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Psychotherapist vs Life Coach: Whats the difference?

Both psychotherapy and life coaching have become more popular in recent years. In fact, you may know someone who raves about how one of these forms of self-care has helped them change their life. But what is the difference between them, and how do you know which is right for you? 

Education, Training, and Licensing Requirements

To get a clear picture of what the two fields have to offer, it helps to understand the requirements for each one.

Psychotherapist is a legally regulated title. To protect vulnerable patients from mental health care providers who aren’t qualified, practitioners are required to meet certain criteria.

They must have a post-graduate master’s or Ph.D. degree and pass a registration exam. On top of this, they must have completed at least 450 hours of client contact, with 100 hours of clinical supervision. Psychotherapists are legally bound by a code of conduct and ethics, including confidentiality rules.

On the other hand, life coaches are not required to complete any specific training or certification. There are training programs available and even certification programs, but they are not bound by any legal expectations. This may change in the future, but at this point, there is no official certification body for life coaches.

To be clear, there are life coaches who have worked hard to complete education in their area of expertise. But because the expectations aren’t standardized, it can be hard to know what kind of training to look for. 

What are the treatment expectations?

Of course, the requirements to get into the field don’t necessarily explain what it would be like to work with a coach or a therapist. There is some overlap in what they both do, but here are some guidelines about what you can expect.

Life Coaching

Put simply, a life coach is someone who can help you reach your goals, whether in your career, personal life or as an individual.  When you feel unable to get the results you want or feel frustrated with your life, coaching is the answer. A life coach can help you recognize where you’re stuck and show you exactly what needs to change when you can’t see it yourself

Career guidance isn’t the only type of life coaching that’s available. Coaches may specialize in any number of areas, including dating and relationships, finances, spirituality, diet and fitness, and even divorce. Many life coaches focus on a broader category of “life skills,” tailoring their approach to each client’s needs.

In general, life coaches will begin by interviewing the client to identify their goals and what may be blocking progress. Then they will work together to identify strengths and weaknesses. This will help them collaborate on a plan to develop needed skills and achieve specific goals. They will then work with the client as they implement the plan, helping them adjust and adapt as challenges come up.


The primary purpose of therapy is to help people who are struggling with mental illness and emotional pain. Therapy can be focused on exploring and healing trauma from the past, and many clients find this work to be helpful. However, therapy can also have practical goals.

There are many approaches to therapy, but practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) follow a similar pattern to life coaching. In CBT, a therapist and patient work together to define the patient’s goals and weaknesses, then develop a plan to make the most effective changes.

To be clear, the primary purpose of therapy will always be the mental health of the patient. Sometimes that looks like helping them develop new skills that will further their goals. At other times, it’s about helping people process trauma and grief.

Myths about the differences

Clearly, there are some points of overlap between the two practices. Because of this, understanding the differences can be confusing. Here are some myths about them that you may have heard.

  1. Life coaching focuses on the present and the future; therapy focuses on the past. Of course, therapy clients always have the option of exploring their history and how it affects them today. However, they can also opt to focus on the choices and thoughts that shape their lives today. They can work together with their therapist to learn the skills they need to make positive change.
  2. Therapy is open-ended, while life coaching works toward a specific goal on a short timeline. With some approaches, therapy can be goal-oriented and time-limited. CBT usually enables clients to see meaningful change within five to 20 sessions.
  3. Life coaching and therapy always have different goals. This can be true, depending on your goals for therapy. But you and your therapist can also work on practical skills, such as improving relationships or overcoming self-defeating habits like procrastination.
  4. Therapy is directed by the therapist, while life coaching is collaborative. Again, there is a grain of truth to this assumption. Your therapist is there to support and guide you, especially during deeply emotional moments. However, therapy is often very collaborative, especially during CBT.

Which one is right for you?

Neither therapy nor life coaching is a one-size-fits-all experience. Deciding which one will serve you best depends on your goals. If you want to develop skills in a very specific, specialized arena, such as job hunting, a life coach will probably be your best choice. Many people find coaching very helpful in getting them “unstuck” and trying new approaches to frustrating problems.

But don’t dismiss therapy just because your goals are concrete. Many therapists are also trained to help clients with life skills and are happy to work with patients for a short time toward a specific goal. It’s also worth keeping in mind that change can be unexpectedly painful, and it may be helpful to have a professional who you can explore those feelings with.

If you’re interested in working with a therapist, at Trillium Counselling, we are here to help, no matter what type of therapy you’re interested in. We have social workers and psychotherapists who are also trained to provide life coaching services. For more information or to schedule an appointment, feel free to contact us. There are many ways to find a better path to the future, and we’re happy to help you find yours. 

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