If you feel lonely as a private practice therapist, you’re not the only one. Loneliness is a serious concern that affects many people, but it’s particularly common among health care providers and other people who have advanced degrees and worked in highly skilled professions.
As a mental health professional, you’re most likely familiar with the physical and mental health consequences of loneliness. You probably also know it’s best to address these concerns sooner rather than later.
If you’ve started to feel adrift at sea, no land or other ships in sight, know that it’s possible to combat workplace loneliness. Below, we’ll explain how the isolation of private practice can contribute to loneliness and offer some guidance on working through it.
Is It Common to Experience Isolation in Private Practice?
As a therapist, you probably have experience helping people struggling with isolation and loneliness. But you might not readily recognize these feelings when they come up for you. It’s not always easy to direct a helping lens to the self, for one. You might also reason that since you see people daily, you can’t be isolated.
But loneliness comes in different forms. It doesn’t just happen when you don’t spend time around others. You can also feel lonely when you spend time with people but lack a community or sense of belonging. That’s why it’s possible to feel isolated in a crowd, so to speak, though you may have a harder time naming these feelings.
Perhaps you originally turned to private practice work because you enjoy working alone. If you’re an introvert, for example, you may have discovered a busy group practice wasn’t a good fit. But regardless of the decisions that led you to private practice, you might end up experiencing feelings of isolation.
Isolation and loneliness aren’t uncommon in private practice work. In fact, research from 2018 suggests doctors and people working in scientific fields are some of the loneliest working professionals in the United States. Generally speaking, people with graduate degrees appear to experience higher levels of loneliness than people with bachelor’s degrees or high school diplomas.
Reasons Private Practice Can Cause Feelings of Loneliness
Many therapists choose to go into private practice so they can set their own schedules, work for themselves, and enjoy a higher quality of life. You may not have expected to feel isolated as a private practice therapist. Loneliness may not have even occurred to you as a potential consequence.
But this does happen to many therapists, for a number of reasons:
You don’t have coworkers
When you work in a group practice, you probably don’t spend much time chatting with other therapists, since you spend most of your time working with clients.
But even taking a brief moment to greet other therapists between sessions or talk through a difficult case before starting your day can help facilitate a sense of connection and belonging.
Therapy can drain you
No matter how much you enjoy helping clients, the fact remains that providing therapy can drain your emotional reserves. Your clients are people, of course, but within the therapy relationship, they aren’t peers. They’re people you want to help. Your relationship with them, accordingly, can feel unequal since you have a position of greater power.
So, while you might spend your day with people, you aren’t connecting socially with them. Instead, you’re putting a lot of your own emotion and energy into the bond you create. They can’t reciprocate this, so while you might get a sense of satisfaction and reward from helping, at the end of the day, this emotional output can increase feelings of isolation.
You don’t have a ready source of feedback
Many people find working alone rewarding, and it’s true that simply being alone isn’t a bad thing. But working with others does offer many benefits. You may not realize exactly what you’re missing when you first go into business for yourself, but coworkers and supervisors can provide feedback on therapy approaches, offer guidance on best practices, and consult with you on challenging cases.
Knowing you have someone to turn to if you’re struggling can relieve anxiety about making treatment choices or decisions that prove less than helpful for your clients.
How to Cope with an Isolated Private Practice
If you don’t anticipate loneliness, you may not have a plan in place to address it. But it’s essential to take steps to avoid loneliness before its impact hits. One review of loneliness research points out that some people respond to loneliness by further withdrawing from social networks. This can compound negative effects of loneliness, and over time, you might find it even harder to connect with people again.
As a mental health professional, you can take specific steps to avoid loneliness, even if you maintain a private practice and don’t see many people in your day-to-day life.
Expand your social network
If you stay connected with colleagues in your field, you’ll have someone to reach out to if you find yourself with questions on how to best help a client, or even if you just want to talk to someone like-minded.
Start networking by reaching out to local therapists. If you used to work in a group practice, reach out to former coworkers and plan to get coffee. Social media is another great way to form connections. Look for therapists near you to develop an in-person working relationship, but don’t be afraid of long-distance connections. It’s still possible to form a thriving professional relationship through email.
Regular conference participation can get pricey, but if at all possible, try to attend a workshop on occasion. Professional opportunities help you build new connections with colleagues who can offer guidance or mentorship or even exchange client referrals in the future.
Begin by searching for a local conference or workshop. You’ll still be responsible for the cost of the event, but you won’t need to spend money on travel or lodgings. Workshops also provide continuing education, an essential part of expanding your knowledge and expertise as a health care professional.
Create a consultation group
Once you’ve developed a network of colleagues, consider developing a consultation group with your peers. You can start one locally or communicate through secure video chat if local meetups aren’t possible.
Peer consultation groups are essential for mental health professionals, since these groups allow you to talk through challenges that come up in therapy, including ethical concerns and client therapy needs you aren’t sure how to handle. These groups also allow you to talk about the emotional impact of your work with people who understand what you’re dealing with.
Research suggests therapists who participate in consultation groups are less likely to struggle with isolation and burnout. Working with peers also exposes you to new information and gives you the chance to talk through different perspectives or approaches to treatment. This can help prevent stagnation and increase your effectiveness as a care provider. In other words, talking with other professionals helps you continue to provide the best care possible.
Consider joining a group practice
If you left a group practice to start your own therapy business, you probably had plenty of reasons for doing so. When loneliness is the only problem you’re facing, chances are good that some of the above solutions will help.
But if you’re facing multiple challenges in your practice, or if you’ve only offered your therapy services privately, you might consider joining a team of therapists, or working with at least one other colleague. If you’re interested, try reaching out to group practices in your area or colleagues who work in group practice for more information (and potential opportunities).
Make your free time count
Spending time with family, friends, and other loved ones may not help resolve workplace loneliness, but it can help you maintain important connections in your personal life. This can have a protective effect by reducing the impact of isolation at work and helping you maintain emotional wellness.
Becoming a GoodTherapy member is one quick way to connect with other therapists. As a member, you’ll enjoy access to continuing education events and publication opportunities, but you’ll also become part of a large community of trained, compassionate mental health professionals. Join today!
- 5 ways to fight loneliness in private practice. (2018, September 12). Retrieved from https://blog.therapynotes.com/5-ways-to-fight-loneliness-in-private-practice
- Blai, B. (1989). Health consequences of loneliness: A review of the literature. Journal of American College Health, 37(4), 162-167. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07448481.1989.9938410?journalCode=vach20
- Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249. doi: 10.1177/1745691615570616
- Goldberg, S. B., Rousmaniere, T., Miller, S. D.,Whipple, J., Nielsen, S. L., Hoyt, W. T., & Wampold, B. E. (2016). Do psychotherapists improve with time and experience? A longitudinal analysis of outcomes in a clinical setting. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(1), 1-11. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/cou-cou0000131.pdf
- Pace, E. (n.d.). Loneliness in private practice is real. Practice of the Practice. Retrieved from https://www.practiceofthepractice.com/loneliness-in-private-practice-is-real
- Vogel, L. (2018, July 20). Medicine is one of the loneliest professions. CMAJ News. Retrieved from https://cmajnews.com/2018/07/20/medicine-is-one-of-the-loneliest-professions-cmaj-109-5640
- Williams, S. E., & Braun, B. (2019). Loneliness and social isolation—A private problem, a public issue. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 111(1), 7-14. doi: 10.14307/JFCS111.1.7