What's The Difference Between A Therapist And Life Coach? 7 Questions To Determine Which You Need

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During my teens, when I was dealing with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder, I began seeing a therapist. I went to several over the years, and they helped me develop coping skills and gain control over my mental health. Then, last year, I started seeing a life coach, who helped me figure out the next direction for my career, relationships, and personal development. Both therapists and life coaches have been valuable to me for different things, depending on what I needed in life — which made me wonder, what exactly is the difference between a therapist and a life coach?

"Therapy and coaching both facilitate change in people and assist them with gaining perspective on their problems," Sharon Saline, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life, tells Bustle. "They’re like cousins, sharing some traits but using different approaches. Therapists take a holistic perspective that includes your overall care — emotional, cognitive, and behavioral health. They must be licensed to practice, following years of university study and internships, in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions and disorders as classified in the DSM V. Coaches are not mandated to be certified, but many complete courses and training for certification. They rely more on a wellness model aimed at people without significant mental health issues and offer a more educational process."

Wondering which is right for you? Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

1Are You More Concerned With The Past Or The Future?

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"The predominant difference between a life coach and a therapist is that a therapist works with the past and deep, unresolved emotional pain," Kendra Davies, a coach and owner at Stellar Life Coaching in Orlando, FL, tells Bustle. "Life coaching is a now and future-minded practice which works to identify what is working and what is going well, going from functioning to thriving."

So, if you think something from the past is standing in the way of your current goals, you may want to talk to a therapist about it. If you're hoping to figure out your future, a life coach may be more helpful.

2Are You Dealing With A Mental Illness?

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Those with mental illnesses can still see life coaches, but they may also want a therapist's help with their mental health. "Therapy is completely appropriate in situations like severe depression, suicidal thoughts, bi-polar disorder, trauma, and assault," says Davies. "Coaching is not a substitute for therapy in these instances. However, in many cases, you can use a coach at the same time, because as a therapist helps you resolve those issues and sets up a treatment plan to address symptoms, a coach can help you build and apply new skills you learn in real time."

3Can You Function?

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If you're having trouble working, maintaining relationships, or otherwise functioning in your day-to-day life, a therapist would be best, says Davies. But if you are getting by and want to function even better, go to a life coach.

4Do You Know What It Is That's Missing?

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A therapist can help you work through a specific problem in your life. But if you have a sense that something's missing in your life but you can't quite put your finger on it, a life coach could help you figure out what it is. "[If] you feel stuck, but you still have self-awareness enough to realize your part in your own stuckness, [see a] life coach," says Davies.

5Do You Want Actionable Advice?

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The stereotype of a therapist sitting on a couch and asking "How do you feel about that?" is not entirely off. "As a therapist, I can't always tell my clients what to do," psychotherapist and love/life coach Nikita Banks tells Bustle. "I can guide them in that direction, but the breakthrough comes when they have their own moment of self discovery. This means they can focus on their own healing at their own time and pace. Coaches tell you what to do and hold you accountable."

6Do You Want Help In One Particular Area?

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While some therapists are specialized (like couples' therapists), most are holistic, says Banks. Life coaches, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on one particular area. For example, there are career coaches, relationship coaches, and financial coaches. If you primarily want to work on one of those areas, you may prefer a coach who specializes in that area.

7Is There A Specific Goal You're Hoping To Achieve?

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"If someone is dealing with issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, etc., seeing a therapist is the proper choice," says Saline. "If someone has a more specific goal, like getting a new job or being more organized at home, then a coach makes more sense."

Both therapy and life coaching can be life-changing, but even more important than the type of professional you go with is the individual. How well you jive with them will determine how much they can help you, so shop around and hold off until you've found a true match.