You know you want to be a private practice therapist, but a website with the word “therapist” doesn’t do it justice. Your practice centers around your personality. In private practice, your career depends on your wellbeing and the quality of your services.
When you determine those people with whom you do your best work, you increase chances of attuned success. Narrowing down your niche leaves your clients more satisfied with your level of expertise.
By niching, you find more ideal clients – faster – while your clients know they’re in good hands. They won’t need to spend extra time educating you on the basics of their particular struggles. As a specialized clinician, you spend less time on surface-level details, are faster able to dive into nuance, and find stability within focus.
Why Create a Specialty in the First Place?
Limits Make You More Attractive
Choosing a specialty for your private practice attracts people who want to work directly with you, provides higher quality services to better-fit clients, saves overall energy and money, and allows you to hone your marketing efforts. Whittling down your potential client base frees your time and increases workplace enjoyment. Happy clients then lead to subsequent word-of-mouth referrals.
Knowing Your Strengths Helps Clients Find You
When you know your professional worth and articulate your strengths, you attract people you actually want to see. Sure, other therapists might disapprove of your self-disclosure or sliding scale policies.
Queer clients with internalized homophobia might run screaming from a website with a rainbow-laden home page. They could judge you for being anything but a generalist. But even therapists who claim to be able to help anyone have their strengths and weaknesses. Show the world you know yours.
How to Specialize
Beginning to Craft Your Specialization
Be patient and let the more precise specialization come to fruition over time, as you determine exactly who it is you’d like to see. Make your specialization general enough that you can include many types of people under the umbrella. For example, describing your work as “supporting womxn through unexpected life transitions” or “helping parents with lasting effects from birth trauma” provides inquiring clients a clear idea of your knowledge base. It also shortens their search and brings you closer to a lasting therapist-client match.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself into an area of expertise you cannot modify later. Instead of advertising that you help “kindergarteners with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder” try “children and families impacted by ASD.” A specialized but flexible focus builds your caseload fast and provides variety in your workday.
Simplify your duties. Narrowing down your focus instills confidence in those seeking your support and gives you a mission. You’ll then emphasize and find related continuing education, blogging, and website resources. Worst case scenario, you will find out more about your professional preferences. No one will stop you from changing the aspects that don’t work.
Revisit past experiences so you can create similarly satisfying results in the future. Close your eyes and think back over your caseloads at practicum and internships, and try to conjure images of the most rewarding work you did. How did you feel? What was meaningful? Which benchmarks did you use to measure progress?
Questions to Help You Get Started
My personal niche grew out of predoc experiences and an impromptu meeting in which my business-savvy, non-therapist brother-in-law asked me pointed questions. Use these as a guideline to get curious about your own interests and strengths.
1. What characteristics do your favorite type(s) of clients share?
2. How do you feel most helpful?
3. What type of specialist does your community need?
4. Which personalities energize or exhaust you?
5. How many people are you able to help without burning out?
6. When do you do your best work?
A Personal Example
I used these questions to create the building blocks of my specialty and shape my private practice. Here are my answers:
1. I thrive with quieter clients who need help translating their inner experience into a coherent narrative. I also thrive with: queer people oppressed by heteronormativity and homophobia, young people who don’t feel seen, and parents who have lost their way amidst tons of conflicting advice and just want to reconnect with their children.
2. I feel most helpful when I can relate on some level using my hyperactive mirror neurons to do just that: mirror. I am most comfortable with more open space in the conversation and a slower pace to reflect. It is important to see these people in a peaceful, thoughtfully curated office space.
3. Based on the strong emphasis on education and vigorous schools in the area, parents and students need supportive community members to add to their “village.” People in my particularly busy and competitive village benefit from slowing down and increasing awareness of internal processing.
Pleasanton, where I work, needs more child and adolescent therapists. Helping new parents learn and teach emotional intelligence to their young children means a lot to me. And I still vividly remember my own tumultuous teen years, so I enjoy helping adolescents and college students through rocky transitional periods.
4. I do well one-on-one and I can see a handful of sensitive, quiet types for full-length or extended sessions each day. If I take on more than two to three families or group relationships each week, I leave the office completely drained, without any energy left for myself or my own family.
5. As a highly sensitive person and toddler parent, I have to be honest about my limits. I can help more people when our personalities sync up, but even then, I carefully pay attention to my capacities to fully support others’ difficult emotions and experiences.
I can schedule 10-15 client sessions per week over two to three days and feel productive and present for each of them. Above and beyond that number, my brain capacity and physical energy dwindles. I reach additional people who can’t afford one-on-one sessions through my writing and occasional low-fee workshops.
6. I am most alert and creative mid-day, after I exercise. Then I see teens on mental health leave from school or those who attend alternative or home schools, college students working around their class schedules, and a few parents, couples, and individual clients at the tail end of work and schooldays.
I welcome seasonal ebbs and flows, as I find the regular breaks and days off during slower times of the year serve me well. In my private practice, the lulls occur during summer break and the winter holiday season.
Narrowing it Down
Don’t let the unknown prevent you from choosing a specialty. If you’re not ready to completely narrow it down, find an established practitioner who works with types of people you might be interested in seeing. Most colleagues and I constantly seek quality pre- and post-doctoral psychological assistants.
Cold calling a psychologist might seem bold, but most of us truly appreciate it. Regardless of your chosen specialty, the connections you form in these relationships typically end in a stream of reliable referrals for years to come.
The current psychological assistant in my practice actually reached out to me, completely unprompted, after reading the article I wrote for Time2Track in 2016! She works with me to this day and has been a wonderful addition to my practice. When her placement is over, she will remain an important referral source for me as long as she’s in business.
Once you’ve started your private practice, be sure to protect yourself from burnout. Before you meet a potential client, clarify that the first meeting is “meant to find out if we’re a good fit.” You do not want to unintentionally give the impression that you are their committed treating clinician before determining how you feel in their presence. It’s also important not to unduly influence potential clients into continuing with you if it’s not the best match for their needs.
Take your time. For their sake and yours, encourage new clients to shop around and meet at least two or three therapists before making a decision on whom they’d like to see long-term. A fearful, scarcity-focused, or greedy mindset will be easy for new clients and referral sources to spot. You will inevitably scare them away.
Befriend “The Competition”
You might be tempted to think of people in the same specialty as your competitors, but they are actually your friends! Many new clients find out about me through other sensory processing sensitivity specialists who focus on LGBTQIA2S+ community members. One of my colleagues sees mostly couples and not adolescents. I send her couples, and she sends me many family and adolescent referrals.
Build up a strong referral network so you have several names you can provide to inquiring potential clients with whom you would not work well. Your local colleagues will appreciate you thinking of them and likely repay the favor.
Finally, reach out for help with your marketing materials. Starting your own private practice is not the time to insist on going it alone. The world is at your fingertips, so take advantage of specialized resources like Nikki Bonsol’s Write Brave for Healers course, in which you get both expert and peer feedback on your message. Consider ZynnyMe’s Business School Bootcamp for therapists. The list goes on.
Take the Leap
Sharing your vulnerabilities and personal details feels frightening to most early career therapists, especially after finishing all of those licensing board questions about the psychoanalyst’s blank slate. Most therapy clients could care less about Freud.
But if you accurately express your genuine idiosyncrasies in your marketing presentation, you minimize surprises so people know what they’re walking into. Know that your unique approach will absolutely turn some people away. As weird as it might sound, you actually want to.
Questioning yourself and adjusting are natural parts of the process as you learn. You will eventually need to update your niche and related marketing message. I would be skeptical of anyone who starts a brand new business fully confident that it will take off without a hitch.
In addition to meeting a variety of clients’ therapy needs, you likely won’t know exactly with whom you do your best work until you have a few more years of experience. Even then it will shift as you learn more about your business model and personal preferences. If you’re overwhelmed by this massive change and life decision, talk to a trusted entrepreneurial friend or a mental health professional. You, too, deserve the highly trained warmth and healing you offer to clients. Your personal growth and expertise will come with time, and you can honor yourself and your clients by taking the first step.
Interested in reading more from Elizabeth Fox Bulter, PsyD? Check out Mental Illness Stigma: A Therapist’s Perspective.
- The Early Career Therapist’s Guide to Creating a Compelling Specialty - April 14, 2021
- Mental Illness Stigma: A Therapist’s Perspective - October 31, 2016