What exactly is Life Coaching? And how is it different from counseling?

 “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman

My definition of Life Coaching

Life coaching is about helping others to help themselves. It is a journey of self-discovery. Of discovering who we are + what we want through through focused, goal-oriented conversations . It is about coming alive to our own lives.

Life coaching is not therapy or counseling, but rather it is about seeking + fulfilling. It is present-based + future-oriented, beginning with where we are now and uncovering the path that leads us to create, right now, one moment at a time, the life that we envision for ourselves. This is what Joseph Campbell calls following your bliss.

And no matter where we are in our personal spiritual journeys, whether you call it spiritual or not, seeking a change in life begins with thinking about who we are now and the life that we wish to create.

A life coach, in my opinion, is a fellow pilgrim who acts as a guide. A mentor. One who has experience, specific skills, and a love for the journey of life; but who is also on her own journey as well. It is a professional relationship, but something more akin to seeking out a spiritual guide, guru, yogi, mentor, and/or, well… coach.

My specific niche in life coaching is all about helping seekers create a meaningful, mindful, and spiritual (not religious) life. That includes, but is not limited to, all of those 11 reasons I mentioned in my post last week

So, does it still sound to you like life coaching is similar to counseling? Well, there is some overlap, but there are also some definite differences. Hang with me and discover them…

Life Coaching versus Counseling (therapy)

1. Education

// Life Coach:

In the spirit of transparency, in theory, anyone can wake up + declare him or herself a life coach. Just as, technically, anyone can wake up + declare themselves a pastor/minister. Scary, but true. There is no university degree in life coaching that I can find, so it is possible to grab a book off the shelf of your local bookstore or the internet and believe that reading that makes you a life coach. And while that is a tiny, tiny step… to properly and ethically be prepared, prospective life coaches can (and should!) go through a training + certification program.

I attended a year-long course in Sweden, including 60 hours of job-training, which was accredited by the International Life Coaching Federation (ICF). Basically, what I am saying is, if you are looking for a life coach, find one that has been properly trained (meaning a year-long course with a requirement of training/internship hours). He or she should, of course, share all qualifications + certifications on his/her website.

Better yet, find a coach who has a counseling degree and/or a degree in a related field, plus experience in counseling people. Then you get the best of both worlds.

// Counselor/therapist:

For this post, I am going to use those words interchangeably. In most places, to be a licensed therapist, one must have a Master’s degree. Counselors’ university education focuses on the study of humans, development, and counseling techniques, and varying kinds mental health issues/diagnoses. This is a much more formal training, obviously, than a life coach. But, one that is necessary since counselors + therapists work within traditional health services and with very specialized cases.

Personally, I do not have a counseling degree, but I do have a Master’s of Divinity degree, which means that I have studied and been trained to counsel people from a theological perspective, including ethics, human development, and spiritual guidance. Plus, I have a Bachelor’s degree in special education, which includes much study of human psychology and behavior. I have worked as a teacher/mentor to young people with physical, emotional, and cognitive difficulties and a minister/pastor to young adults/adults seeking guidance + counseling in their lives.


2. Purpose

// Life Coach: Goal-oriented, future-focused guidance.

The basic belief is that coaching clients are in a good place mentally + emotionally, and are ready to receive guidance on moving forward + working towards creating the life that they envision. That’s not to say that I cannot, and have not, worked with people who are in an unstable, difficult emotionally + mental difficult period in their lives. In my opinion, simply seeking change or seeking answers to some of the deepest existential questions in life means that we might be emotionally and mentally stuck, that we are already looking for deeper meaning because we are not satisfied and/or not in touch with our highest self. Life can feel a bit unstable in many different moments.

To be a bit more clear, the purpose of a life coach is not to work with treatment or therapy, but to discover desires for change, set goals, and work step-by-step to manifest + create a desired change. In other words, I do not work to help clients find ways to deal with depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. Instead, I work as a guide, a fellow pilgrim, to discover, define, plan, and create the life that they want to life. One little change at ta time. That does not mean that I cannot work with a person dealing with those issues, who is also searching for his/her identity, is pondering questions of life + spirit, and/or has a specific goal to help him/her create a better life.

Life coaching, for me, is all about discovery. Life coaches listen, guide, and help clients decide on certain, concrete steps to take toward an active change in life. For me, because of my training + experience, that includes spiritual guidance, existential questions as well (Who am I? Why am I here?, etc.). It is a very personal, present and future-oriented way of guiding a client in creating the life that he/she envisions.

// Counselor: Specialized therapy.

Therapists work with clients to solve mental health issues that have had a deep, often long-term impact on one’s life. The process is about working through issues and toward a stable sense of being, through many different forms of therapy and specializations. In many cases, but not all, counselors work from the past to help clients understand who they are. In contrast, life coaches work from the present in helping clients realize who they are right now, and who they want to be.

The most important thing to remember, is that counselors work from a clinical perspective with very specialized techniques for specific diagnoses and client needs, such as depression, eating disorders, personality disorders, ADHD, PTSD, etc.

It is absolutely appropriate to seek out a life coach, even if you have had contact with a formal counselor/therapist. Just be sure to be clear about your goals: the life coach will not be doing therapy or having counseling sessions with you. The life coach will be your guide, your facilitator,your listening board, to help you make the changes that you want to make. And, of course, it depends on the life coach that you find – what he/she has for qualifications and expereince.


3. Ethics + Boundaries

// Life Coaches and Counselors: It should be basically the same

Since there is no regulation or educational requirement for life coaches, it is up to you, the client, to know who you are contacting. And, the life coach that you want is someone who is very transparent + honest about his/her education, experience, and capabilities. In other words, seek someone with high ethical standards.

As an education pastor/minister and school mentor, throughout my professional life I have always been beholden to certain ethical standards, so I bring all of that with me to my life coaching as well. What that means, is that I work with pretty much the same standards as a counselor (with a few adjustments due to the approach of coaching versus therapy).

So, what’s important?

  1. A statement of ethics from the life coach which include confidentiality, professional boundaries. My statement, which comes from my international certification organization, is here.
  2. The knowledge + awareness of when to refer someone to a counselor/therapist. This is a big deal, you guys. I know my boundaries + limits and I am more than comfortable saying to a client when I believe that he/she needs to contact a different form of support. I have, in fact, referred people many times before. Especially when I worked as a minister in the church. And, as a mentor to high school students, I remain constantly aware of when I need to refer a student to another professional.

A life coach should be extremely honest and aware, always putting the health + well-being of the client first. There is no excuse for “trying” to help someone, when it may cause even more damage. This is where the idea of a community + collaboration, comes in. And an awareness that I am here to provide this service/this is what I am good, and this is what you specialize in/are good it. None of us are good at everything. We must be willing to say, “I believe that I have reached my expertise level at this time. I think I know someone who is very well-qualified to talk with you and perhaps can help you move forward even more.”

Of course, this applies to life coaches as well. Should I know of another life coach, who focuses more on job changes than I do, it is my ethical responsibility to suggest a referral to my other life coach friend. Just as, another life coach may refer someone who has spiritual questions to me.


4. The approach

// Life Coach: Free-spirited and informal, yet professional + well-organized.

Life coaching, for me, as I have said before is about a journey. As a coach, I am walking with you on your journey, acting as a guide, a facilitator, a mentor… offering supportive accountability. There is kind of a folksy feel to coaching, and yet there should also be a feeling of “this life coach is an expert and has experience as well.” Coaches can meet you in person, at an office, in a cafe, over Skype. (as long as confidentiality + ethics are involved). Never at homes, in my opinion.

Life coaches also offer a bit of themselves while on this journey with you. Brainstorming, recommendations, guidance, and even personal anecdotes that are relevant can be part of a session. However, ethical coaches, always make it about you. Focused on your circumstances, your beliefs, your goals, your discoveries. While we may be journeying together for a while, this is your journey.

A good life coach helps you to discover who you are + your own path in life.

And, while life coaching may seem a bit free-spirited (which I love about it), it is also structured. A life coach helps you set a goal + will often give you homework, in the form of concrete steps, to work towards that goal. The number to sessions you have with a life coach varies, according to the goal, but it is usually a much shorter time than counseling (life coaching = 6-12 sessions). Of course, the entire “plan” is completely individualized.

// Counselor: A bit more formal + traditional

But, that is not all bad. It is exactly what some people need at a certain time in life. I have had counselors and therapists at different times in my life. I have had coaches as well. There is a structure + a sense of certainty with counselor’s. A routine and set of rules to follow.

It may sound like I am completely focused on life coaching – and I kind of am. But, I am a super huge strong defender believer in counseling and therapy. There are necessary, often underused, difficult to access, supports that we all need at varying times in our lives. Some, more often than others. So, just because I sound so upbeat about life coaches, it does not mean that I think badly of counselors and therapists. I have the highest respect for them, as quite a few have made lasting impressions and improves the lives of both me + my wife, together and individually.

When I decided to divorce 10 years ago, I visited a therapist for almost a year. Just to listen and help me process. To help me re-claim my personality. My wife has struggled with an eating disorder for years, having had many amazing therapists, some who have counseled us together. Those have been very specific times that I’ve needed a counselor.

As for a life coach, I have had a few. And they always have been available to help me define what I really want + how to make it happen. Practical, yet free-flowing. Inspiring + supportive.

What’s best for you? Well, only you can decide. I hope that this post has helped you to understand a little bit more of the differences between life coaches + counselors.

I’d be more than happy to chat with you to help clarify or decide what’s best for you right now, should you be interested. Just send me an email or fill in the contact form in the top menu. I do not charge for email brainstorming, just so you know!


xoxo. liz.

* all photos taken during my year of life coach training

5 thoughts on “What exactly is Life Coaching? And how is it different from counseling?

  1. I get the difference – much more sense!
    I can imagine you will/are a great life coach then lovely!

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