What is the difference between therapy and life coaching?
At the horizon of mental wellbeing and personal development new landscapes have formed and are reaching up to impressive heights. Indeed, over the last 10 years, and particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, individuals and business owners are forced to take their wellbeing more seriously. The increasing interest in personal health and growth has fed a rather new industry – the industry of life coaching.
But what is life coaching really? And who are those life coaches?
Good question! I mean, is that someone who is making sure you pay your bills? Someone who is making sure that your weekly grocery shopping contains some decent veg and fruits? Maybe someone who finally tells you what life really is all about? Maybe it’s some guru or old wise soul that owns and knows ‘the truth’? Or maybe it’s just someone who tells you ‘Stop!’ when you already had half a bag of crisps on a Friday night and are about to embark onto the journey to the sweetie kitchen cabinet.
I am personally amused by the title of it – life coach! I remember when I first learnt about this new profession that seems to meet the zeitgeist of the present, contemporary society -it made me chuckle. In my head, I saw someone with a cape on, a little bit like a superhuman or let’s say someone who looks like a baseball team coach out of a good old 90s movie, with cap and whistle, breathing into your neck, commenting and advising on your life skills from the moment you wake up and brush your teeth to the moment you drop onto your bed and crawl under your blanket.
It turned out that most life coaches don’t wear baseball caps nor walk around with a whistle. I find that a bit disappointing, yet, a relief.
In fact, life coaches are professional individuals who are dedicated to supporting others in their process of self-development, growth in order to find new ways forward in our personal and professional lives.
Isn’t that what therapists do?
Yes, that’s right.
So, what is the difference?
Let’s put it that way. Imagine a spectrum that reaches from suffering, over functioning to human flourishing. Now, let’s say that therapists work with people on the entire spectrum. Thus, they join their clients in their process from a state of suffering to functioning and towards human flourishing. Life Coaches, on the other hand, are joining the client’s process to a later time point then therapists. They come in when the client has already reached a level of functioning.
I see, so, when can I stop seeing a therapist and work with a life coach instead?
Well, let’s get the confusion out of the way first. You are never ‘too far’ in your process to not work with a therapist. Indeed, therapists used to take the professional role of fixing patients, helping them to pick up their societal, personal and professional responsibilities and to get back to ‘normal’. Many still hold this understanding of therapy to until the present day. Gladly, this rather limited understanding of the therapy profession and the use of therapeutic space has changed.
In fact, over the last around 80 years, patients became clients and the taste of therapy changed from fixing to healing within a much more relational environment in which the therapist is no longer the expert but the client. It was particularly the rise of humanistic psychology that helped the spectrum grow from suffering over functioning all the way to human flourishing. That’s where therapy has experienced some vast, often unnoticed, change. Our clients no longer come to therapy because they want to function again. They come to therapy because they want to reach their potentials and live a more purposeful and fulfilled life. Consequently, therapy no longer ends there where clients feel like they are back to functioning. No. That’s when they stay. That’s the point when the client enters the realm between functioning and flourishing. A realm that therapist nowadays share with life coaches.
Ok, so I can always contact a therapist to work through things, but in order to work with a life coach, I need to already have reached a level of functioning. Is that right?
But what does it mean ‘to function’ and hence, when am I ready to work with a life coach instead of a therapist?
Again, a good question. Whilst the definition of ‘functioning’ varies to whoever you ask, I can only give you my understanding of it. So, ‘to function’ can mean that we have developed a higher level of self-awareness; we are better able to regulate our emotions; we can feel more stable in changing environments; we are more open to experience without defensiveness; we are confident to say ‘no’ to others, we can set boundaries, we are more aware of our own conditions and ‘raw spots’; we are more acceptant of ourselves; we have the ability to listen to our own guts and we can communicate our needs more transparently and radically.
Ok, so, last but not least, why is it important that I develop those qualities before possibly working with a life coach?
In comparison to therapists, life coaches do not learn how to facilitate and hold a client in deep distress and crisis. That’s simply not the job of a life coach.