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