Nearly nine years ago I graduated from the Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program at Colorado Christian University (CCU). I applied at several agencies but didn’t receive any offers.
That’s when I decided to hang up my shingle and go into private practice.
I was nervous and scared, but it was the right choice. In addition to teaching at CCU and writing my second book, I currently have a thriving part-time practice.
Despite years of experience gained in school, practicums and internships, and despite spending thousands of dollars, it’s natural to feel nervous about starting a private practice. Here are 7 tips to start a counseling practice. Here’s what I know now that I wish I knew then…
1. Don’t Pay for Advertising
I spent a lot of money on mailers and newspaper advertisements that didn’t pay off. Most of my clients were referred by friends or acquaintances. Also, it was helpful for me to mail letters telling professionals in the community what I was up to. I shared a little of my own history, a bio, and some detail about the types of clients I wanted to see.
2. Consider Your Space
“I might be praying with a client, when another counselor would walk in before my rented hour was up. That was frustrating!”
Initially I rented office space by the hour. That was economical but also frustrating. I would be ending a session and a client would be in tears but I felt rushed. Or I might be praying with a client, when another counselor would walk in before my rented hour was up. That was frustrating! It felt impersonal and unpredictable. My clients wouldn’t feel comfortable as long as I didn’t.
Eventually I found an inexpensive office. I bought some comfortable furniture and paid attention to how it was arranged. Not too close and not too far apart. I painted the walls in soft butterscotch, and hung lush green curtains. I handpicked art and laid out a tray of candy. I stocked up on water bottles and lavender candles. I brought in decorative pillows. I knew that if I could find the right little space, I could make it my own; and once I was comfortable, my clients could be too.
3. Learn Which Type of Clients You Want to See (and Which Ones You Don’t)
When you’re just beginning to build a private practice, you will feel pressure to see every client that calls. Thankfully, my supervisor cautioned me not to.
Most of the time I adore my clients, and I rarely get one that pushes more my boundaries, such as sending daily emails or calling frequently. However, when I do get a phone call from someone demanding that they be seen today, I take that as a possible clue as to a difficult personality disorder the person might have. I’ve had clients that made me feel like I couldn’t catch my breath; or I found myself clenching my jaw and getting stomach aches. Through the years I learned that my body was giving me a signal that I needed extra support in the way of supervision, or I needed to refer the person to another professional.
4. Believe in Your Worth
When it comes to fees, counselors may feel pressure to offer sliding scales (discounted) and pro-bono (free) sessions.
My advice is don’t. You’ve spent a lot of time and money to get where you are.
I noticed the clients I offered free sessions to clients that didn’t take their therapy seriously. They came a time or two and didn’t come back. If you discount your sessions, it makes it seem like you’re not as valuable as you are. Plus, you may start resenting it when those clients tell you about their new car or upcoming vacation. One of the ways I give back, thus adhering to Licensed Professional Counselor ethics, is to mentor other therapists from time to time. You wouldn’t have survived graduate school if you didn’t have the qualifications to do this.
You know more than you think and you are worth it.
5. Take Safety Precautions
I had a male client scheduled for a session late in the evening. All the tenants had left and it was me, and this angry man who disliked women, alone.
At one point he asked if I could get him some water. Even though I didn’t want to, I got up, walked down the dark hallway to the kitchen, and brought him back a drink.
Fortunately nothing bad happened, but in retrospect I was uncomfortable, and realized I should do things differently so as not to put myself in danger. I no longer see male clients after dark or in an empty building. I no longer get up and leave, but rather bottled water in my office space. I have mace, and a siren, and I always keep my cell phone handy.
6. Let Clients Do Their Own Work
Sometimes in an effort to prove ourselves, we work harder than our clients.
Remember, you don’t have to fix your clients’ problems. Our job is to create an alliance with them. Then we help them figure out what is going on and what they want to be different. We help them create a plan for thinking and behaving differently. We provide space for clients to think out-loud and get feedback. We help them tell and understand their story, and we help them have the courage to change, but we don’t do the changing for them. When we remember what our role is, it’s not so scary.
7. Model Peace and Calm
Due to the role you play, people will give you a lot of power. Use it for your client’s good. Your guidance, pace, assurance, kindness, and smile will work wonders. Your gentle words, “Hey, let’s take some deep breaths,” “You’re safe here,” and “We’ll figure this out together” will allow you to bring relief to an angry, confused, or terrified person.
Lucille writes regularly on her website’s blog at www.lucillezimmerman.com. Lucille enjoys teaching as an affiliate faculty member at Colorado Christian University, where she received her Master of Arts in Counseling degree that led to starting her counseling practice in Littleton, Colorado.