It’s almost the beginning of a new month with bills to be paid so let’s consider money and therapy.
Therapists that I know generally do not like to talk about money and fees. Most of us came to this work out of a desire to help others. And we often become uncomfortable with the business aspects of being in practice. The training programs I am familiar with make no mention of the business aspects of practice. So most of us went into, and many continue, practice with too little knowledge of and attention to nuts and bolts issues like fees.
I don’t recall ever considering how much money I could or would make as a therapist. In fact I had no idea when I began. That wasn’t a factor in my decision. Certainly that insurance did not cover therapy when I began practice meant that fees were lower and expectations about income more modest.
I recall something the analyst Donald Meltzer said at a workshop I attended years ago. When he was asked about third party payment for analysis, he first said that we must remember that he who pays the piper picks the tune. And though he and his colleagues were at first envious of analysts elsewhere in Europe where analysis was covered by insurance, gradually he came round to seeing that they were not better off as they had to contend with the intrusions of authorities who could change the terms under which analysis was covered without warning. Then he said that anyone entering this field planning to drive a luxury car and make a lot of money should reconsider becoming a depth psychotherapist because this work demands sacrifice on the part of both patient and analyst and that often means adjusting the fee.
Setting fees is not a science. Fees and the business aspects of private practice are not taught in graduate school. There is not very much written about fees either. So we have to have a sense of what other therapists in our area and with our training charge, what we are comfortable charging, and how to handle those who cannot afford full fee. As someone who works long term with patients, I do negotiate fees to accommodate need. I went through a process of determining for myself how much is enough, what I am comfortable charging patients.
Yes, greed plays a role
Greed is an issue here; greed in the sense that no matter how noble some of our motives for being a therapist are, it remains the case that it is how we earn a living. And if we don’t get paid, we don’t eat. Therapists who rely on the compassion of strangers to provide for them are most likely going to have to find a job to pay the bills. I know of only one writer who has been willing to talk about the issue of greed in psychotherapy — Barbara Stevens Sullivan has a chapter on it in her book, Psychotherapy Grounded in the Feminine Principle. Any time I have attempted to raise the issue among clinicians, I have been met with ferocious resistance and complete disavowal of even the slightest whiff of greed as part of what we do in charging for our time.
I learned from Sullivan about the place of greed in the Tibetan Wheel of Life; greed is one of the three root delusions at the center. For therapists, denial of the importance of money and being paid can be a potent source of problems. Being unconscious about the importance of money in one’s life places a person at risk of being in the grip of unconscious greed. Openly acknowledging the importance of being paid and the desire to have enough money to live well creates the opportunity to consciously think through the issues. Once I became comfortable with the fact that indeed I do not do my work out of the pure goodness of my heart and that I do enjoy being paid for what I do, the whole issue of dealing with fees became much easier.
Like many, I had felt almost guilty charging for my time. And as a consequence, for a long time, I set my fees too low and I was lax in collecting and in dealing with issues with patients about money. In fact, in my own discomfort with the whole subject, I was modeling for them that money was a somewhat taboo topic and I was unconsciously encouraging them to be as reluctant about paying me as I was to acknowledge that I wanted to be paid. My plumber seemed to have no problems letting me know what he charged for the work he did and that he expected to be paid on time. Nor did my dentist or my attorney. So step one was acknowledging that earning a living is what I am about, as much and often more than any of the noble aspects of working with people. This is a tough thing for a lot of therapists. How can I be “good” and openly embrace my desire for money?
Then comes the problem of what is enough? If a new patient tells me she cannot afford my full fee, we work together to find what she can afford. The fee settled on needs to be enough without either being too little or too much.