinguishes it from therapy. Life coaches identify and describe current problematic behaviors so the client can work to modify them. Therapists analyze their client’s past as a tool for understanding present behaviors. In other words, therapists focus on “why” certain behavioral patterns occur, and coaches work on “how” to work toward a goal.

Therapy will focus on your thoughts and feelings and how they are informed by your past. Life coaching may touch on these concepts as you break down your limiting beliefs and examine your blueprint, but its ultimate focus is always on the present and the future.

Difference two:

Goals of the program

When you look at a coaching vs. counseling practice, it’s important to recognize that counseling helps clients explore and understand their subconscious and unconscious mind. It aims to reach a deep understanding of behaviors and patterns with a goal of overall mental health. This is why counseling and therapy can be helpful for issues like depression and anxiety.

The goal of life coaching is to help you get “unstuck.” Life coaching is about action and results. Life coaches measure their client’s success with key performance indicators and specific behavioral outcomes. They’ll help you set SMART goals, provide accountability and celebrate your wins – all on the road to achieving your dreams.

Difference three:


While both life coaching and therapy use talk sessions with a trained professional. Many of the similarities in how they are organized end there. Therapy involves more unstructured sessions that are guided by the client as well as the type of therapy. Life coaching sessions are much more structured and focused on actionable strategies and visible growth.

The duration of the services also varies. Therapy tends to be a long-term commitment – many people go to therapy for years or even their entire lives. The main difference between a life coach and therapist is that a life coach sets clients up with the process and skills they need to eventually coach themselves. Life coaching isn’t meant to be forever. Life coaches also do not diagnose the people they work with, while therapists determine illnesses and pathologies so their patients can be clinically treated.

Click for full size infographic.

What's the difference between a coach and a therapist? Check out our infographic.

Want to share this on your website?

Just copy & paste this code where you want it:

Similarities between a life coach vs. therapy

While the answer to “What is therapy?” is very different from what a life coach does, there are some similarities. Both work to enable clients to make positive changes in their lives and become more productive. While therapists diagnose and treat from a healthcare perspective, not all therapy clients are ill; many healthy people seek the services of both therapists and life coaches. Therapists may work with specific results in mind, such as the cessation of a particular problematic behavior.

Despite occasional areas of overlap, the work and processes of therapists and life coaches are distinct.

When to seek out a life coach vs. therapist

Naturally, the decision to seek out a life coach vs. a therapist is a very personal one. It might help to imagine yourself getting ready to climb a mountain. You could either hire an expert sherpa and guide for your expedition or a doctor. Which will you choose? Which one will be most helpful during your specific journey?

If you are physically unwell or would be in danger if you even attempted the climb, a sherpa and guide wouldn’t do you any good. You need to be at a baseline level of good health before you can make the climb at all if you’re not, you might need to see the doctor before trying something that challenging. However, if you’re healthy and just need someone to help you with climbing strategy, carrying the load of supplies and finding the best path, the sherpa and guide is the best bet.

Coaching vs. counseling

Coaching vs. counseling is similar to this example. The therapist is the doctor. They get you well enough to take on major challenges in your life by exploring your mental and emotional well-being. The life coach is the sherpa and guide. They have an expert knowledge of your climb and can help you reach the summit.

A life coach offers guidance by helping clients:

Clarify and achieve personal and professional goals

Create business plans

Work to improve communication skills

Achieve financial independence and security

Achieve a work/life balance

Start a new business or growing a current business

traits of an entrepreneur

A therapist, on the other hand, focuses their conversation on ways to:

Recover from past traumas

Explore why past relationships (business or personal) have been destructive

Work through depression or anxiety that affects the ability to function at home or work

Survive a divorce or loss of a loved one

In order to get the right kind of professional expertise, it is crucial to understand how a life coach vs. therapist are different. Do you need a therapist, or do life coaching services better suit you? Whatever you choose, remember that life coaching is more than a watered-down version of therapy. It is a dynamic discipline designed to help inspire people to achieve more than they believe is possible.

Ready to achieve real results?

Tony Robbins Results Coaches help you find your vision, focus and get results. Discover what you’re capable of with a coach.