If you’ve been perusing Google trying to find a good therapist for yourself, you may have stumbled across a few ads for a “Life Coach.” Their website may have looked remarkably similar to that of a psychologist or counselor. Is there a difference? Or are these two terms interchangeable?
Not really. One difference can be gleaned from the terms themselves.
“Therapists” focus on providing therapy, i.e. helping someone who is experiencing mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression.
“Life Coaches” employ coaching, helping individuals who are basically symptom-free to gain life skills that will help them become more successful, like assertiveness or self confidence.
Therapist or Life Coach: what's the difference?
Is there a lot of overlap between therapy and coaching? You bet!
The same skills that help troubled individuals lose symptoms can assist untroubled individuals to become more self-actualized.
But there is another difference that is more important to understand. Therapists must be formally trained, examined, licensed, and subjected to ongoing oversight; Life Coaches can self-designate with no formal training or third-party scrutiny.
Does this mean that all therapists are more skilled than life coaches? Not at all. Especially if you are working on self-improvement alone, a skilled life coach may be a better fit for you and your needs. But the phrase “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) certainly applies more to the process of selecting a life coach than selecting a licensed therapist.
Training required for therapists vs Life Coaches
A licensed therapist has already been vetted by a series of third parties and deemed to be worthy of a license to practice their profession. There is usually a continuing education requirement, and their ongoing behavior is subject to review by a state-appointed board. Finally, by virtue of having slogged through several years of formal training in a state-certified graduate school, they’ve demonstrated an enduring interest in mental health and wellness.
A good Life Coach may have attended a training program and may have years of experience. On the other hand, they may have decided to become a life coach last week after having failed as a car salesman! They may believe themselves to know the secret to a happy life, and a desire to spread that information… but their skill level has never been assessed by a third party. There is no formal education nor any standardized, state-run examination required.
With zero training, you can advertise yourself as a lumberjack, a webmaster, or a life coach without getting in trouble with the law.
In contrast, nurses, realtors, and professional counselors must complete formal training and licensure before they can identify themselves as such. The names of their professions are called “protected terms.”
The restriction against casual use of the term is in place to protect the public from unscrupulous “posers.”
By the way, the term “therapist” is not in itself a protected term. Instead, it describes a class of different professions: psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed professional counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, social workers, licensed chemical dependency counselors, and a few other professions in some states. Each of these terms ARE protected: for example, it is a violation of the law to say that you are a social worker if you are not thus licensed. Each of these professions requires the professional to prominently display their license in their primary work place. (Now you know why, in cartoons, therapists are most often depicted with a license over their heads!)
So, for example, if the helper you select describes herself or himself as a psychologist, and you don’t see a license with a state seal on the wall that confirms that assertion, caveat emptor! Ask to see it, and if you detect hesitation or back-pedaling, put on your running shoes!
Licenses vs. certifications
One final note: some people are confused by the two terms “certified” and “licensed.” They are not the same!
Only the state can issue a license; any person or organization, including a sketchy one, can issue a certificate.
Some therapists choose to obtain additional certifications in specialized techniques from well-respected training facilities, but only a separate license grants them the right to practice those techniques as a therapist.
Don’t believe me about the difference? Try this: next time the police pull you over, try flashing the “certificate of good driving” issued by your book club instead of showing your state-issued driver’s license. You’ll get a free ride in a police car!