Written by Stanlee Panelle, M.A.
Professional Personal Life Coach
Former Psychotherapist and Career Counselor


Many people ask: “what exactly is the difference between therapy and coaching?” Well, I feel rather well qualified to answer that question although, there are many styles of both therapy and coaching. From my perspective as both a therapist and a coach I say they are both forms of counseling. Counseling is an age old custom of seeking perspective, guidance, help, advice, wisdom and support from someone else that has more of the thing you want, whether that is experience in something, education and training on certain subjects, or is simply known as a wise and trustworthy person you can count on to help you see your way through something. Back a couple of decades ago, there was a movement in mental health field that produced the category of marriage and family therapist (MFT aka Psychotherapist), specifically designed to be in private practice, counseling people that were functioning in their lives and desired help and support with issues about relationships in life.

It was very different from the mental health workers (Psychologists, Clinical Social Workers) dealing with illness and disease in the medical world and way different than the Psychiatrist (M.D. aka Shrink) type that started this whole professional filed of counseling. Unfortunately, people in this field were not seen as equal to the “doctor” types in the mental health field and they were not covered by health insurance companies because they were not part of the medical field. In short, they felt less than and started lobbying to equalize themselves as a specialty in the field of mental health. Today the MFT category is part of the mental health field and the medical world and is governed by the same board that governs all the other health care categories. They are also covered by many insurances – still not all.

In their every day private practice, they are also still counselors, specifically designated to working with people issues – not illness issues. IN fact, MFT’s often are overlooked in county, government and other employment when competing with LCSWs because they are still not seen as much more than life counselors. Be that as it is in real practice, MFTs must now defer to doctors of some type if there is a physical or mental illness involved. They must also provide their clients with a medical diagnosis of some type of illness if they want to accept insurance payments. They are not qualified to prescribe medication and cannot involuntarily admit someone to a mental hospital. Other law enforcement or medical staff must do so when a Therapist recommends it.

Life Coaching has risen in the place where MFTs originated: Private practice counseling for people living life and wanting support in doing so.

Many if not most Life Coaches are highly educated and trained in the same manner as MFTs but have chosen not to work under the governance and limitations of the medical paradigm or handle their very functional clients as if they were patients with illnesses and diagnosis. Like MFTs, Life Coaches see their clients as whole, functional folk that are brave enough and conscientious enough to know they don’t know it all and therefore ask for expert, professional help with certain aspects of their lives. They are clients, equals, partners, not patients. MFTs and Coaches are counselors, guides, partners, models to their clients, not fixers, or doctors.

I am a trained, experienced Psychotherapist practicing as a Personal Life coach because that’s my “style” of counseling. Some Therapists like to create a style like a doctor, others like a Momy… each is different. The same is true for Life Coaches which is why there are many different “specialization” names for them. I’m pretty sure that when you see Spiritual Coach, it tells you they are probably different in style to a Strategic or Executive Coach … etc. Each counselor/coach/therapist/ creates their own style of presentation, their own type of work and their own way of connecting with and supporting a client. Simply saying that “Life Coaching isn’t the same as Therapy” is kind of like saying Executive Coach Bill isn’t the same as Family Coach Ellen … and then in another way it’s kind of like saying apples aren’t like oranges. True. And True, but … not really. Apples and oranges are fruit and have many of the same nutrients and enzymes, so they are like each other. Executive and Family coaching are both counselors and guides so they too are like each other just as Therapy and Coaching are both meant to partner with a person in achieving the goals they set forth in the best way that they can without having to do it all alone. So they really are like each other!

Meaning no disrespect to Coaching Certification in any way, I have none personally because 6 years of higher education specialized in helping people plus 6 years of supervised, professional training and practice in the art and science of helping people define, create plans for and achieve their goals is pretty powerful qualification for something that some do with a weekend seminar certification. Of course let’s not overlook the basic, nature, personality and life experience of those of us that choose to become people counselors (Life Coaches, Therapists, Professional Counselors, etc.) The time we have spent overcoming difficulties and challenges in our own life, the tools we have learned and developed for successful transition and transformation of our own lives, the experience we have had as clients to Coaches, Therapists, Counselors, Mentors, etc. is a very powerful training ground.

There are a number of highly reputable coach certification programs out there and those who take the time to gain that training are to be commended for sure. I hope that this article has cleared up the muddy waters about the difference between therapy and coaching. Usually the difference is defined by someone that doesn’t really know what therapy is. Perhaps they had a poor experience with a badly matched therapist (or a bad one!) or are just simply prone to holding an archaic opinion of therapy in their mind. When they say the got some coaching or they have become a coach, they want people to feel at ease with the coaching venue and see it as different than therapy – just in case you too have a poor opinion or fear of them. It’s really not. There are as many different types of therapists as there are people in the field. Many are like me … coaches. The only significant difference between the two fields is the education and training requirements and the State Licensing Boards that create limitations around therapy. That’s about it.

Life Coaching and Therapy are the same thing: Counseling. They just do it from different guidelines. The real difference is the individual. My next article will be on How to Choose the Best Counselor for You, of whatever type you like.

Author's Bio: 

Stanlee Panelle, M.A., MFT,
Professional LIfe Coach & Personal Development Facilitator

Specialty Areas: Women's Empowerment; Personal Authenticity; Stellar Self-esteem; Healing Depression.

eBooks, Audio & Self Help Programs: “Stellar Self-Esteem”; “The Authentic You Inside”; "Depression Free Forever!"; "What Next? What Now?"

Career Focus: Personal Life Coach; Group Facilitator; Workshop & Retreat Leader; Author; Speaker; Entrepreneur;


Stanlee Panelle is an experienced authority on the psychology and humanity of Women's Life Transitions, Re-discovering and integrating the Authentic Self and Successfully Overcoming Depression. Over the past decade in addition to her coaching practice, Stanlee has proven her expertise as a Psychotherapist working in the Non-profit sector, LGBT community organizations and private practice helping men, women and teen-agers regain happiness, stability and self-esteem.

Having closed her psychotherapy practice in favor of Life Coaching internationally, Stanlee is available again, for public speaking engagements and live appearances, including her soon-to-be premiered, stand-up comedy act based on some of the experiences of her field.

Along with group facilitation and individual work in person at her personable home office, or long distance via Skype, Stanlee will be releasing new Home Study programs, workbooks and audio programs in the Fall of 2011. To welcome the Healing energy of 2012, Stanlee and her Brazilian Shaman partner will be offering a workshop intensive in January, 2012 in Austin, Texas.