THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
coaching and therapy
Life coaching and psychotherapy are both wonderful tools for personal development. They both help you understand yourself better and they both have therapeutic potential—but they differ in focus and approach.
What is the difference and which is right for you?
In short, the main difference between life coaching and psychotherapy is that life coaching focuses on unlocking potential, achieving life objectives and taking steps towards a fulfilling personal and professional life, while psychotherapy focuses on treating mental health conditions such as trauma, dysfunction, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and burnout.
With life coaching, the focus lies in the present and future, while in psychotherapy, we focus mainly on the present and past as we work to discover how you are hindering your own growth, and start the process of emotional healing.
Psychotherapy usually continues over a longer duration than life coaching, anywhere from a few months to a few years, while life coaching sessions usually end after three to six months, with some clients extending their sessions up to 12 months.
For a more in-depth understanding of how the processes differ between in-person or online life coaching and psychotherapy, here are two personal stories. Due to the confidential nature of my work, the stories are fictionalized based on my experiences.
A Story of Life Coaching
‘I used to feel much more joy and excitement, and now I feel I’m in a purposeless hamster wheel. I have lost touch with who I really am and what feels meaningful.’
Anne is in her mid-30s and works as a creative director for a big fashion label. She has a partner and is thinking of having kids but is unsure when to make time for it.
‘I overthink everything – from what my boss wrote me in an email, to what my partner told me the other day. I feel so stressed that I’ve thought about quitting my job.’
She had doubts about life coaching because she didn’t want to add another appointment to her already full schedule. She was also nervous that she wouldn’t find the right coach or reach the results she wanted.
In our first session, she already started to feel a sense of hope. She realized that positive life changes would come if she took ownership of her life.
But during the following sessions she began to get impatient. She urgently wanted to reach her goals and see results and forgot to take a moment to reflect on what she already had, and what she longed for.
‘What do I need to do??’ she asked.
I challenged her to stay present and look at what was blocking her in terms of limiting beliefs, attitudes or an out-of-date self-image.
‘I don’t want to be seen as lazy, it’s a waste of time to just lie on the sofa.’
While working on the belief “selfish means being mean”, we discovered that Anne never allows herself to rest. In the evenings and sometimes on weekends, she answers work emails until late at night.
‘I feel guilty when I do something just for me.’
We unraveled what was in her way to saying no to overworking and discussed friendships that dragged her down. She started to be more loving towards herself and took steps to rediscover what brought her joy.
At one point I noticed she felt a strong resistance. Becoming more self-aware meant she needed to face her fears:
‘What if I get fired if I don’t work hard enough? What if my friend will not like me if I tell her the truth? What will other people say when I think more about myself?’
Our focus in our life coaching sessions was to be in the now, for Anne to become aware of her fears in the present moment. We drew from her past to understand how she relates to life today, but in contrast to what we might do in psychotherapy, we did not heal wounds from her childhood.
With time, she let her authentic voice be heard so she could start speaking her truth. After knowing and feeling what she really wished for, we could focus on creating a vision for her future.
At the end of our coaching programme, she had discovered that by making changes within herself and finding her way back to joy, she had regained a sense of control over her life. She was now able to set healthy boundaries and live with intention instead of just letting life happen to her.
After life coaching, she no longer judged herself when she didn’t work hard enough. She also began to enjoy her work again, and discovered, to her surprise, that even though she worked less, she achieved the same results as before—and her performance was oftentimes even better!
Now, after giving herself permission to push less and rest more, both her mental and physical health have improved: she sleeps better, has less back pain and she has deepened her relationship to herself, her partner and her friends.
During our last session together, I see a woman excited about the future.
A Story of Psychotherapy
‘Something is wrong with me. I work so hard, earn good money, live in a nice apartment, have nice friends… but I still don’t feel happy… I constantly feel something is missing.’
Joanne had hesitated to contact me because she thought psychotherapy was only for people who were mentally ill. She often compared herself to others and justified her hesitation with: ‘my problems are not as serious as other people’s.’
One day she ended up having a panic attack in the middle of a presentation at work and she realized it was time to reach out for help.
Joanne is in her late-30s and works as a corporate lawyer at a mid-sized law firm. She is American, moved to Berlin 10 years ago and still struggles to feel at home in the city.
‘I have been single for a long time and I long to have a relationship, but on the other hand I’m fine alone. I’m so used to my routine and I don’t know if I’m ready to let someone in.’
During our first psychotherapy session I asked about her background. She told me about the small town where she grew up and about her parents who had always worked hard, and had placed a high value on her education and on how she behaved in front of others. There hadn’t been a lot of time for play and laughter.
‘I quickly became an adult and I think I cut off that part of me who liked to role play and just be silly.’
She described her mother as ‘not emotionally available’ and her father as someone ‘with critical eyes’. When he entered the room, she always prepared herself for a judgmental comment.
Joanne told me there weren’t many conflicts at home, but there also wasn’t much affection or joy. The atmosphere was tense and everyone was always swallowing their emotions, both the positive and the negative.
‘I still remember how when I came home from school and something troublesome had happened to me, my mom would say “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”’
We discovered that one of the reasons Joanne worked so hard was to numb her emotions—a strategy that had worked well for her when she was younger. Since emotions hadn’t been welcome in her family she learned to shut them off by keeping busy.
‘The only time my parents showed any type of affection was when I came home with good grades or when I had been a nice girl.’
Through reenactment we slowly came closer to her unresolved and unfelt emotions. She gradually started to speak to her parents about how she had felt as a child.
‘I feel so much better now when I go and visit them. I’m not as tense anymore.’
With time, Joanne started to become more aware of her negative self-talk, which always pushed her to work harder and not rest until she had worked hard enough. This inner judge made her feel she was never good enough.
‘It makes me so sad when I think how unkind I am to myself.’
Slowly she saw light at the end of the tunnel. She stopped blaming her parents for stealing her childhood and letting her grow up too fast. Joanne gave herself permission to rest more and stopped working late at night. She noticed how she started sleeping better and had more energy.
With her newfound sense of vitality she was ready to focus on her longing for a partner. We learned how she had unconsciously been sabotaging every potential romantic relationship, always pushing them away when they came too close emotionally.
Slowly, Joanne started opening up to love and began to trust that she was worthy of a great relationship.
Please note: This information is not intended as advice and is provided by Katarina Stoltz from her experience working as both life coach and psychotherapist.