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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What It Means To Make A Referral

referral cartoon

To speak with a relative stranger about the most intimate details of one’s life is an incredibly daunting prospect for many psychotherapy patients.  No matter how guarded a patient may be, she or he is daring to be incredibly vulnerable as well.  Often the only thing that can make this beginning possible is an appropriate therapy referral.  And yet never before has it been so easy for us to make a horrible or thoughtless referral to these brave souls.

It was hard enough when managed care began to shape the behavior of therapists to focus on insurance as being the number one or only criteria to make a referral.  But now technology has made it even worse.  Readers of this blog know that I am a great fan of technology in general and social networking in particular, so it may come as a surprise to hear me say this; an explanation is in order.

Recently I began to get emails from various therapists with the subject heading “Are you accepting new referrals?” or “Referral for you.”  In the past I have found those questions a nice compliment.  But these emails were actually invitations to join something called Referral Key, a small business referral network.  The message went like this:

If you’re taking on new clients, I’d like to include you in my private referral network to send you business leads.

Please accept my invitation below. Thanks!

Here’s the problem, none of the people who sent me these emails knew me in a professional capacity as far as I can tell.  We had never shared a patient, attended a fellowship together, worked at the same agency or supervised trainees at the same place.  The only qualification these people would know I had if I accepted their invite was that I wanted more business.

That’s not how you make a good referral.

Look, referring a patient to someone is risky enough when you do know the therapist or the patient.  Risky because we have never experienced what it is like to sit with the colleague as a patient.  But at least we have some other information to go on.  The nature of therapy requires that we be as thoughtful about referrals as possible.

In my experience with trainees and consulting to therapists I have come across a lot of marketing information on how to get referrals, but not a lot of clinical info on how to make them.  So here are my suggestions on when and how to make a good referral.  Keep in mind that these tips are a combination of my experience, opinions and pet peeves.  Between emails, listservs, social networks, etc., I see a lot of different ways therapists do it.

1. Don’t treat a referral as a consolation prize.  If you get a call from a patient who says they were referred to you by their insurance, and you are not accepting new patients, don’t feel pressured to offer them another name.  Ideally, if you have time to offer them an initial consult you may get enough information to make a suitable referral.  If they can come in, you can discuss their presenting problems, therapist preferences in terms of gender, experience, etc.  If you offer free phone consultations (which I discourage in general,) you can speak with them over the phone at enough length to get a sense of the patient’s needs.  For a thoughtful referral, my experience is that this takes 30-45 minutes.  looking online and saying, “Jane Doe appears to be in your network and I’ve heard good things about her” may be sufficient to assuage your conscience but is not sufficient to be a solid referral.  Jane may be a whiz at adult ADHD, but if the patient was referred to you for your expertise in PSTD you may have no idea whether Jane has interest or expertise in both.

2. Avoid referring to therapists who “do it all.”  I never refer to a therapist who treats ages 3-80 for issues ranging the breadth of the DSM-V.  The USDA deals with chunks of meat on a conveyor belt, we don’t.

3. Disclose the extent or limitation of your knowledge of the referral to the patient.  If you trained with the person and think highly of them from the way they discussed their work, say that.  If they are someone who responded to a listserv request you made and you know nothing about them or their work, say that.  Patients trust us to give them expert opinions, and if your expertise is limited the burden of disclosing that is on you.

4. When soliciting a referral, keep it brief and salient.  Don’t pepper the listserv or discussion boards with identifying information or your subjective impressions.  Age, presenting problem and therapist preferences (gender, takes X insurance, CBT) are enough.  So often I see referrals for someone seeking a therapist for a patient who is “a lovely, very insightful young man who would be a delight to work with.”  This is more of a sales pitch than salient data.  None of your colleagues are probably hoping to work with horrid, clueless people who are a misery to work with, now are they?  Nor do we really need to know that the referral is for the daughter of a good friend of yours.  If this is a referral that will involve collaboration (such as one member of a couple you are seeing) by all means offer to share more information if the referral works out.  But in the meantime, just the facts.

5. When possible, get feedback and use it to inform your future referrals.  If you referred to a colleague to treat one of your individual patients for couples therapy, ask them how it is going or went.  Please take this information seriously and do not dismiss it as transference.  It may be transference, but remember your alliance is with the patient and erring on the side of caution.  In my time I have had folks give me feedback that the people I referred to didn’t listen, feel asleep during a session, took their spouse’s side, smelled of alcohol, and a myriad of other concerning statements.  Do I know for a fact that any of these stories were true? No.  Do I plan on risking referring a patient to one of those people again, absolutely not.  If the person you refer to is difficult to reach or collaborate with, bear that in mind for future referrals.

6. Talk to your colleagues.  Ask them whether they are taking referrals, or what kind of patients they see.  Ask them what their expertise is if you are unsure.  Send them an email with brief and salient information asking if this sounds like someone they’d enjoy working with.  And absolutely send them a note if you give their name as a possible referral.

7. If you don’t have or want to take the time to make a solid referral, then don’t make one at all.  Too often our colleagues try to come up with a name rather than say, “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”  Our graduate programs rarely train us to say that.  But better you say that than misunderstand what a referral truly is.  A referral is a thoughtful recommendation to a patient for a clinical treatment of serious concerns.  If you don’t have time to give it sustained thought, understand the concerns or help needed, don’t give a referral.

Above all, please keep in mind that social networks are great for many things, and referring patients is not one of them.  If the only thing you know about a therapist and their work is that they are in your “network,” what kind of qualification is that?  Don’t confuse networking, marketing, or chatting with referring someone to therapy.  If you were looking for a therapist and someone said, “I got an email the other day from someone saying they are taking on new patients,” would that be sufficient for you to make an appointment?  Just because I’m in your Contacts or LinkedIn group doesn’t mean I am any good at therapy in general or for a patient in particular.  I could be a complete wingnut.

Do you really want to take that chance with someone’s mental health care?

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How to Get Taken Seriously as a Mental Health Professional

Many therapists looking to start or grow their private practice often wonder the same question when they are starting out:  How do I get referrals?  If you can tolerate a mild rant, I may have one answer for you.

Let’s look at this concern through a tried and true mental health paradigm.  First, we take a symptom, and then we look at the underlying conflict that the symptom represents.

So what’s the symptom?  That’s easy, head on over to LinkedIn and take a look at several profile pictures of colleagues.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  What did you see?  When I looked I saw some professional headshots, but more of the following:

  • blank photos
  • top of head/ chin cut off
  • people in front of a car
  • waterfalls
  • tank tops
  • the “I’m holding my phone camera at arm’s length” shot
  • at a party
  • graduation gown
  • flower
  • too dark to see
  • wearing sunglasses
  • skiing


If you want to generate referrals, this may be a problem. Some colleagues may have a different opinion or be too diplomatic to say this, but let me not mince words.  If you don’t have a professional headshot it is doubtful I will refer to you.  I don’t send people to waterfalls for psychotherapy.  I suspect people wearing shades of paranoia or vampirism.  I envy people who can ski much too much to ever want to help them grow their business.  Cars in photos are either nicer than mine or too shabby, triggering too much judgment either way.  And party-goers scare me.  😉

My experience as a consultant has been that these headshots are symptomatic of one of two scenarios:

1.  You don’t take social media seriously.  In this day and age, our potential patients want to see us before they see us.  They often do their research by checking out our online presence.  If you go on LinkedIn for example, you may find that several people viewed your profile this week.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  I have seen great head shots in black and white, or even avatars for online therapists, so it doesn’t have to be a standard color shot.  But the way technology works now, whatever picture you choose will most likely attach to your emails, tweets, blog comments, posts, and feeds of all kinds. There are exceptions to this, like my colleague Social Jerk, who needs to maintain a tight hold on her anonymity to allow for her to create such creative and satiric posts about social work.  But if you are not trying to be a satirist, but rather grow a therapy practice, this will not work for you.  And if you’re on Twitter, please don’t be an egg.  When I need to jettison followers to follow additional people, the eggs are often the first to go.  Accept that social media is the point of professional first contact with your colleagues and customers.  Take it seriously.

2.  You don’t take yourself as a therapist and businessperson seriously.  Anyone that has read this blog or chatted with me at a workshop can probably tell you that I am neither dour nor constantly serious.  I certainly think there is a lot of room in our profession for humanity, play and creativity.

That said, we are in the business of providing treatment for serious concerns, working with people who have a range of predicaments.  We assess for suicidality, psychosis and trauma.  Your patients come to you with vulnerability and hope that you will help them create profound change, recovery and healing in their lives, maybe even help them stay alive.  If you think that therapy is just two people in a room chatting, then by all means keep the beach picture.

To get a professional head shot requires investment of your time and money.  It is a business expense.  If you are unwilling to invest in a professional image to represent your business concern I suspect you are not ready to own and run a business.  If you are unwilling to invest the time to look through your existing photographs and select one (if you have it) that presents a professional demeanor online then I suspect you are not ready to own and run a business.

Now I know that the term “professional” photo is vague and subjective.  I am not saying that you need to be in a suit and tie.  You can be a play therapist and have affect like my colleague Charlotte Reznik.  But slapping up a blurry photo of you near a palm tree sends the message that you can’t be bothered to represent yourself or your brand.  And in business we need to be concerned about our brands, even as therapists.

Look, I’m not saying these things to hurt your feelings.  I really want you to succeed, and I know that there are a lot of people out there who need your help.  That’s why I suggest that the photo is the symptom of an underlying issue, which is the difficulty to take either technology or your business seriously.  If you have taken time and consulted with trusted colleagues and have come to the conclusion that “I want potential patients to see me as someone blurry whom they could go skiing with” is your brand, and that the head shot is a conscious and intentional image to brand yourself online than you have my blessing.

If not, get thee to a photographer.


If you are interested in participating in a small group supervision experience, you may want to check out the Supervision Package I’ll be offering this fall.  You can find out more about it here.

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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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Thinking, and Just Thinking

Originally I was going to title this post, “How to Make A Million Dollars as a Therapist Without Ever Having to Talk About Money.”  And if I was just concerned about driving traffic to my blog and business, that would be the title.  Because there are a lot of our colleagues out there who  want to have a very successful business without having to deal with the sordid matter of coin.  I used to think this was the number one reason that psychotherapists have a hard time being successful as entrepreneurs.  I used to read, and agree with, several psychodynamic articles that have been written by colleagues which talk about how we feel shame around money, project our devaluation of ourselves by refusing to spend money on coaching or supervision, and have difficulty set fees and enforcing missed appointment charges with our patients because we feel that we don’t deserve to make money for our work.

I still think those are big hangups a lot of us have, but recently I’ve started to suspect that an even bigger one is our fuzzy thinking about thinking.

Therapists as a whole love to think.  We like thinking deeply about our patients.  Many of us love working with emergent adults in a large part because their neurology has finally blossomed and they are starting to reflect on their thinking.  We often enjoy studying and debating the thoughts of major theorists.  We even see the value of self-reflection in our work with patients.  We like to think about others, the thoughts of others, our thoughts about the thoughts of others, and what great thinkers have thought about the thoughts of others and our thoughts about them.  Boy, do we like to think about thinking.

Now I am no exception to this.  I see an immense value to thinking, in fact I schedule time during my daily work week where I walk around the Charles and think.  During this time I don’t take calls, I don’t check email, I don’t make appointments.  I think.  I intentionally schedule it during the day to remind myself that thinking has a critical place in my work, and has as much if not more value than a billable hour.  And I will often lament to colleagues in academic settings about the need for more critical thinking skills.  I’ve had colleagues critique my wanting more theory classes at BC by saying, “these students want classes that give them practical tools that they can use,” to which I respond, “how about thinking?  That seems like a pretty good tool to me, when did we stop considering it practical?”

So I am not intending to come across as anti-thinking here.  But I have noticed over the past several years who succeeds in getting their private practices off the ground and thriving, and who doesn’t.  And the ones who fail are usually the ones who come to consult with me, or then need to “think about it.”  I’m very concrete when I talk with consultees, and if they are in job crisis I call it that.  I’ve worked with people whose incomes have shrunk by halves over the past several years.  I tell them what has worked for me, and offer suggestions, and the suggestions require things like calling people to network or EAPs or insurance providers every day or write a business plan, or any number of other things.

They listen and say they’ll think about it.

Some people will make a lot of money off of those folks.  There are dozens of people out there who can tell you how to “visualize” your ideal client, “ideate” abundance, or give you a 5 point plan to success.  I’m not one of those people, and so sooner rather than later the conversation peeters out.  Because they have a hard time moving into doing something other than thinking and talking.  Maybe they’ll write a blog post or tweet a few times, but they get discouraged, because I’m not going to waste their time.  This isn’t therapy.  I’ll tell you what I think you ought to do.  You don’t have to do it, but I don’t have a second set of things I think you ought to succeed in your business.  So if you don’t want to do them, we really don’t have a lot more to talk about.

A lot of therapists, myself included, like to try to think and talk our way out of everything.  And many things can be significantly impacted by strategic thinking, and thoughtful process.  But eventually you have to do some other form of work if you want to be in private practice.  We have more autonomy as sole proprietors, but we also can’t just sit in an office hour after hour “just helping people.”  This is actually the fantasy I often hear expressed by colleagues, “I just want to help people,” as if the nobility of that entitles one to not have to exert any other effort.

One of my friends has a mentor who frequently says, “don’t confuse worry with effort.”  Much of the time I think we confuse worrying with deep thinking, and even more so with taking other forms of action.  We think if we worry about a problem either alone or with another that somehow that “counts” as having done something.  The idea of sustained effort truly alarms us.  I’m talking about me too here.  One of the reasons I have a set time in my week to think about things is so that I contain that urge to think fretfully and know that there is a time and a place for me to think about stuff.  And then I go on to other activities that are required of me during the day.

Another reason the Charles river is such an important place for me around this is that it is where I run.  During the week I walk along it and think, and on the weekends at least once I run along it.  But, and this is key, I don’t go to the Charles and think about running.

I can really only tell you what works for me, and incessant and indiscriminate thinking does not work for me, or my business.  If someone tells you that there is an easy, simple way to succeed in creating and growing your practice, I encourage you to be skeptical.  Creating and growing your business involves taking risks, trial and error, and most importantly sustained effort that is not entirely cerebral.  My experience has taught me that you won’t think your way into a successful practice, but you may succeed in thinking yourself into a bankrupt one.

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How To Get An Epic Supervisor

Education shapes our expectations of life and work, and education as it stands currently always involves giving up some degree of personal power.  When we’re in elementary school we need to ask permission to leave to use the bathroom.  In high school we need to show up at times diametrically opposed to our circadian rhythms.  At college we have required course to complete our degree.  And in graduate programs for clinical psychotherapy we often have limited to no control over who our supervisor is going to be.

And then when we graduate, we take our cue from licensure boards to a large extent.  Sadly, license requirements shape our expectations of supervision.  We see it as something we have to have in order to get our license in X number of years.  I have noticed that there is a sharp decline in people buying supervision after they get their independent licensure, which does not mean that there is a correlative decline in our people needing it.

So today I want to talk about how to pick a good supervisor for you to have ongoing clinical supervision.  If you are still in pre-independent licensure this can be an especially daunting experience, but also an incredibly freeing one.  To be clear, you don’t have to purchase private supervision from anyone you don’t want to work with!  Read on for some tips:

1. You often get (or don’t get) what you pay for (or don’t pay for.)

If your agency offers you a good supervisory package for free that is great.  One place I supervise at provides employees and interns with a free secondary supervisor.  Secondary supervisors are the ones who can usually help you most with integrating theory and practice and discussing difficult cases.  Most primary supervisors I know may have good skills and an interest in doing the same, but they don’t have the time.  Their role has become reduced in the age of managed care to helping you learn the ropes about paperwork, facilitating your first emergency room or child protective referrals, and being held responsible for holding you responsible for productivity.  So although these hours count towards your licensure they don’t necessarily deepen your practice for lack of time, not skill.

So now you have some choices.  You can take a fellowship or position at an agency that provides secondary supervision, or you can buy it privately.  Don’t get caught in thinking it is an entitlement, because those days are gone.  Yes, we’re underpaid as a profession, but I suggest you think of good supervision as a benefit valued at between $7200-$9600.  If Agency A offers that, but pays less $5,000 less than Agency B, which doesn’t, you are getting a better deal at Agency A.

2. You may already have met your supervisor, but don’t know it yet

If you are one of the many folks who decides to buy supervision privately, take some time to think about the people you’ve worked with already.  Did you enjoyworking with your first year placement’s supervisor?  Call and ask her if she offers private supervision.  Did you love a certain course in grad school?  Call and ask him if he does supervision.  If they don’t, ask if there are any people they can suggest.  Think back to guest lecturers, colleagues you enjoyed working with, that alum you met at an event.

3. Do your research

In this day and age, everyone should have a LinkedIn profile (more on that in a bit.)  Mine includes several recommendations from past or present supervisees.  Make sure you Google your potential supervisor prior to making an appointment.  Yes, Ms. Jones may have her licensure, but if you are interested in providing LGBT-affirmative therapy and she works at the local conversion treatment center, wouldn’t you like to know that before wasting both of your time?

When you contact a potential supervisor, hopefully they will offer to provide you with a reference of another past or present supervisee.  If they don’t, ask.

Some of the old guard psychodynamic folks may object, saying that that contaminates your supervisory experience.  To which I say, there will be plenty of transference that comes up regardless, and that the focus of supervisors should be on practicing radical transparency, not generating a absolutely blank screen.  Supervision often resonates with therapy, but it is NOT therapy.  If a supervisor comes off as seeming like a Freudbot, this may indicate a difficulty shifting cognitive frame sets from supervisor to therapist.

4. Know what is important to you

You can learn something from everyone, I truly believe that.  However, when I look for a supervisor, I look for someone who provides psychodynamic-oriented supervision.  That’s what I do, what I like, and why I became a therapist.  If you are a solution-focused or CBT practitioner, get someone who is expert and experienced in that.

If someone says they are “eclectic,” run away.  Far far away.  If they can’t describe some of the several areas of their interest or competence to you, chances are they are being either vague or seductive.  Yes, I said seductive.  Supervision is a business prospect, and many people focus on landing a new supervisee to the detriment of both of them.

5. Beware of freebies, private supervision starts with the fee

I’m going out on a limb here, but I strongly discourage freebies.  My Contact page warns away the brainpickers.  These are the people who want to get something for nothing, and say, can “I just pick your brain for a second?”

No, you may not.

There is a lot of free content I’ve put out there that people have access to, but this is also my work and I need to be paid for it.  So if you have done your research, hopefully potential supervisors will have papers published, posts online, lectures, recommendations.  If not, please see item 6.

I have strong opinions about this, because I think it shows potential supervisees how to have professional boundaries and value their work.  If you are doing supervision to “give back” at a reduced fee, that’s fine, as long as you let the supervisee know that you are reducing your fee and let them know the full fee.  But be honest with yourself about this, are you doing it to gratify your self-ideal of social justice, or because you secretly believe that you aren’t worth the full fee, or some other reason?

If you are a potential supervisee, consider this:  Do you need someone to help you learn to be a more noble person, a better clinician, and/or a more savvy businessperson?  Will having a reduced fee lower your expectations of yourself and the supervisor?  And would you like to charge no higher than the reduced fee you are being offered?

If the answer to the last is no, be careful, because this may be a set-up for resentment on your supervisor’s part, and you may both suffer from unconscious false pretenses.

Speaking of fee, I walk this walk, and when I negotiated my fee with my supervisor I negotiated to pay more, because I knew that I would have a harder time later if I didn’t.  We then had a great conversation about the limits of this, because obviously she gets to set her fee not I.  But it caused her to re-evaluate and raise her fee somewhat, and modeled for me her integrity, flexibility, and willingness to listen and learn.  And each time I raise my fee, I bring this up again, and each time the supervision is the richer for it.

6. If you want supervision around private practice, stay away from technophobes.

I strongly maintain that to have a practice in the 21st century you will need to have an online presence, some technological savvy and the willingness to learn about it to work with people from the 21st century.  This is even more true in a private practice, where marketing is moving more online every day.

I once had a couple of sessions with a supervisor I was considering starting work with.  This was a world reknowned clinician, whose work I respect immensely.  In the time between our first and second appointment I included her on my newsletter.  Our next appointment she expressed how “astonished” she was that I would contact her that way, and wondered if I was sabotaging the supervision.  Fortunately I have been in many supervisions and have a strong ego.  That was our last appointment.

I suppose I could have chosen to stay and explore this, but that seems more her issue than mine.  I want to have a practice that focuses on Web 2.0 and psychodynamic therapy, i.e. integrating, not pathologizing them.  And if those were her boundaries, fair enough.  But I’m paying for a service, and I’ll take my business to my current supervisor, who is very professional, very grounded in psychodynamic theory, and subscribes to my newsletter, remarking on every issue.

7. Kick the tires

Having read this, you may be thinking, “I don’t agree,” or “that’s not what I want,” or “what a pill he is!”  If so, that’s great!  Because that means you have some idea what you are or aren’t looking for.   Or you may be thinking, “right on!”  One thing my supervisees can probably tell you is that what you read here and what you get in supervision with me are pretty much the same thing.  And it seems to be working well for all concerned.  You aren’t in grad school anymore, you get to pick and choose your supervisor.

It is okay to try out a few supervisors before deciding.  Pay attention to those first few appointments, when you and your supervisor “relax” into the supervision a bit.  Do you notice drastic changes from the first week(s)?  Do you look forward to supervision, dread it, or find yourself not caring either way?  Ask yourself, and your supervisor, how the supervision is starting off.  If your supervisor does not bring up how to get the most value out of your supervision in the first few months, bring it up yourself.

If you are having mixed feelings about a supervisor, don’t be afraid to bring that up.  But if you can’t bring it up, or choose not to, don’t feel obliged to stay.   Supervision is a long, intense and valuable process.  No less than your professional development is at stake.  Choosing wisely begins with remembering that you have a choice.


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The Uses of Disenchantment

Magic fulfills the wish that we could have powers to be beyond who we sadly suspect we are. As children, magic explains the inexplicable nature of external forces (i.e. parents, teachers, death) and internal ones (unconscious drives, nameless attachments, inconsolable sorrows and consuming rages.)

Anyone who plays WoW, Elder Scrolls, or Dungeons & Dragons, knows that enchanted weapons and armor are valuable items to be gotten. They raise our stats, make us stronger, more intelligent agile, or resistant to harm. They fulfill the wish that we could be more than we are.

That being the case, the profession of Enchanting is a very valuable one to master. To do so is to be able to craft our own items for use or to sell. And to master the skill requires not only enchanting practice, but also the act of disenchantment.

Disenchantment is the breaking down of an enchanted item into its component reagents. In Skyrim this consists of taking the enchanted item and destroying it, which allows you to discover the enchantment. So, for example, if you come across an Iron Battleaxe of Scorching, you have a choice. You can enjoy your new battleaxe which will add fire damage to the physical damage you do using it. Or you can disenchant it, and learn how to imbue any weapon with the ability to do fire damage.

In World of Warcraft disenchanting items is necessary to provide you with the reagents, or raw materials, to do other enchantments. Learning the enchantment is done separately, by training or reading a recipe, but disenchantment is still necessary to break down enchanted items into components you can use for other enchantments. Enchantment operates in the domain of creation and destruction, attachment and loss. I can remember feeling many the hesitation as I was about to take an Epic staff I’d used for months and dissolve into Abyss Crystals. Even though I knew that I was going to get a new weapon with a strong enchantment out of it, disenchantment required sacrafice.

Many patients labor under the illusion that the purpose of therapy is to make you feel good. I have always maintained that that is not true. Therapy is not about making you feel good, but rather about learning how to not to feel good. It’s about learning how to experience and tolerate those unpleasant feelings in a different way than we’ve learned to previously. People abuse substances, food, sex, and yes, occasionally video games because they cannot tolerate feelings that don’t feel “good.” Who wants to feel inconsolable sorrow, thwarted passion, grief, terror, or hopelessness?

And so people come to us wanting symptom reduction, not character building; relief, not the raising of unmentionable wishes and fears to consciousness. At first, we often provide those other things to be sure. A compassionate ear to listen, a calming influence, a holding environment. But in the end, therapists are alchemists and enchanters: Nothing new can be created by our patients without something being destroyed. Something must be given up to create something else.

Consider this: Neurosis is like an enchanted armor that we can no longer use. Maybe we have outgrown it. Maybe it never really fit well but it was the best compromise we could come up with. Maybe it buffed up our strength stats when we really needed more intelligence to play our class effectively. For whatever reason, it is no longer helping us, in fact it has created distress.

Symptom reduction alone won’t solve this problem. It may alleviate our distress for the moment, relieve pain enough to create the “space” between feeling and behavior so that we can begin to do the longer-term work.

That’s where disenchantment comes in. We need to take the item, the neurotic conflict, and break it down into the components that create it. What is the wish and the worry? What causes the guilt? Just what are we so afraid of that we can’t look at it directly?

This doesn’t always have to be painful, and therapists shouldn’t use this as a justification for brutality. But to think that the process of therapy is not going to be uncomfortable and difficult; is not going to take some time and hard work is pretty much delusional. If our enchantments could have gotten us any farther we wouldn’t have given them up. Most addicts and alcoholics would have used longer if they could have. If they could have enjoyed one more binge, party or high, they would have.

Insurance companies love to focus on symptom reduction, and a narrow view of what evidence-based treatment really is. Symptoms are problems to be solved, rather than signposts pointing towards underlying issues. And although this is short-sighted, it is understandable: 10 sessions costs a lot less than weekly sessions. And yet, the most recent research I’ve read indicates that psychodynamic therapy is as effective as CBT and other therapies, and in fact more effective in sustaining longterm change.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychoanalytic thinker, is perhaps best known for his book The Uses of Enchantment. In it he discusses how the themes of fairy tales often symbolize the real emotional and psychological struggles that children go through. Through the projections of stories, children are able to work through their fears in remote and tolerable ways. In a similar way, Klein speaks of the paranoid-schizoid position where the parent is split into good and bad objects, the fairy godmothers and evil witches of fairy tales.

Disenchantment, from a Kleinian lens, leads to the depressive position. It is where we hopefully get to, despite the depressing name, that point when we realize that people are not either all-good, or all-bad, but both good and bad, nurturing and depriving, gratifying and frustrating. In other words, human. The world seems less magical in some ways, and that is experienced as a loss. Sounds depressing, eh? So what is gained?

There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen. In this form of meditation, you begin by touching the tender spot of whatever is sorrowing or distressing to you. Say you’ve lost your loved one. Allow yourself to feel that grief for a moment, really feel it. What an awful wrenching feeling that is. You may reflect that nobody should have to feel what you’re feeling right now. And yet, all over the world, there are those who have felt that, may be feeling it even as you are right now. So you breathe in, and imagine breathing in all of that grief as if for that moment you could take it into your heart so that nobody else would have to feel it. And then you imagine yourself breathing out comfort and security and everything that is the opposite of grief and suffering to the world and to all those in it who need it. You reverse the cycle of trying to avoid pain and grasp pleasure, and in doing so generate compassion.

That is the use of disenchantment; breaking down our fantasies that we can avoid pain and transmuting it into compassion for others. Imagine if you were to really accept that everyone is human and fallible and mortal. If you were able to walk around tomorrow and remain conscious that everyone you meet is dying, would you treat them in the same way as you did today?

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Occam’s Oyster

The oyster has an amazing evolutionary trick.  When a microscopic particle of something or other gets into its soft tissue, it creates over time layer upon layer of nacre, a substance which creates a pearl.  What began as an irritant can go on to become a very valuable object.

You are not an oyster.

If something irritates you, you don’t always need to be stuck with it.  And although I am a big fan of the cognitive reframe, to use it all the time overlooks that you can often resolve whatever is irritating you by removing it.


Case in point, for the past several years I have used a billing service.  They’re great, but there has been something about the process of my patient intakes that irritates me.  I have patients fill out an intake form, which they bring in to me.  At the same time the billing office has a face sheet they use as well, but they need some information that is not on the face sheet but is on my intake form.

So for the past several years the patient will download my form off the site, fill it out and bring it in to me.  I then have to scan the form and fax it to my billing office.  To make things more complicated I have several computers and a scanner at home as well as an iPad.  You’d think this would make things easy, but I can not seem to get them all to talk to each other the right way to scan something and email it in under 30 minutes.  One laptop doesn’t get recognized by the wireless network.  The iPad can scan the form but not email it.  This has been going on for years, and I had grown accustomed  to the irritation as I tried putting on layer after layer of “solutions.”  I’d put off scanning the forms until my office asked me for them, which made their work harder, and payments from insurance choppy.

Then it hit me that I am not an oyster.  Whenever this irritation came up I had been so focused on trying to make things go more easily, that I had never really taken a few minutes to think about how to make this problem go away.  The answer in this case was simple.  Instead of having my patients email the form to me, my introductory email to them can instruct them to email or fax it to the office directly.  They need regular access to it, and I don’t.  They have all of my other administrative paperwork which they keep all safe and secure, so it is actually far easier to have them keep it since they are doing all the billing.  I rarely use that initial paperwork, and I’ll always know where it is.

I offer this as a nuts and bolts example of how your therapy practice needs to be evaluated periodically.  The whole craziness above is a vestige of when I was doing all of my billing, and something I now realize I was not ready to let go of.  And so I just got used to the irritant, ignored it, and hoped it would go away or become less irritating.

We therapists take more irritation for granted than is necessary in our business.  We each have a different version of layering on the nacre.  One of mine is constantly adding new gadgets and trying to find ways to make work easier, rather than making it go away entirely.  I used to spend hours learning the intricacies of a billing software and calling insurance companies, and then I realized I wanted to get rid of the irritation.  I researched different services, and finally decided on one which cost a little more, but did a lot more for me.  Now I give them 9% of my fee, and in return they keep me credentialed with the insurances I take, send out statements, answer questions from patients and submit all my claims electronically to insurances.  Not only do they trap more of my revenue because they can focus on it with more expertise than I, they save me valuable time.

I didn’t value my time as much when I started out, and I am glad I changed that, because I know I wouldn’t have had the time or energy to write a regular blog, do speaking engagements, or write my book this year if I had been chewing on all that paperwork.

So why does it often take us so long to fix systemic problems like this in our practices, or our lives for that matter?  I would suggest that the answer is that we don’t value thinking.

I know, sounds crazy on the surface, therapists don’t value thinking?  Thinking and thinking about thinking is a big part of our profession.  But when was the last time you allotted yourself time specifically to think on something.  By that I mean dedicated time where you think through something single-mindedly, not answering emails, talking on the phone, watching television, etc.  Most people I coach can’t remember the last time they did that, in fact our coaching appointments are often the closest they come to it.

You don’t have to schedule a specific “thinking time” in your day, although you can certainly do that if it works for you.  But in the case above I didn’t do that.  Instead I noticed I was getting irritated for the umpteenth time and said to myself, “Ok, stop EVERYTHING, how can I make this irritation go away?”  Within a relatively short time of dedicated thinking I identified what the system was, what the problem was, and what the new system would need to be to make the form nightmare go away.  Not get less irritating, not more tolerable, but gone.

Look, I’m not saying that everything in life that irritates you can be removed, or even that that would be a good thing.  I’m just saying don’t settle for mitigating damage before you’ve tried making the problem disappear.  Ask yourself, “am I layering nacre over and over?  Is that the best I can strive for?”

Then ask yourself, “am I making time to think, and am I thinking about the things I want to think about when I do?”  Sure there are lots of times when you run a business that you’ll need to think about stuff you’d rather not think about; but if that’s how you’re spending the majority of your time then maybe you’re running the wrong business.

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