The Lava Expert

lava cave

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  –The Imitation Game

Shortly before I fell into the lava I began a conversation with an eleven year old girl, we’ll call her Sal.  This was a while back, on a Minecraft server I play on from time to time.  My name when I play Minecraft has the word “therapist” in it, and Sal had noticed this.

“Hey, are you really a therapist?” Sal asked via our server text chat.

“Yes I am.”  I typed back.  I had been mining obsidian and using a river to cool the lava so I could chip away at it with my diamond pickaxe.  In the time it took to type my reply, I managed to fall into the river and get washed into the lava.  I watched myself go up in flames, and with me most of my loot.  There is always a chance though, when one falls into lava this way, that some of one’s loot can be thrown clear.  So upon respawning I quickly made my way back to the scene of my demise as we continued our conversation.

“Oops, burned up,” Sal said, as the server had announced just that when I fell in the lava.  “Are you the kind of therapist that talks to kids about their problems?”

“Kids and adults both, yes.”

“My mother wants me to see a therapist,” Sal said.

“Why?” asked another one of the kids on the server.

“She says I have problems with friends,” Sal said.  By this point I had returned to the lava pool.  There was no loot that had survived.

“Sal,” I said.  “Everyone needs help with their problems from time to time.  That’s why there are 7 billion people on the planet, to help each other out.”

For some reason that made quite an impact with the other players.  “Wow, you must be an expert!!” one typed.  I’m not sure how he’d come to that conclusion.

“I’m certainly not an expert on lava,” I replied, and fortunately the conversation went back to the business of mining after some sympathetic emoticons.

I have no problem talking with kids about therapy, or being a psychotherapist.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have the word in my userid.  And it wasn’t even that I was “off duty.”  I’ve had many conversations in chats over the years and heard a range of problems.  In part I was a little protective of Sal’s right to privacy, although experience has again shown me that kids are often less hung up on therapy than adults, and in many ways are often more trusting of psychotherapy than adults are.  Mostly the reason I wanted us all to get back to playing was that I had caught myself sounding “educational.”

*  *  *  *  *

In play if there is any such thing as an expert it is certainly not the therapist, or adults in general.  Virginia Axline, knew this.  In her book Play Therapy she writes, “Non-directive therapy is based upon the assumption that the individual has within himself…  the ability to solve his own problems satisfactorily.”  (Axline, 1947)  My trainees are often as surprised to find that I am friend to both psychodynamic and solution-focused theories as I am to find that they have been taught the two have irreconcilable differences.

As I see it, my job is often to be a unique experience in the lives of patients.  “It is a unique experience,” Axline writes, “for a child to find adult suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, support, intrusions gone.” (Axline, 1947)  And by the time people come to us as adolescents or adults, those suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, etc. have become internalized.  By adulthood, many of us feel as if we lack expertise in anything, except perhaps screwing our lives up.

Education has increasingly played a hand in this.  We do not teach so that our students learn to think independently and feel resourcefully.  Instead we teach them to think like someone else.  Critical thinking and exploration become supplanted by the sense that education has to give us something tangible in a materialistic sense:  A good grade; a profitable job; published ideas or maybe if we really drink the Koolaid admiration from other academics.

One thing that is so enjoyable about Minecraft for many is its’ open sandbox environment.  There is an endgame you can play if you want, but there are also myriad variations of play you can do instead.  Sal and millions of other children and adults can range freely through such open and creative spaces without “experts.”  Education certainly can happen there, but often in a lightly curated if not autodidactive way.  People have created versions of Westeros, Middle-Earth, Panem or their own creations.  There are PvP versions where conflict and combat, stealth and griefing hold sway; fantasy realms where people can role-play.  It is a topsy-turvy world where children can have the most wisdom, and we adult experts can trip and fall into lava.

*  *  *  *  *

In a world obsessed with measuring outcomes, psychotherapy can have a rough time of it.  If Sal ever goes to therapy, she will have to be labeled as ill somehow if her mother wants insurance to help pay for it.  Notes will have to be written, treatment plans planned, goals and objectives filed away so bean-counters can determine that Sal should get 14 beans-worth of help.  It’s hard for me to get too angry at the bean-counters though, over the past 25 years I’ve met a few of them and they don’t seem too happy either.

Education fares little better, with things like the Common Core which tells us what should be taught; standardized testing which masquerades as achievement; and trigger warnings which are supposed to warn students of upsetting content as if they somehow were entitled to get through the mind-altering experience of learning without ever being upset.

It takes bravery to stand up to this.  To let the individual chart their own course, make their own mistakes, draw on their own core.  For the therapist and educator it takes bravery to get out of the way, to radically reflect the developing self.  I do believe that each one of us needs help throughout our lives; but that help needs to be asked for lest we run the risk of telling others what to do and implying they aren’t up to the task of living their own lives.

*  *  *  *  *

Many therapists, social workers, and teachers I have met chose to become members of those professions at least in part as an expression of admiration for their own therapists, social workers and teachers.  They had no interest in falling into the lava ever again, so they started focusing on helping other people out.  It’s a thankless job if you are going to go through it secretly hoping to be thanked.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone I work with refer to me as an “expert” unless they were being facetious about some blunder I’d just made.  And I’ve made many.  As an apotheosis, being a psychotherapist or academic is rather anticlimactic, not because the work is devoid of meaning or value, but rather because if we truly place such people on a divine pedestal it needs a steady stream of troubled people to hold it steady.

Perhaps an alternative for therapists, social workers, educators and our ilk is to think of ourselves as “lava experts.”  We have some acquaintance with falling into pits, being consumed by intense feelings, losing all our, erm, loot.  These are human experiences.  This is not a secret to anyone, and I doubt most people would put their trust in someone who knows nothing of failure, obsession, overwhelm or grief.

What’s more is we’ve fallen into lava, often the same pit again and again!  We know something of the repetition compulsion.  We have let our yearning for whatever we think we need lead us to risky or self-defeating behaviors.  We can talk to people about their problems, because we are people who have problems ourselves.  We’ve been burned.  Minecraft miners know mining deep is risky:  We know what we’re doing even up to that moment our bones ignite.

Rather than being an expert on a pedestal, accept that you will tumble into fire, again and again, looking outside of yourself for what is precious.  Straight A’s, that book you published, six or seven figures–There’s a little Gollum in all of us.  It’s what makes us forget mindfulness, build empires, win arguments or wars.  No one was ever oppressed by play, only the lack of imagination that comes from the absence of it.

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Guild Wars: The Conservative Attack on Online Therapy


“European commerce during the Dark Ages was limited and stifled by the existence of a multitude of small kingdoms that were independently regulated and who suppressed the movement of goods across their borders through a confusing and inconsistent morass of taxation, tariff, and regulation. This forced merchants to find another solution to move their goods, one that would avoid the strangulation that resulted from this cumbersome regulatory model. These merchants chose to move their goods by sea without being subject to the problems that were created by this feudal and archaic design, a move that changed the world. The little kingdoms took hundreds of years to catch up.”

–Harris, E., & Younggren, J. N. Risk management in the digital world.

Keeping up with policy is not my favorite thing:  But if I am to continue to be a consultant to therapists building their business and an educator on integrating technology into social work practice, it is part of the prep work.  So when a recent client asked me a question about licensure and online therapy in our Commonwealth of Massachusetts I surfed on over to our Division of Professional Licensure to take a look.  Good thing I did, and a lesson for all of you thought leaders and innovators out there, regardless of what state you live in.

There wasn’t much about technology, except for the interesting fact that the past several Board Meeting minutes made mention of a Committee discussion open to the public on “E-practice policy.”  I assumed (correctly it turns out) that this meant that the Social Work Board was formulating a policy, so I reached out to the Division and asked some general questions about what it was going to look like.  The answer was prompt and pretty scary.

The representative stated in her email to me that the “Board ​feels ​as ​if ​the ​use ​of ​electronic ​means ​should ​be ​employed ​as ​a ​last ​resort ​out ​of ​absolute ​necessity ​and ​it ​is ​not ​encouraged. ​The ​social ​worker ​would ​have ​the ​burden ​of ​proof ​that ​electronic ​means ​were ​employed ​as ​a ​last ​resort ​out ​of ​absolute ​necessity.”

I have several concerns about this.

Before elaborating on them, I want to explain that my concerns are informed by my experience as a clinical social worker who has used online therapy successfully for several years, as well as an educator nationwide on the thoughtful use of technology and social work practice.  I have had the opportunity to present on this topic at a number of institutions including Harvard Medical School and have created the first graduate course on this topic for social workers at Boston College.  In short, this issue is probably the most defining interest and area of study in my career as a social work clinician, educator and public speaker.

I also am a believer in regulation, which is why I have been licensed by the Board of Licensure in Oregon, and am in process of similar applications in several states, including CA, and NY, so that I may practice legitimately in those jurisdictions. I am a very concerned stakeholder in telemedicine and here are only a few of my concerns about a policy of “extenuating-circumstances-only-and-be-ready-to-prove-it:”


  1. E-Therapy is an evidence-based practice.  It has been found to be extremely efficacious in a number of peer-reviewed studies, over 100 of which can be found at .  In fact, telemedicine has been found to have comparable efficacy to in-office treatment of eating disorders (Mitchell et al, 2008,) childhood depression (Nelson et al, 2006,) and psychosocial case management of diabetes (Trief et al, 2007) among others.   To limit an efficacious modality of treatment by saying it needs to be used only in an “extenuating” circumstance or as a last resort which is discouraged would be a breathtaking reach and troublesome precedent on the part of the Board, which has not been done with any other treatment modality to the best of my knowledge.  Telemedicine was also endorsed by the World Health Organization 3 years ago.  And as I wrote this post, the University of Zurich released research showing online therapy is as good as traditional face-to-face therapy, and possibly better in some cases (Birgit, 2013.)
  2. To place and require a burden on the individual social worker to account for why this treatment modality is justified by necessity of extenuating circumstances also raises the issues of parity and access.  Providers familiar with the issue of mental health parity will hopefully see the parallels here.  Clinical social workers for example may become more reluctant to work with patients requiring adaptive technology if they realize that they could be held to a higher level of scrutiny and documentation than their counterparts who do not use online technology.  Even though the Board would possibly deem those circumstances “extenuating” it would require an extra layer of process and bureaucracy that could have the side effect of discouraging providers from taking on such patients.
  3. Insurers such as Tricare and the providers in the military are increasingly allowing for reimbursement for telemedicine; and videoconferencing software is  becoming more encrypted and in line with HIPAA.  While these should not be the reasons that drive telemedicine in social work, we should consider that a growing segment of the population finds it a reputable form of service delivery.
  4. Such policies require input from people with expertise in clinical practice, the law,  technology, and the integration of the three.  When I asked about whether any members of the Board had experience with the use of different newer technologies in clinical practice or how to integrate them, I was informed that “the ​Board ​is ​comprised ​of ​members ​with ​diverse ​backgrounds. ​They ​have ​reviewed ​the ​policies ​and ​procedures ​for ​electronic ​means ​for ​many ​other ​jurisdictions ​as ​well ​as ​the ​NASW ​and ​ASWB ​Standards ​for ​Technology ​and ​Social ​Work ​Practice ​in ​addition ​to ​the ​policies ​set ​forth ​for ​Psychologists, ​LMHC’s ​and ​LMFT’s ​in ​MA.”

The NASW policy which I believe she is referring to was drafted 8 years ago in 2005.  For context, it was drafted 5 years before the iPad in 2010, 2 years before the iPhone in 2007, and 4 years before the HITECH act in 2009.  In fact, the policy I reference says nothing about limiting technology such as online therapy to “last resort;” rather it encourages more social workers and their clients to have access to and education about it. That professional organizations may be lagging behind the meaningful use and understanding of technology is not the Board’s fault.  But to rely on those policies in the face of recent and evidence-based research is concerning.  If the Board does wish to be more conservative than innovative in this case, I’d actually encourage it to consider the policy adopted by the Commonwealth’s Board of Allied Mental Health Professionals at which in fact does not make any mention of setting a criteria of extenuating circumstances or potentially intimidate providers with the requirement of justification.

I hope the Board listens to my concerns and input of research and experience in the respectful spirit that it is intended. I am aware that I am commenting on a policy that I have not even seen, and I am sure that the discussions have been deep and thoughtful, but I know we can do better.  As a lifetime resident of Massachusetts, I know we take pride in being forward thinkers in public policy.  Usually we set the standard that other states adopt rather than follow them.  I invited the Board to call upon me at any time to assist in helping further the development of this policy, and reached out to state and national NASW as well.  I hope they take me up on it, but I am not too hopeful.  I had to step down from my last elected NASW position because I refused to remove or change past or future blog posts.

If you practice clinical social work or psychotherapy online, it’s 3:00 AM:  Do you know what your licensing boards and professional organizations are doing?  Are they crafting policies which are evidence-based and value-neutral about technology, or are they drafting policies based on the feelings and opinions of a few who may not even use technology professionally?

This is a big deal, and you need to be involved, especially if you are pro-technology.  The research from Pew Internet Research shows that people age 50-64 use the internet 83% of the time, about 10% less than younger people; and only 56% of people 65 or older do. These older people and digital immigrants are often also the decision-makers who are involved in policy-making and committees.

If you don’t want to practice online, you may bristle at this post.  Am I saying that older people are irrelevant? No.  Am I saying that traditional psychotherapy in an office is obsolete? Absolutely not.  But I am saying that there is a backlash against technology from people who are defensive and scared of becoming irrelevant, and fear does not shape the best policy.  Those of us with experience in social justice activism know that sometimes we need to invite ourselves to the party if we want a place at the table.

And with government the table is often concealed behind bureaucracy and pre-digital “we posted notice of this public hearing in the lobby of the State House” protocols.  My local government is relatively ahead of the curve by posting minutes online, but I look forward to the day when things are disseminated more digitally, and open to the public means more than showing up at 9:30 AM on a work day.  If they allow videoconferencing or teleconferencing I will gladly retract that.

At its heart, divisions of professional licensure are largely about guildcraft:  They regulate quality for the good of the whole guild and the consumers who purchase services from guild members.  They establish policies and sanction members of the guild as part of establishing and maintaining the imprimatur of “professional” for the entire guild.  They develop criteria both to assure quality of services and to regulate the number of providers allowed in the guild with a certain level of privileges at any time:  LSWs, LCSWs, and LICSWs are the modern-day versions of Apprenctice, Journeyman and Master Craftsman.  This is not to say guilds are bad, but it is to say that we need more of the senior members of the guild to advocate for technology if they are using it.

Too often the terms “technology” and “online therapy” get attached to term “ethics” in a way that implies that using technology is dangerous if not inherently unethical.  That’s what I see behind the idea that online therapy should only be used as a “last resort.”  We thought something similar about fire once:  It was mysterious to us, powerful and scary.  So were books, reading and writing at one point:  If you knew how to use them you were a monk or a witch.

Technology has always been daunting to the keepers of the status quo, which is why you need to start talking to your policymakers.  Find out what your licensing boards are up to, advocate, give them a copy of this post.  Just please do something, or you may find your practice shaped in a way that is detrimental to your patients and yourself.

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Birgit, W., Horn, A. B., & Andreas, M. (2013). Internet-based versus face-to-face cognitive-behavioral intervention for depression: A randomized controlled non-inferiority trial. Journal Of Affective Disorders, doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.06.032

Funderburk, B. W., Ware, L. M., Altshuler, E., & Chaffin, M. (2008). Use and feasibility of telemedicine technology in the dissemination of parent-child interaction therapy. Child Maltreatment, 13(4), 377-382.

Harris, E., & Younggren, J. N. (2011). Risk management in the digital world. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice42(6), 412-418. doi:10.1037/a0025139

Mitchell, J. E., Crosby, R. D., Wonderlich, S. A., Crow, S., Lancaster, K., Simonich, H., et al. (2008). A randomized trial comparing the efficacy of cognitive–behavioral therapy for bulimia nervosa delivered via telemedicine versus face-to-face. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 46(5), 581-592.

Nelson, E., Barnard, M., & Cain, S. (2006). Feasibility of telemedicine intervention for childhood depression Routledge.

Trief, P. M., Teresi, J. A., Izquierdo, R., Morin, P. C., Goland, R., Field, L., et al. (2007). Psychosocial outcomes of telemedicine case management for elderly patients with diabetes. Diabetes Care, 30(5), 1266-1268.

You’re The Reason Building Your Business Is So Hard


Recently I was asked by a student to take some time and talk with her about her career options. She was trying to plan for her career post-graduate school, and struggling some with the vicissitudes of a graduate program in mental health. Such vicissitudes, once you commit to studying in the field of your choice, are out of your control. Students are often told what to learn, how to learn it, where to intern, and what kind of internship they can have. Want to learn psychodynamic theory? Sorry, school X doesn’t believe in it, so if you go there there may be one or no mention of it in your foundation work. Want to work at a leading hospital? Sure, you and 100 other students from the schools in your area; so apply, but don’t count on it. So, in graduate school, students like my student often have to like it or leave it.

This disempowers the budding therapist in many ways, not the least of which is that it conditions her to take her cues from others even beyond graduate school. It is hard to learn that you have the power to build your career and business after having been taught that the schools, placements and agencies are the ones who make the rules.

If you are out of school, you have more power than you think, and therefore more responsibility than you may want.

Many therapists want to avoid taking responsibility for their businesses. No sooner do we get out of a school or agency then we start to recreate an agency of our own devising. We create our own set of disempowering expectations, and there are usually plenty of people around to collude with us in this. I call them disempowermentors.

Disempowermentors in the mental health field are the ones that tell you all sorts of rules about how things work. They’ll tell you you can’t build a practice without being on insurance panels. They’ll tell you you need to work in our field for 10 years to build up a reputation before you can open a practice. They’ll tell you you should sublet a few hours and not jump in to a full-time practice. None of these things are true, but most of them are usually fear-based. They are usually the way the disempowermentors did things, either because they recreated their own inner agency and/or because they listened to disempowermentors themselves. If my student isn’t careful, she’ll end up listening to one of these folks, and set herself and her future business back a few years. She’ll have a structure, but it will be one that restricts her choices rather than increases them.

Take a look at who you are listening to: Are they disempowermentors? (One sure clue is that disempowermentors almost always look more tired than happy, more miserable than inspirational.)

One example of someone whom the disempowermentors would say is doing everything wrong is my consultee Lindsey Walker. Lindsey is going right into private practice after finishing graduate school. Lindsey is working on building a full-time practice. Lindsey isn’t in any insurance networks. And things are starting to happen for her. This is largely because Lindsey is very creative and responsible. She has started a blog, Waking The Image, which combines photography and essays on psychodynamic theory. She also just finished writing her first e-book Love Over Trauma: Healing With Your Partner on helping couples recover when one or both of them has trauma in their past.

None of these projects occur in a separate pocket universe: Lindsey works daily on these projects and other tasks that we come up with in the course of our work together. I send her a list of things she’s committed to, and within the next several days she does them. That is why her work is slowly but surely getting noticed and her practice growing. She isn’t waiting passively in her office sublet for the phone to ring. She isn’t waiting passively for insurance panels to accept her, or accepting the fee they want to pay her. Lindsey knows that she is responsible for the success of her business. She is investing time and money into building it, not subletting 2 hours somewhere cheap and hoping she’ll get a client or two after her “day job.” Lindsey made the decision to make building her business her day job. I should also mention that she is not independently wealthy, and that this venture has been a risky and courageous one.

So take a look at your career. Are you happy with it? Is being safe worth it? Are you investing time and money into building your business? Are you taking risks?

If you answered no to those questions, then you are the reason building your business is so hard. You aren’t in grad school any more. You choose to apply for a job, accept it, or strike out on your own. You choose whether to make building your business your day job and make whatever sacrifices you need to make to do that. You decide whether or not to invest in an office, a consultant, or other business expenses. You decide to wait passively for someone to pay you a fraction of your fee, or actively market and network for hours and days and weeks. You decide whether to contribute a blog, book, talk or idea to the world like Lindsey; or not to contribute anything without permission from somebody else. You decide whether to confuse worry with effort and wishing with doing.

Lots of things are possible for you. Owning your own business is neither easy or safe, but it is possible. It takes lots of effort and doing. It’s risky, but no one is making you do it or holding you back. It’s up to you to decide.


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The Perilous Price of a Good Living

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a group of young clinicians, and very bright young clinicians at that.  We were discussing the role of class in psychotherapy, and how to understand it psychodynamically.  I was demonstrating to them how difficult it was for therapists to talk about money, by asking each of them what they would set their fee at.  The majority of them were extremely reluctant to give a dollar amount, and it was striking to me that the dollar amount was almost to a penny what a leading insurance company set their allowed fee at.  But the most troubling response to me was “enough to make a good living.”

I imagine you’ve heard this phrase frequently–like me, maybe you’ve said it yourself from time to time.  It is a throwaway statement, which tells you nothing really about what kind of living a person wants or how much money they need in a capitalist society to make it.  Amongst professionals it is the “Whatever” of salary statements.

Pushing folks, I usually get a comment about “having a good home,” “enough to comfortably support my family,” etc.  These are similarly throwaway statements, but they indicate to me what continues to be considered socially acceptable when talking about money in mental health.  It is ok to want to make money if you only use it to support and shelter your family.  Maybe a vacation, but let’s not push it.  In her 1994 article “Money , Love, and Hate:  Contradiction and Paradox in Countertransference,” Muriel Dimen refers to “Puritanism’s conflict, in which hard work and thrift are valued, but their material rewards may not be enjoyed.”  In other words, what most psychotherapists consider a good living.

Often when working with consultees who are giving everyone a sliding scale fee and often acting out in their countertransference as a result of it, I work with this Puritanism, rather than combat it head on.  I’ll ask them to take a photo of their children, partner, any loved one who depends on them, and keep it visible to them in their office from where they usually set their fees.  These are the people, I tell them, who will go without because you have issues about your fee.  You may think you are being noble by sliding down all the time, but these people are bearing the burden of your nobility.

Am I saying you shouldn’t have a sliding scale fee?  Well yes and no, actually.  I certainly have 2 slots where I slide my fee.  Exactly two, because that is what I have determined in my business plan I can afford.  And if someone is going to be offered one, I always go over with them their financials.  So if you have a business plan, and if you can have a concrete conversation with your patients about how much money they make and expend in their life, you have my blessing, you can have a sliding scale.  But if you have not taken a good look at how much YOU need to make, what your plan is to earn money and have pro bono, and if you can’t bring yourself to talk about a patient’s finances, I don’t think you should have a sliding scale.  In fact, I’d suggest you should really only work in an agency and/or cap your fee at what Insurance Company A tells you are worth.

Because that in fact is how this got started in many ways.  We lament how exploitative insurance and public agencies are, but the reality is they provide us with a buffer from the conflict of having to talk with our patients about money.  Many of us make the third party the “bad guy,” because we don’t want to sully our therapeutic conversations with the topic of money.  Sex, sure.  Incestuous fantasies or homicidal impulses, no problem.  But cash? Forget it, that’s too tough to talk about.

Like many of you, I am very pleased that we have passed the Affordable Care Act this year, but I am equally happy that I don’t have to be limited to seeing patients via insurance.  This is the difficult paradox many of us try to keep secret:  We want everyone to have access to health care, but we don’t want our incomes capped by those rates.  Not everything our patients come to see us for is medically necessary treatment.  Some of it is quality of life and personal insight, and maybe our patients should pay for that themselves.  This may sound like a two-tiered system, and that’s because it is, and in my opinion you will see this two-tiered system get acted out as soon as we switch to a medical home, global payment model.

For me a good living is not having a home and enough to support my family.  I want an XBox, and an iPad, and someone to help me clean my house, and vacations and my Starbucks as well as some other things that even I am reluctant to admit.  I want things that exceed a comfortable lifestyle.  Maybe you want these things as well, or a yoga retreat, a summer home or a pony, I dunno.  Take a look at cable TV sometime, and ask yourself why there is such a proliferation of reality TV surrounding making/winning/wheeling/dealing so much money.  Our voyeurism betrays our fantasies.  But Priscilla or Myles, our inner Pilgrim, still trips us up, and we are afraid to admit exactly what we want as a good life.

In case you think that I have exorcised Myles from my psyche, let me assure you I still struggle with wanting, having and making money.  In a way, my evangelizing on this could be a reaction formation.  But it is a feeling, and I can’t let a feeling get in the way of understanding myself and being ethical.

You see, I’m with Plato and Socrates on this one. Socrates defined the good life.  The good life is the examined one, the life lived in pursuit of knowledge and consciousness.  Socrates doesn’t really talk about money when he talks about the good life, but he does make some interesting points about virtue and how knowledge leads our virtuous behavior.  Not what you feel, but what you know.

Sounds simple, but it isn’t.  In Meno Socrates describes how important perplexity is in the process of attaining knowledge, and hence ethics.  Perplexity is struggling with the contradictions to try to make sense of them, like “I want to help people,” and “I want the iPad 3.”

Periodically I re-evaluate what I want in my life, because my wants, my needs and my financials change.  My financial limits are clear to me, and not always in accordance with those of others.  For example, my billing company thinks that I shouldn’t allow balances higher than $200 to be carried.  I consider $400 to be my limit.  It is up to me to struggle with and get clarity on these things if I want to own and run a business.  And money runs through and beneath my business.  If I want to take a day off, my boss is pretty stingy.  I rarely take sick days.  I have a 48 hour cancellation policy that is much more rigid than many colleagues, but not as rigid as the week cancellation policy of some.  I can live with all of that, I’ve thought it through.  I don’t hide behind the vague salve of “making a good living,” I struggle with the perplexity of my needs and wants, the moral implications of them, and how to live ethically in the context of that struggle.

In many ways, that’s what I call a good life.

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Why Ursula the Sea-Witch is My Guru

Ok, so first, let’s be honest, there’s a lot to take issue with in terms of Ursula the Sea-Witch.  She definitely carries on Disney’s longstanding history of portraying evil as black, single, independent women, adding to that list women who are considered “overweight” by Western standards of health and beauty.  Oh, and she’s sexually aggressive, in that she flirts with King Triton and likes to move in a way that shows she enjoys her body.  So yes, I get that Ursula embodies a lot of the negative stereotypes that women and people of color have had to put up with in media.

But if we can look beyond that, I think Ursula has a lot to say that will help you with your business plan as a private practice therapist, and maybe beyond.

I also must admit that Ariel annoys me, especially at the beginning of the movie, which is where one of my favorite scenes is when she makes a deal with Ursula in “Poor Unfortunate Souls:

Ariel is reluctant to make a deal, because she’ll risk losing contact with her family forever.  And Ursula acknowledges this, and says, “Life’s full of tough choices, innit?”

The number one thing I hear from people who want to have a full-time private practice is, “where do you find the self-pay patients?”  There are dozens of posts titled that on the Psychology Today forums, and right next to them are the posts saying how much many therapists hate Managed Care and having to take health insurances, with all the rules and restrictions, and low fees.

Yet, when I talk about building your practice to people, I also hear from many people how much they hate promoting their work, and how critical they are of others when they catch a whiff of self-promotion about them.  I can’t tell you how many times my blog posts and book blurbs have been pointed at and I have been “accused” of self-promotion.  Accused, as if somehow promoting your work and your business is a bad thing.

It’s not.

Look Ariels of the therapy world, life is full of tough choices.  You can have a private practice that relies on insurance only, and that isn’t a bad thing.  You’ll get to see a range of people who have worked hard to earn health benefits that they want to use, and you’ll have instant diversity of economic status in your practice, the more plans you accept.  And the insurance company will list you for free, and you’ll probably build up your practice more quickly.  The downside?  You’ll make less money, have more complicated paperwork, and time will be spent doing it.  And your income will be capped.

Or you can have a private practice where you focus on self-pay, and that isn’t a bad thing either.  You’ll have the ability to set and raise your rates, less paperwork and reviews, and have more time to do other things.  You’ll still be able to have a diverse practice, using my PB+5 model, and more independence in many ways.  The downside?  You’ll need to promote your work.  You’ll need to give potential patients and colleagues some good reasons why they should forgo their insurance benefits and pay you more money.

To do this you’ll need to spend time working on networking, generating content for your website, speaking, writing a book or making a DVD.  And you’ll need to keep doing it.  That’s right, you’ll need to consistently promote yourself and your work.  The time I used to spend on billing and reviews I now spend on self-promotion, and I do some of it every single week.  Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t, but nevertheless I do it.  Even though I have a wait-list I still do it.  And I have watched as several colleagues, who have been in the field for a long time, have stopped doing it.  And their practices have begun to dry up, because the phone doesn’t ring as much any more.

You can also try mixing and matching the above a bit, taking some insurances, and doing less promo.  Charging more for some patients, and doing more pro bono.  All of that is up to you.

But I’m here to tell you you can’t have it all.  That’s right, I’m not going to pitch to the starry-eyed that everything is possible.  A lot is possible, but everything is not.  That’s right, somebody finally said it, there are limits, and you have to make tough choices.

When people work with me, they end up making those choices, and I don’t judge whichever they choose, because I don’t think there is a right answer to this.  But I also am pretty outspoken that they are going to have to fish or cut bait.  If you don’t like the idea of tooting your own horn, I’m not going to push you to do it, but then don’t complain to me about having to take health insurance.  But if you want a predominantly self-pay practice, don’t get self-righteous about self-promotion.  First off, self-promotion takes many forms: blogs, advertisements, peer-reviewed journals, telling someone what you do at a party.  Everyone in our field does some of that, at least everyone I have ever met.  But you’ll need to get off whatever train trip you’re on about how self-promotion is wrong.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with working in an agency full-time.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a self-pay practice.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking or not taking health insurance.  There are plenty of therapists who are going to take the options that you don’t.  But you need to choose something or you can’t have a business plan.  And if you don’t have a business plan, don’t try to be self-employed.

Finally, I’d encourage you to get a clock and keep track of how many hours you spend griping about managed care, criticizing your colleagues who market themselves, or asking how to find those self-pay patients online.  Because all of that time is time you could be spending on billing, filling out paperwork, writing a book, promoting a talk, in other words building your practice.  Complaining to peers is not networking.  Worrying about your business is not the same as effort.  Don’t confuse the two.

Life’s full of tough choices, go make one.


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Why Therapist Directories Are A Waste Of Time

This post is for all of you who have been considering or actively using listings in therapist directories.  I frequently get asked from consultees which directories they should list in.  I also frequently see colleagues debating on bulletin boards and listservs the merits and demerits of individual directories.  So I figure it’s time to offer you my perspective.  Please bear in mind that I am sharing my experience and opinions here, and if you’ve had a different one, hopefully you’ll mention it on the comments.  If you own a directory service, I hope you’ll disclose that as well.

When I started building my practice, I had a lot of time to spend filling out various online directories.  I literally spent hours filling out profiles that promised to make me visible to potential patients.  To be fair it gave me the opportunity to hone my bio and elevator speech, but other than that I now think that I was wasting my time.  But let’s talk a little about why directories may be a waste of your time, because I think it points to a larger misconception about marketing your practice online.

Billboard in a bottle.

Many therapists still approach the internet as if it was a giant Yellow Pages.  We often create static content, the equivalent of a business card, cover letter and resume, and then slap it up on a website, or a directory.  Then we sit back and wait for the phone to ring.  It’s like we imagine that we created a giant billboard and threw it into the world wide web.  But in reality, it’s more like a message in a bottle, thrown in a vast ocean.  We imagine that that will get us recognized.  It usually doesn’t, and here’s why.

If you google “find a therapist” you will literally find dozens of website directories guaranteed to help patients find the right provider.  If you’re ambitious you could spend hours and days finding all of them and entering your information.  Many of them are free, some charge money, and a few don’t let you know whether they will charge or not until you’ve entered all of your information.  One of the main problems with directories is exactly that there are so many of them.

One thing I’ve learned from starting up social networks for other companies is that you always need a critical mass of members as quickly as possible.  If you launch a site you have a few days to a week to achieve this in most cases.  Otherwise potential members will log in to your site, look around and see little activity, and leave.  So low enrollment of providers in a directory will drive little traffic to it.

On the other hand, if you take a directory like Psychology Today’s you will see that they did achieve a critical mass, and have more traffic.  But the problem here is that this is because every therapist and her maiden aunt is now listed there.  So the problem becomes how to set yourself apart from the rest.  If you are determined to spend time on listing yourself in a directory, I’d suggest that you pay for the PT one and try to distinguish yourself as best you can.  In fact, the Psychology Today site is the only directory I even try to keep current and pay for anymore.

Speaking of keeping current, here’s the other potential pitfall of directories:  The more you participate in, the more you’ll need to update your content, remember more passwords, and check back in.  Some directories require you to log in any time you get a message from a potential client (or spam) in an effort to drive up their traffic.  It’s a lot of hassle for little ROI.

If you are determined to list yourself in directories, please consider the following:

  • If you are planning on practicing online, does the directory have global traffic?
  • If you are planning on practicing in a certain geographic location, does the directory get traffic from your part of the world?
One way to research this a little is to run the site’s address on Alexa, which will often tell you some information about traffic or rankings by country.
But while we’re talking about Alexa, let’s talk about how those numbers can be misleading.  Alexa allows you to download the Alexa toolbar, which allows you to check a site’s alexa traffic rank, but it also allows Alexa to tabulate traffic to any site your browser visits, which is part of how they get those numbers.  So it is very easy to drive traffic numbers up artificially.  How?  Easy, set your homepage to your website, and every time you open up your browser, it opens to your site, and adds to your number of visits.  Not enough?  No problem, have all of your family members do the same on their computers.  Within days, your ranking will rise dramatically, without any real rise in potential referral visits. So keep that slight-of-hand in mind when you look at a therapist directory’s traffic. Maybe they do have 100s of visits a day, or maybe they have 10 people who have that site as their home page to drive up traffic.
So Now You Know.

When I review my practice referrals, I received probably %10 of them from a directory, usually Psychology Today.  The majority of my referrals came from word of mouth, insurance company lists, and increasingly my blog and articles.  By now, many of you will know where I am going with this:  It is content and interaction that convert visits to your website into referrals.  There is not a similar conversion rate from visits to your directory profile and calls to you, or even visits to your website.

Some may disagree with me, but my take on directories is that they are a waste of time, and that they capitalize on therapists’ reluctance to generate interactive and dynamic content.  Put simply, people want to hang up their cybershingle and then go back to passively waiting for the phone to ring.

To spend a lot of time finding and listing yourself in a therapist directory is to confuse worry with effort.  What you should be doing (Oh Nos! A therapist used the word “should” 😉 ) is generating content and creating opportunities for interaction with colleagues and potential patients.  Examples of generating content include:

  • writing brief informative blog posts
  • tweeting links to articles that you find interesting to establish your “brand”
  • offering a free hangout on Google+ on your niche topic
  • creating a meditation podcast that people can download from your site
  • networking in Second Life or attending the Online Therapy Institute’s open office hours
  • doing a five-minute vblog on a CBT technique

I’ve done many of the above, and this blog post is another example.  I guarantee you that this post will generate a new referral for me at some point soon, much sooner than my Psychology Today profile will.

So please take the time you could be playing it safe cutting and pasting your info into yet another directory, and instead take some risks, create some new content, or join in a conversation online.  Web 2.0 is not about being a digital classified ad. Use your time marketing to do what therapists do best: Relate.

Don’t Run Your Practice Like An HMO

I was surprised today to get a letter from a local insurance company, authorizing payment to me for a session I’d done in September of last year.  I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or laugh (I decided to laugh) and as I was grumbling about insurance companies I realized that they have taught me what to do and not do with my own billing.

Let’s face it, most therapists don’t like billing and most therapists don’t like insurance.  (If you’re not a therapist, read on anyway, you might find it interesting.)  Insurance companies are as a rule very difficult to deal with.  They make us go through elaborate credentialing processes to join a network that pays us a fraction of our fee.  And when we submit claims they often hold on to them for months, delaying our payment.  Or they reject the claim because of some technicality, or request a half hour conversation with us to review the treatment so that they can find a reason to stop paying for it.  Insurance companies are insulated by layers of administration and bureaucracy, and finding the person to answer the question or authorize treatment can take forever.  In fact, the whole premise of insurance has been to have a large enough risk pool of paying clients that they can offset the damages they incur and still make a profit.  In short, insurance companies are avoidant, outdated, and hostile to claims.

So why are we just like them?

Therapists groan about insurance companies, and yet we often act just like them when it comes to running our business.  We avoid filing claims as long as we can, so that we’ll get reimbursement checks that are bigger and “worth the effort.”  We avoid streamlining our billing processes.  And we are extremely hostile when it comes to having to file claims to get paid.

Don’t run your practice like an insurance company. Instead, here are some suggestions for you:

1. Don’t delay your billing by unnecessary process. Take a few minutes to look at the way you process bills.  Are you writing them down in a ledger, maybe more than one?  Do you try to sort things by insurance company rotating different companies at different times of the month?  Do you have elaborate formulas for payment plans for your patients’ co-pays?  (That’s insurance fraud by the way.)  Do you have a calendar that you transfer to your ledger?  Or if you have a software program do you enter the same data in several different places?  If you are doing any of these things, you’re wasting your time.  Come up with one strategy and stick with it, and cut down the number of steps that any strategy you come up with has.

2. Don’t avoid by storing up your accounts receivable. You hate it when an insurance company sits on your claims, don’t do the same thing when it comes to your own accounts receivable.  Don’t store up and hoard your accounts receivable to bill “later.”  Your patients and you both deserve for you to bill promptly even if it is a $15 co-pay.  Don’t drag out your co-pay billing for more than a month at most.  Aside from sending a devaluing message to your patients, (“I don’t need that tiny amount of money”) it adds up and can become a source of anxiety to them.  Bill out in smaller amounts on a regular basis, and if you don’t, ask yourself what your behavior is expressing about billing.  Storing up your accounts receivable may present you with bigger checks later, but irregular ones.  For people who know the value of consistent structure, we certainly drop the ball on this one, and then what happens?  You see your bank account is low and you say, “I’ve got to do my billing.” And even if you send it out that day, you’ve just set yourself up for a few weeks of anxious trips to the mailbox to see if the money has finally arrived.

3. Don’t treat patient payments like a risk pool. When it comes to billing, don’t rely on a few consistently paying patients to help you avoid billing the rest.  If you allow patients to carry a balance set a dollar figure that is consistent across all of them.  Mine is $400, because I know that if a patient carries a higher balance than that I may start to get annoyed and that will create static in the treatment.  My billing office thinks my limit is too high, but it is what has worked for me and allowed me to be consistent.  By all means set your own limit, but don’t have 30 different billing schedules and expectations for 30 different patients!  It isn’t fair to the ones who pay regularly, and it also isn’t fair to the ones who don’t.  And it also isn’t fair to you.  This may work for the insurance companies, but it definitely won’t work for your business.

4. Do your billing every 1-5 days. You heard me, every 1-5 days.  None of this once a month or every few weeks or “when I have to” stuff.  You’re in business and businesses bill their customers promptly and regularly.  And here’s what’s really cool, if you bill every 1-5 days after a while you’ll begin to get paid every 5-7 days.  That’s it for this one, 1-5 days, no excuses.

5. Do lose the paper. Not as in misplace it, but as in get rid of it!  Many of you are probably saying to yourselves, “he’s crazy.  I don’t have time to do all that paperwork every few days!”  There’s the problem, you’re still using paper!  Start billing electronically, most insurance companies have that capability, and there are plenty of software programs out there that can help.  When I used software I would send out that days appointments at 5:30, took 15 minutes.  The first few times you will need to spend more time on it by typing in things to the program’s database, but after that it goes pretty quickly.  And if you can get in the habit of typing in the first part of the intake the day of the intake, that’s even better.

6. Do use a billing service. I saved the best for last.  If you don’t want to do billing yourself, fess up to it.  It’s a reasonable business expense to have.  I haven’t missed the money I pay to my billing service CMS Billing one bit.  The amount of money they have captured for me (including the check from last September) has probably offset what I pay them.  In addition, they do all my billing intakes, insurance authorizations, credentialing and customer service for billing questions.  The time they have freed up has allowed me to develop workshops, write this blog, and engage in other creative and lucrative aspects of my business.  Remember that when it comes to owning a business you need to spend money to make money.  Don’t be a tightwad, hire a billing service.  Then you won’t have to worry as much about the technology part.  But bear in mind that they can only bill as quickly as you report accounts receivable to them, so you still need to do that every few days.

As I write this, 97% of my accounts receivable are under 30 days.  I get my money with regularity, and my patients know what to expect when they reach the $400 mark.  This is possible for you as well!  As this fiscal year draws to a close, take some time to take stock of your billing practices.  If you’re acting more like a lending company or an HMO it may be time to change.



You Are Not A Non-Profit.

Please do this for me; even if you never contact me and ask for a consultation or supervision, just do the following.

  1. Print out this page.
  2. Cut out the title to this blog post.
  3. Find a picture of your child, partner, parent or other loved one.
  4. Tape the title to the picture.
  5. Place it on your office desk, where you can see it every day.


This week in MA, we had further seismic tremors in the land of health care.  Two tremors in fact.  First, the news broke that our three biggest insurers Blue Cross, Harvard Pilgrim, and Tufts had reported financial gains this past year and strong investment income.  In addition, the story reported that the CEOs of these companies made salaries ranging from 780K to 1.2 million dollars.  News also revealed that BCBSMA’s board members collected an average of $68,000 last year to attend board meetings.  That’s roughly $1,100 an hour.

The other big insurance news was that Tufts and Harvard Pilgrim decided to call off their merger.  The reasons cited were that there wouldn’t be enough savings to offset the cost.  Translation:  They just wouldn’t make enough money to make it worthwhile.

What does this have to do with anything?  Lots.

First, the salaries and board stipends underscore that Blue Cross Blue Shield is a non-profit business.  That is why if you look at this list of BCBSMA’s Board of Directors, you will see top-ranking business-people and government officials.  Put simply this means that it can dispense its surplus to reward board members and top management.  They are a franchise, and in many cases, publicly-traded companies.

Second, and this is a reiteration of the first in a lot of ways, health-insurance companies are designed to make money, not just break even.  They are a Non-Profit not because they don’t make money, but because of the way they disburse the money made, to their managers and board members (who incidentally are some of the people who have legislative power when it comes to healthcare reform.)

Back to your picture and my post title.

You are not a non-profit.  You don’t even have to play the shell game with board members and management, because you are the management.  It is understandable and easy to get distracted by the rage and yes, envy, that one feels at these “fat cats” making so much money.  But let’s get real honest now.  Here, I’ll go first:

1. I’d love to make 1.2 million dollars a year.

2. I live in a capitalist system, not a caste system, which means that just because I was born in a capitalist system I don’t have to live here, or, I can try to alter the system to be more in keeping with my socialist goals.  But as long as I live in a capitalist system, money is an inevitable fact of my existence.

Now the hardest one, at least for me:

3. The minute I accept insurance reimbursement I become part of the medical establishment, and that means that the sickness and suffering of others is what creates a need for the commodity of psychotherapy.  In other words, I need a steady stream of unwell or hurt people in order to make my living. If I do my job well enough, people won’t need me any more, and I’ll need to attract other hurt or unwell people.  And even if I try to gussy it up in the form of “self-help,” I’ll still need people who need help.

Now I am not going to try to justify this to you, gentle reader, by saying I only make as much money as I need.  I don’t believe greed is good, but I do want an iPad, and I don’t need an iPad.  So I have to come clean and admit that I am not an non-profit.

I consult so often with therapists who take great pride in the amount of “slide” they have in their sliding scale.  They are willing to give up that money without a lot of regret.  Until they take out that picture of their family that I ask them (and now you) to put on the office desk.  Look at it, at them.  Those are the people you love, they are also being affected when you don’t charge full fee to someone who just got a new job, or when you don’t enforce your cancellation policy.  They are the ones who are depending on you to help keep your family afloat.  They are the ones who embody the best care you can give, and they will be with you and counting on you the rest of their lives in one way or another, often financially.

You are not a non-profit.  You need to make a profit, and you need to stop pretending you don’t, and minimizing the profit so that you can pretend.  I hate insurance companies and a lot of our healthcare system, and I am fighting for social justice when I am not working in my practice.  But these companies get it, they get that they are in business.

We need to get that too.

Self-Promotion, No One is Gonna Do It For You..

When I am doing workshops with colleagues or consultations on building a practice, I am often struck by how mortified they become at the thought of self-promotion.  And yet, I know too well what they are up against.  I have been marketing myself for a while now, in a dozen different venues in multimedia, and it is only recently that I have begun to do so without the negative self-talk or twinges of guilt.

What was I worrying about?  Well, in the past I worried that people would say to themselves, “I am so sick of Mike tooting his own horn” or think of me as a narcissist or superficially greedy, etc.  Boy did I have to get over that, and if you want to be a successful business owner, you will too!

Back when I worked in a large institution it was fine to hide out, do good work with my patients and bring home a paycheck week after week.  But when you decide to start a private practice, you are basically committing to becoming a business.  And businesses need marketing.

One of the great things about being a solo practitioner is that your research and development department and your marketing department is the same person, you!  Self-promotion is much easier when you have a product or services that you believe in.  So I look for opportunities to do the things I enjoy, and then show my colleagues and clients how this adds to my value.  When a recent insurance company began stepping up its efforts to bully clinicians, I had no trouble rising to the occasion.  I like reading up on parity, researching and educating myself about the business climate, and thinking about how language can be used by HMOs to disempower therapists.  And after a few conversations with colleagues, who were clearly looking for a fresh approach to that problem in their practice, I realized that I had something of value to offer.  So now I’m doing workshops on the subject and loving it.

It is very tempting to trade the structure of an institution for the imposed structure of managed care.  Don’t do it!  If you do you have only yourself to blame.  As I tell my consultancy clients, you need to remember that the most important difference between you and the insurance company reviewer is that you have better things to do with your time.  The reviewer is a salaried employee who is paid to call you and conduct these clinical reviews.  Whether you are on the phone 5 minutes or 50 minutes, they get paid.  You don’t.  In your time you could be:

  • Seeing another patient.
  • Devising a workshop strategy
  • Networking with a colleague
  • Being the first to call a potential referral back
  • Writing your newsletter or blog
  • Designing your website
  • Writing your google ad
  • Writing an article for your professional magazine
  • Depositing checks in your bank
  • And more!

The way the intimidation tactics work is that HMOs are banking on your need to buy into a system, even a system of oppression, rather than your own.  Yes, they may say they are not going to pay for any more sessions, that’s their mission.  So make the call brief, and use the time to self-promote some other part of your business.

Self-promotion scares many of us even more than HMO reviews, but self-promotion ultimately pays better and gives you more freedom, motivates you to stay current and innovative, and puts you back in the driver’s seat rather than the victim seat.  I want to know:  What can you do to toot your own horn today?

Be proactive, read your mail!

So if you are a Tufts Provider, October 1st is a special day. What? You don’t know what I am talking about? Well I know for a fact that as of October 1st if you submit a B&W copy of your paper claim form, it will be rejected. Yep, no red CMS-1500, no checky. I am sure hundreds of my colleagues are going to find this out on October 20th, when they receive rejected claims letters, and they’ll be ranting about the system. Yes, the system sucks, but it is the system you choose to get paid by, so read your mail.

The above does not really effect me, I have a billing service and we submit all of our claims electronically ( btw, they rock). But I wanted to share that with you for a couple of reasons. First, to hopefully save you some headaches, but second, and more important to give an example of how keeping your business in the black requires dealing with what we therapists often consider “mundane.”

We’re all about bearing witness to people’s suffering; helping them transform their lives; healing relationships; changing behaviors that hurt them and others. That’s the lofty profession we want to see ourselves in, and yes, it is a lofty profession. But we’re also in business, and if you don’t get with the program you’ll be out of business. When you get provider updates from the companies you work with, READ THEM. Yes, they are boring, but they will save you time and money. It takes 5 minutes to read the “60-Day Notifications” articles in the Tufts newsletter for example. A lot less time then it takes filling out a claim, mailing it, waiting 3 weeks, finding out it was rejected, calling to be sure what that weird code means, talking to someone, scrambling to find some forms, realizing you don’t have them, running to Staples to order more, waiting for them to come in, and resubmitting so that you can get paid 3-6 weeks later because you still use paper claims.

Bear witness to your own suffering; transform your life by working smarter; heal your relationship with your inner businessperson whom you need to VALUE; and change your behavior around the administrative aspects of your business, it is hurting you and those around you (unless you never ever gripe to your spouse about the paperwork, get nasty on a call to a service rep about something you should have known about, or get distracted when you are sitting with a patient because you haven’t been paid yet.)

5 minutes. Read your mail.