Guess what? If you have ever been in or are currently in therapy yourself, Carl Rogers might not have been a good fit for you. Neither might have Bessel van der Kolk or Irvin Yalom.
The clout that some of these big names in therapy possess is generally well-earned. Who doesn’t appreciate the advances in thinking on things such as unconditional positive regard, trauma or transference that these experts have provided?
As counselor clinicians, we are fortunate to have a wealth of brilliant minds who have gone before us before we ever step foot in our first theories classroom. But it is OK that we are not them. Inside the walls of a therapy office, there is not a single human on this planet who is (or would have been) the best therapist for everyone.
One of the ways that I market myself as an associate-level clinician still working toward independent licensure is this: leaning into humility. Rather than feeling less than those who already have 20 years in the field, a doctorate-level education or an alphabet of special certifications, I focus on fully occupying my space in this little corner of the world where real and meaningful change can happen for my clients.
Humility is powerful. And accepting all that you are and all that you are not is far more of a strength than a deficit when it comes to attracting and retaining clients. Here are some tips to challenge your thinking on fully embracing what you bring to the therapy table:
1) Accept that you won’t be a good fit for everyone; you will be an excellent fit for some. My website FAQs include the question “Why should I pick you?” My answer leads off with “Maybe you shouldn’t …” before I expand on how important it is to find the right fit in therapy.
Do not be anxious about all the things you are not as a counselor; rather, stand tall in exactly what you are. Even if you are just an intern at the cheapest university in America and receive subpar supervision, you still bring an entire lifetime of experience to your clients. Your very person is a gift.
If you had an abusive childhood, bring it. If you face constant household moves from a military lifestyle, bring it. If you’re happily married or are in the middle of a high-conflict divorce, bring it. Are you a parent? An artist? Do you have attention-deficit disorder? Bring it. All the elements of your very person are tools. They are uniquely yours and uniquely perfect for certain clients.
2) Sell the confidence you have in the client, not yourself. During the first intake session, I am very open with clients that I am not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. I give them permission to fire me. And I validate the challenge they currently face in going out on a limb with a new therapist. I let them know that I have myself had a string of therapists with whom I didn’t really connect before I finally found the right one.
I look them in the eye and say something like this: “If this doesn’t feel right here, or if you aren’t connecting with what’s happening in this room, by all means, let’s talk about it. I might not be the right person for you, but I trust that the right person is out there, and I will offer some names for you that might be a better fit for your needs.”
Clients have responded really well to this. Some tear up just at that moment of me recognizing how scary it is to start dissecting a lifetime of pain with a stranger. Others thank me for giving them permission to be direct. Candidly, there are very, very, very few clients who don’t come back. In being given the freedom to choose what is right for them, clients will typically stop wondering if you might just be a smarmy businessperson trying to make a buck off them.
Imagine going to a car dealership and, right off the bat, the salesperson indicates that they want you to get the most out of your car-buying experience. Then, they acknowledge that they might not have what’s right for you but will help you find the place that does. Wouldn’t that feel great and immediately earn your trust? When you meet with a professional who is willing to recommend that you take your business elsewhere if warranted, that can lead to a substantial leap in rapport building with that person. When you do this as a counselor, it demonstrates to the client that you are perfectly confident in what you do offer and aren’t desperate for their business. Note: Even if you are desperate for their business, the client won’t benefit at all by knowing that.
3) Consider risking your own time. I found the therapist I’m currently seeing after I had interviewed a few others and was feeling weary in the hunt. Someone recommended him to me, and he stood out to me initially for one reason: The first session was risk-free. No, I’m not talking about the industry standard “free 15-minute consultation”; I mean that he offered an entire session at his expense to see if it would be a good fit. The catch was that if clients wanted a second session, they would book it and then pay the fee for the first session as well as the second. If he was terrible, no loss to the client; they could walk away.
I was immediately struck by his boldness and figured he must feel confident about what he was offering, so I gave it a shot. It paid off. I scheduled a second session right away and gladly paid the cost of the first. That was nearly two years ago, and I still see him regularly to this day. It was a marketing technique that served as a really attractive selling point for me as a client. Some variation of this might work for you too.
4) Be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” You don’t need to be an expert on everything to be a great counselor. You don’t even need to be an expert on anything specific to be a great counselor! While establishing a niche can be a smart career move and might be personally fulfilling to you, it’s also OK to be a general clinician who handles only things such as anxiety, depression and grief. Evidence has consistently shown that it is not the specialized skill that produces the highest rates of success; rather, it’s the therapeutic alliance … and this is something that exists far beyond textbooks and continuing education workshops.
If a client asks you a question that you don’t have the answer to, say so. Offer to find answers for them or with them. If a client wants a particular type of therapy that is not in your wheelhouse, say what you know and what you don’t, and let them know if you are (or aren’t) willing to learn about the type of therapy they are seeking. Most of all, if you are asked for a very specialized service such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or brainspotting and you aren’t trained in it, PLEASE don’t pretend that you are and go home to binge on YouTube videos in hopes of faking it. State clearly your scope of practice and stay within it — while constantly trying to improve on your own time.
As a consumer, I am deeply appreciative of those experts who admit the limitations of their knowledge and don’t pretend to have all the answers. This deepens my trust in them. My general physician does this, which is why I would endure scheduling inconveniences just to see him; his word is gold. When you are confident in what and who you are, there is no reason to feel threatened by what you don’t know.
I remember the first time I worked with someone who had a chronic medical condition. She was nervous upon intake and asked what kind of experience I had in this particular area. I told her plainly that I knew nothing more than a couple of paragraphs out of my textbook regarding her condition but that I was honored to give her space to process her own pain and deepen my learning alongside her. During the same intake, I tried to defer by offering to find her names of people with special training in that area if she preferred someone with more experience. She declined, saying that she had a good feeling about me, and we worked through several fulfilling months together. This type of scenario has repeated many times in my young career, but I add the following caveat: There are certain situations or disorders that I insist on referring out because it would be detrimental to the client not to have the right kind of training for their needs in those cases. This brings me to my final point.
5) Never stop learning. Mandated continuing education credits are just the bare minimum. Competent professional therapists immerse themselves in the worlds of counseling, psychology and the human condition. This doesn’t mean reading every new self-help book that gets cranked out, but it does mean being diligent about exposing yourself to books, media, people and experiences that will not only deepen your skill set as a clinician but also deepen your own authenticity. This is especially relevant when you are dealing with couples, families and other unique populations.
Our world has been changing fast. Mental health therapists don’t need to know it all or specialize in everything. That would be an impossible feat. But we do need to constantly be updating our own knowledge and beliefs and fully developing our personhood to humbly bring best practices into the presence of our clients.
Ellie Rose is a licensed mental health counselor associate, national certified counselor and private practice business owner in Vancouver, Washington. She works with individuals, couples and families through a therapeutic lens that encourages her clients to lean into reality, find meaning, and develop skills in handling the onslaught of life’s challenges. She is also a mother, reader, writer and speaker who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Instagram: @ellie.rose.therapy.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.