How to Build a Thriving Therapy Practice: Become Clear About Yourself and Your Work

office picLast week I started a new blog series on Building a Thriving Therapy Practice.

I will be completely honest with you. I don’t consider myself the expert on this topic. No surprise there. I haven’t written any books on it. If that’s what you want, Lynn Grodzki’s books are a great place to start. I’ve read a few of them.

But as I said before, I get 5-6 emails a month from therapy graduate students and those in practice, asking me questions about certain aspects of my practice, or seeing if we could meet up so they could “pick” my brain on the topic.

So the keys that I will share with you that I think are essential in building a thriving private practice I have gleaned from a lot of places. They come from my own successes and failures in my therapy practice, through what I’ve learned in my own personal therapy, skills that were taught to me by therapy business coaches I have worked with…and many things I’m still just exploring.

So today, let’s look at two things that I think are essential if you are going to build a thriving therapy practice. They are actually foundational I believe, and without starting here, you end up getting things backwards at times. I’m telling you this now because I really didn’t start here, and I wish I would have.

Be Clear About Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes that I see in therapy practices is therapists who aren’t clear about themselves. They haven’t done their own therapy work to better understand who they are, how they have been shaped, and made transformational shifts in the process. I am always surprised when I meet a graduate therapy student or practitioner who has never been to therapy themselves, or if they have, it was only a couple times as more of a way to explore the field than to work on themselves. How can we be therapists and not go to therapy ourselves?

I first went to therapy for a couple of months when I was 23 years old. I was just out of college and I knew that the death of my mom when I was 11 from breast cancer was hindering my dating relationships (too many issues on loss and grief and attachment to get into for this post). And that was it. My therapist thought I was doing good work and healthy and so I was done. Then I got married in June of 2005 at the age of 30, and started my MSMFT degree in September of that year. So not only am I now married (and if you are married — you know how marriage has a way of bringing up your issues), but I’m also in classes all day talking about “family of origin” and healthy and unhealthy marriages, etc.

At that point I realized I needed to go to therapy.

It also didn’t hurt that the state of California thought it was essential that therapists go to their own therapy and provided incentives towards that in the licensure process. So the next three years (so during both year of graduate school and one year after) I went pretty much every week. It was quite a journey. That journey continued a bit when I was out here in Dallas, where I had some major breakthroughs in therapy (one of them I write about in the last chapter of my book The Anxious Christian). Currently I’m in a psychodrama training group where I have the opportunity to do some of my own therapy work in our training.

But I believe that every therapist should have a therapist that they see. Sometimes you may see them every week or two for a long season. And other seasons you may seem them sporadically. The point is that you are doing work on yourself, rather than determining some legalistic definition of how often you see your therapist.

But the most important thing is that doing your own therapy work helps you really discover who you are. It helps you manage your issues in session so as not to project them onto those you work with. It helps you do good work. And when you do good work, you contribute to building a thriving therapy practice. But it all starts with doing the work to be clear about who you are, which translates into your practice.

Be Clear About Your Work

Once you begin to get clear about who you are, it’s important to begin to get clear about your work. This is sometimes really hard in the early stages of becoming a therapist, because often we aren’t even sure what we are passionate about in terms of who we want to work with. But in terms of work, I’m asking more about your working day.

What would a successful therapy practice look like to you day in and day out?

No one asked me this question in graduate school, and I don’t even know if I could have answered it for them. But I wish they would have asked nonetheless.

Now I have a lot clearer answer to this question, but I still think it needs to be asked earlier. I still think it needs to be part of the early foundational building.

If you were to ask me right now, What does a successful therapy practice look like to you right now Rhett? I could give you a very long and detailed answer, but for the sake of the post I would say something like this (this is a really generic answer for now, but I just wanted you to see where I am going with this):

I don’t start seeing clients till around 10am or 11am on most days. And that’s only after I have spent the morning doing something I love like working out, reading, time with my wife or kids, prayer (self-care). And then a good day consists of about 5-6 clients max because that’s the number that I feel I have the most emotional energy for and do a great job of working with. And then I would end the therapy day around 4pm or 5pm and head home to be with family.  I could go on and tell you how some days would involve speaking and writing which I love doing.  In fact, last year I went through a business coaching program for therapists with Miranda Palmer and Kelly Higdon.

I loved this program because a lot of the exercises they had me do revolved around me being clear on what kind of therapy practice I wanted. I especially loved their “perfect day” exercise they had me go through which really helped me gain clarity on my therapy practice. I have about 4 typed out pages of what my “perfect day” actually looks like.

As I was saying, I may have not known as a graduate student what number of hours a day of therapy is a good fit for me, or what clients I would love to work with, or what other parts of the practice would really be passionate about. But I still wish the question had been asked.

So if you were to sit down and meet me for coffee today to ask me about building a thriving therapy practice I would start with this sentence:

You need to start by becoming clear about yourself and your work.

And then I would get into some specific recommendations you can begin to practice (like seeing a therapist and doing the perfect day exercise). Exercises you can begin to work on as you build a thriving therapy practice. But at least then you can start with some important foundations, rather than getting down the road and realizing you aren’t clear about either one.

Besides therapy, what are some other things you are doing to become more clear about yourself?

And what aspects of your work are you clear about?