← Back to the blog homepage

Life Coach vs. Therapist vs. Counselor: Key Similarities & Differences

Therapy is very process-oriented, which I think is important and I believe in it, but coaching made so much more sense to me.

- Lisa Kaplin, iPEC Lead Trainer, Psychologist and Certified Professional Coach


Life coach, therapist, and counselor: they’re all considered ‘helping professions.’ So what are the real differences between them?

The three disciplines of life coach, therapist, and counselor all share certain similarities and are thus often confused with one another. (As professions, they might even attract similar types of people—iPEC even has a Lead Trainer who is also a trained psychologist!)  

While coaches, therapists, and counselors may occasionally help clients address similar challenges or work through similar issues, the fundamental background and work of these roles differ in several key ways. Whether you’re interested in entering one of these fields as a practitioner, or you want to understand which modality is best suited to support you as a client, understanding how they differ in core areas like required education, licensing, focus, and day-to-day work will bring you closer to your goals and your dreams.

Below is a breakdown of the key similarities and differences between a therapist, counselor, and life coach—to help you determine which path may be right for you.

The Role of a Therapist

Therapy—the most widely known of the three modalities—is a long-term process in which a client works with a healthcare professional to diagnose and resolve problematic behaviors and feelings. 

Rather than focusing on external circumstances, therapy looks inward and towards the past to analyze the root cause of a client’s biggest challenges in the hope of creating a happier, more stable future. While therapy’s core focus is on mental conditions, some therapists might also help a patient with personal growth goals. In looking at past traumas and experiences, therapy seeks to alter self-destructive habits and work through painful feelings by focusing on why certain behavioral patterns occur in the first place. It’s designed to help clients heal, grow, become more self-aware, and ultimately feel better throughout the course of their therapy—which often extends for years or even for the remainder of a person’s life.

Becoming a therapist requires an advanced degree (doctorate) and a license in the state they want to practice in. Traditional therapy sessions are often unstructured in format and may be guided by the client rather than the therapist.

Differences Between Therapists and Counselors

The term “counselor” is often used broadly to refer to any professional trained in counseling. This modality shares quite a bit of overlap with therapy, but there are distinct differences in terms of the education, training, and licensing required—as well as in the typical nature of sessions and treatment plans.

Like therapy, counseling also helps clients work through mental health and life challenges, but it does not typically delve as deeply into the past to uncover their psychological root causes. Instead, counseling might address specific challenges in a much more direct and practical way. For example, if a counselor were working with a client who was struggling with anxiety, they might focus on tactics for warding off panic attacks in the moment. Or if alcoholism were the focus, a counselor might work with a client on concrete steps to follow when they’re tempted to have a drink.

While therapists are required to have an advanced degree and a state license, this is not required for all counselors—though many still do, depending on their educational background. Depending on state law, a counselor may need licensing to practice (e.g., LPC, or, “licensed professional counselor”). Counselors also often obtain certifications in their area of specialty, such as addiction or marriage counseling.

The overall duration of counseling is typically seen as being shorter-term than therapy, with a client potentially working with a counselor over a set number of weeks or sessions, rather than an indefinite relationship.

The Unique Role of the Life Coach, and How it Differs from Therapy and Counseling

Life coaches work with clients to create a vision for their optimal future, and how to make that vision a reality. 

They work together to identify personal and professional goals, the obstacles standing in their way, and an action plan to achieve their desired outcomes. Where therapy and counseling focus primarily on the past and present, life coaching focuses almost entirely on the present and future, taking the client’s current starting point and creating action-based plans to help them take control of their life.

Life coaching is designed to help people succeed, grow, and become more effective in any and all areas of their life. It not only helps clients do better (vs. feel better via therapy), but it also helps them develop a clear plan of how to do so. With its focus on growth and purposeful action, it’s no surprise that coaching is a highly rewarding profession for many who gain fulfillment from helping others become the best and most capable versions of themselves.

There are a wide range of certification programs available to help coaches learn how to address the root source of clients’ blocks, unleash their potential, and create real, sustainable change. Before investing in a certified coach training program, it’s a good idea to make sure the school is accredited and reputable, and that their curriculum and methodologies are a fit for your unique goals and situation.

Become a Certified Professional Coach (CPC)

Becoming a Certified Professional Coach with iPEC is one of the most effective and actionable ways to become an agent of change in your own life and to help the people around you do the same. Regardless of your education or experience level, you have the power to affect meaningful change through professional coach training—and iPEC is here to help you get there.

In becoming a Certified Professional Coach (CPC), you’ll be able to help both yourself and others become the most confident, self-reliant, and fulfilled version of themselves. Through expert training and support in mastering Core Energy Coaching™, you will open limitless opportunities for growth and fulfillment, both in your own life and in the lives of those you will work with moving forward.

Discover how coach training help you build a fruitful, fulfilling career

Download the guide and learn how to choose the right training program for you.

Download the guide and learn the 9 things to look for in any coach training program