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  • Writer's pictureTopsie VandenBosch, LMSW

What’s the REAL Difference Between Coaching vs. Therapy?


If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me the difference between a therapist and a life coach..... I would be broke and in the streets because, with the way inflation is affecting our finances, a nickel is truly a laughable matter😂

What in the world would a nickel do for me in this economy anyway?😂

Rip Matthew Perry💗

Anyway- as a Business Mindset Coach, who is also a licensed mental health therapist- many of my clients eventually ask about the difference between therapists who diagnose and treat mental illnesses- and life coaches who set goals. I love to explain the distinctions between the role of a mental health professional and a coach clearly so that people understand when to pursue mental health treatment with a therapist or work with a coach to achieve their goals.

This shows me that the person is invested in their growth, and is committed to making their next step be the right step for them. 

This is personal development in action, and I welcome it.

As a trained and licensed therapist whose therapeutic practice involves using coaching modalities to help my clients develop a deeper understanding of themselves-I think it’s very important for people to know the difference between a therapist and a Mindset Coach (or Life Coach).

In the field of personal development- as incredible as it is- what I find unfortunate is that many coaches (and therapists) have unfortunately conflated coaching with therapy. This has led to harm to the clients they have served- and affected the industry of coaching and therapy as a whole.

Many people could benefit from support for either mental health challenges, or strategizing toward life goals and removing barriers. But without understanding the differences between these approaches- their needs may go unmet.

This is why, in the work I do with business owners and organizations- I ensure they understand when therapy may be indicated for conditions like depression or anxiety, versus when coaching's future-focused methods fit. Clarity empowers people to access the right care.

Difference between coaching and therapy

Coaching and therapy serve two distinct, yet complementary purposes on the path of growth. It's not a question of coaching vs therapy - oftentimes, the integration of both frameworks in a client's life is most powerful- and based on the unique needs and goals of the client.

As a licensed therapist trained to diagnose and resolve underlying mental health issues, I provide clinical treatment for symptoms affecting their quality of life.

In my coaching & consulting practice- I offer coaching for non-clinical issues, which involves guiding professionals in fulfilling their aspirations.  I love it because both businesses serve distinct, yet complementary purposes. 

I’m also a business mindset coach. Mindset coaching is a practice of exploring how a person's perspectives- and the way they see the world around them- influence the way they make decisions in their businesses.

Coaches are trained to empower clients to identify their strengths, overcome obstacles, and take action to achieve their goals. Coaching is very solution-focused, & can address a myriad of interpersonal issues a person might have- as long as the goal of working together focuses on helping individuals develop strategies and action plans to move forward.

Coaching Breakdown

Let’s jump into who Coaching is the best fit for.

Coaching is best suited for goal-oriented individuals willing to do the personal work required to overcome obstacles to their vision, that is present in both their personal and professional lives. 

Now- let’s transition and identify the 4 areas that make Coaching different from Therapy.

You don’t need to be licensed or certified.

Although many people will disagree with this- you don’t need to be licensed or certified to call yourself a Coach. Because it’s still an unregulated profession (and likely will always remain that way, tbh)- there isn’t a uniform expectation to be licensed or undergo serious training, unlike the field of therapy. 

Therapists like myself complete extensive training and supervision hours, pass licensing exams, and pursue continuing education to ensure specialized, ethical & safe mental health care. Coaches don't have that strict oversight. However, ethical coaches understand their scope and make appropriate referrals.

This also means that the everyday consumer will need to do their due diligence to ensure that the Coach they hire truly understands their scope of practice, and understands their professional boundaries.

You don’t address and treat your clients' traumas or psychological struggles.

Because coaching isn't focused on solving problems from the past- there is no deep exploration & treatment of the source of traumas or other psychological struggles that might come up. I'm sure some do it- but in my opinion- it's not worth losing your credibility or career over.

Instead, coaches should keep the focus on creating strategies and plans to overcome current obstacles and move towards set aspirations. Trauma and dysfunctional patterns are complex clinical issues that require diagnosis and specialized care from a licensed professional. Ethical coaches refer out clients if clinical needs emerge that supersede their expertise.

Situations where a Coach may need to refer a client to a mental health professional may be:

  • Expressions of suicidal ideation or self-harm

  • Signs of clinical depression or anxiety (hopelessness, extreme sadness, lack of functioning, constant worry keeping them up at night, etc.)

  • Signs of an untreated eating disorder

  • Active substance abuse and addiction issues.

Coaching Focuses on Wellness, Not Illness

While much of the mental health field is evolving, there is still a huge influence of the medical model that governs the way many entities and healthcare institutions view therapy and mental health conditions.

Therapy often concentrates on illness models to restore well-being.

Coaching, however, focuses on everyday empowerment for healthy, functional individuals wishing to thrive. It focuses on non-clinical issues related to maximizing potential, rather than treating diagnosable disorders.

The types of clients that Coaching tends to be a best fit for (not an exhaustive list) are:

  • Entrepreneurs wanting to develop leadership skills

  • Athletes striving to achieve peak performance

  • Professionals seeking career advancement or work-life balance.

The structure of a coaching session is more flexible than therapy sessions. 

Strict ethical codes and a lot of oversight, govern a therapist's case formulations and treatment plans. Many times after sessions, therapists have to document the clients’ mental health challenges in their medical records, as documentation is expected to be thorough. Coaching sessions, however, are more flexible and aren’t bound by ethical codes and medical record expectations.

Therefore- coaching sessions can be more fluid, and tailored to client-set agendas for growth.

Therapy Breakdown

Let's discuss who Therapy is the best fit for.

Difference between coaching and therapy
Photo by Alex Green

Therapy is for the individual experiencing clinically significant symptoms of a diagnosable mental health or psychiatric condition, that interferes with their ability to enjoy life and function healthily day to day.

With its ability to assist clients in ​​addressing past wounds while also addressing current mental health care needs- therapy meets people where they are, while also expanding their coping tools.

While coaching empowers action towards what you desire- therapy ensures functioning well enough to pursue them.

Now - let's transition and identify key areas that make therapy different from coaching.

Therapy requires licensure & extensive training

Unlike coaching, therapists must complete master's/or doctorate-level graduate degrees, extensive clinical hours, and pass licensing exams to legally assess and treat mental health conditions.

While this probably sounds like a snoozefest 😂-

This specialized expertise ensures ethical, safe care. 

For example- I had to complete 4,000 clinical hours to receive my license after taking the exam. This ensures that therapists are practicing within their scope of practice and scope of competence.

This protects not only you as the client- but also the public. It ensures that those who are not intellectually trained, informed, and equipped to handle complex trauma, and other clinical symptoms- are not able to cause harm to the clients who decide to work with them.

Continuing education/professional development classes are required to maintain licensure

Unlike the field of coaching, therapists are held to a high standard of professional development and upkeep of current trends in their field of expertise to maintain their license.

This ensures we are always providing the latest evidence-based care.

For example, as a licensed master social worker- I have to complete 45 hours of continuing education every two years, specializing in areas like complex trauma, PTSD, Sex & Human Trafficking, and other topics to assist clients in having the life and relationships they desire.

Some examples of other specialties & modalities that therapists have to receive continuing education in are:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This is an evidence-based psychotherapy approach that’s designed specifically to treat trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Addiction and recovery

  • Eating disorder recovery

  • Marriage & Relationship Therapy

  • Emotionally Focused Therapy

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

And so much more.

Therapy can address the root of emotional pain.

Therapists can help clients process deep-rooted pain from past experiences that drive current struggles. This involves guiding clients into exploring narratives and perspectives that are underlying the trauma that they have experienced.

While it’s unethical for individuals to use coaching as a means to explore the symptoms and painful experiences they have had- many evidence-based therapeutic methods are equipped and effective in addressing them adequately.

Here are some examples of experiences that clients can present with that can be resolved in therapy: 

  • Anxiety linked to abusive relationship;

  • Depression rooted in childhood emotional neglect;

  • PTSD triggered by car accident;

  • Substance abuse or dependence that led to divorce.

The direct result of therapy is to address and treat the symptoms of mental health that are presented.

While the byproduct of coaching is improved mental health- the direct result of therapy is rooted in improving the mental health of the individuals who participate in it. Of course- results might vary depending on the relationship, safety, and trust the client has with their therapist to truly experience the transformation the client deserves.

Access, affordability, and financial factors also influence a client’s ability to truly benefit from therapy. However- the hope is that a skilled therapist has been trained and equipped to use trauma-informed frameworks to be able to compassionately help the clients they work with.

What Are the Similarities Between Coaching and Therapy?

Even though there are distinctions between coaching and therapy, it's important to note they aren't completely different on all fronts. At the core, both are client-centered – and prioritize the client’s agenda and self-reported experiences to guide the exploration of presenting issues affecting their quality of life in the session.

 Both have the goals of establishing trust, utilizing active listening skills and should demonstrate non-judgment when engaging in either practice. In addition to these- goals that will guide the clients’ engagement in either process are formulated early on so that the client’s needs are always centered.

How To Decide Between Coaching and Therapy

It’s important to note that in deciding between hiring a therapist or coach- you don’t have to choose. You can work with both. In working with both a therapist and coach, they become a part of your “life team”. In a perfect world- they collaborate and work in harmony to address all the core areas of your personal and professional life.

But if you know that your primary focus is your mental health- and quality of life as a result of it- it’ll be important to prioritize therapy first to establish a baseline level of functioning. This is what will allow you to pursue your goals with a coach- without compromising your mental health in the process.

However- if you recognize in a discussion with your doctor that you don’t present with any current clinical symptoms, but still desire to address your professional goals- then coaching offers solutions that could be a better fit for you to start with.

Remember - as your needs evolve, you may find yourself working more with one over the other during different seasons of life. Staying aware of your mental & emotional state, along with your goals- can help you assess what type of support fits best right now.


I hope that this blog post helped you understand the difference between a therapist and a coach. I feel so blessed and honored to have the ability to serve clients in both capacities- as I truly care about helping my clients be well, and feel well.

If you're a Coach who desires to go even deeper with your ability to remain in your zone of genius with clients- while also understanding ethical ways to support your clients who report having mental health concerns- I invite you to enroll in my self-paced digital course: Destroy the Mindset Drama.

Destroy the Mindset Drama is a 7-week self-paced course that teaches coaches & consultants evidence-based coaching methods to elevate their clients' results, and increase client retention.

Inside Destroy the Mindset Drama, ⁣you will:

-Receive an in-depth exploration of 3 evidence-based coaching approaches & strategies to include in your coaching toolbox to facilitate deeper transformations with your clients;⁣

-Deep dive into the difference between mindset and mental health and how it shows up with your clients;⁣

-Understand what the 14 foundational coaching skills are that could be missing from your toolbox;⁣

-Be educated on ethical coaching approaches and skills to use with clients of marginalized backgrounds who may experience systemic barriers and unique lived experiences than your own;⁣

-Have access to Resources, Assessments, and Templates to assist with professional development and integration of skills and tools into your practice⁣

-Receive access to a Bonus Guest Expert Training by a Client Learning Expert with expertise in adult learning theory- on creating your unique coaching framework. ⁣

So if you desire to join the 160+ students in this course- go to the sales page here and hop inside!


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