What’s the difference between life coaching and therapy?

By Dr. Murray Erlich

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As a retired psychiatrist and current life coach, I’m often asked what the difference is between the two approaches, and I love the opportunity to answer this because there is a fair bit of confusion between the two, and a general lack of understanding surrounding coaching. 

 I describe the difference between therapy and coaching in this way: Therapy focuses more on fixing problems while coaching’s focus is more about shaping possibilities. Think of a garden. Therapy is like weeding the garden. Coaching, instead, looks at this garden and asks, “What do we want this garden to be?” Coaching focuses on the vision for the garden, planting the particular flowers you’d like to enjoy, and figuring out how to make those flowers and plants thrive through the right nourishment.

 I encourage coaching clients to think of their lives this way, and take the approach of designing their “garden.” Some elements take time to foster and grow, while others can be acted on and implemented quickly. Coaching helps people define what those elements are, and how to achieve them in a manageable and positive way.

 Understanding the differences between coaching and therapy can help you determine which approach is right for your own personal needs. Of course, you can always reach out and together we can discuss your concerns and hopes and decide whether therapy or coaching would benefit you most.


What is therapy?

Therapy exists to treat mental health issues. Therapists will work with individuals during times of distress, or those suffering from ongoing mental health disorders or trauma. Therapy often centres on exploring past experiences and emotions to achieve a full understanding and healing. Therapy is a critical support system when a person is unable to maintain their usual responsibilities, and are functioning below their normal standards. But it can also provide tremendous ongoing support, throughout a person’s life, not just during challenging periods of time.

 While therapists function as the guiding force in therapy, coaching is much more driven by the client. Therapy gives authority to the doctor to say to their patient, “I think you need to try this,” or “This element of your life needs to change.” And when a patient’s mental health is under strain, the care and authority of a doctor can provide comfort and reassurance.

 While therapy is a highly regulated field, coaching does not require a degree or certification. Coaching differs, and does not require a degree or certification. However there are organizations, like the International Coaching Federation, that provides training and certification for coaches. If you’re exploring coaching and searching for a coach, I highly recommend looking for an ICF certified coach.

 In my own case, my background as a psychiatrist and cognitive behaviour therapist adds a level of expertise and sophistication to the coaching work. While I no longer formally provide therapy, the coaching is enriched by tools and techniques borrowed from the world of therapy.


What is life coaching?

Life coaching evolved through many different influences, one of them being positive psychology. Instead of looking at what makes an individual unhappy, in an effort to resolve unhappiness, it looks to the sources of happiness for that individual, and explores the goals and lifestyle they hope to achieve. It might explore one’s past experiences to some degree, but ultimately life coaching is about creating the scaffolding to build the life an individual has wished for.

Coaching can often rely on an individual’s values and strengths, and find ways to leverage those things for greater success. It’s really about helping people find their “North Star,” so they can feel confident in who they are, and how they live their life.

Unlike therapy, coaching allows the patient to be the guide, because it places a greater value on a person’s inner wisdom. A coach might be the navigator, helping to guide you, but you’re the one driving the bus in coaching. You’re the one determining what it is you want to achieve, elements of your life you’re ready to let go of, and how you plan to achieve those things.

That being said, coaching has a focused structure, with clear goals for sessions. Clients often leave coaching sessions feeling well equipped to modify certain behaviours, shift their outlook, and achieve goals. This is one of the reasons why I’ve gained so much satisfaction from my transition to coaching. I get to witness my clients taking control of their lives, determining what they want their lives to look like, and making measurable changes between each of our sessions.

 Coaching strives to empower the individual, and encourages them to trust in their ability to be their own guide (in coaching and in life!).


How do I know if I need therapy or coaching?

Arriving at the decision to seek help is a very personal experience and can look different for everyone. Oftentimes a doctor might be the one to help you determine which course is best, or even a close friend who you’ve opened up to. Either way, reaching out to a coach or psychiatrist is the perfect first step. A good coach should be able to identify when therapy is necessary, and psychiatrists are beginning more and more to refer patients to coaches when they believe a different approach would benefit the patient.

Having spent the majority of my career as a psychiatrist, and now working as a coach, I do bring a unique perspective to my practice. Many people who reach out to me for coaching are leading lives that on paper look quite good, and by all accounts are successful. Yet it doesn’t feel right. They’re missing satisfaction. Coaching helps get to the root of what would feel right, and what would feel like success. Guiding people towards living with confidence, and feeling capable of achieving whatever they set their mind to is the ultimate goal of coaching, and a worthy pursuit at any stage or age in life.

Interested in exploring coaching in your own life? Reach out any time for an introductory call. It takes about 20 minutes, and there’s no obligation after the first call.