Being invited to present at the BACP Private Practice Conference as the keynote speaker was a real honour. I presented on my own private practice journey: the realisations I’ve had, and the not so smooth process of embracing my identity that’s led me to build a niche and an internationally successful private practice. My keynote was centred around knowing your niche and the path to authentic success. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the audience was an incredibly diverse group of therapists, who are also struggling with similar issues to me around self-acceptance, congruence and visibility in their private practices.
I’m a trans, neurodivergent, accredited psychotherapist and founder of The Queer Therapist. My specialism lies in working with gender, sex and relationship diversity, particularly with clients who are also neurodivergent. My work is tailored to the queer and neurodivergent community, who have historically been mistreated and exploited by some in the psychological profession. There’s no doubt in my mind that social media has been a massive step forward in helping me remove and counter that stigma. Disclosing my trans identity may seem radical, but cisgender (people whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) therapists unintentionally disclose their gender every day without wondering about boundaries.
If we accept that online marketing is needed to run a private practice in 2022, we must also accept that through our ‘brand identity’ we’re already communicating our voice to potential clients. Social media is the next step, allowing us to use what we already know about the desire from clients to align with their therapist politically and socially to our advantage, and carving out a unique space in the field of mental health treatment. Through this style of alternative communication, we can professionally benefit from it by putting our authentic selves on social media and tapping into a global network of possibilities.
What’s my niche?
The Queer Therapist was founded in late 2020, during the pandemic and in response to the growing UK trans healthcare crisis. It’s a pioneering UK-based online social enterprise dedicated to providing queer, gender and neurodivergent-affirming therapy, both nationally and internationally. It’s grown from strength to strength over the last few years, with an insurmountable demand from clients, development and launch of a global consultancy that feeds any profits back into the sliding scale fees, and an ever-growing training branch. We are more than achieving our financial, ethical and impact aims.
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But if you had told me when I started my career, 10 or so years ago, that the success of my private practice was going to be reliant on a strong online presence and centring my personal identity at the core of my brand, I would have said, ‘Not a chance’. The idea of exposing any part of who I was in a professional context, let alone risking my personal and professional reputation on it, was horrifying. That didn’t magically change overnight, but the painful catalyst of the pandemic, doing the personal work and embracing my authentic self, as well as really assessing my core values, convinced me to take a risk and go all in on my niche.
What is a business niche?
A business niche is a specialised or focused area of a broader market that your business serves specifically. Finding your niche differentiates your practice from the competition and allows you to excel in your sector.
Why is finding a therapy niche important in private practice?
If you’ve heard the expression ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, you can see the importance of determining your specialisation and differentiating yourself from the competition. Many of us will have a postgraduate qualification, if not higher, in a specialisation of therapy, but we often stop there when thinking about positioning ourselves. Therapists will state they are psychodynamic, person centred or CBT, and then continue to list endless issues and predetermined diagnoses they are happy to work with. But if we’re all doing this, how do we help the clients who would most benefit from our own specific practice and lived experience to find us?
That’s why finding a niche based on more than your modality is crucial for private practitioners. We all want to create a steady revenue stream, establish a personalised practice and build a more focused business.
Clearly, finding your niche has a multitude of benefits, but knowing that and actioning it are two different things, especially when it comes to branding and marketing your practice. Most people will say you need good online marketing to build a private practice. But what I wouldn’t have believed is just how central social media would become as a platform for disclosing my gender identity, politics and professional views, which ultimately have become my strongest tools. I’ve found a whole new audience base via social media, and rebranded websites have increased my client demand by 90%, which keeps growing, and found that the clients who seek me out, do so with far more confidence, believing that I’m going to be the right fit.
Coming round to this way of thinking, what I like to call ‘accountable visibility’, was a confronting process, but one I highly encourage you all to adopt. It’s counterintuitive to what we are often taught about how a therapeutic practice should be positioned and marketed. Working across the NHS, as well as in my own private practice, the conversations about online communication were very much around safeguarding and managing disclosures, ensuring your private profiles couldn’t be found by clients to maintain the utmost boundaried professionalism. I still strongly believe in clear boundaries. However, once I embraced my own desire to work directly for the LGBTQIA+ community, rather than trying to remove my own identity from my client work, I found a whole new way of communication was open to me.
Rewind to three years ago and my keynote would have been very different. At that time, I was working in an adult clinical psychology service in the NHS, as well as running a part-time, moderately successful generalist private practice called ‘The Meeting Point Glasgow’. I was seeing clients from all walks of life. Often LGBTQIA+ folk would be on my caseload, but it was in no way an intentional specialism. In my personal life, I was coming to terms with my own gender; a lifelong and still evolving journey. While I was very comfortable with my sexuality as part of my identity, my intersectional identity was something I’d been trained and socialised into keeping outside of any work environment.
I was working extremely hard to be palatable, safe and middle of the road – to not alienate anyone and, most importantly, trying to keep my brand and my work neutral, so as not to impact the clients who came to me. I had no idea I was neurodivergent, and chalked up the extreme amount of work, barriers faced and perseverance I had put into achieving what I had, as the fair price for a stable, well-respected career.
And then the pandemic started…
The pandemic started, and just a few months before, I’d met a woman who would turn out to be my wife. But why are these two things relevant? Let’s start with the pandemic. For many of us, the work didn’t stop just because a lockdown was in place. If anything, we all rightly predicted the impact of isolation, restriction and confrontation with mortality that the start of COVID brought about, which would inevitably have a hugely negative impact on the UK’s mental health. Doubly so for those of us who were already dealing with pre-existing mental health issues and/or having to spend lockdown in an unsafe environment, somewhere we could not be our true selves.
What quickly transpired for many of my clients, and indeed for myself, was a perfect storm of high-pressure, isolation and space to think, which acted as a catalyst, bringing many things to the surface that had been pushed down for far too long. I’m sure we’ve all had a moment of confrontation with ourselves over the past two-and-a-half years, but for me it was the final push I needed to sit with my internalised transphobia and do the work around my own gender exploration – something I’d been desperately trying to avoid, for fear of shaming my family and losing respect professionally.
At the same time, I was – and please bear with me as some of this will be a little soppy – falling for the most amazing, sharp-witted, fiercely intelligent and, as it turns out, neurodivergent woman I’ve ever met. I didn’t know she was neurodivergent when we went on our first date, but within 10 minutes or so, she had classically overshared and explained she is dyslexic, dyspraxic and has ADHD. In discovering several of her traits were attributed to ADHD, she had, for a while, felt like she had lost any individuality and personal identity, and felt reduced to a diagnosis before coming to the stark
realisation that all her diagnoses were just the result of humans trying to rationalise a complex neurotype into a complicated but ordered one. And that was not something that could be separated out, fixed or managed, but rather embraced in all its complex glory. She was the first person I’d met in my personal life who was positively and openly disrupting, by being unmasked without a hint of shame, and it was truly a revelation.
Being confronted by such a positive disruption from someone who was role modelling what being unmasked could not only look like day to day, but how it could radically and positively influence my practice, changed everything. She was the first to confront me about my own neurodivergence; something I’d never considered and now have my own ADHD diagnosis for.
But why social media?
Technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives, it’s not going anywhere and, as every year passes, we’re expected to stay abreast of the changing technological landscape. That can be daunting as a private practitioner, to say the least. How do you communicate your services to the online market when there’s huge competition and fast-moving trends, without masses of resources? This is where social media platforms come into their own.
They are the perfect resource for keeping up with the conversation. They provide an opportunity to tap into your field of expertise on a global scale, and they are usually the first place to introduce ‘the next big thing’. None of this will be news to you, but I think there’s still stigma in our field of work about utilising this to communicate with our clients. In 2022, there can be no mistaking that this is to our detriment. As Lannin and Scott highlight, ‘There are signs that the cultural landscape is shifting beneath the feet of many therapists’.1
More than ever, it’s important to be accessible, transparent, authentic and accountable – social media provides the platform for you to evidence that you’re living by these core values. My private practice has been operating 100% online since the pandemic and that’s a shift I will be making permanent as we move forward. But it also means that clients now want to see evidence that they can trust me more than ever.
We have an opportunity to learn from those who have been occupying the professional social media space. Simple lessons like including disclaimers on all your social media pages, keeping your posts aligned to your area of expertise, directing any message requests towards your website, and steering away from answering comments on your posts, can make the world of difference when it comes to safeguarding your clients and your own professional reputation. BACP,2 BPS, BABCP and HCPC all have social media and e-professionalism guidance that I’d encourage you to check out. But ultimately what I’m talking about here is considering and actioning containment outside of the therapeutic space, while allowing for therapeutic congruence to occur with your target client groups through considered disclosures.
Why does it work?
We know how much our work relies on trust. Building that foundation for a trusting relationship can start long before you meet the client. Through an authentic social media presence, clients can assess compatibility themselves, and if you have aligned your posts with your authentic practice, you have started to build a relationship already.
Social media can shift the power dynamic, and while this is something to be considered, it’s not necessarily negative. Being part of an online community can amplify you as a voice of ‘authority’, but it can also level the playing field for clients who may otherwise find the idea of therapy intimidating or inaccessible.
Ultimately, finding your niche is all about living authentically, which means embracing your true self and understanding your core values. When these align, accountable visibility becomes a true asset and ultimately allows us to provide a better service for our clients. But please don’t just take my word for it. If you want to find out more about my work, head to my website: thequeertherapist.com
1 Lannin DG, Scott NA. Social networking ethics: developing best practices for the new small world. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 2013; 44(3): 135–141.
2 BACP. [Online.] Guidance on the use of social media. https://www.bacp.co.uk/membership/membership-policies/social-media/ (accessed 15 November 2022)