9: Balancing Life and Private Practice (Mari Lee)


Hi! Welcome to Session 9 of the Selling the Couch Podcast.  

My guest today is Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S.  

Mari has an amazing story of being in foster care as a child to building a very successful private practice where she focuses on helps individuals who struggle with sex addiction.  

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Mari’s favorite quotes that can be valuable as you take the leap into private practice.
  • Practical tips to balance work and life so you don’t burn out in private practice. 
  • Tools to help you create a vision for your private practice.
  • Ways to create an online store for products for clients and colleagues. 


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Mari’s Main Website


I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Mari Lee about her private practice journey! 

I would be grateful if could: 

My dream is that this podcast reaches every new, current, and aspiring mental health private practitioner, and subscriptions and 5 star ratings and positive reviews help to make that dream a reality. 

Mari, thank you again for joining me.  I’m grateful for your humility and your sincere desire to help our colleagues. 

Until next time!


Intro: Welcome to the Selling the Couch podcast where our goal is to help you achieve your counseling private practice dreams, and now the man who is always down for a game of ping pong, psychologist, and podcaster Melvin Varghese.

Melvin: Oh, I’m always down for a game of ping pong. So if you’re listening to this podcast and happen to be in Philly and I happen to be available, then let’s get a game going. Hey everyone welcome to session nine of The Selling the Couch Podcast. My guest today is Mari Lee, and one of the first things that you’ll pick up about Mari is how much she cares about our profession. As a child Mari was in foster care, and despite numerous obstacles and challenges, this experience taught Mari to be resilient, to do what it took to create the life and the private practice that she had always envisioned. As Mari puts it, “I have learned that balance is the key in all areas of my life.”

In today’s session of Selling the Couch, Mari shares her private practice journey with us, and how she’s created a private practice that specializes in sex addiction. After today’s session you’ll also learn some critical steps to take while building the foundation for your private practice. Some very practical tips to balance between life and work, and also some other ways that Mari uses her website to create products and also to distribute products for both therapists and clients. So here’s my conversation with Mari Lee. Mari welcome to Selling the Couch.

Mari: Hi Melvin. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Melvin: Yeah, you’re quite welcome. I’m really looking forward to our conversation. It’s always nice to finally be able to talk in person. 

Mari: Yes exactly. We’ve been email buddies for a while here, so [Inaudible] [00:01:55] it’s such a pleasure to hear your voice and connect.

Melvin: Yeah, absolutely. Mari, when I have therapists typically on the podcast I love to ask them a quote or a mantra that’s inspired them on their practice journey. What would that be for you?

Mari: Oh I love that question, thank you. What a great way to start off Melvin. Yeah, I have two. One is a quote and I love it. I have it on my– I’m looking at it right now. It’s on my desktop. It’s by John Shedd and it is “A ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what the ship was built for.” And then I have a second, which is a scripture for me that I love, which is Jeremiah [29:13]. “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, they’re plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” And those are my two anchors, my two affirmations, and mantras if you will.

Melvin: Oh. Wow! It sounds like you really keep both of those quotes right very close to you.

Mari: Yes I do. And those folks in my life that know me well– even sometimes clients have given me little stones or something with versions of that, so yeah.

Melvin: Oh, that’s…

Mari: Those are near and dear to my heart. Thanks Melvin. Yeah.

Melvin: For someone that’s just getting started in private practice, either one of those quotes or both of them, how do you think that would be applicable to them?

Mari: Yeah. Well, I can speak for my own experience especially with the ship is safe in harbor, that helped me when I started on private practice to realize that these dreams that I had, these aspirations were attainable. And even though there were going to be unchartered waters, right, that I was facing, and maybe the seas would get a little bit stormy sometimes, the ship is built for that. And so with my training and going on with certifications and of course clinical hours all those years ago, many moons ago, all of that, I was really becoming equipped to be able to move in and create a private practice really, my vision of a private practice.

That’s what that helped me with. And of course Jeremiah [29:13] is something that I’ve held on to for many-many years of my life. Whenever I’m feeling a little bit fearful about making a professional transition, or even something going on in the personal life, those are the two quotes and scriptures that I hold on to help me move through that.

Melvin: Yeah. As you were talking about it I was just thinking how grounding both of those phrases and quotes are.

Mari: Mmmh-hmm. Yes, grounding is a great word for it.

Melvin: When you were first starting out in private practice, I like that phrase that you used about the image of the ship and how a lot of times we’re tossed into that sea and it’s very uncertain. Take us to that point where you were first starting out and what was that like?

Mari: Yeah, I’d be happy to. So again it’s kind of rewinding back almost a decade for me. So during that time ten years ago, our country was going through a lot of upheaval, a lot of economic down turn, and here I am graduating from my MFT program. An intern hot off the press, working part time at an agency that worked with profoundly mentally ill individuals and also children, and all kinds of part mandated groups. So that was giving me a rich environment to hone those skills and to work with a diverse population. But I was also very interested in and specializing in sex and love addiction, which I know we’ll probably touch on that in a little bit. 

I wanted to find a private practice as an intern to be able to be employed by a psychologist that I connected with, and to learn how to do that. And it was tough for me, the fears that I faced because there were quite a few wonderful supports. You know just angels along the way that were positive people. But there were also other people that were a bit– you know the negative Nellys or the fearful Freds – as I call them – that would share ‘there’s just no way that anybody can go into private practice these days. You’ll have to work for an agency, or you’ll have to work for the department of children and family services, or you’ll have to take insurance only.” And then I would hear these nightmare stories.

There was just a core of– I don’t know, just a core of strength and belief in myself. Melvin, although I felt scared, I just dug in, and I was determined to create a private practice while I built those hours and honed my skills over – I think it was three or four years. So that when I was licensed and ready to launch, I already had my forms in place, my website in place, all of these things. And I was hungry, I would go to seminars, I would ask questions, I would meet with a coach, I would do these things. And I was determined never to take insurance from the get go. I thought, “If I can’t do it without insurance and relying on that” not that there’s anything wrong that I wanted that out there. I think that’s great if that works for a clinician.

It’s just not where my heart was, because I love to write, and I love to create, and I didn’t want to spend that extra time on hustling around with insurance companies. It didn’t feel good for me. Additionally, in my specialization in sex addiction, I wanted to have more confidentiality around that work. So it was a decision I made. And it was tough, because of the economy and what I would hear, but I had to face those fears and lay a really solid foundation of getting one little step at a time, and whether that was the website and focusing on that, or understanding forms or attending law and ethics program, or the certification for sex addiction, all of those little pieces, really were like dominos in a row falling together so that by the time I was licensed frankly, I had a thriving practice. 

I wasn’t working with insurance and was really loving what I was doing in that particular specialization, but yes, just like anyone, I had my own fears and my own worries. I remember getting my first client Melvin, and saying to my significant other, “Well, I wonder if another person will call me.” And from there, so if anybody is listening to this and they are having these fears, if I can do it, anybody can. I understand it, been there.

Melvin: Yeah. Mari you bring up such a great point, which is that I think when we make that jump into private practice, there may be that time where the clients aren’t quite coming; your name is not out there. But I love that image that you have of the dominos right, because you use that time to kind of set yourself up so when that time came where you were licensed, things were ready to go.

Mari: That’s right, yeah. And it was a process; we can’t do it all at once. I think there’s so much information that therapists are inundated with via coaches, or via the internet, or wherever, conferences we attend that it just feels like “Oh my gosh! I’ve got to do it all right now in this minute.” No, just take your time, have your focus points, have your short and long term goals and just start one step at a time. But make sure that you have a goal and a vision for yourself on how you want to design your private practice. Just like if you were designing a room or anything, how do you see that working for you? What are your hours, right? What are the days of the week that you work best? 

I really– I’m most creative with writing, and those creative juices flow for me first thing in the morning. And then in the afternoon and evening is when I’m most connected with individuals, where I feel most in my element connecting and supporting, whether it’s coaching supervision, of course with my clients. So knowing that about myself, I didn’t listen to the folks that said, “No you have to work really early in the morning” or “really late at night” or “on the weekends.” I knew who I was, I’m 52 years old. This is not my first rodeo. I knew who I was as a professional, right and decided that I don’t want to give up my weekends, unless it’s for a workshop or something…

Melvin: Yeah something that you’re deciding.

Mari: Yeah. Otherwise, I decided what my schedule was going to look like. So I encourage folks listening to this, you decide, put your policy together. Have a map in place for yourself.

Melvin: Yeah. It’s such a good point because and you’re absolutely right. In this day and age where there’s access to so much information it’s so easy, I think, to be overwhelmed just with the amount of information there is. And that can I think lead to paralysis.

Mari: By analysis.

Melvin: Hey, we’re rhyming.

Mari: Yes, by over analysis, right? Which I have experienced that paralysis by over analysis.

Melvin: Right. No, I like the perspective though because you’re bringing up some really good points. One is figure out what works for you, and that’s okay. That your idea and your vison is different than someone else’s. And then as long as you’re going in accordance and your taking action in accordance with what you believe at the end of the day, I feel like you’re going to create a much more meaningful practice.

Mari: Well I think we have a map. We have something that we can look at. So again kind of going back to that quote, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what the ship was built for,” we still have to have a map and a compass and a direction that we’re going in. So if you have that– if we know that’s there’s going to be lots of steps, whether it’s writing a book or creating forms or a website or a Facebook business page, or all of these elements that go into the foundation of a successful private practice, we have to put that on a list. There are so many great– we use Wunderlist at my centre, which is a tool online that’s really helpful. 

Some people use Trello which is like a way of organizing. You can use an excel or just a plain old good old fashion word document with some bullet points, but make sure that you put your vision there. And say,” I want”– for me I knew I wanted to work in sex and love addiction. So what does that mean? It means I have to be certified. I wanted to work Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, from 2pm to 7pm, same clients, and then running, facilitating support groups on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. And then I wanted Mondays to myself to be creative. Now those Mondays are filled with consulting and coaching clients and supervisees, and same for Fridays. And then for me I wanted to take every fifth week off. So I work very hard. We know as business people it’s a lot. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re working all the time.

Melvin: Absolutely.

Mari: It’s like a garden that you’re growing, right? You’re watering one day, and weeding the next and pruning and so forth on your business. But every fifth week – so this week is my fifth off, I take that– I schedule out a fifth week “off” meaning that I schedule in writing, I’m working on a new website. We’re doing this interview, tomorrow I present to a woman’sgroup in Los Angeles. So even though I’m off that week, I’m not seeing clinical clients, I’m still working on my business, on my practice and growing that practice, and just having some down time to fill my cup as a therapist so that I’m not burning out.

Melvin: Yeah. Mari I’m just so glad that we connected, because it’s need to hear the wisdom by which you approach your life and your practice. It’s just so apparent that you place yourself first, and I think especially when we start any kind of a business it can almost feel like we’re pulled in all different ways, and I have to do this all the time, and focus on this and that, and it’s easy to burn out. I just love how you think about yourself first, because I get the sense that you know that if you have time for rest, during those times to rest and recharge, that also gives you the energy to do the work much more efficiently.

Mari: Yeah. Thank you Melvin I appreciate that, that’s very kind. I came into that wisdom, when I first started; I was probably like a lot of folks. You know, “Okay, great, sounds good. I’m just going to take anyone, anybody that calls.” And that didn’t work out so well. And over the years– again we just– I look at myself as a work in progress. Though I’ve written books and though I speak internationally and all of that, I’m still Mari. I’m still growing and learning, and feel really humble and grateful to have the opportunity to talk to you today Melvin, and to share and support other healing individuals in the world. It’s important that we share what wisdom we have come into. 

But in the beginning I stumbled, and worked many hours in a row, and I found myself burning out. I remember a professor in graduate school that I really loved so much saying, “To thy known self be true everybody, in this work you can burn out.” And I remember thinking naively you know at the time, “How do you burn out as a therapist?”

Melvin: Right, like it doesn’t make sense at that moment.

Mari: Right, it doesn’t make sense. I’m sitting in a nice office; I’m listening to people’s problems, how hard is that? Little did I know, right? So it took me some time to hit my stride and find my pace. I remember one point I was seeing – I think it was like I was five days a week seeing eight clients a day, so talk about burn out. So for me, my sweet spot is to see four to five clients, so about 15 therapy clients, 12 to 15 a week. I feel really good, that’s a great– and then two, I love doing group works, so facilitating two to three groups a week. And then I absolutely adore supporting other therapists. I’m also certified sex addiction supervisor. So I make room for a couple of phone sessions on Monday and Friday, or coaching sessions.

I found that sweet spot, that good pace for me, and that might look different for somebody else of course you know. But again I think that under– the message that I’m trying to underscore here is harkening back to my professors words ‘to thy known self be true.’ Believe that if those are the hours that work best for you, go for it. Create that, and people will come. What I mean by that Melvin if– so let’s say you’re a therapist listening to this and you have– you’re seeing clients. You’re just building your practice and you’re seeing clients say on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you’ve got five clients. And you’re seeing those clients, on Tuesday you’ve got a 3 o’clock, a 6 o’clock, and a 7 o’clock client. The next person that calls, tell that client what time you have available. Don’t let them dictate when they’re going to see you.

Melvin: Yeah. It’s a different way of looking at it, right?

Mari: Right, right.

Melvin: You have the power.

Mari: You have the power so let them know you, ‘I have a 4o’clock on Tuesday’ or ‘a 6 o’clock on Thursday, which spot would you like?’ And the client will adjust. We all adjust, don’t we? When we go to the dentist or the doctor, our own therapist, so do something, put it together what works for your lifestyle.

Melvin: Well I think the big thing I’m hearing is the first and most important step is learn to value yourself.

Mari: Mmmh-hmm, definitely.

Melvin: Mari, one of the other things that I wanted to talk to you about in just the few minutes that we have was you have a virtual store on your website. And I wanted to hear a little bit more about that, and your process around, how you put that together.

Mari: Oh, I love to talk about that, thank you Melvin. So my virtual store, my website is kind of exciting. My website is going through a facelift right now, and that’s then fun. My sister and I, and our web designer we’re all meeting after this, and we’re going to be doing some creative things. But yeah, currently in my website, I have a website store. That’s something new in the last about a year and half or two years. And how that came about is, for a long time I have found it hard, just myself as a therapist and other therapist which share with me. It’s really hard to find clinical exercises to work with, whether it’s a client dealing with anger or addiction, or boundaries issues or family of origin stuff or family rules and rules, you name right. Inner child stuff, guided imagery, whatever it is.

Over the years as I would try and hunt around for these exercises – because I’m an art writer and I love to write, I just began creating exercises for clients that I’d be working with. So there’s two now, I think I’ve got over 200 exercises now that I’ve created over…

Melvin: Oh, wow!

Mari: This last decade. And whenever I would go and speak, as I got more solid in my practice and a little well known certainly after my book was published and what not. And I would speak at conferences, I would be asked by dozens, I would go to the hotel room open up my email and there’d be dozens of emails from attendees asking for exercises that I had used in the workshop, because they wanted to take them into their own practice and use with clients. So I created an eBook. I thought, “You know what, I’m just going to create this eBook.” I’d given away exercise for years and happy always to do that as a support.

But I thought, “All right this is a little dream that I have. A practice dream that I want to grow. I want to create an eBook” I’ve already done the Amazon published book, “I want to do something that’s really accessible just for therapists.” And so I created the– it’s called The Creative Clinician: Exercises and Activities for Clients and Group Therapy. And it’s 31 of my best sort of most beloved exercises. I hired a copy editor and a graphic designer, because I wanted the product to be beautiful Melvin, and like a book, for any therapist that purchased it, they could download that and there it was with exercises for copy write to use as often they want. But then how was I going to get that out there in the world?

Melvin: Right, right.

Mari: And so that was a learning curve for me. Again we’re always growing as business owners. And so I worked with my virtual assistant, and we figured out how to create a store on my website, how to link that to PayPal, how to create a shopping cart, all of that stuff, and it’s just been a blast. I’ve loved it. And since then I’ve developed some other products and what not, but that was what started it, was the creative clinician. So that was the birth of the store and I just think it’s– if you’re a creative clinician, and that’s something that you’ve always wanted to do, don’t be afraid to do that. You may need some assistance, because I’m okay tech savvy. I don’t write code, I know my way around better than I used to, but I’m certainly not a techy by any stretch of the imagination. You will have to– unless you’re a techy person maybe have some assistance in setting that up.

Melvin: Yeah. I like how you’rethinking about your website because you’re seeing it both for clients but also for clinicians.

Mari: Definitely. Yes. I want it to be– in fact I have a whole portal just for– on the new website, just for professionals to go in, have resources, if they need a packet of forms they can purchase them, just all of that. Also just supportive information and blog stuff. Yeah, it’s a passion I really enjoy it.

Melvin: Yeah, just hearing your voice I can tell how much you care for both your clients and also for our profession. And…

Mari: I do.

Melvin: It’s just need to — you have this idea, you notice that– it makes me want to go get this now, so…

Mari: Oh, thanks. Yeah, it’s been funny. It’s funny because when we’re finally ready to launch– it took about a year to put all this together. I’m a recovering perfectionist, you can say. So I really wanted it to be a beautiful product. But then when I launched it and it started– it was like sort of birthing a baby. Like, “Oh my gosh! I’m putting the baby in the world. This is kind of scary. I wonder how it will be received.” There was an investment of time for a year, and certainly money and paying professionals to support my work, and creating that, you can’t do it alone, you need a team. And I thought to myself, “You know what, if I don’t sell anything at all, that’s fine, because I’ve at least accomplished my goal and my dream, and I’m proud of that.”

Melvin: Yeah. So for you it’s about as much about just taking that step, right?

Mari: It was just about taking that step, but actually in the first week it sold 100 copies.

Melvin: Wow!

Mari: Yeah. So I covered my expenses, and made a little extra and since then I think – it’s been over a year, just over a year, I think we’re at 300 or something.

Melvin: Oh my gosh!

Mari: So anyway, it’s exciting. I think again the message behind all that it’s not so much about The Creative Clinician, but my point really is – a point of support Melvin is if a therapist is listening to this or somebody in the healing arts, and you have an idea for an eBook or a product, don’t be afraid to explore that. I didn’t know anything about it; I had to do my homework. I had to download, buy, look at other eBooks, and get a sense of how that’s done, but go for it. If you have a vision, we don’t just have to be in the therapy room. We’re taking it off the couch, right? Looking at other ways of developing income streams.

Melvin: Yeah. It’s fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that Mari.

Mari: Thank you.

Melvin: We are at the hot couch round, are you ready to get started?

Mari: Okay. Yes you told me about this. On the hot couch, I think I am ready, yes let’s go for it.

Melvin: Okay, let’s do it. What’s a daily habit that you believe contributes to your success?

Mari: Walking definitely, hiking and nature, big nature person, prayer and definitely meditation.

Melvin: What’s an online resource that’s been invaluable to your private practice?

Mari: Oh my gosh! Where to begin, okay at the top of my head Squarespace, Facebook business page, and Google drive.

Melvin: What is your favorite business related book.

Mari: For inspiration it’s Love’s Executioner by Irving Yolam. For just basic really good solid private practice stuff, like how to stuff, is Olive Lynn Grodzki’s books, great books, and then just personal inspiration as a professional would be The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. And maybe as a professional also Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. I know those are four, sorry I can’t choose one.

Melvin: Those are all great books. I’ll be sure to list them.

Mari: Thank you.

Melvin: What’s one tip that you would give to someone who’s thinking about starting a private practice?

Mari: So number one, what we’ve been talking about, never stop learning, don’t ever be afraid to lean into new areas as well. Be open to growth I think also along those lines. Be kind to others. Know your worth. Surround yourself with a tribe of really positive like-minded folks, meaning stay away from the negative Nellys and fearful Freds. Be kind to them, the envious [Emeds] [ph], just really know who your tribe…

Melvin: I love these names.

Mari: Right, who your tribe is, and of course we talked earlier, have that solid business plan, that focus, so that you have a map, your ship has a map. And operate legally and ethically always, always, always. Have good-good solid legal and ethical boundaries.

Melvin: Absolutely. And your last question is imagine that you were starting your private practice all over again; you have $500 dollars and your laptop, what is the first step that you would take toward building your private practice?

Mari: Oh, no brainer, a website.

Melvin: Mari, you’re off the hot couch.

Mari: Okay, I hope I did all right.

Melvin: Oh, you did fantastic. I felt like you had so much experience, and I can just tell by your voice how intentional you are about what you say, and thank you so for much for sharing that with our audience today.

Mari: So happy to do that and be of support. And just really glad always to share any tips and support with other therapists out there. We again can’t do this in a vacuum. So anytime I can be of support like this, I’m just very happy to do it Melvin.

Melvin: And Mari, what’s the best way to reach you?

Mari: People can certainly go to my website. It is www.growthcounselingservices.com. My email is mari@growthcounselingservices.com, and probably that’s the best way of reaching me.

Melvin: Great. Mari thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Mari: Oh Melvin, thanks so much. And thank you for the good work that you’re doing in the world. It’s again such a pleasure to have met you this way.

Melvin: Of course yeah. I’m really glad we connected too, take care.

Mari: Me too. You too. Bye now.

Melvin: Hey everyone hope you enjoyed that conversation with Mari Lee. So I think one of the big things that I’m taking away from this conversation is the importance of being intentional and very planful as you start your small business journey. So I’m even thinking about me starting this blog, and if I could distill it down to what I basically have learned what works is, there is a time where I dream about what things I want to do. And there’s is a time where I plan what all that is going to look like. And there’s a time where I just execute. And so if I can just distill it down, it’s this repeated pattern of dreaming, planning and executing that I feel like has helped the blog and the podcast to be what it is.

I think that’s the same advice that Mari gives especially as you start your private practice. I think a lot of times when we want to start and get started with private practice; our tendency is to want to just jump in. And a common theme that’s been coming up with all of the guests that I’ve had so far is the importance of planning and building a good foundation. So I would definitely think about that and think about some of those critical steps that you need to take with regard to building your practice. And I think one of those first steps is imagining what your practice would look like, but also the real practical things. What days do you want to work? What types of clients do you want to see? Do you want to have a mix between seeing individual clients and groups clients? Do you want to have time for blogging? Do you want to actually create some products on the side?

I think these are steps and things that you can do to think about as you start to build your own private practice. And I think the other thing to remember is some of this will inevitably change and you’ll have to tweak it. Like for me to be honest as I’ve started this podcast I had one vision of what it will look like, and it’s been constantly changing. So even as you look to this episode, right? Like when I first started I was very concrete. I would start the introductions just introduce the person, and now as I’ve gotten more comfortable, I do a little bit more of a narrative session to introduce the clients. As much as you plan, just also be willing to be flexible, and I think that’s a great reminder that Mari reminds us.

To get show notes for today’s episode you can find that at sellingthecouch.com/session9. Have a great week everyone. Take care. Bye.

Outro: Thanks for listening to the Selling the Podcast, for more great content and to stay up to date visit www.sellingthecouch.com.

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