Updated: Jan 29, 2019
As therapists we get to learn really quickly how important it is to say “yes” and “no” to the right opportunities, so I wanted to bring Allison Puryear on to discuss how this career path is a beautiful way to live your life, but it’s also a business and you can’t base decisions on fear or scarcity.
Don’t be afraid to get specific with your niche. You won’t dissuade potential clients this way, you’ll actually attract more! We’ve got tons of inspiration to share today, so tune in or read an edited script below to learn more! As always, you can subscribe on iTunes!
Leanne Peterson: Allison, welcome to The Inspired Therapist podcast. I’m so excited to be speaking with you, because I found you really randomly. I was searching for a blog on maternity leave, and I found your great blog at Abundant Space Practice and I love what you’re doing with helping people start their practices in a way that really aligns with what I think. In a way you’re focused on the abundance part of it, not the scarcity model, but this model that seems like there’s enough for everyone, and we can build these practices that do really well and feel really good. And you bring it all together in this great way. So I wanted to talk to you because I really admire your work and everything you’re doing, and I wanted you to share with our listeners what you have going on at Abundance Based Practice, and also I’d love to hear about your journey. How you went from a traditional therapist to having your own practice as a traditional therapist to building this business supporting other therapists. I’d just love to hear about your journey.
Allison Puryear: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I think one of the things that really stood out to me, even when I was in agency work, is there are plenty of clients for everybody. That was something that just didn’t seem to be common knowledge. It’s like as soon as people went into private practice, they got scarcity based, and really afraid that they weren’t going to make it, and they weren’t going to get clients, and so they were afraid to collaborate or to reach out or refer people that were calling them that weren’t great fits for them.
I actually did the part-time private practice, full-time job thing for 5 years, which is way, way, way too long. 5 years is way too long.
Why do you think you hesitated? What kept you in that limbo of one foot in one and one food in the other?
Well, the first half of that, or probably the first 3 years of that, I loved my job. I absolutely loved it. And then of course it all spiraled downwards.
But I loved it for a while. I would say the last 2 years, my husband was applying to schools all over the country, so I knew we were going to move, so I was like, “Well, I don’t want to go through the hard part of building this practice and quitting this job, and then just do it again in a year or two.” So I just kind of held on. Then we did end up moving across the country, and because I have not had an amazing time in agencies—and I will say I believe that there are great agencies out there that are ethically run, and that treat their employees well and all that. I believe they’re out there. I just didn’t work for one that was able to maintain that for very long.
I felt like that with a nonprofit- I worked for a lot of nonprofits- it’s almost like this deficit model. Like there’s never enough. There’s never enough funding, we’re never seeing enough clients, we’re never working hard enough. It’s just very, you’re always striving to get more on the assumption that either what you have is going to run out, or what you have isn’t enough anyway. I think it’s energetically really an exhausting system we have set up in these nonprofits.
Absolutely. And even for-profits. I worked at a group practice before where we ended up having to sue the owner because he just didn’t pay us, but he got himself a Hummer and a mansion. You know, that kind of thing.
So I was kind of done by the time we moved from Georgia to Seattle, and perhaps a little bit overconfident that I could move to a brand new city and start a brand new practice and support us while my husband was in school and couldn’t work. It worked out, so maybe it wasn’t overconfidence, or maybe that overconfidence did something good to help me get by and get along. But being in Seattle, in this brand new city, and having a private practice, and having time, energy and money - by the time I built it up to enjoy my life- it just felt so different. Because I’d literally left 50 or 60 hour work weeks where I felt like self-care was taking that one yoga class each week that I could squeeze in, and sometimes spending time with my husband.
It was almost like a learned helplessness. This is what life was like for a social worker. This is just how it’s going to be. Just like they told us. You’re never going to make good money as a social worker. So going from that to having no clients in a brand new city and getting to explore and taking 4-hour walks with my dog on the beach, I learned how to slow down. I learned how to be present in a way that I hadn’t been living my life like that thus far.
I want to pause there in your story, because I want to highlight this point. I had a similar thing where I moved from Connecticut to Houston. I had some clients, since I was still licensed in Connecticut and I could still meet with them virtually. But I had a lot more time. At that time, there seemed like this, “Oh my gosh, I need more clients. I need more clients.” Looking back, I’m like, “Ah! There’s beauty in that period.” Like you said, to rest, and reflect, and let your practice build up slowly as you’re building yourself up, and take that time for enjoyment instead of stressing about what’s next. Because eventually your practice will be full, and you’ll be longing for those 4-hour walks on the beach.
Absolutely. And it also taught me that I didn’t have to work a 40-hour week, that I would be able to make literally more than double what I was making working 20 hours a week, or 25 hours a week, and instead of just cramming more clients in like I might have in the past because that’s what I was accustomed to, I had that downtime to really relish being by myself, or being with my friends. Seattle’s such a great city for entrepreneurship and startups and things like that, so I had all these friends who were also self-employed, therapists or otherwise, and we could get together for a 3-hour lunch and talk about life, or business, or go for a walk. So it was a really rich, sweet time that even when I was full in private practice, the more sane version of that was probably 25 clients a week, and the less sane version of me being full is about 33, which I would not recommend. I was able to keep more balance than I ever had in my life, and that’s been, I feel like that’s been something that I’ve been able to have as a touch point when that part of me that likes to work so much in order to prove, or be good enough, or whatever kind of stuff is going on inside, is something that I can have as a touch point of, like, that was a really balanced time in my life that I can always return to.
And then we moved back across the country to Asheville, North Carolina. My practice here grew pretty quickly because I’d learned so much from what I’d learned in Seattle when I was building there. I kind of was like, “Well maybe I could just be a stage mom for other people.” And that’s when I started Abundance Practice Building, because I was just like, “This is something that I could have as a job and really, genuinely love it, and be able to affect tons of lives.” Because each therapist that I help build is then going to see tons of clients that are great fits for them, and those people are going to be able to have the lives they want. That’s a really great contribution that I can make.
So I started Abundance 4 years ago, and it has skyrocketed. It’s grown so much faster than I ever expected it to. I’m really proud of it, and I also am continuously learning how to balance it so that it continues to be something I love and enjoy and doesn’t ever feel like a slog.
Right. Have you found those sticky places where it’s feeling great, feeling great, and then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is not working anymore?” Does that come up for you, or do you catch it before it gets to that point?
To be totally honest, it’s shifted a lot. So early on, it was the haters that really got to me. You know, they could say things that might be a valid point but said in a hateful way to like, “You’re ugly and stupid and I hate you.” It could just run the gamut from like, “Wow, that hurts. Why does it hurt? Somebody’s talking to me and it sounds like they’re 12 years old. Why is that hurting me?”
Or, like, “Oh, that’s kind of a valid point. That’s something I should look at, but did they need to be so mean about it?” So the haters got me down at first. Now I’m kind of like, “Yeah, okay whatever. You can have your opinion. I’ll take what might be valuable from it and leave the rest.”
Now, I think the only thing that gets to me is when I overcommit myself, and I want to say yes to so much, because there are so many wonderful opportunities. So I get some FOMO when I say no, and when I overcommit, I start feeling harried. I don’t like being back-to-back all day with no lunch. Well, I never do that. I’m an eating disorder therapist. I always take a lunch. But sometimes it’s only 30 minutes, and I would prefer time to eat and relax, and don’t always get that. Then, you know, we were talking before we hit record, like going from that role to being a mom and handling all the mom stuff. So for me, it’s been a very interesting thing in learning how to regulate my time. Then the emotions when I say no to something, or feel like I should have said no to something.
I think you bring up a good point, too, that I want to point out. I realize that really our best form of self-care is often in our transitions. There was one day I was running from the mom duties to Pilates to seeing a client. It’s like, Pilates is, the form of Pilates I do is very nurturing, it’s not crazy. But it didn’t feel like, “Ahh.” Because I didn’t leave any time to transition into it and transition out. I think oftentimes we miss that part of the transition, and it’s easy to start booking our days in so packed, and with so many clients that we stop being able to feel that exhale, and that time to check in and look at what we need in that moment.
Absolutely. Yeah, and it just becomes self-care, then whatever we’ve scheduled is just another obligation for the day instead of a time to really take care of ourselves, and be proud of ourselves for taking care of ourselves.
So what do you love the most about how your practice has evolved over these last 4 years?
There have been a lot of growth edges that I’ve overcome. I think the personal development that goes along with any business, whether it’s a private practice or whether it’s, you know, Abundance is now an international consulting firm. Whether it’s local or not, whether it’s smaller or not, there are so many opportunities for personal growth that are not fun as they’re happening, but later you realize how much stronger you were, or how much more confident you were, or I’m just really impressed by how I wouldn’t have dealt with all of the junk that I’ve dealt with in the last 4 years if I hadn’t stretched myself in this way in business. It’s all stuff that has strengthened me as a person.
So I love that on the personal level. What I really love about my clients, I think because I’m just really authentically myself in everything that I do, from my blogging to my podcast to whatever, I end up attracting people that I get along with really well. So I love that we can have different boundaries as consultants, because a lot of people who were my students are now my friends. And I really appreciate that I’ve gotten to know people all over the world that I would never have met before, and that are fun, and interesting, and have added a lot of depth to my life. So I’m really grateful for that.
And it’s cool to learn about other cultures in therapy. That’s also something I’ve been really geeking out about lately. How, you know, it’s different in the UK, the way that therapy is viewed or looked at, or appreciated. It’s very different than here in the States, and it’s different in Australia, or it’s different in Israel, and these are things that I might have read about sometime in a social work book in school, but I forgot all that a long time ago. It’s nice to be able to have conversations with people in really different places in their lives and their cultures and all of it. To be able to have this throughline and this connection.
It’s really about your own growth, your growth as a provider of services, your growth in friendships, your growth in knowledge about therapy around the world. I think we forget how important it is to keep pushing ourselves, not to push ourselves but so we can grow and expand and evolve further in our own self, and in the work. But I also love that when people see your website, it looks so effortless, which is obviously what we all want to see when we go to someone’s website. But it sounds like what you’re saying, too, is it hasn’t all been easy, that you have had to push yourself through some stuff when maybe you wanted to stop, when the haters were talking, and i you’re like me, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
It’s easy to kind of want to back off, and shrink down, and say, “You know what, I’ll stay small, and I’ll stay in my little private practice world, and I’ll stay where I’m safe.”
There have been many conversations, in my head or with my partner, about, “Why am I doing this thing that is so hard sometimes?” Like a private practice, once I built my private practice, the only hard parts are when my clients are really struggling or truly suffering. Right? And that, I’ve been doing since 2004. So that feels like I’ve got all these skills for that. Whereas I feel like new things crop up with this business all the time, and what I tell both my clinicians who are starting practices or the people I work with who have full practices who are starting online businesses, what I tell them is what I always do, which is I get routed in my why, and getting really clear that the reason that I do Abundance is I’ve known too many really amazing clinicians who have left the field because they were in really crappy jobs that sucked their soul. When I started my private practice full-time, for the first time in Seattle, that was my first full-time practice, I was like, “Wait, this has been available all these years, and I didn’t realize? I get to have this life? And I get to see these clients that I’m actually doing great work with, and not just whoever lands in my caseload?” And it was absolutely life-changing, and it changed the way I think about therapy, and it changed the way I think about client care, and I want to be able to help other people have that if it’s what they want. So when I start feeling like, “Poor me, this is hard,” I’m like, “It’s temporarily hard, Allison. You’ve been around this block enough, and look what you get to do, and look what you help facilitate in the world.” It’s bigger than me, and that can kind of give me that boost when I need it.
I love that, and I love even the terminology, like routed in your why, because it’s so easy when we’re looking outward or going with the feelings in the moment to bail on our why if we’re not really clear and set, and like, “No, no, this is important.” Like you said, it’s temporarily hard, and even when you’re building a new practice, often it’s temporarily hard. I remember I had one month, and it was like August a few years ago, and it was slow, and I’m like, “My practice is falling apart. No one’s going to come.” I could have totally bailed in that moment, and the month ended up being fine and I’ve had great months ever since. So it’s just like, can we kind of let ourselves breathe through those uncomfortable moments to get to our really, our long-term goal, our kind of thing that we’re really looking to build up instead of letting all the in-the-moment thoughts and fears get in our way.
Yes. Absolutely. And it’s amazing how, like that’s such a process we all go through, what you just described. I have never worked with somebody who started a practice, and it was really easy. Or someone who didn’t lose confidence during a summer slump. You know, like it gets so intrinsically related to our sense of success and self, when we have a hard time in our business, it is so easy to be like, “Clearly I’m just not made for this,” or “Clearly I’m not good at this,” in a way that also has a lot of people quitting private practice too early when they, you know, if they’d hung in there a few months later, they would have been where they wanted to be.
Yes. I wonder about that. Do you have doubts in your work? Because again, when you see someone who has built up a great practice, and then building another thing, when we start feeling doubts, it feels like, “Well, I guess I’m wrong because other people are so confident in their work.” Do you ever have doubts even in your private—do you still see clients in private practice?
I do. I don’t have doubts in my private practice. I stopped seeing new clients a couple years ago. I do a lot of long-term work with folks with eating disorders and trauma, and so I guess I’ve taken on a couple new people in the last few years, but I’ve basically told everybody, “I’m not accepting new clients in full,” and then I took on an employee, a clinical employee. I was like, “Oh man, now I’ve got to market the practice again so that can fill her up.” I was really clear, because for a moment there, I’ve been in the soup with some of the people I was coaching, and being really clear that I know it works. It’s just a matter of doing it. And sometimes prioritizing it, or getting through a block that’s holding us back, for me, it’s the prioritizing because I’ve got two businesses, my husband’s starting a 3rd business right now, and just a lot of moving pieces. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to do this video or write this blog post or you know, create this Facebook ad,” or whatever in order to get my employee full. For me, I’m not prioritizing it, but I know it’ll work. Whereas early on in the game, and where most people are like, “I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know if it’ll work. I don’t want to be a failure, and it would suck to try hard and then fail.” So I don’t have those blocks, but I have different priority-based timing ones.
It sounds like you’re more confident in the system but you run into the same thing we all run into, which is again doing the system.
Yeah, which historically, I’m such a doer, like I’m an over-doer, but I’ve really put the brakes on that because I realized how much it was eating my life. Now I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to kickstart that engine again. How does that work?”
And it speaks to that, too, the whole thing is a process. Starting a practice is a process, and it’s a commitment, and there are steps you need to complete, and I think that, at least I see that with some people, where there’s this hesitancy to commit to doing some stuff to get it going, and then it never gets going, and they’re like, “Well, I guess it’s just not for me.” No, private practice is a business and it can be this awesome way to live your life. Like you said, there’s so much freedom, flexibility, the earning potential is amazing. There’s all these awesome parts, but you have to be willing to really step in and say, “I’m going to show up as a business person and nurture this business to get myself started. I’m going to create something for myself.”
You know, I saw that in my own practice. I love private practice, and in those beginning stages, there are some uncertainties, so it’s remembering that, too, when you’re deciding if you want to shift into a private practice. A, getting the support is key to know what steps you should be investing your time in, but also B, it’s this, “Are you ready to start a business? Is there something fun and exciting about having a business to you?” But if it’s all drudgery, then maybe that’s not your best route.
Right. I think it’s also, like if it’s marketing that’s the drudgery, it’s finding the marketing strategies that actually don’t sound like hell. Like, there are plenty out there that you’ll probably be good at, or you’ll probably like if you just take the time to explore them. That’s one of the things I’m often helping people do, because there are, most of us who go into therapy are not natural business people, too. On the surface, it seems like they’re at odds with one another, when in fact, I mean, I see marketing as just another form of service, because if our clients don’t know we’re out there, then they can’t find us. So it’s part of the deal. It’s part of how we serve people, by making sure they can find us easily.
I love that reminder. Exactly. They’re not separate pieces. They’re one and the same. I’ve heard that before, and I love that, that we need to be visible with what we have so that people who need it can find it, and if we’re not being visible with what we have, like you said, we’re doing a disservice. A lot of people will come to me and say, “I’ve been looking for someone, and I couldn’t find anyone that felt right, and then I saw your website, and it really connected.”
That’s what we want.
I want to be encouraging to clients to find their person, but we can’t expect clients to be able to find their right fit if we’re not showing what we have to offer, and if we’re not being personalized in that. Because I also see a lot of therapists’ websites that are very generic.
There’s no personality here. Why would people come here? It’s almost like a faceless business, like you hit all the quote-unquote “right points,” but you're not bringing yourself to it.
Right. It’s really hard for people to choose when they don’t know who you are, or what you stand for, or who you treat. If you’re the therapist—and I mean, it’s kind of a PSA because this is most therapist websites I’ve seen before working with them—it’s like, “I believe in the strength of people, and resilience, and in the ability to change.” Great! We all believe that. But, what makes you different? Who are you? Who do you love to serve? The fear around niching down is so common, because people are so afraid that if they don’t cast a wide net, they won’t get clients. An example I always like to give is with my first daughter, I had post-partum depression. I saw a bunch of different websites where they listed post-partum depression or perinatal mood disorders, and a long list of other things that I knew had nothing to do with it, but when I landed on the website that was all about perinatal mood disorders, I was like, “Oh, finally!” I was so relieved, because there was somebody who really knew their stuff, so much so that their entire website talked about it. I felt immediately safe, and of course that’s who I chose. I don’t think I used my insurance. I can’t remember if she took insurance or not, but I would have paid whatever to get the right help.
Right! And that I think, and it’s such a huge piece of this and I want everyone listening to really hear this: pick your niche. I’ll have people come to me for couple’s therapy. I don’t do couple’s therapy. So if people email me, I’ll refer them. Sometimes they’ll make an appointment for one person and bring someone else, and I can do it, but I’m not an expert in it. So it’s interesting, too, even when we pick our niche, people will still come. I think there’s this fear that, “Well, if I’m too specific, I won’t get enough people.” No, it’s almost like people like to see that you have a specialty.
And if they still connect with you, and they’re like, “I’m outside your specialty, but….” I had a part of my website where I was specializing for a while and working with mothers, and I had this man come, and he was like, “I am a stay-at-home-dad, and I saw you work with mothers, and I thought that would really align with my situation.” It’s bigger than you think, so this fear of, “I can’t pick one thing,” just pick one thing, and see who shows up.
Right. Absolutely. And with my niche in eating disorders, my website talks pretty much exclusively about eating disorders, but I talk about the anxiety my people with eating disorders feel around eating, or body image, or whatever, so I end up bringing in a lot of people with anxiety disorders without eating disorders. Because they’re like, “I see you treat eating disorders, but you treat anxiety, too, right? Because it sounds like it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, come on in,” because I love working with anxiety.
The right people will still find you, but it’s easier to find you because you’re more specific.
It’s like, “Oh, she’s an expert in something, so I want to use her, because she’s an expert.” Versus these other therapists who, I know we all have our specialties, and we can work with a lot of different things, but we’ve got to pick one thing so we can be known for one thing instead of trying to be known for everything and just getting caught up in the wash.
Check out Allison here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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