“How Can I Get Licensed Practitioners to Take Me Seriously?”

How Do You Avoid Getting the Cold Shoulder, or Worse?

Licensed therapists often want to stone unlicensed practitionersA few years ago, shortly after I’d started my practice, I naively decided to reach out to licensed counselors. Why not? I love a good conversation about the different ways we see the change process happening, and I learn so much from a conversation with a counselor, psychologist, or other therapist. I especially like talking with folks who don’t think or work the same way I do, who bring a different approach to their work.

For example, I’m currently attending an attachment training that facilitates a deep sense of connection between therapist and client. But the counselor I’m talking with most lately does dialectical behavior therapy, and while she’s excellent at facilitating connection with her clients, DBT skills are quite different from the ones I’m learning in the attachment training. If I hung out only with clinicians who thought like me, how would I keep learning? Talking with practitioners who do things differently from how I do them alerts me to other ideas, other trainings to look at, and other ideas to consider. And it helps me know who to refer clients out to when my approach isn’t the right fit for them.

How Not to Do It

Anyhow, back to my story. I tried reaching out to licensed clinicians. It did not begin well. I was delighted when one counselor reached out to me to tell me how great my page on trauma was. She asked if we might take a walk and talk more about our work with trauma. But once she knew I was unlicensed, she suggested I might be out of my element in working with trauma. Perhaps I should refer folks with trauma to a licensed clinician. (Herself, for instance.) And she gave me the cold shoulder from then on.

Later, I reached out to another clinician who was on her way to licensure. In meeting with this woman, I felt an immediate connection, and as we discussed our work, there was lots of warmth and humor that we both seemed to have in our approach. We showed one another some of the visual aids we use with clients, we traded book recommendations, and she invited me to join a consult group she was attending. We also planned to meet again in two weeks, and were discussing the prospect of meeting for lunch regularly. I felt both a great collegial connection and the potential for a friendship.

At that point, I said, “I’m excited to join your consult group! One thing to know: I’m not licensed.”

“Oh, I’m not yet either!” She said. “Not a problem. When do you graduate?” When I explained that I wasn’t on a track to becoming licensed, things changed.

Not long afterwards, I got an email where she listed reasons she couldn’t meet with me, and none of them made sense. Such as, her schedule was so full right then that she couldn’t meet with me again … ever.  Painful!

She also said that everyone at the consult group had discussed the matter, and they couldn’t accept someone who wasn’t on a licensure track. (Oh, and they also came to the conclusion that their next meeting would take place, um….sometime. According to her, they couldn’t get their dates together. Huh.)

But I’m actually friends with a member of the group (a licensed counselor), and he said that no such discussion ever happened. So, at the very least, it wasn’t the discussion with “everyone in the group” that she told me it was.

“Start your own group,” he said, “And I’ll show up.” It was great to have a friend who respected me and softened the blow, but the blow still hurt.

So I started to learn something, and it hit hard:: A lot of licensed clinicians refuse to believe that anyone without college diploma can be competent. Or someone without a license. Over and over again, I’d have excellent conversations with counselors, and I kept thinking, “This person is smart. She’ll  hear my competence, so she’ll be able to accept that I am caring, thoughtful, and have lots of training. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” But this rarely happened.

But, always, some of my approaches were  successful. For example, I was at an introductory training in Somatic Experiencing, and one of the therapists approached me and said, “You seem very quick, and very well-read. You give a lot of useful input. Where did you graduate, and are you a PhD?”

When I told her I wasn’t actually licensed, her response meant a lot to me: “Wow! Good for you!” She looked up my website, and beamed as she read it. We occasionally send one another an email or comment on what we’ve learned about doing good web content. She gave me a glimpse of what it was to be embraced as a competent peer. It was timely. It’s been lonely for me, and as an outgoing person who loves to facilitate the sharing of ideas and the building of connections, being shunned as I do this in my own field has sometimes felt rather constricting.

Unfortunately, this has been the exception rather than the rule.

Turning Things Around

But some things help. For one, I’m a co-founder of this website!

This website arose out of a genuine need for education about the legality of unlicensed practitioners, after I looked around the Internet a lot to find out how unlicensed clinicians, however legal, legitimate, and well-trained, are discussed. Unfortunately, I read far too much about “crystal healers” and “quacks” and a whole host of other very odd conceptions of the strange things we do.

Licensed counselors, even very competent ones who are otherwise very caring and open-minded, sometimes make an exception for unlicensed folks. We’re spoken of with contempt and even fear.  We constitute unfair competition, they say. We can’t possibly be skilled. And we are harming clients (though how, they never seem to say).

(Robert says, “It’s as if they expect the framed certificates do the actual healing, like a holy relic, and the therapists are there to handle the paperwork.”)

Talking with Robert about the pain of reading all this prejudice inspired this website.

Say it Loud, Say it Proud, and Other Tips

Put your cards on the table. I’ve learned that clinicians tend to feel misled if I don’t mention I’m unlicensed right away. Even though it doesn’t matter much to me, and I thought that talking with them in a way that clearly conveyed my care, training, and ethics in working with clients would suffice, I’ve learned that they most often need me to say right away, “I’m an alternative counselor in Oregon. That means I didn’t go the traditional route to becoming a counselor — I have a lot of training, but I don’t have letters after my name.” Mentioning that I’m co-founder of this website doesn’t hurt, either. That also lets folks who are going to shun me do it right away — a valuable time saver for both of us!

Attend trainings that licensed folks also attend. I take advanced trainings. A lot of them. A side effect of this is that I spend time with other licensed and unlicensed practitioners, and because we’re all there to learn skills together, we’re task-oriented.  And I’m more likely to get impressed remarks when someone learns I’m unlicensed, rather than the old, “Unclean! Unclean!” routine. Because we’ve been learning together and we’ve been doing therapy demos with each other. I’ve been asked more than once, “Where did you get your PhD?” I don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree! But I’m studious. I’ve done a lot of training and self-study, and I’ve been learning how to help people since I was young.

Be a resource to other therapists. I work hard to be a helpful resource to other counselors, and to learn what types of issues they work with so I can make good referrals to them. I share information about website content creation and marketing. I listen carefully to their skills and their passion in working with people, and validate what I’m hearing. I share what’s been helpful for me in building my practice. I share not just about the types of things I’m successful with, but the types of issues I’m bewildered by. I show, by doing this, that I’m aware of working within my scope of practice. I show knowledge both in my strengths and my limitations. And I listen carefully to learn what I can, and I also offer to share information I’ve learned. I say where I’m getting my information, and give links to useful trainings or articles I’ve stumbled upon online.

Find the help you need. This is the most important piece I’ve done by far: I’ve done my own work in therapy around the feeling of rejection I get from licensed clinicians. I’ve done enough work on this to feel less defensive and more compassionate. I’ve learned not to slink around or act insecure, and also not to work to explain my own competence in my own defense. I see other counselors as people, and I really really like people! And I’ve learned to be gentle, kind, and caring both to myself and to the people who seem to express coldness, skepticism, or even contempt toward what I do. I know I’m allowed to exist;  I have daily evidence that the work I do helps my clients, and when I talk with other counselors, I’m perfectly aware of the potential of being snubbed. I know I’m likely to get hurt, and I let myself be myself anyway. I think it’s this personal change in me that has led to much richer collaborations with other professionals. Some of the people I felt were avoiding me have approached me since I’ve done this personal work.

In fact, I went to lunch with another counselor in my building a few weeks ago, and in the course of that conversation, I realized just how far I’d come in this regard:

“Do you know what so-and-so works with?” She asked, of another counselor in the building. “Yeah!” I said. And I explained what I  knew of the other counselor’s specialty. And on down the list my colleague went. “What does so-and-so do? Did so-and-so move to another building, and why?”

I knew everyone she asked me about, and was aware of the transitions in their practices. One counselor in my building moved to another town, and referred two of his clients to me — A huge testament of his faith in my skills.

I’m moving forward. If you’re an unlicensed clinician — or a licensed one, for that matter — the best advice is twofold:

  • Keep increasing your own competence. Take trainings. Read books. Stay curious. Listen closely to your clients’ feedback, and use it to keep improving your services.
  • Work on your own issues. Find a good counselor or coach to work through your own insecurities with. It hurts to be snubbed, especially by people you respect. But it happens to everyone, and a therapist can use extra resilience. What I’ve learned is that, by doing my own healing around this hurt, I’ve become far more resilient in the face of potential rejection. And paradoxically, this seems to make me more approachable and more likely to be accepted.

It’s a good feeling, and it’s taken me time to get here.

When I’m snubbed, there’s still a flash of surprise. I can still be caught off-guard, still get hurt. I also continue to want to build rich collaborations with other professionals, and can keep resilience and an open mind and heart when talking to others.

It’s heart-centered work we do — what a shame that we don’t always have the openness to other clinicians that most of us do for our clients.

I want to keep that openness, no matter what the counselors who reject me choose to do. It’s not just my profession, this openness to other people’s feelings and perspectives — it’s a cornerstone of who I am. I refuse to lose track of that.

About Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, working mostly with trauma, attachment, and relationship issues. I'm a co-founder of Unlicensed-Practitioner.com and have two other Web sites: Michaela's Counseling and Trauma Therapy 101 I have the dubious distinction of being one of many victims of the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners, which claims I'm "practicing psychology without a license" simply by being a counselor under Oregon's Educational Licensing exemption.

12 thoughts on ““How Can I Get Licensed Practitioners to Take Me Seriously?”

  1. Hello, I am interested in learning more about how to become an unlicensed therapist in Oregon. I have 4 years of work in the field of mental health, a BA in Psych and a 3 year old daughter. I haven’t had the time or money to go get my Master’s yet, but eventually plan to do so. I am interested in learning how to legally counsel others and practice my skills in helping those with trauma, DD, Autistic spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression, dissociative and attachment issues. Any information you can give me would be so appreciated!

    1. Vera,

      Nice to see someone who doesn’t run away screaming at the idea of helping people who’ve undergone trauma! Especially since everyone, even shoe salesmen, and especially members of the helping professions, have trauma clients, whether they know it or not. It’s not something that can be avoided.

      What I did was to get in-person training in modalities that routinely deal with the aftermath of trauma (hypnotherapy and NLP), then followed up with multiple video and audio trainings and by reading innumerable books. What I didn’t do was seat-of-the-pants therapy. I use specific processes for specific reasons.

      As a hypnotherapist, and one who has a policy of not working with a client for more than ten sessions, I’m generally not attracting clients with the more multi-layered issues that call for long-term therapy. Anxiety, yes; irrational fears, yes; compulsions, yes; combat trauma, sure. Since everyone grasps that hypnotherapy is a shorter-term solution-focused approach, no one has knocked on my door asking for help in resolving less clear-cut issues.

      My colleague Michaela Lonning (who wrote the post above and happens to have the office next to mine) has a client base that, if they had come to me instead, would have made a certain amount of progress. With her, they can be brought all the way to “not having anything left to work on.” Michaela has taken many trainings in the approaches relevant to trauma treatment. Some of these trainings claimed to be only for licensed/license-track clinicians, but most of them routinely make exceptions. Unlike me, she also gets regular supervision from two licensed therapists.

      1. The public report on the OBPE told a different story about Michaela’s level of training…sporadic, but incomplete trainings. I’m just trying to make sense of what’s happening here.

        1. Hi there Tatyana,

          Thanks for your question and for working to wade through this all and make sense of it! The story of my trainings is really that I take about as many as I can, and that I haven’t completed all of them yet. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, I have level 1 training in. Their enrollment in Portland hasn’t been high enough for them to host a level 2 around here yet. I’m in year 3 of Janina Fisher’s webinar training.
          I notice something odd about the OBPE’s take on my trainings: If I take advanced training, they say I’m claiming to be a psychologist by attending trainings where psychologists are also in attendance (Even though many non-psychologists are also in attendance.). On the other hand, if I happen to be in year 3 of a 4 year training or I choose not to pay for CEU credit, then they claim that I’m not “truly” taking the training. At this point, I’m more happy to let my knowledge speak for itself – I figure my level of knowledge (knowledge that comes from a combination of training, experience, and self-study/consultation) is going to be evident to most people who read my website. Anyone seeking the more specific information about the specific levels of training I have in various modalities can find that info on this page: http://michaelas-counseling.com/trainingscertifications/

        2. Tatyana,

          I doubt Michaela has ever abandoned a training partway through. The particular molehill that the OBPE turned into a mountain is that Michaela added Janina Fisher’s consultation group to a list of trainings she has “completed.” The problem, if it is a problem, was that Dr. Fisher’s consultation group is ongoing, and isn’t something that ever actually completes. Michaela’s still attending that group and must be into year four by now. But the OBPE tried to make it sound like Micheala was pulling a fast one just because of the word “completed.”

          In a real court case, none of this would ever have been brought up in the first place: it’s too trivial, lame, and meaningless. But this isn’t a real prosecution. The first thing the administrative law judge said was, “This isn’t a real trial and I’m not a real judge.” And it’s true! Actual first contact with the actual justice system won’t be made until the case hits the Oregon Court of Appeals.


          1. It seems like their biggest issue was the advertising (like the Psychology Today profile) of treatment of specific mental disorders. What are you thoughts on that issue and alternative counselors?

          2. Tatyana,

            It’s a complete non-issue. In Oregon, it’s just as legal for exempt counselors to diagnose and treat mental disorders as licensed counselors. Whether this SHOULD be legal is a different question. The fact is, it’s legal. And it’s just as legal for exempt counselors to advertise their services as for licensed counselors. So the psychology board got their noses out of joint for something that’s perfectly legal.

            Here’s the magic decoder ring: In Oregon, psychologists are no better than counselors. They aren’t allowed to do anything that counselors can’t do, and that includes exempt counselors, so their PhD degrees count for nothing. Some psychologists envision a hierarchy with themselves on top, and feel empowered to make decisions about absolutely everyone, in spite of the utter lack of any legal basis for this. It’s not clear to me how conscious they are of all this. Anyway, they hurl their Jovian thunderbolts when the activities of mere mortals displease them. What actually draws their ire, as opposed to the pretexts they put into their legal documents, I don’t know.


          3. Wow. In that case I don’t really see the merit of the case. I don’t think there was any allegation of using a title-protected term like “psychologist”. Sorry that you had to go through this.

          4. Just another comment – their report doesn’t really seem to substantiate that Michaela practiced psychology (specifically) without a license. From what you say and what I can gather from the statue, nothing about treating mental disorders is specific to the field of psychology. It definitely seems like they took her on for practicing therapy with a license, even though that is legal in your state.

            Why do you think it is only the psychology board that is doing this, and not the social work or professional counseling boards, if you haven’t already answered that?

          5. Tatyana,

            I think that the other licensing boards feel constrained by the law, while the psychology board does not. It’s as simple as that.

            When I talk to legislators, I often inadvertently trigger a rant about how irritating the legislator finds psychologists, who come across as out of touch, clueless, none too competent in their profession, and snotty. I find myself leaping to the defense of all the psychologists who just aren’t like that, probably the vast majority.

            The thing about the psychology board is that they’re a tiny clique inside Oregon’s psychology profession. For example, up till 2011 they announced upcoming openings on the board, so members of the broader psychologist community could consider whether they wanted to serve, but then the board decided they wanted to stack the board with their friends, so they clammed up.


          6. Hi Tatyana, and hi Robert!

            I’m writing a bit more clarification on the Janina training, because I want to make sure I represent this accurately. I’m toward the end of year 3 of her training, I believe. And I believe that this official training actually has 4 years total, but I’ve also heard that she’s considering continuing to host an ongoing consultation group. (So far, the webinar is a combination of training and consultation, so a useful mix of education and tips on applying it with the clients we’re working with.)

            When I was initially writing up my completed trainings, I had actually included the titles of each of the webinars Janina did, but I took this detailed explanation off later for fear that the trainings would sound too “psychologist-like”. (Dr. Fisher is a psychologist, but the board has been very upset with any psychological terms on my site, even if I’m quoting other people or simply stating the title of a training I took.). When I took off the information about every sub training of hers I had completed, I simply forgot to specify that I had completed year 2 at that time.

            It turned out to be another of those situations I’ve become well-acquainted with in dealing with the OBPE: I try to fix one problem they remark on, and it sometimes seems to leave an opening for them to find fault in a different way. For this reason, I’ve recently decided to write my website for potential clients and people who can use the information for their benefit, rather than trying to write to suit the purported aims of the OBPE. I’ve concluded I can’t win with the OBPE, but I can be a helpful resource to the readers of my site — and I can do that by writing genuinely about what I know rather than worrying about isolated phrases and how the OBPE will react to their inclusion or omission in my writings.

          7. It was kind of strange how interested they were in your trainings. Not sure how relevant whether you’ve been to a little or a lot of training is to the question of practicing psychology without a license and/or representing yourself as a psychologist. I’m assuming that in your state, you’re not required to do continuing education at all, if you are an alternative counselor.

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