Do You Need a Life Coach or a Therapist? How to Tell

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There were two times in my life when I asked for professional help. The first was when I was 22, and it’s pretty cliché. I was struggling with a broken heart that induced quite a few crying, drunk dials to my best friends. The girls—bless their hearts—finally intervened and convinced me to call a therapist to help put my emotionally unraveled self back together. Through a doctor referral, I found a kind man with a PhD. He asked all the right questions and gently guided me to healthier self-esteem. After one session a week for a few months, I felt significantly stronger and was ready to sign up for JDate (in the pre-Tinder aughts) and put myself on the market.

Over a decade later, which included my own wedding (to a different guy, in case you were wondering), I again felt the need to talk to a someone unbiased. I was looking to get ahead at work and sought guidance from a pro who could push me to be the best version of myself. Serendipitously, I met a life coach at a group event and instantly knew she was The One based on her motivational way of speaking. I worked with her once a month for several months—doing soul- and self-searching homework, rewriting my inner dialogue—before feeling like I was becoming the worker I wanted to be (and yes, a promotion was in my future).

These are two similar stories: Girl needs help, girl seeks help, girl feels better, dreams come true. But the paths are different in that one version involved partnering with a licensed psychologist and the other with an expert life coach from a credible group. Neither is better nor worse, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for who you should see.

But if you’re also feeling like you need to talk to someone besides your best friend, mom, closest co-worker, or hairstylist (hey, it’s a real relationship!), here’s a guide for the difference between a therapist and a life coach.

For the purpose of this article, it must be pointed out that there are many schools of therapy (psychologist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, etc.) and countless methods of life coaching. Here, I interviewed Lindsay Tulchin, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a degree in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as well as Lauren Handel Zander, the founder of the Handel Method (the group that I worked with for my own coaching).

Keep reading to learn more about exactly what these women do and how they can help you.

WHAT DO THERAPISTS AND LIFE COACHES DO?

Therapist

Tulchin focuses on CBT, which by definition is a goal-directed, short-term, present-focused therapy that aims to solve problems and teach clients to identify and correct unhelpful and dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors.

“It’s not what you typically think of, with the patient lying on the couch and the therapist just asking questions, taking notes and just nodding,” she explains. “It’s very conversational. I do ask a lot of questions, but the questions are [presented] in a more conversational way because they’re meant to help the person get to a different way of thinking. In CBT, we help people manage their life—whatever that means [to them]—and help people able to do the things that they want to do.”

She works mainly with people with anxiety. “In working with them, I can hopefully allow them to go out and start making friends and dating and do things that they never thought they were going to be able to do,” Tulchin adds.

Life Coach

The Handel Group, which Zander founded in the ’90s, is a network of coaches all trained on the same techniques to help people realize their personal and professional visions.

As life coaches, we help people design their lives and take the action to fulfill on that design,” Zander says. “I am coaching you to not only know your dreams but also how to make them happen with what’s called personal integrity—keeping the right promises. I am teaching you how to make real change stay.”

She goes on to give examples: “So you lose the 10 pounds and never gain it back, and you really know what you want in your career and develop yourself. You break through your shyness so you can get the promotion you want.”

HOW MUCH OF THE PAST IS EXPLORED?

Therapist

While CBT is present-focused, it’s hard to fully understand someone’s thinking style now without going backward a bit to understanding where they’re coming from,” Tulchin explains. “Everyone has a different filter on the world that influences the way they feel and think now. We need to uncover how their filter developed as-is now, which leads me to talk about some of their family relationships, prior romantic relationships, or previous experiences with anxiety or depression.”

She points out that while they do need to go backward in order to go forward, it’s not the primary focus of the therapy sessions.

Life Coach

“We only address the past to understand your beliefs to help you break them or to fix relationships and forgive,” Zander says. “I do have a lot of epigenetic philosophy about how history—like your parents’ life issues—are repeating in some way, shape, or form. We need to be able to connect the dots on understanding how your history has shaped you.”

She then takes this information to reorganize how you think and eventually act since, according to Zander, your inner dialogue is running your actions. “We go after what your inner dialogue is doing,” she explains. “Sometimes we need to go into your past to free up something from your inner dialogue. We’re teaching you how to be true to what you most want in your life versus laying on the coach to sort out your childhood.”

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP LIKE BETWEEN THE EXPERT AND THE PATIENT?

Therapist

With my own psychologist, I didn’t know much about him other than he’s a middle-aged man who is married (via seeing his wedding ring). But that, in a way, was helpful for me to be able to pour myself out to him. It felt like a safe, judgment-free space.

However, Tulchin is open to sharing information about herself to patients when it could help them. “I’m open to self-disclose when I think it makes sense,” she says. “Some therapists are very buttoned up, like you’re not supposed to know anything about them. I don’t feel like that’s the most conducive [approach] to getting the other person to open up, so I am fine with talking about myself as long as it’s not something where I feel like a boundary is being broken. I would talk about that I have baby, that I’m married, or that I fainted before.”

She works with her patients in a collaborative way. “It’s more casual,” she notes. “Obviously it’s professional, but I like it to be more of a casual conversation than a formal setting.”

Life Coach

My life coach genuinely put herself out there with me. I made a spreadsheet of all of my goals, promises, and consequences if I didn’t stick to them. Our sessions were all done via Google Hangouts, during which she shared her screen with me, showing me her own promises and consequences spreadsheet. When we worked on my sugar addiction, she offered advice on how she (and even her own coach!) helped manage their diets. I related personally to my coach.

“All of my clients really know me,” Zander admits. “They know how I’m a jerk, why I need sex promises. They know everything. And I know everything about them. So there’s a mentoring relationship where there’s a lot of truth-telling. Coaching has transparency in it.” She credits this as being part of the Handel Method’s “secret sauce”: The coaches are self-deprecating and share real-life examples.

“You not only see us as an example but can really ask all the right questions and go that deep and intimate,” she adds. “That’s the only way I think real change happens in someone’s mind.” She also compared it to, say, a skating coach. “Real coaches really are in their [clients’] lives.”

WHAT TOPICS DO THEY SPECIALIZE IN?

Therapist

“A cognitive behavioral therapist specializes in anything from anxiety to depression to anger issues,” Tulchin says, noting you can find a CBT specialist for just about anything, including topics like abuse, addiction, and insomnia. Her specialty is helping those with anxiety.

“The other part of CBT that’s really cool is we help people with normal life problems—like if you’re having an issue with your boss or your significant other or family,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be that you have this disorder and come to therapy. It’s also just helping people look at things from a different perspective in order to help them manage their lives in a different way.” She also points out that you don’t have “meet a quota of severity to go to a therapist.”

“I have patients in high school talking about mean girls, and that’s all [we] discuss,” she says. “We can talk about anything that’s as serious as suicidal thoughts to fighting with your best friend.”

Life Coach

“We take on every area of life,” Zander echoes. “The main areas people come to us for are love, career, body, and money.” It makes sense: Your coach is helping you move forward. These are places people tend to want to grow and evolve in.

Zander adds that she specializes in love, including finding The One and keeping love alive in a relationship. “We really go in and get people to talk about everything in the unsaid,” she says, “and teach people how to have way more intimate, dynamic, loving, and hot relationships.”

As for career, the Handel coaches help people figure out their long-term dreams. This was true for my experience. My coach didn’t ask me to focus on the nitty-gritty details of getting ahead, but rather she told me to manifest my big-picture dreams and act accordingly to get me to that end goal.

“We’re not pretending we’re for everybody,” Zander says. “We’re for high-committed achievers who really want to achieve, go deep, and be spiritual. They have to be willing to look at the dark side of humans and themselves and laugh. Just get a sense of humor.”

WHAT TOPICS DO THEY AVOID?

Therapist

Generally, you should be able to go to a therapist for just about anything, though certain ones specialize in specific topics. “There are no topics avoided!” Tulchin echoes. “However, if someone is deemed to be at imminent risk of hurting themselves or someone else, then they likely would be referred to an emergency room to be hospitalized.” While Tulchin doesn’t specially handle substance abuse and addiction, there is CBT for it.

Life Coach

“I don’t avoid topics at all,” says Zander, but “there really are people who are addicts who really have a substance abuse [problem]. They really have an addiction—sex, drugs, alcohol. Work, I can help. In the arena of you need a 12-step program, I don’t belong there. I go there, I help people there, I study it (honestly, personally), but that client is better off with a therapist.”

She differentiates that, yes, she can help you cut down on drinking too much (similarly to how my coach helped me have less sugar). But it has to be more of a vice than an addiction, which goes into the category of emotional illnesses.

WHAT ARE THE HOMEWORK AND SELF-WORK LIKE?

Therapist

While my therapists didn’t give me much homework, Tulchin does. “CBT is all about homework!” she enthuses. “One example of homework given is the thought record, which is used to help clients identify exactly what goes through their minds during or after difficult situations, then modify their interpretation to have a more appropriate and helpful emotional and behavioral reaction.”

Tulchin explains that if a client went on a date and felt sad, anxious, or defeated that they had not heard from the person yet, she’d have the patient record those thoughts. She would help the patient change those thoughts to become more evidence-based.

For example, thinking No one is ever going to like me, and I will probably end up alone is not rooted in fact. She’d help that person see there may be many reasons a second date isn’t happening that have nothing to do with the client, empowering them to feel more hopeful.

“Once clients do these thought records frequently (there are apps, of course), the new, more objective/helpful thought starts to become second nature, and they don’t have as strong of an emotional reaction,” Tulchin says.

Life Coach

Interestingly, I did a very similar example with my life coach. I kept a shared thought log in a Google Doc with her. Three times a day over a two-week span, I wrote down everything that came to my mind in five-minute sprints.

“A thought log is when we have a client write down what they are thinking in the language in which they are actually speaking to themselves,” Zander explains. “You have to hear what that inner dialogue of yours is actually saying to you. It’s telling you what to do, what not to do, what mood you’re in. It’s telling your lactose-intolerant self to eat rocky road. When you figure out what you’re doing with that mind of yours, you have a choice about what you actually want to do with it and get it fighting for a better cause: your dream.”

When I reviewed the log, I realized how much time I was wasting complaining, whining, and telling myself stories in my head that might not even be true. I realized I was standing in my own way from living out my dreams. Why waste time worrying when I could be creating, writing, and growing intellectually? Just seeing all of this negativity spelled out made me want to shut down that negative inner dialogue.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE RESULTS?

Therapist

The number of sessions recommended varies from person to person and is based on several factors: the number of problems and goals, symptom severity, and work done between sessions. “To give some idea, however, some clients can to see results in about four to six sessions while others may require closer to 20 sessions to meet their goals,” she notes.

“When they first come in, they’re obviously distressed or upset about something,” she adds. “Usually I can tell if that’s getting better if they’re reporting back to me that it is. And if they’re coming in with less to talk about, that’s also a way to know.”

Tulchin says the most rewarding part of her job is showing people they can do something they didn’t think they could. “I teach them that they don’t have to be prisoners of their own anxiety,” she says. “They can achieve their goals, learn from them, and deal with their anxiety. It doesn’t keep them in handcuffs.”

Life Coach

According to Zander, you can measure the results of life coaching. “You came in to lose weight,” she says. “How many pounds did you lose? And then you like to be on your diet, you have a self-awareness and you’re proud of yourself. I do a lot of pride and results. What you came in to get you’re getting.”

Zander reports that working with her twice a month for four months will “totally turn you around”—especially if you do your homework. “In four months, you won’t recognize yourself,” she explains. “In six months, you’ll be in a different life. You’re not going to go back. Anyone who is staying longer than six months is learning and having a ball. You lost the [weight] and now you like your trainer. It shifts into triage and maintenance and more success.”

“These are your dreams that I’m fighting for,” she concludes. “If you really want them, they can happen.”