Watering Holes, and the Competition for Clients

 [image: photo of a baby elephant being nudged from behind by an adult elephant. The baby elephant is reaching into water. There is sunlight coming through the trees in the background.]

[image: photo of a baby elephant being nudged from behind by an adult elephant. The baby elephant is reaching into water. There is sunlight coming through the trees in the background.]

Before I even graduated from my counseling program, one of the most frequent things I heard was, "Boulder is supersaturated with therapists." There was a string of associated commentary connected to that statement.
"It's difficult to build a client caseload."
"Competition is thick."
And ultimately, the subtle undertone of "Hoard your business secrets. Hoard your clients."

As a wilderness therapist who applies ecopsychology as a framework for healing and well-being, this scarcity mentality, although tempting to buy into, prompted skepticism for me. 

I found myself avoiding networking circles, business-building seminars, and marketing webinars. I sort of kept to myself as I pondered if there were other ways of approaching business. 

One day, I found myself talking with two other queer equine therapists. We were trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out a plan or schedule for collaborating. After all, the market for LGBTQ2IA+ clients who want to work with horses must be small, right? Wouldn't we just be setting ourselves up for resentment and failure if we were vying for the same clients?

 [image: close-up picture of two yellow lab puppies playing tug-of-war on the grass.]

[image: close-up picture of two yellow lab puppies playing tug-of-war on the grass.]

I spent a little more time thinking about it. I didn't want to fight. Even though the old storyline to "be competitive" pulsed through my veins, causing some fear that I would lose clients, I didn't want to restrict these other therapists from their passions, either. Sitting there, outside, I watched horses go to different hay bales and go to different water troughs. I watched the cow birds land on the backs of different horses, and sometimes just choose the ground. I reflected on the fact that a healthy ecosystem ideally has multiple food sources, multiple watering holes. Perhaps there wasn't a need for competition after all. Clients should have the ecological benefit of having choice.

Once my ego was reigned in a little bit, I could also admit that I could not realistically see all of the LGBTQ2IA+ clients in Boulder and Denver. I didn't need to plant a flag on this "limited" market. Instead, I started training community members to be horse handlers for my groups. I began decentralizing the skill set that I hold, and allowed it to be a gift, rather than a commodity.

It is the cardinal difference between a gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.
— Lewis Hyde

As a therapist, I consider my ecological niche, my role, to be in supporting healthy relationships. It is in relationships that we thrive, feel purposeful, and belong. It is through relationships that we develop identity--relationships with ourselves, humans, animals, plants, and the Earth itself. In "Braiding Sweetgrass", Robin Wall Kimmerer identifies the ways in which plants, like strawberries, offer us the gift of sweet sustenance. She goes on to identify how that gift elicits a desire for reciprocity, the impulse to ensure that a strawberry patch not only survives, but is able to spread. She states, "The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships." A reciprocal responsibility emerges. But when we are focused on the scarcity of business, generosity recedes. If I am teaching clients how to enhance their quality of life through more balanced relationships, is that really the business model I wanted to have?

The simple answer is "No." I wanted a business model that honored relationships as much as I expected my clients to honor their personal relationships.

Despite the competitive rhetoric, counseling does not have to be an isolated experience, as it has been in the past. In fact, in order for the self-reflection and healing that can happen in therapy to be effective, it has to be integrated into the rest of our clients' lives (as Bessel van der Kolk and Daniel Siegel discuss in their conversation about The Future of Therapy), which also means that it has to be relevant for the community. Perhaps, instead of asking how I can get a corner on the market, I can instead ask how I can become a unique resource for my community. Perhaps there are a multitude of ways in which we can share our resources without restricting others'.

May each counselor add a new watering hole to your community. May your gifts be recognized and received. May we collectively provide nourishment to our communities, even in times of struggle and drought.