My Road To Success by Michelle Bohls

Along my way to becoming a private practice therapist, I had many ideas about what personal and professional success might look like for me. Now, a decade later, after I have achieved success on most of those levels, I am surprised about how much personal growth was involved in the journey.

I have been interested in success and what makes for successful people since my time as an undergraduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. While on a flight, I was handed a copy of a magazine called Success, a precursor to Shark Tank, with profiles of entrepreneurs and their businesses in every issue. This magazine was my first exposure to the idea that people can own small businesses. It was full of stories about the power of human minds to create businesses and make money. I was enthralled!

The idea of owning my own business was radical because it was in direct contrast to what I had known growing up. My father had been employed as an Accounting Manager with just one company, 3M, from my earliest childhood memory until his retirement.  Nearly every adult in my world worked for someone else, and the majority of them worked specifically for 3M. The idea of working for myself was more thrilling than anything else I could imagine.

The idea of owning my own business was radical because it was in direct contrast to what I had known growing up.

Success magazine was also my first exposure to motivational writers and speakers such as Norman Vincent Peale, Steven Covey, and Zig Ziglar. These motivational speakers were self-employed in a way that was even more exotic to me than creating a product or owning a retail store. I wanted to soak in every bit of wisdom from this world of self-empowered people. I wanted to become an entrepreneur.

A few years after discovering that copy of Success, I transferred to the University of Texas, eventually completing my bachelor’s degree in Organizational Speech Communications. This degree gave me opportunities to delve deeper into related topics such as persuasion and non-verbal communication. I learned the theories behind leadership strategies and what personality traits make for entrepreneurial success.

Upon graduation I took a job with Marriott as a front office manager on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and I mostly forgot about owning or running my own business. Years later I got a job as a Human Resources Consultant for Dell Computer Corporation. Success in big companies meant promotions and raises. I was offered bigger titles, bonuses, 401Ks, and stock options. Those jobs felt safe with regular paychecks and good benefits. I took advantage of the opportunities in these large companies to work my way up the corporate ladder into more responsibility, just as I had witnessed my father doing.

Although I dabbled in some small side businesses, it wasn’t until I was displaced in the economic bust following 9/11 that my interest in becoming self employed resurfaced. I wanted a career that no one could take away from me in a downsizing and the freedom that comes with it. My father’s early retirement from 3M felt forced upon him. That had felt like a betrayal to our family at the time, and now I was reeling from a similar fate. My fantasy of running my own business was fully resurrected.

One of the key traits of successful entrepreneurs is a willingness to trade security for autonomy. Entrepreneurs tend to value flexibility and freedom. It’s not that safety isn’t a value; it’s just that it seems worth risking some security in the short-term for the potential to gain greater financial rewards in the future. Since the sense of safety I felt in being employed by a large company had evaporated, the trade-off didn’t seem as risky. It seemed like the perfect time to make my dream of becoming a small business owner a reality.

It wasn’t until I was displaced in the economic bust following 9/11 that my interest in becoming self employed resurfaced. I wanted a career that no one could take away from me in a downsizing and the freedom that comes with it.

I had been interested in psychology for a long time. I spent much of my free time reading self-help books. My involvement with a local Unitarian Universalist church led me to create classes for the members. I led small groups around topics like death and dying, exploring meditation, and questions of theology. It seemed that a masters degree in psychology would allow me to fulfill a wide range of my interests, everything from teaching classes and running groups to writing books and motivational speaking.

I started my classes at Texas State University in 2003, just 14 months after giving birth to a son. I obtained my Master’s degree three years later, thanks in part to his brilliant habit of taking long naps. I was finally ready to begin! The only problem was that I was terrified. That terror, and the fact that I didn’t really know any details about how to start or run a small business gave me pause. Not only that, I was a new therapist who had to ramp up my therapeutic skills. It all felt overwhelming.

The entrepreneurs featured in Success magazine frequently recount a myriad of failures that precede their eventual triumph. So although I didn’t know what exactly to do, I decided that if I really wanted to become an entrepreneur, I needed to be game for trying and failing until I figured it out. I have certainly had my ups and downs, and have wasted money on marketing and projects that were unsuccessful.

 I learned that successful therapists seek help and mentorship, and those seeking to begin a group often start by joining their own group as a member. An ongoing general process is a great place to start. I joined my first ongoing process group in 2006 and I have stayed active as a member in different types of groups ever since. I was a member of an expressive Dance Movement Consultation group for five years, a Collaborative Therapy group based on Harlene Andersen’s work for several years, a Modern Analytic Training Group for two years, and I participated for eight years in that ongoing process group. These groups have been invaluable to my personal and professional development.

Financial Success

Asking individuals to pay me for my time stirred up every one of my unresolved self-worth issues. I had to look at what getting paid for therapy meant to me. Was what I was delivering worth it? Was I worth it? I believed I was offering something of real value, but often that belief was sandwiched in between vigorous attacks of self-doubt and the irrational fear that no one would pay me my fee. If the therapy I offered was worth it, then what was blocking me from charging a fee that would truly sustain my life?

A big wakeup call came when I was teaching my Private Practice 101 class to a group of therapists. A male student looked at the budget that I had shared and stated in a somewhat questioning tone, “I don’t see line items for health insurance, retirement or savings.” That comment caused me to do some real soul searching. Why wasn’t I making my health and long-term security a priority?  I realized that I had held a very gendered and unquestioned view of these expenses. I unconsciously believed men were responsible for such benefits, likely as a result of my father providing them for us via his company. As a woman I realized that I didn’t have an identity as a provider. Heck, I had to back up even further and realize I felt I needed permission to even consider myself a provider. Even though I was comfortable making an income as an entrepreneur, I felt young in this realm of benefits and security.

I tried on the identity of being a provider for size. Could I? Can a household have two providers? What would it mean for me to take responsibility for not only my future health and security, but for my son’s and maybe my husband’s too? To raise my fees to a level that would put me in a provider role took time and a willingness to sit with some very uncomfortable feelings.  

During my soul searching, I realized that as a young girl I had internalized messages  from my family and from society at large that I was to be nice and pleasing so that I would be liked, with the understanding that if I was likable a man would marry and support me. During the time my parents came of age, many people felt that a woman’s marriage was key to her social and financial success. It wasn’t until 1974 that a married woman had the legal right to own her own credit card! This historical context laid the groundwork for my financial assumptions.

In order to become a provider, I had to learn to tolerate my fear of other people’s anger or aggression. When I presented this Spring at AGPA on money I said, “We can charge any amount we want — all we have to do is endure the feelings that it evokes toward us from other people and the feelings it engenders in ourselves about our worth.” I had to learn to tolerate aggression from other therapists who judge me negatively for my higher fees. I had to tolerate my real or imagined fear of potential clients judging me or having aggressive feelings about my fee. I am deeply grateful to the senior consultant who helped me work through my resistances and my fears. Once I shifted my perspective and took on the identity of a provider, I was much less anxious to charge my fee. I knew that my fee was appropriate for what I needed to pay my current business and personal expenses including my taxes; to cover my son’s academic and personal lessons, our family’s vacations; and to save for college for my son and my own retirement. I had to stand firm in my sense of myself. I had to own my needs and my vision for my family’s future. I had to claim my personal power around money.

I think it is important to note that due to the relational nature of our work, therapists cannot just focus on the entrepreneurial side. I have learned how to integrate the principles of running a business and making decisions about my fees with an attunement to each client. I note details about our relationship and their attachment style when

We can charge any amount we want — all we have to do is endure the feelings that it evokes toward us from other people and the feelings it engenders in ourselves about our worth.

making decisions about my fees. Through training groups, I have learned the subtleties involved in navigating through decisions about how, or if I should change a client’s fee. Over time and through supervision I have integrated my two identities of being a small business owner and a therapist.

 After ten years in private practice I was making a good income and consistently working an average of 30 hours a week. I had achieved and maintained the three certifications I most care about: Group, EMDR and Imago couples therapy. I had started writing my first book, published articles, spoken at a national conference to over 500 people, and I even spoke at an international conference in Prague. I had achieved nearly every goal I set out for myself, but had I really achieved success?

When Will I Know I Have Arrived?

I now realize that success is not a destination. I know that that last sentence is likely on a poster somewhere, probably written over a picture of a soaring eagle. For me, this statement means that my satisfaction comes from setting and achieving goals that move my life in the direction where I want it to go. Today, that means working a little less and spending more time with friends and family.

I have become a successful entrepreneur by understanding my own motivations. Being my own boss means that I have been responsible for managing and motivating myself. I have set my own goals and have found the energy to achieve them, sometimes finding out afterwards that I want something else all together. Learning what motivates me happens in this process of continually asking myself, “what would feel like success for me now?”

Success is different for each of us and is defined differently at different stages of our lives. What will it mean for me in the next ten years? I am excited to be asking myself that question and stretching into the answers as they unfold. My wish for you is to join me in that exploration for yourself.

In her Austin-based private practice, Michelle Bohls, LMFT, EMDR, CGP specializes in working with all types of artists, entrepreneurs, healers, and other highly intuitive people in their struggles to overcome emotional blocks, which are often rooted in anxiety, shame, and other overwhelming feelings that affect both the individual’s work and their personal relationships.

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