A recent post in The New York Times has provoked a couple of responses from therapists on my blog list (which, incidentally, I stole wholesale from Shrink Things, thanks WG!). This is an area of practice I have been focusing on lately, so I’m offering some thoughts.
The essence of Lori Gottlieb’s What Brand is Your Therapist?” is that psychotherapy is difficult to sell; therapists are having a tough time finding clients; and the need to survive in private practice necessitates that therapists attend to their branding.
Steven Reidbord takes this with a pinch of salt; therapists need to attend to branding but within limits. Meanwhile, The Irreverent Psychologist is clear that this is all “very tired advice”. For Shirah Vollmer, on the other hand, “this is a stimulating article which poses the question of supply and demand. Is there a demand for insight-oriented psychotherapy, or is the demand for a relatively quick-fix to a very specific problem?”
This is at the forefront of my awareness at the moment because I have been getting more serious about marketing my private practice. My attitude is that I’m a good therapist, there are people out there who will benefit from working with me, and marketing is the means by which I let those people know I exist.
So a couple of months ago, I attended a workshop on marketing for therapists. One of the interesting exercises was looking at a variety of images of real world markets and products on sale. We then shared our responses to the different scenes, and reflected on what that could teach us about marketing our practices.
One of the images was a crowded street market. Either side of the street was a massive wall of high rise buildings; the market colourful, awash with people, myriad market stalls all pretty much blending into each other and the crowd.
I’ll admit, I found the scene exhausting just to look at! But my focus quickly shifted to something else. When I was asked what stood out for me, I pointed out that far off in the distance was what looked like a forest, and that my attention had settled there. The facilitator did a double take; she hadn’t noticed the forest in the distance before.
I have chewed over this episode for a while, and it’s taken me a while to settle on what it means for me in relation to marketing my practice. What I’ve arrived at is this:
There is more to life than the market.
What is a market? Surface level answer: a market is a place where people buy and sell things. But a deeper answer is also possible, because the market symbolises something very powerful: human beings getting their needs met through mutually beneficial exchange.
The basic premise of a market is that someone has something I want, and will give it to me in exchange for something else. Every want is driven by a need, and so the essence of every market place is two people getting their needs met.
The forest in the distance is a reminder that the activity that grows out of these needs (which, incidentally, are never ending because the meeting of one need simply makes room for awareness of a new need!), can be so time consuming that it’s easy to forget they are actually a support for something: just being. And psychotherapy is one path by which the forest in the distance can be discovered.
Psychotherapy is not difficult to market, even if it is difficult to sell. I see two reasons why psychotherapy is difficult to sell:
1) Psychotherapy isn’t a product, it’s a discipline. Consequently, psychotherapy isn’t what gets bought and sold; it is one specific psychotherapist’s time that gets bought and sold. As The Irreverent Psychologist points out, Gottlieb is a recent graduate, so “of course she didn’t have a thriving private practice. She is just starting out”.
I don’t sell lumps of psychotherapy, I sell 50 minutes of my time. For a lot of money. There are lots of reasons why I and the people who know me think my time is worth every penny. But if someone has just clicked through to my site from my Google Ad, all they have is a website to go on. Maybe there are future clients reading this blog or following me on twitter to get an idea of me. But that’s really an extension of my point: I am selling my time, and it takes time and effort to build a reputation.
So, re-frame: “psychotherapy is difficult to sell” because each psychotherapist is selling their time, not a tangible thing.
2) Two of the most powerful forces in psychotherapy are avoidance and resistance. No one undertakes a difficult and often painful journey into their deepest darkest recesses for a lark. This creates a paradox: psychotherapy is a healing journey in which everyone wants the healing, but no one wants the journey.
I’m asked if I have a magic wand so often by clients that I’m considering buying one just so I can say yes and use it for a projection experiment. Psychotherapy simply is hard work. So you had a difficult childhood, feel like you’ve been depressed pretty much since age 7, regret missing out on formative experiences and wonder what could have been? Six sessions will not heal this. A ten point self-help guide will not heal this. There’s no guarantee even that years of psychotherapy will heal this.
So, reality check: “psychotherapy is difficult to sell” because it is a healing journey that is often long, difficult, and painful.
To return to the forest in the distance, I think the core message that I see in psychotherapy is something people need now more than ever: there is more to life than the market. This is an especially poignant message in an age of global economic collapse and dramatically widening gap between rich and poor.
The forest in the distance represents the endless adventure and mystery of being human. The problems that bring people into therapy are surface level manifestations of the deep, existential issue of being a living mystery endlessly exploring itself.
Developing niche, issue-oriented stalls in the therapeutic market place is one way of doing things, and is suited best to people who enjoy being in the bustling market. It is also exactly what a large number of people want: something that attends solely to the issue for which they are seeking support. But let’s be clear; this is counselling, not psychotherapy.
The marketing issue facing psychotherapy is a lack of effective communication between psychotherapy as a profession and the society in which the profession exists.
Our professional context is important. Big Pharma has made billions of dollars convincing people that being human is a treatable chemical imbalance in the brain. The first port of call for many people in need of therapy is their GP, who then diverts their patients into an NHS care pathway geared towards medication, self-help, and short-term CBT. And that’s before considering the niche, issue-oriented counsellors using increasingly sophisticated methods to better target their marketing to specific groups.
To extend my analogy a bit, the market is big, there are lots of stall holders, and there are lots of people trying to find what they need.
But how many people are pointing out the forest in the distance?