People always told me how good I was with kids, and that I’d make an excellent teacher. As a teenager, I worked as a babysitter and a summer camp counselor, but it didn’t feel like work. By the time I got to college, I was even considering becoming an elementary school teacher. But my education studies just weren’t grabbing me the way I thought it would. So I enrolled in an entry-level psychology course, and was instantly hooked.
I loved learning about why people felt, thought, and acted the way they did. I loved learning what made people tick. And as I learned more about the field, the idea of helping people discover more about themselves sounded incredibly rewarding—so much so that I changed my major, and even went on to graduate school.
From Education to Marriage and Family Therapy
Even though I had found my calling in psychology, I still needed to pick a focus. I asked one of my advisors about the difference between professional counseling or marriage and family therapy. They asked if my brain was more linear or systemic when helping people through their concerns.
That question made me realize that it made the most sense to look beyond cause and effect, and investigate all the aspects of a person’s life and all the systems that were at work. That’s when I decided to be a marriage and family therapist.
Sometimes all it takes to find your ideal therapy niche is a simple question like the one my advisor asked me. Does your brain naturally work in a certain way? If you can identify a field that aligns well with your natural way of thinking, you’ll be able to reach clients in a more direct way.
During this time, I was also weighing whether to get my doctorate. But I realized that I was most interested in providing therapy directly to clients, and my master’s degree would let me do that. For me, it wasn’t necessary to pursue a higher degree.
If you’re not sure if a higher degree is worth the time and cost for you, think about where you want your career to be in five or ten years. Some tracks will require more education, while others are completely doable without it.
The Importance of Active Listening
When I first started seeing clients after graduating, I would spend time before each session brushing up on techniques, theories, worksheets, and interventions that I could use. I focused more on the textbook tools than actually connecting with my clients and learning what would specifically work for them.
It took time and experience for me to realize that it’s not about what we do with clients as much as how we do it. Patience, understanding, and confidence have been so much more effective in my practice than trying to prove myself with theoretical approaches. I shifted my focus to be more on the therapeutic bond between me and my clients. From there, I was able to adapt my tools as needed.
One of my first supervisors once told me that just listening to the client can be enough, and I continue to give that advice to my colleagues and students. Active listening alone can make people feel like you really care about what they’re saying. If we as clinicians start to scramble to help our clients’ fix their problems without listening first, we might just be enabling their anxious system. Learning the importance of actively listening first really helped me relax and have confidence in my work.
Finding the Right Fit
As a marriage and family therapist who now mainly works from a family systems perspective, I’ve realized that my style is not suited for everyone. Some of my clients get annoyed going back to their childhood to look for the roots of their problems. But for others, it’s been so effective that I use a systemic approach with all my clients.
Together, we look for patterns and more context around a single concern. In fact, when I see clients who don’t believe that looking at their past will help their present problems, there’s usually a reason for that. They’re probably not being obstinate just for the sake of it. There’s an opportunity there to explore their resistance, and see what you can learn about them.
It’s helpful, particularly for younger clinicians, to keep in mind that not every therapist is a good fit for every client. Clients are often in different stages of change. They might be at a stage where they can look at and identify a rock—but may not be ready to turn that rock over and examine what’s underneath.
It’s important for us as clinicians to be patient, understanding, and willing to explore with clients. All these things are integral to helping clients on their journey, and are all more important than any one tool or method you may use.
Looking Through My Clients’ Eyes
Going through therapy myself has helped me gain perspective for what it feels like to be the client in a therapeutic relationship. As therapists, we’re told early on in our careers that we’ll probably see clients with concerns similar to our own. This has been true for my practice, and it’s been a learning experience to see how my approaches to treatment and business operations may feel to my clients. I try to keep those experiences in my mind during my sessions, so I can offer the kind of care I would want to receive.
The work I’ve done processing my own past has allowed me to be more effective with my clients, while still recognizing my own limits and boundaries. It’s still an ongoing journey, but one that’s helping me become a better clinician. Having perspective—and perhaps more importantly, having empathy—for what your clients are going through may also help you form stronger connections with them, and offer them better care.
Looking Beyond the Therapy Room
After years of providing therapy directly to my clients, I started to think about how I could help my fellow clinicians as well. I wanted to share my knowledge, since I’ve spent so much time learning how to establish and maintain an ethical and successful private practice. My practice now helps other therapists create their own practice and learn how to integrate telehealth in the most effective ways.
I also wanted to focus on emotional and mental support for therapists. So I started a virtual case consultation group for clinicians across the country. Our current projects include educating our communities on mental health, improving our working relationships, and coping with effects of the pandemic. It’s so rare that “helpers” actually help themselves. I’m a big advocate of allowing yourself to say no at times, or taking breaks when you need it. Taking care of yourself is essential to becoming your best self.
After years of working in different settings and finally landing in private practice, I feel like I’m prepared for anything now. I needed to try multiple settings and approaches to therapy before I found my niche, and now that I have, I can offer the best care to my clients. Owning a practice gives me the ability to shape my clients’ experience from the minute they walk through my door all the way through setting and accomplishing goals together. I started my private practice because I realized that I wanted to be genuine to myself—both as a therapist, and as a business owner.
Pollen Magazine examines the health and wellness industry through the lens of the professionals that are redefining private practice. Find inspiration, learn from others, and discover insights on how to build the best version of your practice.