With an empty nest looming, Tammie fulfilled her dream of starting her own private practice and leveraged her active lifestyle by combining talking with walking.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
When my youngest child was applying to college, I began to think about how quiet the house would be when she left and how much more time I would have.
We had a very busy family life. My kids were all involved in competitive sports growing up. We shuttled them to practices and games most evenings and weekends for years. My husband and I both worked; we were simply too busy to think about what would happen post-kids.
At the time, I worked about 30 hours a week as a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker at a private counseling clinic in St. Paul. I was doing traditional in-office counseling with adolescents and adults.
I had thought about launching my own practice for many years, but the timing was not right. I valued the collaboration that comes with working in a group practice, and I wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of running a private practice. My focus was on raising my family and serving my clients.
With my youngest leaving home, I wanted to prepare for the impending empty nest. I knew that it would be an emotional transition for me. Starting my own business would be a great distraction!
What is your Next Act? Tell us about what you are doing…
Walk Talk Therapy is just like it sounds: The client and the therapist walk outside during therapy instead of sitting in an office. It’s a new and active approach to counseling. Healing begins outdoors where we focus on the client’s emotional, physical and spiritual health.
Side by side conversations are more likely to be productive because it eliminates the added pressure of constant eye contact.
I work with teens, college students, adults, and couples. Teens have an easier time opening up while walking. Think about your conversations with your teen sitting side by side in the car vs. sitting across from each other at the dinner table. Side by side conversations are more likely to be productive because it eliminates the added pressure of constant eye contact. I’ve found this to be true with all ages, not just teens. Dog lovers bring their pets along for the session, allowing the pet to get their exercise as well.
Many clients find that Walk Talk Therapy is a more relaxed environment than the counseling office. Others state that it is a great way to jumpstart or support a fitness routine or active lifestyle. Walking while sharing struggles and life situations can also be meditative. Walk Talk Therapy encourages healthy activity for adults and teens.
Research has consistently shown that exercise can significantly reduce anxiety and stress while improving overall mood. It is increasingly apparent that walking is not only good for your physical health, but it is also good for your mental health.
Where did you get the idea of Walk Talk Therapy?
I started walking with my aunts when I was a teenager. They loved to walk after meals at family gatherings. It was a way for us kids to feel included in the adults’ lives. As a young mother, I would stay connected with friends while pushing our kids in strollers on long walks. We would joke about how we provided one another with free therapy. My husband and I would take walks and debrief about our day while our kids biked alongside us. Walking was my primary way to stay connected with people.
Walk Talk Therapy grew out of these experiences. If it felt so helpful with friends and family, I imagined it helping my clients who were anxious, depressed, or overweight. I’d also heard anecdotal stories from other therapists who found it very helpful to walk with clients, especially with children and adolescents.
In my group practice, I often gave my clients an assignment to get out and take a walk. With this new active therapy, we would actually do it together. That fit my philosophy of moving forward together.
How did you figure out which way to go? How did you prepare? What challenges did you encounter?
I did a lot of research! Many therapists struggle with starting their own practice because we don’t get any business training in graduate school. I decided to hire business professionals to help me think and plan as a businesswoman.
I practiced my “elevator speech,” 2-3 sentences explaining my business.
I hired a business coach to help me write a business plan. I wanted the coach to do what I do for my clients, which was to keep me accountable to my goals. I also read books about starting a private practice, marketing your business, and using social media. And, of course, I read everything I could about the exercise/mental health connection.
I hired a lawyer to help me set up my business as an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation). I also hired a web designer to set up my website and a photographer to take a headshot and pictures for my website.
I started telling friends and family about my plans and soliciting their input. I practiced my “elevator speech,” 2-3 sentences explaining my business.
I discovered a therapist in New York City who was doing walk/talk therapy. Shortly after starting my business, our family went to New York for my son’s college graduation. I hired the therapist for a session and we walked in Central Park. I had a list of questions for him and I was curious to experience this kind of therapy for myself. After our walking session, I met my husband at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and chattered about everything I had learned.
Walking is so enjoyable for me that I think it rubs off on my clients in a positive way.
It took 6 months of preparation before I was ready to see my first client. I was nervous and excited. After my first walk/talk session, I knew I was on to something great. It felt natural and the client told me how she liked to walk to relieve stress. She scheduled her second appointment and I knew this would be a good fit. I was very happy, not only because the client was getting help for her problems, but also because I had put my idea into practice and it felt right. Walking is so enjoyable for me that I think it rubs off on my clients in a positive way.
Writing my website proved to be the most challenging part of starting my business. Since I had never done this before, I didn’t know what to say or how much to say. I asked writer friends for editing help. It took most of the summer to complete.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
No, I’m a determined person. When I set my mind to something, I don’t give up easily. I was excited to bring this new type of therapy to the Minneapolis/St Paul area.
My kids sent me validating texts like “way to go mom,” “you rock,” “I’m proud of you.”
My support network – husband, kids and friends – were behind me 100%. My husband had a “go for it” attitude. He started his own business 20 years ago and has offered advice based on his experience. He is by nature a bigger risk taker than me.
When I received my first client referral, my kids sent me validating texts like “way to go mom,” “you rock,” “I’m proud of you.” When an article is published about my business, they get excited and call me. It’s awesome to be in the reverse role where the kids give me high five’s.
My husband’s friend liked the idea so much he started calling me “walk talk Tam” and many of my friends now call me that. I guess it’s my new nickname. My friends and family want updates on the business and ask how it’s going. I feel incredibly blessed to have so much support.
I’ve noticed that people’s ears perk up when I mention my business. They have a lot of questions and comments. People find the idea very novel and intriguing, which is so validating.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Do your homework! Start thinking about what your life will be like after your kids leave home way before that day arrives. Ask yourself how you want to spend your time. Start volunteering in areas that interest you; do informational interviews; hire a therapist to help guide your path and a coach to help you develop a more formal plan. Get career counseling or a mentor.
Don’t wait for life to happen to you, make it happen. I would rather try and fail than spend the rest of my life wishing I had tried. I don’t want to live my life with resentments of “what if,” or “ I should have”. Life is short and you never know what tomorrow will bring.
One of my favorite quotes is an ancient Chinese proverb “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take the first step even if it’s a baby step and keep taking steps each day to reach your goal. There will be fears and worries; those are natural. Surround yourself with supportive and smart people. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; there are plenty of resources available to help you pursue your path. Have an open mind. Sometimes you have to take a leap even if you don’t think you’re ready.
Don’t wait for life to happen to you, make it happen. I would rather try and fail than spend the rest of my life wishing I had tried.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
To get help with the business end of a new venture, look into local women’s networking groups. Contact your alma mater to see if they offer career services to alumni: My graduate school offered to review and edit my resume for free. Consider contacting Score, a volunteer organization of retired business professionals: I met with two retired Fortune 500 marketing professionals to help me grow the business, after working with my business coach for a year.
If you are interested in a walk/talk therapy type of business, it’s important to consider the insurance limitations. Insurance companies usually have strict guidelines about practicing therapy in an office. You’ll likely need to be an out of network provider in order to have the freedom and flexibility to see clients outdoors or have Skype sessions if clients are out of town or during inclement weather. I definitely adhere to the ethics of boundaries and confidentiality while walking outdoors. I do not meet my clients for coffee after the walking sessions.
Meet your client at a mutually convenient location, not necessarily near your client’s home or work. The therapist I walked with in New York told me he used to meet his clients close to their workplace, starting the walk near Wall Street. He said this didn’t work well as clients did not make the therapy a priority when he came to them. Sometimes clients would keep him waiting or forget about their session. He stopped doing this and had clients come to his office where he now starts the walks. My favorite walks here are around our city lakes or along the Mississipi River.
If you plan to conduct walking therapy in unusually cold or hot climates, be prepared to address the weather issue. I leave it up to my clients to decide it they want to walk outdoors or if they would prefer meeting at a fitness center, community center, or local mall.
One client prefers not to walk when it’s below 30 degrees; another prefers to walk outdoors in any weather. If there is a snowstorm, which makes driving difficult, we have the option of Skype, a phone meeting, or rescheduling. During our few scorching hot days of summer, I schedule walks for early morning or evening hours. I try to be flexible to my client’s needs for indoor or outdoor walking.
If you plan to start a private practice, you will need to find new clients. It would not have been appropriate or ethical for me to take clients from my clinic. Despite the fact that everyone could benefit from walking, some clients need in-office therapy and need to use their insurance. My first referral came from someone whose friend read an article in the local community paper about Walk Talk Therapy. I was listed under the New Businesses section with a photo and a few paragraphs about what I did. The friend told her friend, who then contacted me for a session. It took me about a year to build my practice. It’s a continual process of getting referrals.
Use every means to promote your new practice. I used a lot of social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. I wrote an introductory letter to therapists I know in the community. I had face-to-face meetings with high school counselors, church/synagogue clergy, physicians, and personal trainers. I talked about my new practice when I conducted workshops at mental health conferences and at local hospitals. I advertised on Psychology Today’s website and GoodTherapy.org. I contacted area newspapers such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune telling them about my business, and they all wrote articles about me. Word of mouth, of course, was also very important.
What resources do you recommend?
Building Your Ideal Private Practice by Lynn Grodzki
Working it Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy by Kate Hays
If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area:
Business attorney: Tony Gleekel of Siegel Brill, PA
What’s next for you?
I want to keep growing Walk Talk Therapy. So far, most of my clients have come to me because they are active. I would like to reach clients that have a more difficult time being active. That’s a goal I am working towards.
Beyond that, who knows how the future will unfold? I’m open to anything!