While therapists and life coaches both have similar purposes, which is to improve the client’s quality of life, they take very different approaches to get there. The primary difference between a therapist and a life coach is that a therapist is trained to treat a mental illness; however, therapists also majorly differ from life coaches because therapists focus on the past. Life coaches specialize in analyzing their clients’ problems and creating strategies to overcome these problems out in the real world as opposed to a therapist’s office.
A common assumption is that therapists make just as good as life coaches as any, but that’s not necessarily true. If in the case you do have a mental illness, by all means, see a therapist so they can help treat and manage this mental illness. But if you are someone who just so happens to be out of place in life - financially, sociably, or perhaps more personally disconnected - a life coach is likely more able to help you than a therapist. In fact, a 2016 survey of therapists has indicated that roughly 30% of therapists do provide life coaching services, yet only 20% are trained in life coaching (Candea & Cotet, 2016). This further supports that while therapists can help an individual live a better life, they are not always prepared to do so in a way that a life coach is.
Life coaches can be described as those who help their clients improve any existing abilities, develop new skills, and gain a deeper understanding of self and others (Katsikis et al., 2016). This is done via conversation/interview between coach and client that allows for the life coach to formulate clear goals for their client. Many assume this looks like motivational speaking or professional mentoring, but there is an actual science to being a life coach.
In a personal interview with founding director of the International Coaching Institute, Dr. Oana David explained that life coaching is primarily based in cognitive behavioral concepts; that is, focusing on personal growth and development, overcoming difficulties and maladaptive behaviors, and developing resilience are both key components in cognitive behavioral therapy and life coaching (Freeman, 2016). David also explained that therapists often overlook personal growth because they are so hyper focused on treating psychopathology, as they should, but this is still an area that does not deserve to be overlooked.
Again, life coaching has deep roots in cognitive behavioral techniques. In 1955, the Rational Emotive-Behavior Theory (REBT) and approach was founded by New York psychologist Albert Ellis: it was actually the first cognitive behavioral therapy recognized and known at the time (Katsikis et al., 2016). Life coaches have relied on this approach in comparison to other therapy approaches like cognitive-behavioral or dialectical behavior because REBT suggests that people experience frustrations not because of unfortunate circumstances, but because of irrational beliefs (Katsikis et al.).
Even though cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) did stem from this approach, CBT has less emphasis on irrational beliefs and more emphasis on negative attitudes and thought processes. Both CBT and REBT aim to overcome these mental obstacles and positively adapt intrusive thoughts in order to better the mental health of clients, but REBT seems to better fit those in need of motivation and guidance. Just the same with dialectical behavioral therapy, which focuses mainly on acceptance, management, and security of negative emotions, REBT is suitable for life coaches because it doesn’t revolve around treating/managing a mental disorder. It’s a theory, not a therapy. Life coaches are particularly fond of REBT when working with clients in order to effectively enhance client outcomes and satisfaction with their coach. And it does work: 99% of clients reported they were very satisfied with their coach, and 96% indicated they would hire a coach again in the future (Casano, 2016).
The coaching process uses approaches like REBT to help their clients recognize strengths and weaknesses (especially if they are irrational/easily avoidable) in order to create a step-by-step framework to turn weaknesses into strengths and to keep strengths strong. The end goal of the life coach is for the client to eventually rely on themself: whether it be for organization development, couple problems, physical health, or something as simple as quitting a bad habit like smoking, life coaches eventually want you to figure it out on your own by using cognitive behavioral approaches like REBT.
By asking REBT recognized, thought provoking questions like “Where are you now? Where do you see yourself in the future? How are you ideally going to get there? What are the roadblocks? How will you get around them?” and so on, life coaches help clients set objectives in order to reach a multitude of improvements.
The most popular reason why people seek a life coach is because they want to actually achieve their goals and be successful - 64% said so (Casano, 2016). But results pulled from a study from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) also showed that life coaches were hired by those wanting to find happiness and/or life’s purpose, to find help in the decision to start a new or change career, and even to boost self-confidence. Just so, 80% of those who had a life coach reported that their self-confidence was increased, likely due to the coach’s cognitive behavioral approach.
In a study exploring the outcomes of life coaching interventions, evidence of direct health benefits were found even though the goal of the study was to evaluate self-efficacy and empowerment. 6 out of 9 diabetic patients decreased their blood sugar levels as they learned how to manage and live with their diabetes with the help of a life coach, all because they learned to change their attitude and daily routines (Ammentorp et al., 2013). The same researchers also noted the patients were more carefree/less stressed, had higher levels of adherence to medications, and higher self-efficacy and empowerment ((Ammentorp et al.)
In a similar attempt to examine how life coaches can impact resilience amongst the workplace, participants were asked to attend three life coaching sessions over the span of 6 months and were asked to report their thoughts and feelings (Timson, 2015). Participants reported that they genuinely enjoyed these sessions as it provided them time and space to think of their work performance and apply it to future use. This is evidence life coaches encourage forward thinking and planning to improve overall happiness. These results also support statistics pulled from the study run by the IFC, as 70% of those who had life coaches improved their work productivity and nearly 86% of companies who have hired life coaches saw they made a return on their investments (Casano, 2016).
Finally, Passmore and Yi-Ling Lai (2019) wrote in their analytic review of coaching and coaching psychology that no matter the relationship (therapist to client, coach to client, mentor to client, etc.), the client must be willing to trust their coach for any sort of benefits to emerge from the program. It is a very vulnerable act to admit you need guidance, especially from someone outside your social circle. But in order for the client to see progress such as changing attitudes or increasing confidence, they must establish a trusting relationship with their coach. As the saying goes, there is no “I” in team.
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Ammentorp, J., Uhrenfeldt, L., Angel, F., Ehrensvärd, M., Carlsen, E. B., & Kofoed, P.-E. (2013). Can life coaching improve health outcomes? -- A systematic review of intervention studies. BMC Health Services Research, 13(1), 1–22.
Candea, D.-M., & Cotet, C. D. (2016). Do psychologists offer coaching services? Preliminary results from a survey on CBT practitioners. Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, 16(1), 57–66.
Casano, T. (2016, June 22). Infographic: Does coaching really work? The benefits of coaching your clients should know!
Freeman, A. (2016). Life coaching from an evidence-based perspective: An interview with Oana David. Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, 16(1), 79–84.
Katsikis, D., Kostogianni, C., & Dryden, W. (2016). A rational-emotive behavior approach in life coaching. Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, 16(1), 3–18.
Passmore, J., & Yi-Ling Lai. (2019). Coaching psychology: Exploring definitions and research contribution to practice? International Coaching Psychology Review, 14(2), 69–83.
Timson, S. (2015). Exploring what clients find helpful in a brief resilience coaching programme: A qualitative study. Coaching Psychologist, 11(2), 81–88.