The ending of any relationship is hard, but it feels especially difficult and unique when it’s the professional relationship between a client and a therapist. Whether the relationship was new and you were just feeling them out or you’ve been seeing them for years and they know your everything…there’s just something so unique and special about this kind of professional relationship. The dynamic/working relationship between client and therapist is so powerful and amazing when done right. It’s so intimate and yet, again, if done right, there are boundaries in place that create a special space where people, as clients, can feel safe enough to really get raw and real and do the deep work that needs to be done to change their lives. That all said, there are solid reasons to think about ending your current relationship with your therapist: there’s no chemistry, the therapist said something offensive and you want out, you’ve been working with them for awhile, feel like you’ve been in a good place, and want to reduce sessions, etc. Knowing if it might be time for a change and/or what kind of change is needed can feel very complicated. I wrote this piece to help people who feel like they need a change or like they have hit a plateau in therapy and need some options of what they can do at this point. FYI: Answer the reflection questions throughout this piece like you’re having a conversation with someone you trust. That will help you answer with enough detail to get the most out of it.
If you’ve read at least 2 of my pieces in a row, you already know that I’m a huge fan of self-reflection, checking in with yourself, and having a deeper understanding of yourself. If you need some help, here is my life reassessment piece where I explain how to look at your entire life and get a solid sense of where you are so you can figure out where you need to go. Checking in with yourself every 6 months to a year wouldn’t hurt. Now, if you have a therapist, you should be checking in formally via a reassessment approximately every 6 months to compare thoughts on your progress and to check on your treatment plan (your plan and goals for therapy). This is important because you want to avoid losing track of what you came to therapy for and losing direction. If you have ever found yourself going to therapy, but having no clue what you are doing there, or how it’s even helping, or what the point of it was, etc., that’s a sign that the direction of therapy was lost at some point.
Questions to Reflect on:
- Does your therapist check in with you about how therapy/your treatment is coming along?
- When was the last time you saw your treatment plan?
- How would you describe your treatment plan (your plan and goals for therapy) in your own words?
- Where would you say you are in your treatment as compared to where you were when you had your first session with this therapist?
Reassessing With Your Therapist
So you did some thinking and reflecting on your own, collected your thoughts a little bit, and now it’s time to bring this to your therapist. One way to start this conversation is asking when the next reassessment is or asking to go over the treatment plan and talk about your progress. This should lead to a conversation where you, with the help of your therapist, compare where you are with where you wanted to be by this time. And this is also where you reflect on the work that has been done in therapy up to this point and even talk about how the dynamic/relationship between you and your therapist has affected your treatment. In psychotherapy, this is called metacommunication. Metacommunication is when you and the therapist both take a step back and talk about your therapeutic relationship/dynamic together and its effects on your treatment/work in therapy. A lot of the time, a client and therapist talk about the other parts of the client’s life, but like any other relationship, it is important to check in from time to time. Metacommunication can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of the work. If your professional relationship with your therapist has issues, however big or small, at some point, it is going to start having an effect on your work together and your experience of therapy as a client. And nothing should get in the way of that time. That’s your time. And it should be used making the best of what therapy has to offer for you. Anything less that takes away from you and your growth.
Ideally, your therapist should welcome the opportunity to talk about your professional relationship. We, as therapists, are trained to do this anyway and we have been trained to see this as the learning opportunity that this is. I’m going to wish for the best and think that your therapist will do as they were trained…but if they don’t, and you asking about your progress in therapy turns into a power trip, then that experience taught you something about this therapist. And that kind of information, that bit of knowledge, is important in deciding the future of your professional relationship with them. Like I said, any therapist who’s really ‘bout it will use this metacommunication time to see if your treatment needs to be updated (does something need to be taken out of treatment, need to be changed, and/or do you need something new?) or if you need to reduce sessions to monthly, etc. This is a great time for the both of you to work together and get to the bottom of what’s going on for you.
Questions to Reflect On:
- Is there something you wish you could receive more or less of from your therapist?
- How do you feel about your dynamic with your therapist?
- What kind of rapport/bond do you have with them? What vibes do they give you?
- How does your therapist make you feel?
- Is the kind of treatment you are currently experiencing still working for you or do you think you need different kinds of psychotherapy or a different kind of therapist?
When It’s Over
If you are in the situation where you are not getting want or need in therapy and feel like you need another therapist, don’t be afraid to move on. Unless you are legally mandated to be there with this specific therapist, nothing (other than money) is holding you. I know it can be tiring to keep window shopping for therapists. The effort is worth it though. The healing power of therapy won’t be fully there if the relationship between client and therapist isn’t right. So if you don’t think the relationship is worth trying to fix, then it’s time to move on because you aren’t going to get anything out of therapy otherwise. Can’t drink from an empty cup. You checked. The cup is empty so it’s time to move on. For a lot of people, the idea of breaking up with your therapist feels like a big deal. And it is. But at the end of the day, you are a customer and they are providing you with a service. Again, unless you are mandated to work with them, you are well within your right to find a therapeutic relationship that has more of what you are looking for. Ideally, it would be cool if you and your therapist could have a final session to process the termination, i.e. the ending of the relationship, but if what happened makes you never want to see the therapist again, i understand. It’s similar to what I talked about in the piece here about setting boundaries with toxic people in your life, setting boundaries requires you to have compassion for yourself and your needs. Seeing your unhappiness as something worth dealing with even if many people have ignored it in the past. Maybe it is time for a change.
The ending of relationships doesn’t always have to be negative. You and your therapist could have clicked in a major way and y’all could have spent many sessions, putting in some serious work on your wellness. So why end it? Sometimes you want to reduce your sessions or end sessions because you feel like you’ve been in a good, stable place for a while. Maybe you have been working with this therapist for months and/or years and you both looked at your treatment plan and all the short term and long term goals you set for yourself have been checked off the list. And let’s even say you both tried to brainstorm some new goals and couldn’t really think of anything serious. That’s a solid sign that you’ve probably gotten enough from from therapy at the point in your life. This is a great topic to bring up in some metacommunication with your therapist. Use some mindfulness techniques, reflect alone, talk about it with trusted people, with your therapist…if you feel like you have gotten enough from therapy at this point, it may be time to start reducing sessions from every week to 2x a month, etc. until you reach your agreed upon last scheduled session. The termination process is ideally an extended mutual process between therapist and client where time is dedicated to process the end of the current professional relationship (as a loss/end, as a beginning/new chapter, etc). It’s a bittersweet time. You and the therapist are sad to see this phase of the relationship end, but also looking optimistically towards the future.
After the Goodbye: Starting Over & Booster Sessions
Having to start over again can be so frustrating. And tiring. I feel that. This might have been the 3rd or 4th therapist you’ve tried and you’re wondering if it’s even worth all this effort.
And I’m saying that both as a psychotherapist and as someone who has been in therapy personally. Finding a therapist who you can work with can really make a huge difference in your life. Having the space and the opportunity to work through things that have been sitting with you for months and/or years is life changing. Like any other service in this capitalistic society, you unfortunately may have to continue to search and sort for awhile until you find the right therapist for you. It’s worth the search. (Maybe I should write something about how to tell if a therapist is a good fit in the first 3 sessions…)
Now, if you had a great relationship with your therapist, just because the current relationship is ending, doesn’t mean that you will never see your therapist ever again in life. It doesn’t hurt to have a therapist on tap for booster sessions. It’s nice to know that you can always come back and that you have someone really there in your corner to help you figure out how you want to move through life. Therapy and mental health and wellness is a continuous, life long process just like physical health. Best case scenario, you could go to therapy regularly with a trusted therapist like having check-ups with your Dr, except focusing on your mental health.
Being stuck in a rut, stagnation, is opposite of growth and healing. As I mentioned previously, it is always important to check in with your therapist if you feel like you are no longer getting (or have never gotten ) anything out of therapy. An ethical therapist would appreciate the check-in and would see this as an opportunity to update the treatment plan with you to make sure that your work together continues to be helpful. Regardless of the reason or specific situation, there will come a time when professional relationships between therapists and clients have to end. Hopefully this piece helped to make starting the process of saying goodbye feel less complicated and explained some of the options you have in these kinds of situations. These endings have the potential to be the healing new beginnings you have been really needing and looking for.
Thanks for reading. The next piece on Sunday 3/10/19 will cover the process of change.