What Is Life Coaching?


Updated August 17, 2022

Interest in life coaching is growing, both from the client's perspective and among students who are exploring different career paths. But what is a life coach, and how do you become one?

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Interest in the profession of life coaching has been climbing in recent years. According to the International Coaching Federation's (ICF) most recent report, the number of life coaches in North America increased by 33% from 2015-2019.

Life coaching can be a great way to earn a living by helping people. But what exactly is a life coach, and how do you become one? We talked to a psychologist who incorporates life coaching into her practice to answer these questions and find out how the professions can overlap.

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Featured Expert: Jisun Sunny Fisher, Ph.D.

Portrait of Jisun Sunny Fisher, Ph.D.

Jisun Sunny Fisher, Ph.D.

Jisun Sunny Fisher, Ph.D., is a New Jersey-based licensed psychologist who blends coaching and counseling into her work with clients. She aims to help people "connect with their purpose, build relationships, and live with confidence, clarity, and conviction."

Fisher earned her graduate degrees from Columbia University and the University of Connecticut. She has trained in positive psychology, neurolinguistic programming, and hypnosis.

Therapy vs. Life Coaching

Therapy and life coaching are foundationally different professions and services.

"Therapy is about helping you to identify what particular life experiences you've had that limit the way that you show up and how you see yourself in this world," Fisher explains. "Therapy goes through actually exploring what particular life experiences you've had in the past and clearing a lot of the baggage and the hurt and pain."

"The coaching piece comes once you've done that work and we're ready to say, 'Okay, let's be intentional about how you do want to live your life.' What strengths would you like to find in yourself? What inspires you and what are you passionate about?"

The two professions require different levels of training. Therapists are licensed mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. This requires a master's degree for most counselors and a doctorate for psychologists.

There are technically no educational requirements to become a life coach. While there are life coach certifications available, they are not mandated. Virtually anyone can market their services as a life coach.

Although the roles are distinct from one another, both provide a forum for clients to discuss their fears, relationships, problems, and aspirations.

Life coaches might even incorporate psychotherapy to use with clients. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — one of the most well-known forms of therapy — focuses on the circular relationship among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many life coaches use this framework to help clients reshape unhelpful thinking patterns.

However, therapists employ many other treatment methods besides CBT. One example is psychoanalytic therapy, which explores deeply buried thoughts, traumas, and often negative childhood experiences. This is outside of the realm of life coaching, which focuses mainly on clients' present behaviors and how they relate to future goals.

When to See a Therapist vs. a Life Coach

Both therapy and coaching can help individuals find fulfillment and happiness. But knowing which one will be beneficial to you, as a client, can be tricky. And making the incorrect choice can delay progress.

"I actually have had some clients come to see me and say, 'I've gone through years of coaching, but I feel like I'm right back where I started,'" Fisher says.

"It makes so much sense," Fisher continues, "because it doesn't matter how much coaching you go through to be the best version of yourself. If you haven't gone back and faced your shadows and done the healing work, all the stuff that we add as part of the coaching … really doesn't help us to show up authentically."

Life coaching is not a fast-track pass to happiness and fulfillment. As Fisher says, if there is trauma to work through or healing to be done, that must be addressed before life coaching. However, there's a point in which therapy's positive effects begin to plateau.

"Just the therapy alone, the therapeutic component, isn't enough for us to actually be equipped with the resources and the clarity that we need to say, 'This is the kind of person I want to show up as in this world.' And that's where the coaching piece comes in," Fisher says.

If you are still unsure which option is the right fit, schedule a consultation with a therapist or life coach. They can determine if you are a good candidate for their services.

Criticisms of Life Coaching

Life coaching has faced criticism since the beginning of the profession, largely because there is no governing board or licensing body that regulates the field.

"You could have absolutely no experience or training in coaching and still call yourself a life coach," Fisher says.

This allows all kinds of people to market their services as "coaches." Most are well-intentioned, but some are motivated purely by money.

Another factor contributing to the skepticism toward coaching is its association with the self-help movement. This genre of books, workshops, and videos boomed in the 1990s and surged through the 2000s. Best-selling books like "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and "The Secret" have helped millions of people.

However, the self-help genre has also provided an opportunity for fraudsters like Werner Erhard, Osho, and Keith Raniere to exploit people's desire for fulfillment. These are the most notorious examples, but there are many individuals marketing their services who aren't necessarily devious — just ill-equipped to provide advice professionally.

The field's lack of regulation is a double-edged sword. While it can certainly attract insincere opportunists, it also allows those who are truly passionate about helping people to make a living without the huge investment of time and money needed to earn a psychology license.

"Regulations exist to protect the public from being deceived about any particular promise that they're being told will be delivered," Fisher says. "But I feel like sometimes the pendulum swings the other way completely, where it's overly regulated."

"... I don't want people to feel completely limited from being able to provide a service they feel passionate about and they're capable of doing," she explains.

What does this mean for potential clients? Be vigilant when searching for a life coach. Here's what to look for as you explore your options.

  • Experience

    The amount of time that a coach has been working in the field is worth considering. But more important, find out if they have experience that is relevant to your goals. If you're planning to start a business, look for a successful entrepreneur in a similar field. If you dream of moving abroad, look for a life coach who is also an expat. If you're just seeking general fulfillment in life, look for someone who has overcome the same type of challenges you're experiencing.
  • Credentials

    Despite the fact that education is optional, nearly three-quarters of life coaches hold certification from a professional coaching institution. However, there are plenty of quick-earn certificates that don't require much time or effort to complete. Do a quick Google search to find out more about the type of credential or certification a life coach holds.

    ICF-accredited programs are generally considered the gold standard in the industry. The organization's website offers a search feature to verify that a coach has completed an ICF-accredited program.
  • Client Testimonials

    This can be an important indicator in determining whether or not a coach is successful at helping people. When reading client testimonials, look for specific details about how the coach benefited them. Be wary if all of the testimonials sound like they were written by the same person.

How to Become a Life Coach

People who are drawn to coaching often share traits with those interested in becoming therapists, such as patience, empathy, and a passion for helping others.

If you are considering becoming one or the other, you may be tempted to forgo traditional education and jump straight into coaching. However, Fisher says her background in psychology greatly benefits her ability to help clients.

"I can't imagine doing either one without the other at this point in my life," she states. "I went and got the training and have the degrees to provide therapy. If I hadn't gotten certified in things like positive psychology … I would be severely limited in terms of my scope as to how I can help individuals."

This doesn't necessarily mean you need to complete a doctorate to offer coaching services. But depending on the type of life coach you want to become, you should consider pursuing some kind of training.

For example, a career life coach wouldn't be taken seriously without a business education or experience in the corporate world. A nutrition coach would need some form of education in diet and mental health. A general life coach could greatly benefit from completing an associate or bachelor's degree in psychology.

Once you've gained an educational background or experience in a particular area, you may consider completing a coaching-specific certification. Despite the fact that certifications are not required to practice as a coach, they offer a few key benefits.

"Certification and training programs are actually really valuable in terms of [learning] how we approach a client and the types of questions we ask," Fisher says. "And it helps us to set a framework for how we approach whatever it is we're specializing in."

Additionally, earning a certification in coaching boosts your legitimacy to potential clients and connects you with a large professional network and mentorship opportunities.

ICF-accredited programs are considered the most legitimate in the industry. If you are considering enrolling in a life coaching program, check the ICF's database to see if the program is accredited.

Once you've completed an ICF-accredited program and gained a certain number of hours, you can look into earning one of ICF's three credentials. You must renew your credential every three years.


Who should see a life coach?

Generally, people who are seeking to heal inner pain and address past traumas should seek therapy, while life coaching is for people who want to achieve certain goals.

How long does it take to become a life coach?

There are no educational requirements to offer your services as a life coach. However, certification programs usually take 6-24 months to complete.

How much do life coaches make?

According to the ICF's 2020 report, life coaches in North America made an annual average salary of $62,500 in 2019.

Featured Image: Vera Livchak / Moment / Getty Images


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