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What life coaching is (and what it isn’t)

May 19, 2022 - 21 min read

life coach in front of a brick wall

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What is a life coach?

Life coaching vs. therapy

7 benefits of life coaching

Types of life coaching

What to look for in a life coach

How to find a life coach

Have you ever thought, “What should I do with my life?” Or, “I don’t feel like I have a purpose.” 

Sometimes, you come to a crossroads in life. It might come in the form of a quarter-life crisis or existential questioning. It might show up at the heels of a big career change or commitment. It might even present itself when you’ve already decided to start over in life — but you’re not sure where to go next. 

In the past decade, the coaching industry has grown exponentially. According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), there are about 71,000 coaches worldwide. 

But that’s the mucky thing about coaching: what is it? Is it therapy? What do you mean by life coaching? How do you know if life coaching actually works? How do you find a life coach that will help you reach your goals? Will coaching help improve your life? 

At BetterUp, we’re big believers in science. We take a data-driven approach to coaching to personalize your mental fitness journey

I’ve been working with my coach for almost six months now. When I first started working with my coach, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And honestly, I didn’t really have specific goals in mind.

I had rough ideas of how I wanted to improve my life but I wasn’t sure how to articulate my areas of opportunity. I wasn’t sure how to properly identify the areas I wanted to improve and where to focus my personal development

But I took our Whole Person Assessment. It’s a science-backed assessment that essentially measures mindsets and behaviors. And according to our Whole Person Model, it can help lead to enhanced well-being, peak performance, increased resilience and productivity, engagement, and more.

It measures things you wouldn’t always anticipate to be included, like rest, purpose and meaning, and self-compassion. But according to science, these are critical components to driving positive behavior changes — so why wouldn’t we measure them? 

It also measures things like focus, strategic thinking, decision-making, and resilience. The Whole Person Model was designed to reflect behaviors that fall into these three categories: 

  • Behaviors that people can change 
  • Behaviors that directly or indirectly impact others 
  • Behaviors that are linked to individual well-being, effective performance, collaboration, and leadership 

After I had a good understanding of where I was starting, it was time to figure out where I was going. I was able to put together a plan with my coach.

I identified areas I wanted to improve. I reflected on my strengths, like empathy, goal attainment, and empowerment. And together, we made small goals to help feed into larger, bigger-picture aspirations.

And sure enough, three months later, I re-took the assessment. I’d grown in areas I’d never imagined, like empowerment, focus, and stress management

A life coach is more than just a cheerleader. A coach can serve as your guide, your trail marker on your journey to finding your purpose. 

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What is a life coach?

First, let’s understand what a life coach is. 

A life coach can help individuals in different areas of their life. But because each human being is different, so will their goals. Oftentimes, a life coach counsels clients in personal and professional arenas. This means career, personal development, relationships, nutrition, divorce, grief, and even financial wellness. 

What does a life coach do? 

It’s important to understand the role a life coach plays. And a lot of the time, that comes down to personalized goals. At BetterUp, our coaches work with members to create personal and professional development goals. Here are just a few examples of what a coach can do: 

Some life coaches also help with things like romantic relationships, dating, divorce, marriage, and more. 

Life coaching vs. therapy

Is life coaching and therapy the same thing? In short, no. But there are some similarities. While life coaching and therapy are both focused on improving people’s well-being, there are distinct differences. Therapists require certain educational and license prerequisites to provide mental health care treatment. 

Coaching, however, is focused on personal and professional development. Coaches will help their clients build and utilize the right tools to reach their goals but don’t (and shouldn’t) offer clinical mental health care. Let’s dig into this more. 

Life coaching 

When comparing life coaching to therapy, here are some key differences: 

  • Life coaches serve as guides through various aspects of your life 
  • Coaching is focused on personal growth and professional development 
  • Coaching can resemble talk therapy, though coaches are not certified therapists and can’t practice 
  • Coaching focuses on achieving goals, behavior changes, shifting perspectives, and overall self-improvement 
  • Coaches can help you improve your physical health, emotional well-being, and financial wellness
  • Coaching is not mental health treatment or clinical care 
  • At BetterUp, our coaches focus on sustainable, behavior changes rooted in positive psychology 


Let’s take a closer look at key characteristics of therapy: 

  • Therapists are trained mental health professionals 
  • Therapists have education and license requirements to practice with clients 
  • Therapists help you to understand your psychological patterns to change behavior 
  • Therapists can diagnose and treat your mental health needs 
  • Therapists can improve your mental health and emotional well-being through various techniques and therapy styles, like CBT, EMDR, and more 
  • Therapists often work with your medical care team to help improve your overall well-being 
  • Some (not all) therapists can prescribe medication for psychological and mental health conditions 

7 benefits of life coaching

When it comes to life coaching, many effects or benefits of coaching come from social science research. At BetterUp, we lean on social and positive psychology to help shape how our coaches work with our members. 

If you’re thinking about life coaching, here are seven benefits to keep in mind: 

  • A growth mindset. A benefit to coaching is a shift in perspective. At BetterUp, we think of this as a growth mindset. With coaching, you can expand and nurture your growth mindset. 
  • Improved self-awareness. Research found that only 10-15% of people studied were self-aware, despite people believing that they are self-aware. But with coaching, you have a guide to reflect on your progress and your levels of self-awareness. Coaching can help you build your self-awareness muscle and ultimately, gain more confidence in knowing who you are. 
  • Improved overall well-being. Coaching can also help improve your overall well-being. Our data also shows that a majority of people who start coaching in a “stuck” period get better. In fact, 77% will significantly improve their well-being state in three to four months with personalized support.
  • Lower stress levels (and better resiliency). The same data cited above shows that with BetterUp, a benefit of coaching is lowered stress levels and better resiliency. 


Limitations of life coaching 

Life coaching and therapy are not the same. There are instances where life coaching may not be what you need right now. 

At BetterUp, we think of mental health and mental fitness as two different things. And while coaching can have positive benefits for our emotional and mental well-being, it's not clinical mental health care. 

For those experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions (like anxiety, depression, bipolar, PTSD, or any other mental illness), seek professional help. A trained mental health professional will be able to support you in your mental health journey, not a life coach. 

Mental health is a spectrum. Some people live with mental health conditions while others experience symptoms at certain points in their life. We do know there’s a massive middle — 55% of people are in a state of languishing. To help prevent that massive middle from sliding down the spectrum, it’s important to build mental fitness. 

And that’s where coaching comes into play. With coaching, you can build a strong mental fitness practice to be better equipped to handle whatever life throws at you. Think of it as a supplemental practice to your mental health care, not a substitute. 

Types of life coaching

There are lots of different types of coaching. Here are some common types of coaching we’ve seen in the industry. 

Individual coaching

  • Mental fitness coaching 
  • Grief coaching (coping with and navigating grief) 
  • Success coaching 
  • Communication coaching 
  • Health and nutrition coaching 
  • Sleep coaching 
  • Intuitive or spiritual coaching 
  • Relationship coaching 
  • Transformational coaching 

Business coaching 

  • Executive coaching 
  • Leadership and development coaching 
  • Sales coaching 
  • Peak performance coaching 
  • Team coaching 
  • DEIB coaching 
  • Career coaching 
  • Communication effectiveness coaching (presenting, interpersonal relationships, and more) 

Here's a closer look at how game-changing coaching has been for JLL. 

What to look for in a life coach

There’s no one answer to what makes a good coach — only what’s a good coach for you. That being said, here are the four most important ways to determine if your coach is a good fit for you.


If you don’t get along with your coach, you won’t get the most out of your coaching sessions. You need to have that element of building rapport with your coach. There’s a lot to be said for finding a coach that you really gel with.

If it doesn’t feel like the right fit, feel free to keep looking — your coach likely won’t take it personally. At BetterUp we encourage Members to keep switching until they find the right person — and our platform makes that easy to do.


Coaches are trained to ask questions and create impactful change in just about any area of life. However, many also specialize in certain fields. You might look for a coach that works with entrepreneurs, executive coaching, or neurodiversity in the workplace.


Soft skills and expertise aside, there are some practical considerations when working with a coach. You’ll want to find someone who’s available to meet when you’re available. If you can, BetterUp suggests meeting with your primary coach at least once a week for the best results.


Lastly, coaching is meant to help you have greater purpose, clarity, and passion in both your personal and professional lives. You and your coach should be able to set goals, work on your plan for achieving them, and celebrate your wins together. 

One of the best benefits of coaching is the accountability a dedicated coach provides. If you don’t feel like coaching is making a positive difference in your life, it’s okay to look for a new coach. It doesn’t mean that they’re a bad coach — just not the right one for you.

How to find a life coach

When it comes to finding a coach, the first step is self-reflection. What are you looking to gain? What goals do you want to achieve? How do you want to show up in your life? What does your full potential look like to you? 

At BetterUp, we take a science-backed approach to helping you find a coach. I talked about our Whole Person Model earlier on, a methodology that spans 25 dimensions to help you become your best self. Once you’ve taken the assessment, you’ll be asked to select a coach that you’ve matched with. 

At BetterUp, our certified coaches will work with you to provide individualized support. With the goal of unlocking your full potential, your coach will be able to help you get unstuck. You will work with your coach to set professional goals, like achieving a better work-life balance or determining your career path

Make sure you look at your coach’s credentials. Are they trained coaches as part of a coaching program? Do they have certifications or other coach training? At BetterUp, we’re building the world’s largest network of certified coaches, including counselors and specialists. Get started today.

When it comes to coaching, BetterUp is here to help you live with greater purpose, clarity, and potential. We’re here to help you reach your full potential, whatever that may look like to you. 

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Published May 19, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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