Ready to make some changes, but confused about whether a counselor or a life coach is right for you? As both a licensed clinician and a certified life coach, I get asked about how the two are actually different – a lot! The two professions do share some similarities, but they are also very different from each other in several key ways. So, when you’re considering what is best for your current needs, it’s important to take a closer look.
Perhaps the biggest difference between therapist/counselors and life coaches is their education. In order to be a licensed clinician, a professional needs at least a master’s degree (including a supervised practicum/internship) and thousands of hours of supervision post graduation. In graduate school, the clinician takes courses in a variety of disciplines - development, abnormal psychology, family systems, ethics, research, and more. They’ve also studied the DSM in depth and know the symptoms and empirically proven methods for treating common mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Alternatively, the life coaching profession is not yet regulated in the same way and so a life coach may (hopefully!) have formal training through a certification program or they may have just read a book – or gotten inspiration – and decided to call themselves a life coach. Unfortunately, it’s really that easy! Therefore, if you do decide that you’re looking for a life coach, make sure to protect yourself and find a “Certified Life Coach” or “Board Certified Coach”. Those who are certified have had training on coaching techniques, relationship building, positive communication, goal setting, ethics, etc.
In therapy, the objective is often to help individuals and couples to identify, address and manage or resolve problems that are making their lives unmanageable. The counselor works with their client to heal from perinatal mood disorders, anxiety, depression, family of origin issues, relationship struggles, trauma, substance abuse, co-dependency, eating disorders, and more.
In life coaching, the objective is typically to take a client who is functioning well already but experiencing a “block” in reaching their ideal. The life coach helps their client identify the roadblocks, create new paths toward motivation and change, and then the two work together to help the client meet their goals.
This one is pretty straightforward. Counselors are held by a code of ethics around keeping professional boundaries and protecting a client’s right to privacy and confidentiality. A trained life coach has also received ethics training and will know how to keep professional boundaries. But, as discussed earlier, many life coaches haven't received formalized training. There are a lot of great life coaches out there though - so just be sure to seek out one who has completed a certification program with an ethical component.
Making a Decision for You
As you’re considering whether your needs are best met by a coach or counselor it’s important to consider what YOUR objectives currently are for seeking help. Are you looking for help getting over the "hump" of a roadblock or struggling with bigger emotions? If you're feeling depressed, anxious, having trouble bonding with your baby or feeling like it's all too much, I encourage you to reach out to a counselor. But, if you need help adapting to your new identity as a mom, organizing yourself to get back on track and return to work, getting your baby to sleep better or establishing better routines for your family - then a coach can certainly be helpful.
Jennifer Howard, CLC, CHBE
As a maternal mental health and pediatric sleep expert, I am passionate about helping tired mamas thrive throughout the many seasons of motherhood. I'm a Nationally Certified Professional Life Coach and Masters Level Therapist specializing in parental mental wellness, marriage/partnership strength and pediatric sleep and soothing.
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