This summer, Intentional Expat celebrated its 3rd birthday! Unfortunately, I was too busy with all sort of projects and important life events that this big day came and went without me blinking an eye.
As a belated celebration of the past three years, here are four important lessons I’ve taken away from this adventure of being my own boss, having a private practice, and working as an online psychologist.
1) If you follow your passion, doors will open for you…but they may not be the ones you imagined
When I launched the first version of the blog, I did so initially as a way to find something I was as passionate about as my entrepreneur boyfriend was about his startup. Little did I know that I was embarking on a journey that would lead me to become an entrepreneur myself. My original idea for Intentional Expat was born from my love for writing and a vision of sharing some of my writing with a larger audience. I’ve been writing since before I could write (At the age of 4 I would dictate stories to my dad to write down for me) and I´d had a personal blog since my first trip abroad in 2005. It felt like a great time to nudge myself out of my comfort zone and start a blog that I would aim to share with as wide of an audience as possible.
As a psychologist, expat and travel lover, it seemed logical to focus my blog posts on topics relating to the intersection between mental health and global living. Although I wondered if one day I´d be able to monetize my blog, through e-books or advertising, as I´d seen other bloggers doing, it didn’t really occur to me that it could be an ideal way to connect with potential clients. I had no plans to start a private practice and most certainly did not want to become my own boss.
However, I quickly learned that if you´re a psychologist publishing articles geared towards an audience of expats, digital nomads, study abroad students and the like, you’ll wind up with more than a few people reaching out to you enquiring about therapy services. So, I began experimenting with having a private practice open one day per week and decided that adding a “services” section to my blog certainly couldn’t hurt.
2) Sometimes, instead of searching for your niche, it finds you
Within a few months I transitioned my initial blog to an actual website with a custom domain name, and www.intentionalexpat.com was born.
Before this, the majority of the patients I´d worked with were struggling with eating disorders. For over a decade I´d dedicated myself to working with these patients in a variety of different settings, both in the U.S. and Spain, and throughout graduate school I had pursued opportunities to carry out research and work in clinical settings where I´d gain additional experience with this population. However, the individuals who reached out to me via my website were seeking a native English speaking therapist to help them with a whole variety of mental health concerns, not just eating disorders. While the other psychologists with whom I´d completed my masters were struggling to find work, I was searching “how to create a waiting list for your private practice” on Google.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s essential to sit back and think about which clients you’d like to work with and who you are successful with. A big danger that many freelancers fall into is seizing any opportunity that comes their way. One of my favorite quotes I read on a Starbucks cup years ago (do you remember when they were posting words of wisdom on their cups?) was from American journalist Po Bronson–
¨Failure is hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever.¨
But that´s not the situation I found myself in. Much to my surprise, I found that I loved the variety and diversity that came from helping patients who were struggling with a wide array of difficulties, and who hailed from countries all around the world.
3) Supposed roadblocks in your field may actually be challenges that can be overcome
When I completed my masters and got licensed to work as a psychologist in Madrid, I did so expecting that I would see clients living in Madrid, and that it would be nearly impossible to work as a therapist outside of Spain. However, when potential clients started reaching out to me through my website, I found that many of them were not based in Madrid and, in fact, some of them weren´t even based in Spain at all. They were located in small towns or in cities elsewhere in the world, where they didn´t have access to an English speaking or American psychologist, and they were inquiring about the possibility of online counseling.
When I moved to Amsterdam last year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, paperwork and bureaucracy aside, I was able to become licensed as a psychologist in the Netherlands. And what more, I was able to move my private practice with me. That is, the majority of my face-to-face clients converted into online clients and I continued as their therapist despite the fact that we were now in different countries. Since this time, my private practice has converted into an almost entirely online practice. On some days I start seeing clients ending their day in Asia and Australia and finish seeing clients just starting their day in South America. I´ve seen clients while they sat by their pool, in hotel rooms on work trips, or in their car on their lunch break.
While these settings can sometimes bring with them distractions, or connection problems, after 3 years of providing online therapy I believe that the benefits outweigh the costs for many of these people. They’re able to get the emotional support in situations where they may not have had access to it previously and I believe it’s helped people connect to a therapist who may have been hesitant. It’s also allowed me to pursue my own love of travel in ways that wouldn’t have previously been possible by bringing my ¨office” with me while traveling through Portugal, Spain and Israel.
4) Being an entrepreneur is not just about professional development, but personal development too
There’s an enormous amount to learn when you have your own business. The learning curve at the start is incredibly steep and you’re bound to make mistakes. There’s constant room for improvement and it can be hard to not get overwhelmed by information overload and a never ending to-do list.
I’ve always known that self-care needed to be a priority, but it took on an entirely different meaning when I became my own boss. I not only had to learn ways to improve my business, but I had to learn ways to improve myself. This part of the entrepreneur lifestyle–having to take a hard look in the mirror and realize ways in which you’re getting in your own way of growing your business–can be what stops many entrepreneurs from continuing on. Thankfully, I had a fair amount of tools in my toolbox and where I was lacking I read books, attended trainings (mindfulness training was a lifesaver!) and had my own therapist to call on.
While it’s easy to feel a lot of pressure to seize the day and hurry up because ¨you only live once,¨ the truth is that life is more like a marathon then a sprint. If you try to sprint the whole way through, your’e going to burn out. I’m constantly going to read new information or attend trainings that make me think ¨I wish I would have had this for ____ patient 2 years ago!¨ or ¨If only I would have known this about being an entrepreneur before!¨ But knowing that I’m going to have these moments allows me to slow down a little and not need to figure it all out today. In order to succeed in my own business I’ve had to work on being patient, self-compassionate and flexible with my own learning process. And this has also allowed me to learn a wealth of important tools to be able to help clients who are struggling as entrepreneurs themselves.
Three years ago, I would have never imagined that I’d be where I am today, both personally and professionally. Intentional Expat has introduced me to many amazing people from all over the globe. Not only my clients, but also people I’ve interviewed, and fellow psychologists and entrepreneurs. I’m certain that in three more years I’ll have experienced additional surprises, adventures and challenges. I hope that you’ll be following along as I share some of them here!
Since writing this post, I’ve now transitioned to providing online coaching instead of therapy.
Are you interested in working with me? You can learn more about my 1:1 coaching services HERE.
Or schedule your discovery call to meet me and decide if it would be a good fit to work together. Schedule HERE.
Yes! So much of this resonates with me and my own path, and not just because I am also a psychologist working online 😉
I started my own nomad journey 3 years ago as a sabbatical and had no idea I could work online or would ever want to do that. I just knew I needed a break after finishing my PhD and working way too much for many years…
But I fell in love with the nomad lifestyle and freedom of travelling and managed to transition my offline career online. Most of my clients are German and French expats and I love how working online allows us to help people who wouldn’t have access to a therapist otherwise.
I think my main 4 lessons of those past years: I rediscovered my love for writing once I was free of all the restrictions of scientific writing. Being self-employed can be overwhelming and lonely, but reaching out and connecting with like-minded people online is easier than ever. Travelling and exploring new cultures and countries really is wonderful – just like spending a day in bed watching Netflix. Plans change, be open to new ideas and life will keep on surprising you in the best possible ways.
Thanks for sharing some of what you’ve learned Sonia! I think so often we set out on a path knowing that something has to change, but we don’t fully understand how it fits into the bigger picture until much later–reminds me of a quote I love “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” I also think being aware of the fact that the self-employed lifestyle is hard is already half the battle because sometimes people think it shouldn’t be so hard. It’s amazing to see just how much technology has changed since I first became an expat. I think it’s making the is nomadic, global lifestyle that much more sustainable–you can go explore different parts of the world without losing contact with your social support network or your therapist 🙂