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June 19, 2024/Living Healthy/Wellness

What Is a Life Coach? And Do You Need One?

Life coaches can be great sounding boards, mentors and even friends — but they’re not healthcare providers

Person struggling with life decisions

You snagged your dream job, but you feel like you aren’t progressing fast enough.

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You’re recently divorced and finding online dating as a single parent … complicated.

All those overdraft fees are putting you even further in the red. It’s time to get serious about your finances.

These are a few examples of reasons you might consider hiring a life coach. But what exactly is a life coach? And how do they differ from therapists and health coaches? We asked registered dietitian and health coach Erin Coates, RDN, LD. She shares her perspective and illuminates the (sometimes hazy) differences between these three wellness professions.

What is a life coach?

Let’s start with the basics.

Coates describes coaching as guidance — as the friendly-but-firm push that helps you move forward when you feel stuck.

Life coaches work in the present tense. They help you identify your goals, plan your path forward and overcome obstacles as they arise. They’re equal parts mentor and cheerleader. And the sense of connection between you helps propel you forward.

Life coaches are more informal and action-oriented than mental health providers. While it’s possible you’ll meet in an office, it’s more common to conduct coaching sessions in a neutral location, like a park or a coffee shop. You may also communicate with a life coach by email or phone in between your sessions. Because life coaching is about looking forward and achieving your personal goals, it’s common to leave your meetings with assignments to complete.

Some life coaches focus on specific topics like relationships, fitness, career or spirituality. Others keep their focus broad.

As you might imagine, people turn to life coaches for many reasons. While some work with life coaches for a long time, others use them to address specific concerns. Coates is a good example: She hired a life coach to help her move forward after her brother passed away. Her experience was a positive one.

“I felt like I had somebody I could talk to, somebody who could offer a different kind of support than what I was getting from my family,” she explains.

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What does it take to become a life coach?

Healthcare professionals have to go through extensive training to work with you one-on-one. Life coaches do not. There’s no formal education required to become a life coach, which means it’s important to vet anybody you’re considering working with.

There aren’t any rules about who can be a life coach either. And there’s no central governing body that sets rules or ethical standards. But there are certifications and professional organizations out there that can lend coaches more credibility. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the best known. They offer formal training and award three different certifications: Associate Certified Coach (ACC), Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and Master Certified Coach (MCC).

Benefits of having a life coach

As with any helping profession, there are “good” life coaches and “not-so-good” life coaches. (This is where vetting and research come into play.) Working with a good one has plenty of upsides. They can help you:

  • Better understand who you are, what you value and what drives you.
  • Identify and challenge the patterns in your thinking and behavior that are holding you back from fulfilling your potential.
  • Create SMART goals and realistic action plans for achieving them.
  • Cultivate mindfulness, focus and positivity.
  • Build self-confidence, and problem-solving, time management and other life skills.
  • Stay motivated, accountable and self-aware.

The difference between a therapist and a life coach

We turn to psychologists, social workers and licensed mental health counselors for help processing the past and healing in the present. Therapy can be a challenging experience.

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While you may do a lot of hard work with a life coach, too, that work should focus on the present and the future. And it should leave you feeling empowered.

Coates explains that many people work with a therapist and a life coach at the same time. That kind of holistic care can be helpful, especially in challenging seasons of life.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re struggling with addiction, the most severe form of substance use disorder (SUD). Getting sober often involves extensive therapy, community support and, in some cases, medical intervention.

But the work doesn’t end once you’re sober. Staying sober requires hard work. A good therapist can help you sort through your feelings, understand your behavior, confront past traumas and learn healthier ways to cope with tough emotions.

Some people hire life coaches who specialize in addiction recovery (also known as sober coaches) to provide additional support. While therapists and health coaches don’t usually share details of their private lives, many sober coaches have a history of addiction themselves. And they use their experiences to mentor others.

Therapy is great for understanding and changing your behavior. But it happens on a set schedule. Wobbles and relapses usually don’t. Hiring a sober coach means you have somebody in your corner supporting you unconditionally, without judgment, that you can call whenever you need help.

The difference between a life coach and a health coach

They both have “coach” in the name. And lots of life coaches specialize in health-related topics. But a health-focused life coach isn’t the same thing as a health coach.

Health coaches are medical professionals who help you make lifestyle changes to improve your health. They use therapeutic techniques like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy to help you understand and overcome obstacles. To become a national board-certified health and wellness coach (NBC-HWC), you have to get formal training. They also have to follow privacy laws like any other medical professional.

Still not sure how a life coach and a health coach differ? Let’s return to the example of addiction recovery.

Addiction can hurt both your physical and mental health. And struggling with wellness issues like stress, nutrition or sleep can threaten your sobriety. A health coach may be just what you need to get back on track and cultivate healthy habits. While therapists and life coaches can offer advice, health coaches are experts on these topics. They’re trained to ask questions and co-design plans that work for your unique needs. They also provide accountability, which can be a powerful motivator.

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Do you need a life coach?

Life coaches aren’t necessarily a need-to-have. But — according to Coates — a well-trained one can certainly be a nice-to-have.

“Everyone can use support processing their thoughts in life,” she empathizes. “We can always benefit from working with somebody with a good listening ear that can ask spot-on reflective questions.”

Unfortunately, life coaches can be expensive. And because they aren’t healthcare providers, insurance plans don’t cover them.

If a life coach isn’t in your budget, it’s worth noting that most insurance plans cover at least some kind of mental health support, like individual or group therapy. Health coaches are also becoming more accessible: Some health insurance plans cover them and their services may be available through a workplace employee wellness program.

Wellness is a broad topic. And the lines between therapy, health coaching and life coaching often blur. That’s not a bad thing if you’re working with ethical providers. In fact, it’s common for life coaches to refer clients to therapists or health coaches (and vice versa). But keep an eye out for these red flags:

  • Diagnosing conditions. Your life coach can’t order or administer medical tests. And they should never diagnose you with a health condition.
  • Offering cures. If a life coach claims they can heal you, walk away.

If you aren’t sure whether you need to see a therapist, health coach or life coach, schedule a consultation with each.

How to find a life coach

The process of finding a life coach is more involved than finding a therapist or a health coach because you need to go the extra mile to vet them. Here are a few questions to ask during your search:

  • What is their background and area of interest? For example, if you’re planning to start a small business, make sure you’re working with a life coach with expertise in that area.
  • Do they have any formal education in mental health? Some licensed mental health providers offer life coaching services in addition to therapy. If you feel like your needs blend between these types of care, consider getting a life coach with formal training in both.
  • Do they have any references? A good life coach should be able to provide you with references from satisfied clients.
  • Are they a credentialed member of ICF or another professional coaching organization? If the person you want to work with is a current ICF member in good standing, you’ll be able to find them through the organization’s verify a coach page.
  • How do you feel about the contract? A good life coach is going to set expectations from the start with a contract. That contract should specify the commitment, the cost and any additional fees. Read the contract and make sure you’re comfortable with the terms.

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The extra legwork you have to do to find the right coach frequently pays off.

“Most of the people I know who’ve worked with life coaches left the experience feeling it was really valuable,” Coates shares. “That’s especially true when they work with someone who’s qualified.”

If you can afford one, a good life coach can make a difference. But if that’s not in the cards for you, don’t get discouraged.

“So much of coaching is creating a mindset,” she says. “Because if your mindset is in the right place, you can create lasting change.” You (yes, you!) are the one who’s going to make big things happen, with or without a life coach along for the ride.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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