Coaching vs therapy? What’s the difference? How do I know which one I need?

I hear these questions a good bit and I think they are important to address, because…

  • Sometimes people want to hire me as their life coach when what they really need is therapy.
  • Sometimes people who seek therapy could really benefit from coaching either instead of or in addition to therapy.

So what’s the difference between a therapist and a coach?  And when would you seek the services of each?

coaching VS therapy



According to the Mayo Clinic:

“Psychotherapy is a general term for treating mental health problems by talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider.  During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Psychotherapy helps you learn how to take control of your life and respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills.”

Therapy is mainly used to diagnose and treat mental health problems, like anxiety disorders, mood disorders, addictions, and eating disorders, although sometimes people without a diagnosable condition also seek therapy to deal with stressful events.

There are many different types of therapy.  Psychology Today has a comprehensive listing with helpful descriptions.


According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the following are signs that you could benefit from therapy… 

  • You feel an overwhelming, prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness.
  • Your problems fail to resolve or improve despite your efforts and help from family and friends.
  • You find it difficult to concentrate on work assignments or conduct everyday activities.
  • You worry excessively, expect the worst, or remain constantly on edge.
  • Your actions, such as drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, or being aggressive, harm yourself or others. 

If you imagine yourself on your life path, a therapist may be able to help you when you are feeling so hopeless or immobilized that you no longer have the capacity to move forward. A therapist’s goal is to help you heal so that you can return to functioning.   



The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

The purpose of coaching is to help clients make changes and reach their goals. Making changes can have a positive impact on one’s overall quality of life and on one’s mental health, but that’s considered a pleasant side effect or one potential outcome of coaching – not the purpose. The purpose is to achieve whatever changes the client is interested in pursuing.


According to Feroshia Knight, a coach trainer and a Master Certified Coach, you may benefit from the support of a professionally certified coach if…

  • You feel lost or confused about your purpose or next steps in life.
  • You are afraid to try something new (even though it’s something you’re genuinely interested in).
  • You feel constant stress, self-doubt and succumb to the “you shoulds” imposed by family and friends.
  • Your happiness and forward momentum are constantly derailed by limiting beliefs, old patterns, and self-sabotage.
  • You have a goal or vision but lack the focus, organization, and clarity necessary to form an action plan.
  • You want to make changes to your personal or professional life such as improvements to health and wellness, personal relationships, spirituality, career, time management, or work/life balance.
  • You procrastinate or have difficulty completing tasks from start to finish.
  • You are facing or currently going through a major life transition.

Although coaching clients are typically feeling a little stuck in a specific life area, they are still assumed to be fully functional and capable of taking action.

If you imagine yourself moving forward on your life path, a coach may be able to help you if you want someone to shine a light so you can see:

  • who you are
  • the resources you are already carrying within
  • the potential paths you could take

And once you select a path, a coach can walk along with you for a time to support you on your journey as you face and overcome any challenges that stand in your way.


So here’s the quick summary:

  • If you are not functional and you need healing –> Seek a therapist
  • If you are functional and want support for setting and reaching goals –> Seek a life coach

With that being said, these distinctions are not always crystal clear in the real world.

A therapist might also coach their clients to make changes. And it’s also very much possible for a person to need therapy and healing in one life area, but to be functional enough to benefit from coaching in another life area.

think you might benefit from coaching?

Click the button below to schedule your free introductory session! My coaching services are location-independent with all sessions conducted online via Zoom.

About the Author

Hi, I'm Anni! I'm a life and career coach for stressed out highly sensitive people. My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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