Do You Need a Therapist, a Life Coach Or Just a Good Friend?

Posted on: April 16th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti 2 Comments

I love the Beetles song, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’. Do you remember the chorus?

I get by with a little help from my friends
Do you need anybody?
I need somebody to love
Could it be anybody?
I want somebody to love

We all have times in our lives when we need some extra support. We have times when we struggle with challenges, struggle with change and struggle with other people. The question we need to ask is how much extra support do I need? Will I cope just with the support of friends, or is it time I got some professional help?

Friends versus professional help

I think you have to be very careful not to over burden friends. Yes, it’s wonderful to have good friends to lean on during hard times but you have to be careful not to wear them down. Research has shown that just talking about problems is therapeutic. But remember your friends have their own challenges. Are they really in a position to also carry your burdens?

There is no shame in reaching out for professional help when times are tough. More than once I’ve said that it is a sign of strength to acknowledge you have a problem and reach out for the right support. But when do you need a therapist (a counsellor or psychologist) and when would a life coach be better?

The qualifications of professionals

Counsellors and psychologists usually have more formal qualifications than life coaches. In Australia to be a counsellor you need either a graduate diplomaorthree-year bachelor’s degree in counselling. To be a psychologist you need to be even more educated. You need a four year undergraduate degree in psychology (a bachelor plus an honours year). On top of that you need at least two years practical experience as a registered provisional psychologist. This is often done as part of a Masters Degree or you can go to a three to four year doctorate. Life coaches usually get certificates through accredited life coaching programs. For example the International Life Coaching Federation runs courses.

If I had to come up with one simple sentence to describe the difference between therapists and life coaches I’d say if you have a real problem, see a therapist (preferably a psychologist)and if you want to take your life to the next level  and make improvements to an already stable life, see a life coach.

Long-term problems versus short-term problems

Therapists are health professional who help people address long-term problems often caused by unhealthy thinking habits. They look at whether past traumas have created destructive habits that need to change. They help people identify problems in relationships and look at how behaviour can be modified to address the problem. Therapists sometimes encourage patients to spend time looking at their past and pinpoint past hurts and the impact these hurts have had on their lives. At other times therapists just focus on changing patterns of thought and behaviour in the now. 

In contrast a life coach helps people progress. Their clients usually have it together but want more! Life coaches can work with people short-term or long-term. They want their clients to identify goals and formulate plans to achieve those goals. Life coaches can help you achieve in multiple areas – personally, professionally, in relationships, even with creative projects. A life coach can help you create a business plan, work on communication skills, achieve financial security, achieve a work life balance or even start a new creative project. If you are fit and healthy but want to shed 5kg, you might want to think about getting either a personal trainer or a life coach, depending on whether the impediment to weight loss is physical or emotional. If you have tried a personal gym coach but can’t change your lifestyle or diet, try working with a life coach who may help you find the motivation and organisation you need to lose that weight.

If you have an eating disorder, or are obese and over-eating because you have not yet come to terms with a childhood trauma, I’d say it is worth seeing a psychologist. Your GP can give you a referral to a psychologist and Medicare will subsidise 10 sessions. A therapist can help you deal with trauma, explore destructive past relationships, recover from depression and anxiety and substance addiction and survive a divorce or death of a loved one. Psychologists are for life’s ‘top-shelf’ problems, while life coaching is more an energy drink!

Life coaches do not diagnose

Life coaches focus on creating a new life plan to achieve goals. They focus on the present whereas a psychologist helps you resolve past emotional problems so you can move untroubled into the future.  Life coaches do not diagnose their clients while counsellors and psychologists will diagnose people with personality disorders like co-dependency, if their patient have real problems.

A psychologist may help a patient explore and understand their subconscious and unconscious mind. Life coaches want to know what actions you are going to take to get results. Life coaches measure success with key performance by agreeing on key indicators with their client. Life coaches make you accountable to your own goals!

Both therapists and life coaches work towards helping you make positive changes in your life. 

Associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, David Spiegel recently told Huffington Post that everyone should be open to seeking professional guidance when it comes to their emotional health.

“We’re social creatures, fundamentally, so talking to people can be a real source of support and help,” Prof Spiegel told The Huffington Post. “But it won't happen if you don't give it a try.”

Regardless of whether you see a therapist or a life coach, you have to be prepared to open up and talk about your challenges. Both are there to help you unravel a problem and then find a solution, and both will ask you to do some of the emotional work!


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


  1. Mel O’loughlin says:

    Love your article and have wanted to seek the guidance from a life coach could you make some recommendation I live in Brisbane?
    Many Thanks

    • Pat Mesiti says:

      Hi Mel,
      There are life coaches that specialise in different aspects of your life, best to do a search on Google based on what you’re looking to get help for.

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