Pursuing Purpose: Engaging in Exploration

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Purpose. Impact. Fulfillment. All are meaningful words for a desired way of living your clients may want to maintain in pursuit of a quality life. Society may tell them to find what they love to do and do it for the rest of their life. Individuals tell your clients to never settle and keep pursuing their dreams. Regardless of how it’s described, pursuit of purpose, passion, or fulfillment can be seen as the driving force behind behaviors and identity within the world. And when it becomes hard to grasp or remains unfound, it can create distress that engages your client in seeking support to find answers. Influential author and speaker Simon Sinek calls this quest for meaning, “finding your why.”

 

Learning Through Literature

So how does one start the journey in finding their why? For some, it’s engaging in reading material such as Simon Sinek and David Mead’s book, Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, or exploring your leadership style with Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s Strengths Based Leadership. Perhaps you explore your client’s personality through the Enneagram, which is increasing in popularity over the Myers Briggs Personality Test in its ability to develop insight into how one interacts relationally with others from reinforcement in childhood experiences. Any of these sources could support increased awareness not only of strengths, but awareness of the psychological driving forces behind motivation and resulting behaviors. A free version of the Enneagram quiz called EnneaApp can be found through the App Store with additional information and the formal assessment can found at the Enneagram Institute (enneagraminstitute.com). Engaging clients in processing the results of the Enneagram quiz can support insight into how they best relate to others when engaging in collaborative activity or to identify strategies for strengthening of their relationships.

 

Vetting Values

In addition to reading or other homework regarding the Enneagram, another approachable option for exploration of purpose and self-discovery can occur through values exercises. Ranking a series of values by level of importance can allow further insight of what motivates a person. By engaging in a values exercise, it allows one to check in on how important values are being experienced both in the present moment and how they can be improved in the future to support feelings of fulfillment.  A free, online resource to engage in exploration of your values can be found by completing the Life Values Inventory (lifevaluesinventory.org). As a helping professional, you may also invest in making or buying value cards that are easy to sort as part of therapeutic activity. The act of sorting presents as a low risk activity and encourages clients to remain aware of their gut reactions rather than finding themselves in analysis paralysis, which allows authentic processing outside of society pressures or others’ values influence.

 

Core Beliefs and Cognitions

Engaging in the progressive work of processing behavior patterns and values can also be explored through therapeutic work. Identifying negative thoughts or core beliefs can create new connections and awareness between actions and reactions. Core beliefs can be described as our deepest, sometimes darkest fears or beliefs about ourselves, usually focusing on negative traits such as feelings of unworthiness, being unlovable, or feelings of failure.  When experienced, core beliefs can engage visceral reactions in the body including intense feelings of shame and fear. When explored through trauma therapy modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), healing can be accelerated and supported to re-write client views of negative beliefs to something more positive, thus improving self-esteem, functioning, and relationships with others.

 

Career Counseling

One final therapeutic element that can support clients in pursuing purpose is career counseling. Career counselors, by trade, support individuals in discovering their strengths, possible career paths, and can support clients in preparing for career interviews, resumes, and choice of higher education if desired.

Whether you engage your client in the above-mentioned exercises to improve self-esteem, discover purpose, or develop new insight, reassuring your clients that self-discovery is an exciting, sometimes lengthy process to uncover passion and motivation can set realistic expectations for your therapeutic work.  However they go about engaging in “finding their why,” it is the hope that they enjoy the process and engage fully to uncover their recipe for success and achieve feelings of fulfillment!

Geared towards Growth: Exploring Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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Have you had a client come into your office wanting to work on their relationships? What about a client who wants to work on self-worth and self-esteem? These goals are valuable and achievable, and could greatly benefit your client in their functioning and connection in the world.  However, depending on your client’s stressors and current life events, basic needs may need to be attended to first in order to achieve the growth and progress desired within your therapeutic work.

 

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow first introduced the concept of a Hierarchy of Needs in a paper published in 1943. The image found most often in reference to his concept is a pyramid with the bottom representing the building block or foundation for higher functioning. According to Maslow, every human being has needs that must be met and stable prior to advancement to another level of human need. The levels he identified begin with physiological needs, followed by safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization. Below are some examples of needs for each level:

  • Physiological: food, water, oxygen, sex, sleep, excretion
  • Safety: security of shelter, employment, resources, health, body
  • Love & Belonging: family, friends, intimate partners
  • Esteem: confidence, self-esteem, respect by others, respect for self
  • Self-Actualization: Acceptance, lack of prejudice, enlightenment

 

Goals for Growth

So how do the levels of need impact your client’s therapeutic work? For many helping professionals, the awareness of the hierarchy manifest through client psychoeducation around basic needs. Perhaps your client wants to work fully on their relationships, but is impacted by the stress of not having a job to pay their bills. Maybe your client wants to strengthen self-esteem, but can’t identify housing in suffering from an eviction this month. The present crises will require therapeutic attention and intervention first prior to a client allotting mental energy to higher levels of functioning.

Within your work, it can be helpful to normalize and educate your clients on basic needs being the foundation for functioning. You may consider describing the imagery as basic needs being the foundation of a house. If the foundation is crumbling, the other parts of the house become low priority or unseen in trying to stabilize the problem due to risks of it all collapsing around them. With this analogy, clients can absorb the importance of a stable foundation of basic needs requiring their attention before other goals can be successfully met.

 

Accessing Needs

A stable foundation may require other resources outside of your office. As a helping professional, it is in your best interest to be aware of resources to provide additional support to your client. The databases in your state, (Colorado Crisis Services and Colorado 2-1-1 for example) can be helpful in identifying food, shelter, clothing, legal advice and more.  You may also consider coordination with helpful organizations that would warrant a release from your client in order to collaborate.

Assessing needs can also occur from a place of looking at client resistance. One way this may manifest is through your client’s capacity to work on homework or assigned tasks between sessions.  Although some clients don’t like homework out of personal choice, other clients may struggle to articulate the crises that prevent progress on the homework you assigned, including forgetfulness, loss of focus, or stressors demanding their attention instead. This attempt at juggling varying demands could even translate to cancelled sessions in trying to handle the stressors at home or work. By being aware of basic needs, it can help you as the professional to better understand contributing factors that may present like resistance as elements requiring attention to support client progress.

 

Maintenance and Motivation

With collaboration and stabilization of basic needs come the client’s motivation for maintaining the foundation.  It is the hope that client’s basic needs, once addressed, remain in good standing.  However, with clients experiencing poverty, trauma, or other adversity, the fluctuating circumstances of their life can delay progress on higher functioning goals. Encouraging ongoing boundaries and self-care can support the client in reaching higher goals around self-esteem and relationships. With awareness and effort, a client can harness a healthy sense of control and autonomy in their life. Remaining flexible to the stressors that may occur between sessions, it is important that you and your client continue to be mindful of what takes precedence to allow the deeper, meaningful work you both value to occur at the appropriate time.

Supporting Self-Esteem: Tools to Identify Strengths

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“I don’t know what to say. I was raised not to talk about myself. I don’t want to sound cocky.” You are engaging your client in an intake session where you’ve created an intentional, positive shift from an otherwise heavy series of questions about symptoms including details as to why they are seeking therapy. Your new client appears caught off guard by your questions about strengths and they struggle to identify anything that is going well, or things they like about themselves. You make a note to identify a possible goal around self-worth and self-esteem, to be explored with the client upon building more rapport.

So how does one engage a client in exploring their strengths while acknowledging the vulnerability to do so? For many, talking about elements they like about themselves or their resiliency may be difficult when entrenched in negative emotions.  For example, a client experiencing a depressive episode may have a hard time identifying any emotions of hope or former pleasure based on their current negative cognitions around hopelessness and feeling stuck.

 

Look to the Past

For depression and being entrenched in symptoms, it can be easier for a client to recall the events or strengths of the past than experience the present or predict the future. By engaging a client in exploring what would formerly describe their circumstance, you can encourage the initial stages of cognitive reframing and thus rewiring from negative to positive thought. Some examples of questions to support access to the past can be found below.

  • Is there a time you felt confident? Can you tell me more about that?
  • When is a time you felt like everything was going well? What made it so?
  • Wisdom, Sacrifice, Kindness. Can you share a time you demonstrated each of these strengths?
  • What is one thing you are happy or satisfied with in your life?
  • What is one thing you like about yourself?

Engaging a client in reflection on these elements can support new awareness and positive feeling through revisiting pleasant memories. By exploring former experiences, the client may be able to identify ways to rediscover those experiences in the present.

 

Likeable and Lovable

If a client continues to struggle with identifying their strengths, it can be helpful to engage them on the thoughts and statements of others that know them well.  You may find asking them what their mother, sister, friend, partner, or close colleague would say about them if those relationships are healthy. Here are some ways you could explore self-image through the eyes of others:

  • What would your mom say is one of your strengths?
  • What compliments have you received from others about your efforts at work?
  • How would you be described by your best friend?
  • What do you think your partner appreciates most about you?
  • If you were represented by an actor for a movie, who would that be and why?

By encouraging the client to explore loved one’s statements or compliments as a reflection of their own strengths, it may remove some pressure to identify them on their own while still encouraging positive thought and reflection.

 

Sort and Seek

A reflection tool that can further encourage exploration of strengths and thus improve self-esteem is a value sort. A value sort instructs clients to review a list of values and narrow down their choices based on order of importance. This can allow clients to explore their values and make connections to how those values are being represented in their life. A favorite tool is the value card sort, currently being used by mental health professionals and some universities. In the value card sort, a stack of values is sorted into levels of importance including minimal, moderate, and most important. Client are instructed to go with their gut and sort quickly, supporting a narrowing of values to the top seven most important to the client. Reflection can then be encouraged by asking the client the following questions:

  • How are these seven values represented in your life currently?
  • How are these values represented in work, home, and relationships?
  • What needs to be changed or improved to maintain these values for you?
  • How would enhancing or improving these values in your life help you?

For many, exploring their values and current representation in their life can support a movement towards measurable goals to improve those values, thus improving sense of control, pursuit of happiness, and higher self-esteem.

Mastering Mindfulness: Supporting Positive Coping

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“I want to turn off my mind, catch my breath, feel less tension, sleep better.” The techniques of relaxation and mindfulness have been around for centuries, both in definition and in practice in various cultures. For some, the process of mindfulness describes being aware of your surroundings and slowing down your mind to remain in the present moment. For others, it has become a vital coping skill for anxiety or distress to allow grounding, emotion regulation, focus, and a sense of calm in otherwise difficult situations. So how does one present the ideas of grounding, mindfulness, or relaxation to clients in meeting their individual needs?

 

Explore the History

For many, the concept of feeling relaxed or calm is experienced rarely due to elevated anxiety or trauma triggers in everyday life. Perhaps you start a session with exploring the times they’ve felt more at peace or relaxed. Even if it were years in the past, this exercise can provide helpful insight into situations or context that allow your client small shifts or temporary relief from discomfort or anxiety.  Questions that might help you explore this with your client include:

  • Can you remember a time when you felt calm and relaxed? Can you tell me more about it?
  • How does it feel in your body to experience calm or relaxation? What sensations do you experience?
  • What has helped you before in feeling calm or relaxed? What makes that different now?

 

Become Body Aware

Exploring the history of times a client has felt calm or relaxed is but one piece of the puzzle. Depending on the client’s background, trauma history, or the impact fight/flight/freeze reactions, their body may have adapted to the increased stress and cortisol levels in interesting ways.  Some clients will express increased anxiety or panic in response to relaxation, as it feels vulnerable or uncomfortable in their current, adapted state of functioning.  For others, a numbness may exist where they cannot feel their body with possible contributing factors including depression, hypoarousal/freeze response, or desire to maintain self-preservation. Lastly, clients may easily drop into intellectual conversation about their symptoms but avoid experiencing any sensation in their body due to anticipated discomfort or negative arousal.

Keeping client limitations and comfort in mind, it can be helpful to encourage clients to gently become more aware of their body through various therapeutic activities. It is suggested to start with neutral areas of the body and move quickly from one area to another to prevent exacerbation of sensation that would prevent progress or cause a client to retreat from noticing their body out of fear or discomfort. By engaging them in the following activities, you can support a client in building body awareness and distress tolerance in ways that feel safe.

  • Body scan-start at your feet and notice any sensations as you move gently upward to your calves, thighs, hips, waist, etc.
  • Concentrated body scan-have the client identify neutral or safe areas that aren’t associated with negative sensation like hands, knees or feet.  Have them focus on one area in detail, asking questions about temperature, sensation when touched, and encouraging the client to engage in use of textures and varying touch to explore sensation.
  • Colored Glasses-our new favorite intervention from Dr. Dan Siegel in his book Mindsight, obtain or create colored lens glasses for clients to explore varying perspective of objects around them, insight into sensation in low-risk ways, and connection to memory that all support the practice of mindfulness.

 

Use all Five Senses

All of the above exercises support experiential learning in session. Another favorite tool that can support a client who experiences any negative sensation or experiences hyperarousal or flooding during a therapeutic exercise is to move their attention outside of themselves and into the room as a grounding technique. To do this, you can ask the client to become more aware of the chair underneath them or their feet on their floor.  A few of our favorite tools are listed below that can be helpful in engaging a client outside of their own body.

  • 5-4-3-2-1: What are five things in the room that are blue? Four things you can touch? Three things you can hear? Two things you can smell? One thing you can taste?
  • Four Elements by Elan Shapiro: 1) Earth/Grounding: what do you see/hear/smell, 2) Air: Take measured breaths, inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts, 3) Water: Take a drink of water, use gum/mints or think of your favorite food to generate saliva, which serves as a calming agent to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response, 4) Fire/Light: think of a place real or imagined that makes you feel calm or safe. Can you describe it using your five senses?
  • 5 Minute Mindfulness: have the client pick an object to focus on, either in their hands or within sight. Gently direct them to notice all qualities of the object including temperature, texture, color, height, etc. for five minutes duration.

 

Modeling of Mindfulness

In addition to the mindfulness exercises listed above, it can also be helpful to create a coping kit of objects that can be engaging and cater to all five senses for client use within your office. Many therapists utilize objects such as essential oils, lotion, touchstones, magnets, putty, carved wooden objects, fur, water, and sand to engage clients in mindful practice. As your client discovers which objects are effective for them to practice mindfulness, you may encourage them to purchase and utilize these objects outside of session as well.

Regardless of which tools or techniques you elect to use in support of your clients, it can be even more helpful to notice your own body and energy in the room. By becoming aware of your breath, posture, and energy levels, you can support client in feeling safe or supported to do this work. By practicing alongside your clients, you model what it means to feel grounded or mindful, which is beneficial not only to your client seeking relief, but to yourself as the clinician mindfully engaging each client in their meaningful work and progress towards health.

Holding Space for Horror, Hurt, and Healing

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Have you ever felt the sensation of déjà vu? The gut feeling that you’ve been here before and thus can’t escape this surreal feeling, like you’re floating, your stomach is full of rocks, and there’s a ringing in your ears? For many of us, February 14, 2018 was a day of déjà vu in its worst form, reliving the trauma and horror of another mass shooting.

For me personally, the sudden anger, sadness, grief, and avoidance that came to the surface were the very same that I experienced after the Aurora Theater Shooting on July 20, 2012.  For others, it felt like Columbine on April 20, 1999.  Many people around the world are affected by the loss and violence surrounding a mass shooting and so many of us want answers. As therapists, we hold space for the questions and the grief, providing a safe environment for processing of loss, fear, and desire to understand. As trauma therapists in particular, we encourage clients to explore fears and needs in order to feel heard, and possibly, to begin the healing process again. And yet there are days we struggle with balance, the effort of holding space for others as well as holding space for ourselves.  If we are completely honest, it may even feel easier to hold space for others rather than think and feel our own emotions.

Professionally, it didn’t occur to me that Aurora would stay with me in my practice, year after year. July 2012 was supposed to be a month of celebration as our cohort had graduated and were seeking our first jobs as therapists. We had bonded in role plays, through projects, on adventures, and with humor. Survived internships, passed exams, and grew as individuals. Aurora would prove to impact the cohort quite rapidly when we found out four of our own peers were present and involved in the violence that took place. It took all day to get answers about their safety, and when we finally did receive word, we came together to grieve the loss of one of our own and trauma to three others. You may know him as the hero who took a bullet for the woman he loved, shielding her from the chaos in the theater. His actions show his character and the person he was in this world. There is so much I could say, but know that he was loved by many and brought humor and lively spirit to otherwise heavy work. We grieved together over the weeks that followed, knowing the impact would go beyond our cohort and be felt around the world.  Before we could blink, the cohort was scattering rapidly, almost like a driving force was pushing us away from one another, and away from the reminders of what we’d lost. It became easier to avoid and attend to others, to embrace their pain and needs for healing by throwing ourselves into the therapeutic work, perhaps hoping to heal ourselves in the process.

And yet with each new tragedy, full of images, horror, and tears, we are transported back to our own dark times. Perhaps triggered to the point of needing breaks, tracking our own emotions, and holding boundaries with our clients to stay present in their grief. Grappling with whether to share our pain with clients out of connection and compassion or decide to lock it away for another, more private time.

Whatever direction you decide in your own grief, know that your efforts to help others through connection and compassion go a long way in recovering from these tragedies. Let us be gentle with ourselves as we are with our clients. Let us acknowledge the hurt and remain open to the healing. Let us recognize the avoidance of pain and the safety needed to face it. And let us hold space when words cannot capture what is felt rather than said.  Only when being true to ourselves and embracing vulnerability can we truly support healing.

In loving memory of Alexander C. Teves

Love Languages: Empty or Full?

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Gary Chapman starts his book The 5 Love Languages, by sharing his concept of love being measured like a gas tank and asking: are we empty or full? This imagery can be pretty powerful in measuring affection, value, and connection to others in our life, not only with spouses or partners, but by family and close friends as well.

 

Languages Defined

Supporting your client with knowledge of the 5 languages can be supportive of self-awareness as well as provide some guidance in how they can potentially strengthen their relationships. You may start by inviting your client to define each of the 5 languages and provide real-life examples that are meaningful to them. You may also provide support in identifying which languages are most important to your client by what they report lacking or voicing in moments of unhappiness. The 5 languages in summary according to Gary Chapman are 1) Physical Touch, 2) Quality Time 3) Words of Affirmation, 4) Acts of Service and 5) Gifts. Below are some examples of what might be expressed within each language type:

  • Physical Touch - hugging, holding hands, kissing, sex, rubbing someone’s back, sitting close, casual touch
  • Quality Time - talking a walk, eating dinner together, lying in bed, taking a drive, engaging in a shared hobby
  • Words of Affirmation - expressing compliments or appreciation through words, such as “I love you, I’m proud of you, I appreciate you, you make my life better”
  • Acts of Service - washing their car, cooking their favorite meal, picking up the laundry, doing an extra chore
  • Gifts - making them a card, buying their favorite food, flowers, chocolate, or trinket because it reminded you of them

Please be aware this is not an exhaustive list in that there are many more examples that a client can identify based on their own experience. Also keep in mind that there are some rules around the languages in how they are expressed.

 

Food for Thought

With The 5 Love Languages come some rules of how they are expressed to be appropriately categorized and recognized as your own. Quality Time for example, defines one-on-one time that promotes connection and conversation. Many couples or families would say they spend plenty of time together in activities such as going to the movies, reading, driving, or watching TV. As you can already guess, these activities do not encourage connection but only proximity in being in the same space at the same time. For Acts of Service, one should keep in mind that the act performed is done authentically and without agenda. For example, one may wash their partners car or run an errand to make their partner’s day easier or bring them joy, not expecting a favor in return. This rule also applies to Gifts in the idea that we aren’t giving someone we love a gift in the hopes that they will return the favor or owe us something in return.

 

Discovery and Depth

Gary Chapman provides great examples of Love Languages in action in his book. For many, reflecting on what they ask for or ask more of, can be helpful in discovering their top Love Languages. The book has a quiz in the back to encourage reflection and one can also access the quiz online for free to determine top Love Languages at http://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/.

So where do we go from here with a client? Once aware of one’s own languages, you can support your client in exploring their partners or loved ones. For many of us, we express the languages that we prefer or languages that make us feel loved, which may not translate well to our partners or loved ones in meeting their needs. If there is an overlap of the top two languages for a duo, their communication can occur relatively naturally due to speaking the same language on most occasions. If a duo does not have a language in common, it can require extra effort to connect and speak the language that supports your loved one in feeling appreciated and ‘full.’

 

Handing out Homework

This may all resonate with your client on paper, but the real connection between the concepts and experience comes through practice! Assigning low-risk homework of practicing a loved one’s desired love languages can provide your client with evidence of the value of connecting with others in this way. For one client attempting to reconnect with her spouse, she saw a softening and leaning in from her partner when she engaged in their chosen language in authentic ways after weeks of conflict. Actions speak louder than words, which can absolutely apply in helping your client connect with loved ones and also advocate for their own needs in relationships.

In a time when love is sought, defined, and desired, having something concrete for clients to work on can be both empowering and reassuring to their experience in relationships with loved ones. The 5 Love Languages speaks to a desire to connect with others and develop a sense of belonging, best captured in this popular quote by Susan Sarandon in the movie Shall We Dance.

“[In a relationship] you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the mundane things, all of it, all the time, everyday. You’re saying ‘your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”

Happy Connecting!

Community Confidentiality: Supporting Collaboration with Consent

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“I cannot confirm or deny.” How do you maintain confidentiality for your client? It may seem easy enough when there is a clearly written, signed release or when your client refuses a release, thus declining collaboration at this time. However, what does it look like in the following situations?

  • Your client is involved in an open Child Abuse and Neglect case.
  • An attorney calls you saying they represent your client and would like copies of your client record for a disability claim.
  • An insurance company calls to report the client listed you as a provider and they want to know your diagnosis to award the client a life insurance policy.
  • You outreach an organization about who they serve. They respond by wanting to obtain additional information from you on the client you want to refer.
  • A referral source wants to know if their client called to set up an intake and begin services with you.
  • A community resource shares that your client scheduled an appointment with them for next week.
  • A foster parent wants to know why the parent isn’t engaging in services to reunify with their child.
  • A CASA volunteer wants to know if the family is working on their fighting in your sessions because they believe it would be helpful.
  • The spouse of your client calls asking you how sessions are going.
  • Your client acknowledges that their friend is also your client.
  • Their probation officer includes you in a group text or email to schedule a meeting on behalf of the client with several parties you don’t know.

These are just a few of what could be dozens of examples of sticky situations when it comes to maintaining your client’s right to privacy. Let us look at possible responses to the above scenarios to determine what could be best. And as always, seek consultation, supervision, or legal advice if you have needs or concerns.

 

Signed Release

When a third party reaches out to you by email, text, or voicemail, it can be helpful to notify your client and obtain a release in the next scheduled session. Notifying your client of the outreach you received can support trust and transparency in the therapeutic relationship. It can also help facilitate a discussion on the importance of getting a client’s written permission to respond to an inquiry on their behalf, whether it’s an insurance company, secondary referral, family member, or community partner.

 

Legal Requirements

Perhaps your client is involved in an open Abuse and Neglect case, diversion, or probation. These entities have been assigned to your client as part of a larger treatment plan to address a legal concern. Whether your client is mandated to complete therapy or the third party referred directly to you, there is a different level of confidentiality implied due to the collaboration needed from you to provide progress reports and updates as appropriate around your client’s engagement in services. If you client is resistant to signing a release, helping them identify the specific pieces of information to share—and thus restricting some information in the effort of privacy—can be helpful to the client’s anxiety about personal information that is disclosed to others. When submitting a progress report to DHS or probation for example, providing your client with a copy can also demonstrate a sign of transparency and trust in encouraging them to review it and provide feedback on their level of comfort with the material shared.

 

Sense of Urgency

The desired scenario is one of those mentioned above, where we have the client complete a signed release of information highlighting exactly what is released and for what purpose. However, there are times that a sense of urgency may arise in getting permission quickly to collaborate with a community partner in a timely fashion. Depending on the frequency of client contact including regularly scheduled appointments, you may need to get email or verbal permission over the phone from your client as a temporary measure in obtaining consent prior to a written release. Standard practice is to have permission in writing so email can feel slightly more comfortable than verbal permission to us as providers. Either way, documenting your client’s permission with intention to get a full release in the immediate future can be helpful in allowing collaboration and sharing of information under a time restriction.

 

Curbing Curiosity

Collaboration is a helpful component of therapy, within reason, to support and validate client efforts. It may become apparent that there are other parties involved who may want updates on your client’s progress. This could include caseworkers, probation, child advocates, other mental health providers, foster parents and more. Where it can feel confusing is when third parties know you are actively working with the client and make assumptions that you can share information in the spirit of collaboration. For example, the foster parent is wanting to know how the parent, your client, is doing in services in order to encourage their child of the parent’s hard work. The inquiry may feel innocent enough, however the foster parent is not your client, and is therefore not privy to this information without your client’s consent. Something as innocent as attendance or participation in services can be reported back to other parties and could result in information being misconstrued or shared without permission.

 

Encompassing Electronics

In an effort to not have information shared unintentionally with third parties, being mindful of how your electronic correspondence is recorded can be helpful. Being aware of emails with additional recipients or group text messages requesting scheduling of a team meeting can feel nebulous regarding confidentiality. Documenting your effort to send correspondence only to approved parties identified on a signed release supports your client’s wishes as well as ethics compliance. Providing disclaimers in your electronic signature in email composed on your computer or phone can also support limiting liability if information is sent to the wrong recipient or forwarded to a third party outside of your control.

 

Limiting Liability

Documenting each of your efforts to maintain confidentiality as a standard of your practice can limit liability. Obtaining regular releases yearly from your client can keep their record up to date. Utilizing encrypted email and electronic health records for client progress notes can restrict situations where their information could be compromised. When it comes to confidentiality in direct interaction with third parties, identifying a statement of “I cannot confirm or deny they are my client” can feel unhelpful, restrictive but necessary in not admitting unapproved information to family, friends, referral sources, or legal representatives without permission. This feels most challenging by phone when even acknowledging your need to obtain a release is admission of your client’s connection to you. For many, having to share that a release has been revoked can feel even more challenging. You may say something like “permissions have been revoked and we suggest you contact the person of interest directly” can provide enough information for them to understand you won’t be interacting with them further and prevents direct identification of your client by name or circumstance.

Communication with community partners is an intricate dance that can feel challenging when caught off guard by emails, texts, or phone calls asking for updates on your client’s work. Demonstrating your ethical capacity in delaying disclosure of information until a release is obtained can indicate your professionalism in the community and willingness to collaborate under the appropriate circumstance. Be sure to follow up with the community partner once a release is signed to further demonstrate your willingness to collaborate together. Lastly, thinking about the possibly scenarios that put privacy at risk and obtaining signed releases upon introduction to the client can streamline this process by simply asking who else is involved in their treatment or care. Having a scripted response ahead of time for situations where a release is not yet completed can support you in making the best decision to support client confidentiality and community engagement with consent.

Clinical Writing: Consistency and Confidentiality

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A question heard frequently in private practice is how do we stay on top of paperwork when our passion is engaging the client in doing meaningful work? What if clinical documentation supports them in getting additional resources such as disability or explores reunification with their children? When working with individuals or families involved in the Department of Human Services (DHS), probation, diversion, or other entities evaluating your client, the documentation you keep takes on an additional level of importance in capturing the client’s progress. So how does one balance recording the content of the session consistently while protecting client confidentiality? Balancing requirements for documentation with client privacy is an art form that requires consistency and practice.

 

Construction of Case Notes

Depending on your preference for hand written, typed, or electronic notes, your content and formatting of those notes could be dictated by private or state assistance insurance panels in order to process claims and receive payment for services rendered. With this in mind, most insurance panels require the following to be identified in each note:

  • Full name of client and insurance ID
  • Date of service
  • Time of Service
  • Duration of Service
  • CPT Code that indicates individual therapy, family therapy, case management, etc.
  • Overview of therapeutic interventions utilized in the session
  • Progress towards identified treatment goals
  • Current mental health diagnosis
  • Client presentation in session
  • Next scheduled appointment

By formatting your notes in a similar fashion, you can streamline any documentation needs from secondary parties desiring collaboration. Don’t forget a signed Release of Information from your client to facilitate collaboration!

 

Consistency in Content

Formatting not only provides the outline of a universal progress note, it can support consistency that will reduce the time spent on notes each week. Many therapists report frustration that their notes are behind schedule due to wanting to dedicate their time and energy to the client work. By utilizing a template for notes, it will become easier and more efficient to complete notes in a timely manner, especially in utilizing clinical language. When struggling with how to write clinical language that captures the professional interventions present in each session, it can be helpful to have some go-to phrases that indicate progress without providing too much detail. Here are some examples of common content and professional language that could be helpful in writing clinical notes:

Content Table

 

Confidentiality for Clients

In addition to clinical documentation supporting professional record keeping in line with ethical requirements, another component it can support is client confidentiality. It can feel like a fine line providing adequate written evidence of professional interventions without violating client privacy.

One strategy to ask yourself is, “would my client feel uncomfortable with my notes being seen in court or by others?” If the answer is yes, you may want to re-evaluate how you write your notes to support clear, concise interventions that would not put confidentiality at risk. Below are some documentation tips to consider in supporting client privacy:

  • Keep client direct quotes to a minimum.  They are best included when capturing safety concerns. Client reported “I want to die” leading to assessment and safety planning in session.
  • Avoid emotion-driven language without evidence such as, client was happy/sad/angry in session.
  • Support ownership of statements such as, this writer observed or client reports when documenting statements or content of a session.
  • Keep language neutral. It is best to avoid a positive or negative tone in notes to prevent accusations of bias or alignment that would put professionalism in question.

It is recommended you seek consultation or supervision to further explore your documentation needs. Your professional organizations can provide ethical guidelines whereas insurance panel websites offer Providers valuable templates for clinical documentation that meet audit standards. With luck, you will perfect your clinical writing to maximize time in therapeutic interventions while remaining compliant with documentation needs to best serve your clients and your practice.

Streamlining Your Business Process: 7 Tips for Private Practice

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A new year has begun! For many mental health professionals, we are resuming our schedules after holiday travel and hoping to start the year off right! What are your goals for the year? Perhaps you want to streamline your paperwork process to maximize time with clients? Or maybe you want to explore a billing support business to stay on top of your insurance claims and expenses? Perhaps you want to transition to only taking private-pay clients so you aren’t required to identify a diagnosis and can work with clients from a different lens? So how do we stay on top of our thriving practice addressing client needs and interventions while still remaining compliant with the more mundane and time-consuming processes of paperwork and billing?  Below are some tips and tricks to consider in maintaining a balance of both organization and time management!

 

Tip #1: Go Paperless

In today’s day and age, technology continues to enhance our processes of organization and time management. Consider going paperless with your client note system to complete paperwork in less time. Companies like SimplePractice, TherapyPartner, and TherapyNotes offer encrypted, protected and thus confidential note systems that can support your client files electronically as well as connect clients to appointment reminder texts and emails and offer billing services to streamline claims submissions and payment.

 

Tip #2: Set a Schedule

When trying to balance your time with clients and stay on top of paperwork demands, it can help to set a schedule.  Setting aside some time daily or weekly to submit your billing not only helps you complete it when the content is fresh in your mind and getting paid in a timely manner, but can assist you with leaving work truly at work, representing a transition ritual from work to home.

 

Tip #3: Use a List

This may seem strange when we’ve just discussed the benefit of going paperless bur having a to-do list where items can be crossed off when completed can be very satisfying. Consider using a planner or notebook that’s with you at all times. For others, consider using your to-do list in your phone where you can set reminders and due dates for completion. In our busy world, it can be hard to keep track of everything so a list that’s accessible from anywhere at any time can help record thoughts and ideas that come up in our daily living.

 

Tip #4: Creating Connections

Staying on top of trainings, webinars, books and other materials can help you streamline your niche and business practices. There any many great materials out there but we especially love Simon Sinek’s Start with Why in discovering what drives us as helping professionals and business owners. Joining an online community for mental health professionals can also be helpful in asking in-the-moment questions about business practices.  We suggest checking out The Private Practice Startup and Building Brilliance as two online communities that offer tips, tricks, and offer access to a community of like-minded individuals.

 

Tip #5: Have a Business Plan

Working as hard as you do, it helps to have a business plan to create a sense of direction. Is your goal to have 20 clients per week consistently? Do you want to expand to include other insurance panels to serve more clients? Perhaps you want to identify a stream of secondary income? By creating and reviewing your business plan on a regular basis, you can check in on both short and long-term goals of being your own business. Templates for creating a business plan can be found online.

 

Tip #6: Have an Accountability Buddy

Even with a business plan, life can sometimes get in the way of tracking where we are headed. Combine that with how private practice can feel isolating at times and we can find ourselves procrastinating or drowning in the details. Connecting with a colleague and identifying one another as our accountability buddy can help hold us to our goals as well as remain connected within our community. Engaging your accountability buddy can help inspire your process, define your goals, brainstorm strategies to achieve those goals, and celebrate your successes along the way.

 

Tip #7: Take Time Off

Being a business owner can take a lot of our time and energy. Don’t forget to take time off to prevent burnout and allow creativity to flow from s different headspace in another environment. We know that being our own business means we can potentially work 24/7 not only in serving clients but the behind-the-scenes responsibilities. Time off can support us in being grounded, compassionate clinicians as well as focused, driven business owners who can enjoy the results of our hard work and remain inspired to continue to serve the populations we value most.

Therapeutic Goal Setting: Measurable Motivation

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As December comes to a close, your clients could be looking to the new year to create resolution or revisit their treatment goals in the hope of change. It’s a time to explore goals that are measurable and attainable; it’s a time to create small steps to build self-confidence so they remain motivated and hopeful. Perhaps your client comes into your office saying “I want to join a gym to help my depression.” You meet their disclosure with compassion and curiosity and ask them to share more. You learn they want to work out every day to help their mood but aren’t currently working out on a consistent basis, and not ever at a gym. So you find it important to explore with them their motivation as well as the perceived strengths and challenges of reaching their goal. Your client learns that smaller steps can support success and agrees to working on short-term goals to build confidence and to move towards their long-term goal of working out daily.

 

Monitoring Motivation

Why is it important to explore motivation around a goal? Research tells us goals around fitness and gym attendance peak in January and dramatically decline by February and March every year. Additional research tells us that we must do something consistently for a minimum of 30 days for it to become a habit. What this conveys to us as human beings is that we need to see results or progress to continue to work hard at a goal. You may normalize this for your client. You may also provide psychoeducation on the Stages of Change from Motivational Interviewing as a visual to support your client in identifying strengths and barriers to change. In meeting your client where they are at, consider the questions below to explore motivation with your client:

  • What do you want to change? (Precontemplation to Contemplation)
  • What makes that a problem for you? (Contemplation)
  • Is it a big enough problem to want something different? (Contemplation)
  • How would you achieve the desired change? (Preparation)
  • What do you need to support change? (Preparation)
  • What would help you to begin? (Action)
  • How will you know when you are ready for change? (Action)
  • What would help you keep going? (Maintenance)
  • Who/What would hold you accountable?
  • What would happen if you don’t succeed?

By engaging your client in exploring these questions, they can identify any current strengths or barriers to succeeding and further explore what is needed to progress through the stages of change.

 

Make it Measurable

It isn’t uncommon for a client to identify a goal but not know how to attain it, thus remaining in the stage of contemplation. It becomes our responsibility as their support to break down a long-term or larger goal into measurable, smaller pieces. Here are some examples of how to make it measurable when a client identifies a larger, more abstract goal in therapy:

Chart

Our therapeutic interventions can support short-term goals blending into long-term goals over time. By identifying and writing treatment goals that are measurable and can be reviewed with your client regularly, the effort it takes to achieve these goals can feel validated and attainable for your client.

 

Supporting Strengths

Validation can be a strong motivator. Helping clients slow down to identify their strengths throughout the process can be motivating in and of itself. It isn’t surprising that clients can find themselves stuck in the past, such as awareness of how they used to be able to achieve goals with no effort and frustration that they cannot find that same success today. Or perhaps they are so future focused they aren’t able to recognize the smaller changes that have taken place. One of the most rewarding elements of therapy can be reviewing goals and progress towards those goals. Your clients may be unable to recognize the small but important shifts in their functioning and therefore it can be impactful to help them remember where they started in this process and how their hard work is supporting healthy change. By identifying their strengths and supporting them throughout the process, clients can experience motivation and recognize goal progression, allowing the ongoing growth and change they seek.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama.