In terms of tricky conversations, telling a therapist you're planning on ending therapy can feel nearly as stress-inducing as breaking up with a significant other, or quitting a long-term job.
But take solace in the fact that, unlike romantic partners, therapists are professionals who are well equipped to deal with these sorts of situations. So, whether you're ending counseling because you don't mesh well with the therapist or because you feel you've come to a resolution of the problem you came in to deal with, you're unlikely to shock them.
"Therapists are used to — and trained in — having conversations with people about what's working and what isn't," says Deborah R. Glasofer, a New York City-based clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavioural therapy. By broaching the idea of leaving with your therapist, rather than anger or pushback, you're likely to get either agreement from the therapist and a game plan on how to terminate, or "you could end up with a better collaboration, or a referral for a different kind of treatment," Dr. Glasofer says.
(Note: Here we're focusing on ceasing talk therapy and counseling, and not on psychiatric treatment. If you're under psychiatric care, and are considering changing medication — or are otherwise in treatment for a condition that puts you at risk of harming yourself or others — make sure to get advice from your psychiatrist or primary care doctor.)
How to Tell If It's Time to Move On
"Think about whatever problem brought you to therapy. If you feel like it's been resolved or you've gotten the skills you need to deal effectively with the symptoms, it may be time to leave," Dr. Glasofer says. "Especially if you've felt stable for a while."
(But she notes, even if you've checked off all those boxes, you still may want to stay with therapy, but "shift the focus.")
Another reason to end therapy, of course, is when you're not happy with your specific therapist. "Sometimes it's just stormy from the beginning," says Sharon Peled, a psychologist and PysD, who's currently training in psychoanalysis, who has practiced in both New York and Israel.
A therapist who is condescending or patronizing is not worth going to, but sometimes even without egregious behaviour, a therapist can be triggering to a patient, or the chemistry can just be off.
"The patient might feel that the therapist reminds them too much of someone else with whom they have a difficult relationship," says Dr. Peled. "Sometimes even we as therapists have a hard time admitting that we're not the right fit for someone." In that case, it's often up to the patient's instincts.
But note: sometimes feeling "bad" after therapy, is just part of the process. It may take a few sessions to realise whether that feeling is just the after-effect of some deep exploration, or a response to a therapist that just isn't right for you.
How To Bring Up the Subject With Your Therapist
"It's always better to do it in person," says Dr. Glasofer. If you're someone who's very anxious about talking about leaving, it can be helpful to text or email the therapist in advance to let them know that you want to discuss therapy and where it's going.
Dr. Peled recently had an experience when, while away from her office, a patient sent her a hostile text saying they weren't missing therapy at all. "That's an example of how not to end therapy," she says. "A healthy way to do it is to have a conversation. It's a process."
"Try to be as direct and open about your concerns," says Dr. Glasofer.
Giving the Right Amount of Notice
All the therapists we spoke with (one of whom preferred to remain anonymous), stressed the importance of not just "ghosting" your therapist.
"I would discourage everybody from stopping abruptly unless a boundary has been crossed or they question ethics of the person," Dr. Glasofer says.
Therapy — like most other interpersonal relationships — needs closure.
But the way you phase out therapy can depend on the type of therapy, and how long you've been seeing a therapist, say the professionals.
If you've seen someone fewer than three times, emailing and ending is probably fine. If it's been more, you may want to ask them how they like to handle ending therapy.
If you're in psychoanalysis, for example, which is a long-term, insight-oriented field, they will probably want to take more time to reflect on the end of therapy, but if you're doing therapy that's more focused around a certain behavioural issue, a shorter culmination may make more sense.
Dr. Peled says ideally she'd have two months to wrap up therapy for a child patient, and four to six months for an adult. "It's like a mourning process — there's denial, negotiation, acceptance...everything. We want enough time to find out what gifts we've given each other. It takes time, and it needs time," she says.
Dealing with Pushback
If you've met the goals that were set out, you may be pleasantly surprised to find your therapist agreeing that it makes sense to stop therapy.
If they don't agree, listen to their reasoning, and take some time to figure out whether their recommendation makes sense to you. If you feel uncomfortable, you can always email or leave a voicemail ending your therapy, the professionals say.
"Ultimately, it's your therapy. It's your place to end it," says Dr. Glasofer.
Plus, she says: "It's not going to be successful therapy if you don't want to be there."
Remember: You Can Always Resume At Another Date
Therapeutic relationships end, but they also often resume. "Some people like to come in and touch base on occasion — almost like getting a booster shot," says Dr. Glasofer. "Sometimes there's a new life stressor that presents itself. You don't need to go back to the same person of course, but you can always come back to therapy."