Knowing When to Call it Quits in Psychotherapy
Part 2: Recognizing the Signs

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
September 20, 2004


There are two common reasons people leave their psychotherapy - they're done working on the issue that brought them into therapy in the first place, or they're finding they cannot work with their therapy any longer. You can usually tell that it may be getting time to leave therapy by looking for some telltale signs.

You're Done Working on the Issue

If you're done working on the issue that brought you into therapy, you'll notice by looking at your behavior while in session. You may feel more bored than usual in session, or find that increasingly you have little to talk about. You and your therapist may spend a great deal of more and more sessions talking about daily activities or things that have little to do with the reason you're seeing your therapist. Running through a laundry list of activities you did in the past week since you last saw your therapist is often a sign that therapy is winding down. (Sometimes going through such a list may be beneficial or a part of therapy of the problem is related to time-management, anxiety, or such. But if it's just a recounting of your daily activities with no special focus on anything, it's probably just a time-filler.)

Sometimes people will notice they begin talking about more existential issues in therapy, or get more philosophical or political in their discussions. If these are not the issues that you came into psychotherapy to discuss, it's likely that you're using them as time-fillers. I believe it is fine to have such discussions in therapy, but only if they occur infrequently or as a tangent off of the issue that brought you into session in the first place.

Therapy can also often evolve into something different than what it started as. That's also okay as long as both the client and the therapist are aware of the evolution and are okay with it. What may have started as a focus on a client's depression could turn into some discussions about death, dying, and the meaning of life. That may be completely legitimate and a useful focus for therapy. Just as long as the client is relating the discussion back to their issues or to their own lives with an emotional connection. Academic debates or discussions are best left to university classrooms or dinner conversations.

Leaving a Therapy Relationship that's Not Working Out

People may also want to leave psychotherapy because they find they are not accomplishing positive things with their therapist. This occurs more frequently with a new therapist. You can usually sense it's not working with the new therapist because your personalities clash, your ways of dealing with issues differ significantly, or you don't find the therapist supportive of your needs.

The key here is to acknowledge the reality as soon as you realize it and accept that it's not working. Then you have to bring it up to your therapist in the next session. This is easier said than done, since a common part of the problem is that you may find it difficult to talk to a therapist that's not working out. Sometimes it helps a person to write down their reasons for it not working out on a piece of paper and bring that into session with you. You can refer to the paper when you bring the topic up. Try to do so as soon as possible in the session - do not wait until you have 5 minutes left. You need time to discuss the issue with your therapist, and hopefully to get a few referrals from him or her.

Therapists sometimes have a difficult time with a client who wants to leave early, especially if it's over an issue where the client doesn't like or doesn't feel supported by the psychotherapist. That's their problem, not yours. Listen to their concerns or questions. Sometimes it may have just been a simple misunderstanding (especially if you've only seen the therapist once or twice). But if you are certain about your decision and have given the therapist a thorough chance, be firm in your resolve. Some therapists may try to argue you out of your decision. Be prepared for that and simply answer them with your feelings and beliefs - that you don't feel working with them is working out or beneficial any longer for you.

» Next in Series: Make a Clean Break
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
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