Life coach vs therapist: which one is right for you? We asked the experts

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Both therapists and life coaches can add value to your mental health and well-being, but their missions are different.
Both therapists and life coaches can add value to your mental health and well-being, but their missions are different.
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  • Therapists and life coaches can play an influential role in your life, depending on your needs or goals.
  • But therapists and life coaches have different missions when it comes to helping people change their lives.
  • News24 chatted to a psychologist and life coach for clarity in helping you choose between the two.

You may have noticed that more and more people are tapping into the benefits of therapy and life coaching. 

Your best friend has a therapist to help them manage their anxiety. Your colleague has a coach to set boundaries with their loved ones.

Perhaps you’re inspired to take better care of your mental and emotional well-being, or you could be contemplating a bold move in your life and want guidance. So how do you decide between a therapist or a coach?

The two are often part of the same conversation, but there are essential differences in the kind of help they provide. 

Knowing the difference between the two roles is an essential first step. We chat with a psychologist and life coach to help you narrow down which one is a better fit for you. 

Life Coaching

Coaching helps people tap into their potential and unlock sources of creativity and productivity, says the SA Charter Chapter of the International Coaching Federation (ICF). They further explain:

“Coaching [is] partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment.”

Depending on what you want to achieve, you may need a coach who specialises in a particular area, such as a life coach, leadership coach or career coach. 

Zay-yan Fakier, certified life coach and owner of Calming Effex, tells News24 that a coach is goal-oriented and, together with the client, will create a structure to support their personal goals and aspirations.

Someone to hold you accountable

“If you’re somebody that likes to be held accountable, then a life coach is for you,” says Zay-yan.

Whether you want to go from procrastination to being proactive, achieve a better work-life balance, or set firm, healthy boundaries with loved ones, think of a life coach as a sounding board who can help you get there.

“As life coaches, we are taught to ask the right questions,” says Zay-yan, so a critical part of her role involves listening closely to her clients to understand their circumstances fully.

READ MORE | Life got you feeling stuck? Consider a life coach

Importantly, if she picks up that a client has mental health concerns, she refers them to a qualified therapist, such as a registered counsellor or psychologist. “A lot of times, if a client is unsure about whether they need to see a coach or a therapist, I give them the first session free and then take it from there,” she says.

Seeing a therapist

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or past traumas, a licensed therapist trained in solutions-focused work will help you work through it and heal. 

Registered psychologist and owner of Conscious Psychology, Sanam Naran, says mental health is crucial to our well-being.

“This is the very reason psychologists train up to eight years to be able to treat clients,” she says. Only six to 13 students are selected each year to become psychologists. Sanam adds:

“Human behaviour and mental health are extremely precarious and intricate. We have a huge influence on whether a person gets worse or better.

"If you are seeing a professional that isn’t registered with the HPCSA - the governing body that ensures you are adequately trained - you may ultimately cause more damage to your mental health, which can sometimes be the deciding factor in whether a person decides to go through with suicide or not.”

So when is it best to see a therapist?

When life begins to feel overwhelming, or if you develop unbearable symptoms or have reached your emotional and mental limits, it is a good idea to speak to a therapist. Sanam says that you are already in crisis or survival mode at this point, and it is best to seek therapy before then.

“I always say, the best time to [go to] therapy is right now. If you want to improve your quality of life, live a more fulfilling life and get to know yourself on a much deeper level, you should consider therapy,” she says.

In a nutshell

To sum it up, here is when to see a life coach versus when you should consider therapy.

Life coach:

  • You feel stuck in your life or career and want to set goals to help you feel ‘unstuck’.
  • You want someone to hold you accountable for achieve these goals.
  • You have goals in mind but need a professional to help you work towards them. 
  • You want to challenge yourself to be more creative and break out of your comfort zone.

Therapist:

  • You experience mental health symptoms that are distressing.
  • You want to work on past traumas.
  • You want to work on developing strategies to help you cope with specific triggers.
  • You need support navigating difficult emotions.

Short- and long-term

Therapy and life coaching can be short- or long-term, depending entirely on the person. 

Says Sanam: “If a client’s goal is to solely deal with the loss of their mother, for example, then the focus in therapy will just be on this. However, if you are looking to deal with years of trauma or stay in therapy for maintenance over the course of your lifetime, it may be a longer journey. Bear in mind that therapy takes time and is not a linear journey.”

Past vs future

Generally, a therapist would probe your past, present and future, while a life coach focuses on the future. 

“We don’t go back into the past the way a psychologist does. The most important thing is to create a structure to help support the client’s goal,” says Zay-yan.

READ MORE | 5 tips on how to find the best therapist for your situation

Sanam explains: “With psychotherapy (therapy with a psychologist), there are different modalities. This includes psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy, solution-focused therapy, and so on. 

“We choose a specific modality based on what would be best for a specific client. Some of these modalities are rooted in the past and present, while some modalities are rooted in the present and future. We tailor our approaches to what would suit the client best.”

How do sessions differ in time and cost?

Sessions with psychologists are 50 to 60 minutes long, and fees typically range from R900 to R1 300 per session. Most medical aids cover these charges. A hospital medical plan can also include therapy sessions if certain criteria are met.

“The truth is, this rate is steep for most; however, you rather give yourself the best possible care than not,” says Sanam, adding that “there are psychologists who are also willing to provide clients with reduced rates or payment plans.”

A life coaching session is generally 60 minutes long, although it can be slightly shorter if you want to see a coach regularly, such as every week. Cost per session ranges from R600 to R950, says Zay-yan.

READ MORE | Your random act of kindness impacts a person's happiness a lot more than you may realise

Regarding taking care of ourselves, it’s important to acknowledge that we may need a team of people to help us, says Zay-yan.

“Sometimes, you don’t only need a life coach, or a psychologist or dietitian, for instance. You have to look at your body as a whole. You have to look at your nervous system, talk therapy, body therapy, wellness, health, what you are putting into your stomach, who you are following and what you are seeing on social media, who is there to support you and what your community is like.

“Healing doesn’t happen in one direction - you’re going to go back and forth, and you’re going to fail, but you have to pick yourself up and know that it’s not only one thing that’s going to help you to get to where we need to be.”


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