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Life Coach, Counselor, Therapist: What's the Difference?

If your goal is better emotional health, you have to know your mental health professionals. The internet and social media has ushered in one supposed “expert” after another, and you want to make sure you’re not handing your sanity to an amateur --- or worse, a poser. Expertise in mental health is one of the easiest to fake; anyone who’s ever had life experiences (which just about covers everyone!) can claim they can help you work towards happiness and abundance. Yikes!

In particular, let’s take a look at the differences among life coaches, counselors and therapists. You want to knock on the door of the professional whose services are most appropriate to your needs.

Gray Areas

First off, it’s easy to understand why many people get confused regarding each professional’s role. Their services all fall within the mental health field --- that is, dealing with thoughts, emotions and behavior. Expectedly, there’ll be overlap in the nature of their work, techniques that they use, and theories they subscribe to. There are overlaps in their clientele as well. Issues that you can take to a life coach, for example, may be consulted to counselors and therapists as well. So don’t worry if some literature makes you feel like they’re all the same.

Life Coaching

Life Coaching is a professional relationship aimed at enhancing the personal, professional and relational lives of people without significant mental health conditions. At its basic, life coaches work under the assumption that their clients are normal, everyday folks who do not suffer from any clinical mental health issues like major depression or anxiety disorders. Life Coaches also assume that their clients are more than capable of solving their problems on their own; they just need a “coach” to guide them right direction. Their work is purely educative and supportive; that is, they don’t diagnose mental health problems.  Instead, they maintain a positive, proactive orientation and help clients set goals towards desired behavioral change. They often borrow techniques from motivational speaking and sports psychology. Issues that life coaches can help with are extensive, from lack of motivation at work to help in goal-setting.


Unlike life coaching, psychotherapists handle clients with mental health conditions. It may be said that psychotherapists, compared to life coaches, handle clients who are more troubled and possibly needed intensive attention. Issues you can consult to psychotherapists include, but are not limited to, obsessive-compulsive behavior, major depression, emotional eating, stress and trauma.  

Most psychotherapists apply the criteria provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Conditions – 4th Edition (DSM-IV) when diagnosing client concerns. While life coaching is mostly teaching-oriented, psychotherapy is curative (provides a cure, hence the term “therapy”) and may even delve into issues not within a client’s immediate awareness. Techniques psychotherapists employ are many and varied; in fact, it’s not unusual that several approaches are used to provide help for one condition. Some of the more popular means of psychotherapy includes the use of cognitive-behavioral techniques (managing thoughts and patterns of trigger-response), psychoanalysis (analyzing childhood roots of behavior and unconscious needs), reality therapy (teaching clients to identify and go after what they really, really want), Gestalt therapy (looking at the whole instead of parts) and systemic therapy (analysis of relational dynamics that cause or maintain problem behaviors.)


Those not working within the mental health field are probably most familiar with counseling. Counseling may be considered as the middle ground between life coaching and psychotherapy, and uses techniques and methodologies borrowed from both fields.

Counselors can handle both non-clinical clients who just need information and a listening ear to become more actualized individuals and those can diagnosed mental health conditions --- although it’s usually psychotherapists who take care of the more serious, deep-seated and chronic issues. The bulk of techniques used by counselors fall within the category of what are called “talking techniques.” They listen attentively, acknowledge thoughts, feelings and experiences, and guide clients towards an action plan that they desire.

If their roles confuse you, it’s alright. You can always opt for a pre-appointment inquiry with the professional of your choice to ask if they’re the appropriate person for your concern. Mental health practitioners are ethically bound to refer clients to the right professional if issues presented to them don’t fall within their field. It’s usually the seriousness of the concern, and the preferences of clients, that decide which professional is most appropriate. Just don’t forget: regardless of whom you go to, credentials matters! There’s nothing wrong in asking your mental health-service provider first what they can offer you.

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