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What’s The Difference Between Counseling, Therapy and Life Coaching?

With so many modalities for healing and growth now available, it can be hard to determine which approach is the right one for you. Let's figure it out!

One of the most commonly held misconceptions about life coaching is that it’s just another form of therapy. And it’s easy to understand why. People who seek out life coaches, therapists, and counselors are all linked by the common desire to make progress in their lives.

While practitioners in each of these areas do share some overlapping tools, there are very real differences between them. Depending upon where you are starting from, as well as the end result you’re looking for, those differences can be significant.

Let’s break it down!


“Therapy” has become a catchall term that runs the gamut of mental health services and techniques. In reality, a therapist is trained in the workings of the human mind, and has a particular license to practice psychotherapy. These professionals have undergone advanced training, usually at the master’s or doctoral level.

A therapist is who you’d see if you want to take a deep inward dive.

Therapists help explore and process the events and influences of your past, and how those experiences may be shaping your behavior in the present.

A therapist is also who you’d want to check in with if you are experiencing emotional or behavior challenges that interfere with your ability to function at your best.

Therapists are licensed to treat mental illnesses using psychotherapeutic methods, and help their clients achieve and maintain baseline mental health. Psychotherapy includes treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other diagnosable conditions.

Only therapists and counselors are qualified to determine and diagnose mental illnesses. 


Counseling is similar to therapy in many ways, but is generally considered a shorter-term intervention than working with a therapist.

Mental health counselors often utilize psychotherapy methods, and they also pay attention to a client’s past to help understand the client’s present behavior and mental state. Like therapists, counselors are also licensed, and can be found in various fields including schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, mental health clinics, and social service agencies.

A mental health counselor is who you'd turn to when there's a specific issues that's hindering you.

Counselors are trained to support clients experiencing psychological illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and can also help people work through emotional problems, self-esteem issues, alcohol and substance abuse, and marital challenges.

While therapy is typically conducted in one-on-one sessions, counseling is common in both one-on-one as well as in peer group settings.

Life Coaching

There are many different types of coaches practicing today. Here at Lumia, we train coaches representing a wide range of specialties: executive coaches, fitness coaches, self-love coaches, couples coaching, writing coaches, and more! While the interests and niches that coaches serve may be diverse, there are common threads that run through all forms of coaching. 

Unlike counseling or therapy, coaching assumes a baseline level of emotional wellness, and focuses on the present and on co-creating the future.

Here’s where coaching clearly diverges from mental health counseling. Coaches generally don't spend a great deal of time exploring the past. Instead, they primarily work with clients to define a future vision, and develop a tactical action plan to achieve specific goals.

Choose a coach when you want to add some rocket fuel to the process of achieving your goals, aspirations, and dreams.

A good coach understands theories and models of change, and brings tools for self-inquiry, focus, and accountability to the table. The coach’s techniques are similar to a therapist’s in that they are research and evidence-based, and rooted in positive psychology.

A therapist explores the question “How did you get here?”
The coach will ask: “Where are you headed?”

Professional Training

Another significant difference between therapists, counselors, and coaches has to do with the level of training required to legally practice under these titles. Counselors and therapists must meet certain educational and licensing requirements before they can work with clients. Coaching, on the other hand, is largely unregulated. 

What does this mean? Simply put: your neighbor can wake up tomorrow morning, say she is a life coach, and start a business. There’s nothing stopping her from doing so if people are willing to pay for her services.

There is no universal standard for what it means to call yourself a coach. 

So how do you know who is actually qualified to coach? 

This is where the International Coach Federation comes into play. The ICF is a non-government organization dedicated to professional coaching. And with the number of coaches growing every year, clients are learning the importance of seeking coaches who have been certified through an ICF accredited coach training program like what we offer through Lumia's life coach training program.

When choosing a coach, do your homework.  You’ll want to see that they have invested in reputable training and ongoing education, and possess proven skills that will help you achieve your goals. 

Which One Is Right for You?

To be clear, there is no right or wrong choice. There are many types of therapy, diverse forms of counseling, and a vast array of talented coaches out there. Only you can determine whether to seek out a therapist, a counselor, or a coach. 

Some questions for consideration might include:

  • Are you struggling with strong or dysregulated emotions on a regular basis, or experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression? A therapist could be the place to start.
  • Are you hoping to work through a challenging experience or addiction with peer support? Group counselling might be a good fit.
  • Do you want support defining a goal, putting an action plan in place, and an accountability partner to help you achieve it? Coaching is the ticket!

Coaching, therapy and counseling are all investments in your growth, and should result in increased life satisfaction. As with any investment, do your homework.

Research the different modalities and approaches. Understand how each service functions, and what you can expect. Explore practitioners’ websites and social media to discover whose style and approach feels like a good fit with your personality and needs.

Schedule a series of complimentary sessions with therapists, counselors, or coaches that appeal to you. Talk through what you are looking to achieve, and find out how they can serve you.

From there, listen to your gut. Your intuition is the real deal, and can be a very helpful screening tool! The more you listen, the louder it gets.

Want to Be A Coach?

Launch your coaching career the right way! Check out the Lumia's Life Coach Training - a program that's every bit as unique as you are. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world of coaching.

Lumia Coaching: Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.

[Free Guide] 6 Steps to Start Coaching Today

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Lumia is accredited by the ICF as a Level 2 Pathway Program. Want to learn more about the ICF credential requirements? Click here for further details.