Payment, exchange, gift and value – some thoughts

So I’ve been thinking about a phrase I’ve heard a few variations of when in conversation with other therapists or counsellors about money and charging our clients.

The phrase is: “Our clients need to give us something in exchange for our work, if not money then something else, in order to value the work that they do with us”

Initially, if I remember rightly, I nearly accepted this at face value, but with an uncomfortable feeling.

More recently, I rejected it outright as pure nonsense – after all, we don’t expect a friend not to be able value our time, attention or a gift, if they do not offer us something in straight exchange. If we give a stranger directions, or a kind word, we do not feel that they did not receive our gift if they do not reciprocate.

I’m now thinking of it not so much as about valuing the work, as it is about ownership and power.

When a client decides to come and see me, and pay me, it is easier for them perhaps, in our current culture, to expect good attention, and to have some power in the relationship: “after all, they’re paying for it”, and conversely I know that for myself as a client, when I have been poor and paying a reduced rate to my therapist or counsellor, there has been a subtle diminishment in my ability to be powerful in the relationship. There is a higher threshold for me to cross in order to express my dissatisfaction, or to demand more or different attention.

This is, in my view, something to pay attention to in the therapeutic relationship, to be alert to the opportunity to explore, unfold and study with our clients how this is working in our relationship in reality – after all, we all have a different story about money, exchange, gift and payment.

I do want my clients to be able to be powerful in relation to me, and I recognise that paying me is one way, a shortcut I think, to be so.

What I don’t want to do, any more, is to think that I am in some way failing as a therapist, or acting in a slightly less professional way, by agreeing to see clients who will pay me little or nothing.

Ideally I offer my clients my time and attention simply because they are my clients; because I have made an offer to them which they have accepted.

I charge my clients for a couple of reasons, I think – in order to pay my bills whilst still having time to practice therapy, and, if I’m honest, as one way for me to notice at the end of the week that people have valued what I am offering.

So, interesting – payment not as a way of clients valuing the work for themselves, but as a way for me to notice that the world values me!

A thought experiment I sometimes engage in is this:

-I’m in a position where I do not need money from clients in order to pay the bills

-I decide not to charge clients at all

How does this affect how I, or my clients engage with or value the work?

Certainly if the reaction is: “well psychotherapy with Stephen is free so it can’t be any good – it’s for those who can’t afford a better quality of therapy” then it is possible, maybe even fairly easy, to study this reaction together, and make some sense of it all.

In reading this I notice that there’s a notion which creeps in when thinking about all this, which is that it is our job as counsellors or therapists to give our clients something.

This is perhaps part of the corrosive effect of payment – that the bedrock of us providing an opportunity for our clients to explore their experiences, for example; of not receiving, gets a bit lost when we are being paid.


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