By Dawn Ferrara PsyD, LPC, LMFT

Life coaching… you’ve probably heard the term quite a bit lately and maybe even know some friends who have tried coaching of some type. Coaching is becoming one of the most sought after ways to tackle some of life’s challenges using strategies that nurture self-confidence, motivation, and personal fulfillment. Life coaching has received a lot of attention in recent years and with good reason. Coaching (and having someone to walk the path with you) is proving to be a great tool to enhance one’s life and reach those personal goals that can be so elusive when left to our own devices. So what is this new way of achieving our personal best? Let’s take a closer look at life coaching.

Life coaching is relatively new to the world of wellness and self-improvement. For a long time, when someone needed help with a problem or change, they would seek out a therapist or counselor. Sometimes, the person had psychological or emotional issues that created barriers to functioning and needed to be addressed so that they could move forward in their desired direction. A lot of times, though, therapists would see clients who were generally stable and functioning well but needed help with achieving success in some aspect of their life such as meeting a personal goal, managing their time better or achieving greater success in their professional lives. These folks didn’t really need therapy as much as they needed a guide or mentor. Therapy wasn’t always the best fit but it was what was available. For someone in an otherwise stable emotional and psychological state, traditional therapy was not the answer. And life coaching was born!

The philosophy behind life coaching is direct and client-centered. To put it in its simplest terms, life coaching recognizes that people are unique and have strengths that they may not even know are within them. People are the experts in their own lives. They are capable of far more than they believe themselves to be. Life is a journey and coaching helps people to discover who they are, what they truly want and realistic ways to pursue and achieve those goals. There’s an old saying about goals—a goal without a plan is just a wish. Sometimes we get so caught up in our wishes we cannot see the path to achieving them. Frustration sets in and we remain stuck wondering why we can never seem to move forward. This is when having someone to help us clarify goals, identify action steps and walk the path with us can be so empowering.

When talking about life coaching, it is first important to define what it is not. Life coaching is not therapy or a substitute for therapy. Coaching is not appropriate for addressing significant emotional, psychological or behavioral issues. Life coaches do not assess or diagnose mental health disorders. In a therapeutic relationship, the therapist is the expert and guides the client through the therapeutic process using various clinical techniques to achieve healing or reduction of symptoms. Emphasis is on past behavior, trauma or experiences and the goal is symptom reduction.

Life coaching has a focus on the present and future. The goal is to help the client achieve the goals that he or she sets by drawing on the strengths and talents that the client already possesses. In the coach-client relationship, the client is considered the expert not the coach. The life coach acts as a mentor, a guide, a cheerleader and an accountability partner. Unlike therapy or consulting, the client decides what the goals are and how they can achieve them. The coach works in partnership with the client to help the client articulate their desires and remain accountable. That process happens through a variety of information gathering techniques that help the client to explore and define their desired goals, what resources they have at their disposal, and what action steps they can take to be successful. Throughout the process, the role of the coach is to provide objective guidance, motivation and support.

One thing to note is that therapy and life coaching don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They do have to occur in the right order and at the right time though. Sometimes, people want coaching but have some psychological or emotional issues to be addressed first. Left unaddressed, emotional issues could be a barrier to success. In that case, the person might first be referred to a therapist to address those needs and later move on to coaching when ready. Conversely, some people might think they need a therapist to seek guidance with making a life change even though they are otherwise emotionally stable and self-motivated. They may not need or want therapeutic intervention and may be opposed to the diagnostic process. In that case, a life coach might be a better choice for them. The bottom line here is that it depends on the individual and what his or her unique needs are. It is not unusual for therapists and life coaches to work collaboratively to refer clients to the type of care that will best meet the client’s needs.

Another question that frequently comes up is whether therapists are coaches or coaches are therapists. The answer is a resounding yes and no. Therapists are trained to diagnose, assess and treat mental health disorders. They are masters level or above clinicians who are licensed to practice independently. They may also be trained and/or certified in coaching. Life coaches are generally trained and certified in some area of coaching but that is not necessarily true. They may simply rely on their own experiences as their calling card and foundation of expertise. Coaching at this time is not regulated in the same way as mental health services because coaching is NOT considered therapy or counseling or psychological treatment. So it is possible to find a life coach who is also a licensed therapist or a therapist who is also certified as a coach. Those with both credentials are in the minority but that trend is changing as the coaching field grows. It can be confusing to someone seeking help but a good provider, regardless of training, will help you find the services that best meet your needs.

An appealing and empowering aspect of life coaching is that sessions are often conducted telephonically and/or electronically (e.g., Skype call, email, text) as well as in person. This allows for flexible scheduling, better access to the coach and client-driven service. Not everyone wants or needs to sit in an office for an hour and for some, that type of format is a deal-breaker. This type of flexible interaction works well for the dynamics of mentoring and accountability.

Life coaching can encompass a wide range of life issues. As the field continues to grow, a number of specialties are emerging. For example, health or wellness coaches focus on overall health and well-being, physical health and fitness, weight management and related issues. Relationship or family coaches focus on strengthening family bonds and communication. Career and financial coaches focus on helping individuals with financial or career goals.

Life coaching can be an empowering and fulfilling experience. The most important factor when considering a life coach is to find the one with the training, experience and approach that best meets your needs. The best training in the world means little if you and your coach don’t connect.

To find a life coach, you can access any number of national registries or search the internet for coaches in your area. You can also ask a friend, physician or other health provider for a recommendation.

Shopping for a good coach (or any other kind of provider) is kind of like buying shoes. You may have to try on a few before you find the perfect fit. Ask if the prospective coach offers a no-cost initial consultation. Ask about experience. Ask the questions you would want to know about someone before entering into a working relationship. And trust your gut. Remember, you are the expert in your own life. If it is not a good fit, no worries. Move on to the next prospect. You know when you connect with someone. When that connection happens, the power of coaching emerges… and it can be life-changing.


Dawn Ferrara
About Dawn Ferrara PsyD, LPC, LMFT
Louisiana | United States

As a therapist-coach, Dr. Ferrara specializes in personal and lifestyle coaching with special interest in Stress Management and Weight Loss/Fitness. She is an ACE-certified Health Coach and a licensed mental health clinician (LPC & LMFT). Her practice is currently limited to personal and wellness coaching.

Dr. Ferrara is a workshop presenter, blogger and author. She is available for speaking engagements as her schedule permits. To read more and for information about speaking availability, please contact Dr. Ferrara at her website.

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