What’s the Difference Between a Spiritual Director, Therapist, or Life Coach?

For the Q & A articles, I try to address questions I receive most often. Lately I’ve been getting emails from people asking about the various ways they can receive professional help as they navigate their situation. The questions usually go something like this:

I’ve been having a difficult time finding a therapist who really understands my situation and is trained in domestic abuse. I also need someone who shares my morals and faith. I’m now thinking about finding a spiritual director instead of a therapist, or maybe a spiritual life coach. What’s the difference between a spiritual director, therapist, and a life coach?

As a spiritual director, certified wellness consultant, and a trauma-informed Catholic life coach, I’ll do my best to answer your questions.


Fr. Thomas Dubay, in Seeking Spiritual Direction, outlines what spiritual direction is—and what it’s not. In particular, he makes the crucial point of stating that spiritual direction isn’t psychological advice or helping an individual “solve” a life crisis.

The focus of spiritual direction is prayer, discernment, and your personal walk with Christ.

Spiritual direction is “help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to that personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

(William Barry and William Connolly)

This type of direction can aid you in developing, nurturing, and cherishing a closer relationship with our Triune God. Certainly life problems can be helped or even resolved through the discernment gained in spiritual direction, but that’s not the focus of the director/directee relationship.

The heart of spiritual direction is union with God and developing an awareness of how to listen to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirt (1 Kings 19:12). A spiritual director will help you connect with the Holy Spirit in the way He longs to connect with you.

Now that we’ve established what a spiritual director does, let’s dive into the difference between a life coach and a therapist.

If you’re in a state of immediate and continuous trauma, I suggest you consult a trauma-informed mental health practitioner. Someone qualified, who shares your values and Christian faith, can be of immense benefit to you.

If, however, you’re in a safe place and seeking to heal from the trauma and abuse that you’ve endured, a coach may be a great fit for you.

A therapist will guide you through your past trauma and offer a diagnoses based on what you’ve experienced or your current symptoms. A spiritual coach can’t give you a psychological label, but can still provide you with insight into your past, and help you realize how your past has informed your present life.

Christian coaching focuses on a certain problem or area of growth, and sessions will help you gain awareness, insight and prayerful discernment about your areas of concern. This will help you set goals and move forward into a healthier future. Working through a Catholic viewpoint, prayer and Christ-centered discernment are also a part of this type of coaching relationship.

I’m a trauma-informed coach, which means I’ve had specific training—both professionally and personally—in abuse and trauma, particularly prolonged trauma such as in cases of domestic violence.

In my personal coaching and spiritual direction ministry, I focus on trauma because it’s a “been there, done that” situation. I know trauma because I’ve endured trauma—for decades. Even so, being a “trauma informed” coach or therapist takes more than personal experience. Experience is crucial, and is the primary foundation of this sort of ministry. Yet specialized training is also necessary.

Use discernment and make use of prayer as you search for a professional to help along your healing journey. Unfortunately, some Catholic spiritual directors and coaches embrace and encourage the use of New Age practices such as the yoga (supposedly for relaxation and stress relief), the enneagram, Centering Prayer, and mandala meditation.

None of these practices are Catholic, and none are approved by the Church.

It’s crucial to stay away from false spiritual practices as you seek a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ—through the power of the Holy Spirit and protection of God the Father—in order to heal from life’s wounds.

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  • Focuses on your prayer life.

  • Explores the development of spiritual discernment, growth, and your personal walk with God.

  • Helps you discern the will of God in your life, or in specific situations.

  • Identifies obstacles that may be preventing you from developing a more fruitful spiritual life.

  • Has a goal of diagnosing certain areas of concern, and guides you in eliminating those issues, or at least coping with them in a healthier manner.

  • Counseling is generally therapist-led: your therapist takes the lead, and guides you along your path.

  • If you’re being triggered many times throughout the day, experience serious trauma responses due to those triggers, or are in active crisis, counseling may be the best fit for you.

  • If your life feels unmanageable on a daily basis, counseling can help you address those feelings, and hopefully resolve or diminish them.

  • A counselor or psychotherapist tends to focus on the “why” you react the way you do to the challenges in your life.

  • First and foremost, coaching is client-led: this means that you take the lead in regards to your goals and needs, yet allow your coach to guide you with suggestions based on your own insights and goals.

  • Coaches can’t diagnose or label; instead, educated coaches realize that the trauma responses vary depending upon each person and what they’ve experienced—and that’s normal. There’s no “good” or “bad.” We all have different parts to ourselves which need to be integrated. Balance and integration is the key, not diagnoses.

  • Although coaching can explore past traumas, it does so in order to help you gain insight into who you truly are and what your God-given talents may be, especially in light of the trauma journey. This helps you achieve the life you desire—and deserve—according to God’s will.

  • A coach focuses on the “how” to heal from your woundings or achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself, rather than the “why” of counseling.

  • Coaching, like counseling, asks who you are, and where you want to be.

As always, I encourage my readers to contact me with any questions.

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