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



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.