When is it time to say
goodbye to a therapist?
Maybe you don’t like your therapist. Maybe you do, but you’ve resolved the
issues that drove you to seek counseling in the first place. Or maybe those
issues remain unresolved, with few signs of progress. Maybe your sessions feel
as if they’ve morphed into very expensive chats with a friend.
For myriad reasons, people come to a point when they wonder if they should
break up with their therapist. And “break up” is the right term for it, because
quitting therapy can spur emotions as painful and complicated as ending a
How do you know if you’re ready to stop therapy? And how should you go about
it? First, any therapy that is abusive or destructive should be stopped
immediately, said Dr. Kenneth Settel, clinical instructor in psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School. Examples of abusive therapists are those who are
disrespectful or insensitive to certain issues; those who violate boundaries;
those who reveal too much about their own problems; and those who insist on
focusing on areas the patient didn’t come in for.
But assuming you’re not dealing with that, patients should approach ending
therapy as a chance to grow, Settel said. Rather than cut and run or avoid the
topic altogether — tempting routes for the confrontation-avoidant — it’s
important that patients, well, talk to their therapist about it.
In therapy, the relationship between the patient and the therapist is a
vehicle for understanding the patient’s issues, Settel said. So the way you end
therapy can be a way of examining how you say goodbye to people, and the
feelings involved in leaving and loss.
Ask yourself why you want to move on. When did you start feeling that the
therapy was no longer helpful or productive? What happened that made it
different? Was there a change in you, in the topics being discussed, in the
therapist? Confronting that tension can be a turning point because it forces you
to work through obstacles, Settel said.
“Ending therapy can be very therapeutic,” Settel said.
Though the patient-therapist relationship can have a weird power dynamic —
you’re paying, but the therapist is the expert and knows your every demon —
patients should feel they have control of the process, said Lynn Bufka, a
psychologist and head of the department of practice, research and policy at the
American Psychological Association. Patients should feel empowered to ask
questions, steer the sessions to focus on particular issues and let the
therapist know what’s not working.
The tricky part is making sure you’re not leaving therapy just because it’s
unpleasant or difficult, which oftentimes it has to be, Bufka said. More than
make you feel better, therapy is supposed to help you understand yourself
On the flip side, therapy shouldn’t be some indefinite appointment you keep
as part of your routine. There should be regular discussions about what you’re
trying to accomplish and whether you’re meeting those goals.
“I hope that I’m going to work myself out of a job,” Bufka said.
There is such a thing as staying in therapy for too long. One warning sign is
if a patient has to run all decisions by his or her therapist, which can signal
dependency, Bufka said. Another concern is if the therapist relationship is
taking the place of building other relationships.
Another downside of staying in therapy for too long is that you don’t have
the opportunity to practice the skills you’re developing independently, Settel
said. If the therapy was aiming to help you build internal skills of
self-observation, stopping therapy can encourage growth because it forces you to
internalize the process.
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