What’s the Difference Between Therapy & Life Coaching?

As someone who has gone through both life coaching and therapy (and who works as a behavioral health nurse), I know that both have completely shaped my life and the woman I am today. Although hiring a professional in either field will lead you down a path of personal development, there are key differences between the two. Which you respond best to depends on the season of life you’re in. Here are my experiences with both, and how you might determine which is the best fit for you currently.

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My experience with therapy

I saw my first therapist when I was a sophomore in high school. At the time, mental health was not something that was openly talked about between my family, school, and certainly not among my friends and me. As time went by, I began to realize just how common going to therapy was, and how important open discussions about mental health were. I didn’t realize it at the time, but even then, a large portion of my friends and family went to therapy themselves. Some had been diagnosed with various mental disorders, others went for a variety of other reasons including to learn coping skills, improve their mindset, build their identity, or simply to have an extra listening ear.

Over the years, I went to various forms of therapy, each bringing their own benefits. What type of therapy works best for someone else might not work well for you. If you are interested in going to therapy, I recommend gaining clarity as to why you want to go, and from there, find a therapist who fits your needs. Most therapists specialize in working with certain types of clients (children & adolescents, survivors of abuse, survivors of eating disorders, etc.). Most do individual sessions, and some offer group sessions as well.

Many therapists offer free initial consultations, so the two of you can determine whether or not you will be a good fit for each other. If you start seeing someone and don’t feel like you’re making progress, give it time, communicate about it directly, and consider seeing someone else. There were times when I was in therapy that I didn’t see myself making any progress. The majority of the time, my lack of progress was not related to anything my therapist was (or wasn’t) doing, but rather because I wasn’t changing my behaviors outside of our sessions. The reality is, going to therapy will more than likely help you, but unless you are willing to put the time and effort into applying what you learn, you probably won’t make much progress. 

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Benefits of therapy

One of the greatest benefits I got from my six years of regularly attending therapy was heightened self-awareness. It’s nearly impossible to create meaningful change if we don’t have an accurate understanding of who we are or how we show up in the world. A therapist can be a great sounding board to help us uncover our blind spots. It’s often hard to have an objective view of ourselves because we’re constantly living through the filter of our own minds. As someone who is both extremely empathic and extroverted, I tend to have a hard time separating my emotions, needs and wants from those around me. Going to therapy helped me learn more about myself both in the presence and absence of external influences.

Therapists have a unique role in that they have no “real” emotional connection to you. Many people find it easier to be completely vulnerable in front of a therapist than, say, their parents. Their professional role cuts out a lot of underlying relationship dynamics that often make unfiltered communication difficult between friends and family. Therapists are also experts in mental health, and can guide you as to whether or not your thought processes are rational.

Forms of therapy

ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy, was the most life-altering form of therapy I went to. A major component of ACT is self-identified personal values. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that when I feel guilty or ashamed of myself, it’s often not because I’ve done anything “wrong” per se, but rather because I’m showing up in ways that aren’t aligned with who I am or what I want to stand for. The goal is to get individuals to change their behavior through mindfulness

Dance, art and music therapy have all helped me process and communicate my life experiences with the world. These practices externalize our thoughts, feelings and emotions into “things” that can be tangibly seen by the outside world. It doesn’t matter what the end product “looks” like, because the real benefit of these practices come from us stepping into curiosity, vulnerability and self-expression. Although traditional talk therapy has been helpful, the reality is, I don’t carry a DBT handbook in front of me 24/7, and at some point, I needed to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

Related: 5 Books That’ll Help You Stick to Your New Year’s Intentions

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My experiences with life coaching

After years of regularly attending therapy, one of my mom’s friends started a life coaching business specializing in young women. Life coaching changed my life in ways that therapy never could, and I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without it.

In this day and age, there are nearly an infinite number of life coaches, each with their own niche. Different coaches across the globe have different specialities, certifications, and types of clientele. Some offer specific, pre-formatted programs, whereas others take a more individualized approach. Some offer group classes, webinars, and weekend intensives, others focus primarily on 1:1 sessions. Most coaches specialize in a specific area of personal development such as health and fitness, spirituality, creativity or career mentorship.

The majority of coaches run their businesses online, and have a large presence in the social media space. I spoke with Taylor Tosczak (@taylorthelifecoach), a holistic life coach and business mentor, who “helps individuals amplify their communication, connection and confidence so they can make an influential impact on the world.” You can clearly see Tosczak embody her message in the content she shares online.

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The differences between therapists and coaches

“A coach is having someone who sees you, believes in you and inspires you to become the best you,” Tosczak describes. “Therapy is a beautiful option for processing through thoughts, emotions, traumas and gaining more self awareness around why you are the way you are. Coaching helps you better understand who you are. They can be an impactful and beautiful complement to each other.”

Therapy gave me a better understanding of who I am and where I’ve come from. Life coaching helped me show up for and as myself. It kept me accountable for continued personal growth. My coach pointed me in the direction of other resources (books, podcasts, etc.) that were in alignment with my own personal mission. I do believe that therapy was helpful to some extent, but after a period of time, going to sessions felt like I was continuously spiraling a never-ending drain. No more pity-party talks about my emotions; I needed a kick in the butt of accountability for my actions.

Finding the right “fit” for a coach is even more important than finding one in a therapist. Coaches’ messages and programs are tailored to target the specific needs of their clients. “Coaches have walked the path that they’re guiding you through and providing you with the strength you need to walk on your own,” Tosczak shares. Unlike a therapist, coaches are often more present and readily available for clients to reach in between sessions. There’s not a professional boundary that exists in a traditional therapist-client relationship; many coaches also take on the role of friend to their clients. 

The role of a coach is more like that of an older brother or sister. Someone you can look up to as a role model, but who isn’t afraid to continue to push you further. Not every coach will take a “tough love” approach, but investing in a coach will literally do nothing except drain your wallet unless you take the initiative to put their wisdom to action.

Although many of the principles personal development books share are the same ones taught by coaches (a lot of coaches themselves release tons of free materials), individual sessions make applying these skills 100 times easier. The benefits will come much faster by investing in individual coaching. Coaches help you decipher which of these universal principles are most applicable, timely and relevant for your individual goals, needs and lifestyle.

The bottom line: comparing my experiences

In my experience, I think it was important that I go to therapy prior to investing in a life coach. As a teenager, I don’t think I had a strong enough grasp on how to process my life, thoughts, and emotions. I needed to build a steady tool kit of coping skills before I could really reap the benefits coaching gave me. The moment I started working with my coach, I experienced a substantial increase in confidence. My productivity skyrocketed in school, relationships and physical/mental health. I oddly felt like all aspects of my life were easier, even though I was “working harder” than ever before. My coach helped me step into my power and live in alignment.

I believe that the best investment anyone can ever make is to invest in themselves. Both therapy and life coaching are ways to do that, although they do fulfill different needs. At the end of the day, our intuition is our greatest source of insight. If seeing a therapist is something you’re considering, go for it. If you’re wondering about investing in a coach, please do. If someone's message particularly speaks to you, they’re probably a good fit. 

Curious about where to find a life coach or therapist of your own? Check out Noomii, the world’s largest online directory for finding life and business coaches. Also check out BetterHelp, the largest e-counseling platform, which makes going to therapy more accessible and easier than ever before.

Special thanks to holistic life coach Taylor Tosczak for speaking with me. Follow her on Instagram, or check out her website here.

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