The relationship you have with your therapist may be one of the most important in your life. So how do you end things when it’s time?
Going into therapy is an incredible act of self-care — and often an essential step toward wellness.
Whether you began counseling to learn tools for dealing with anxiety or to get clarity on a rocky relationship, chances are you set out to find a therapist who made you feel seen, cared for, and understood.
If so, your intuition was spot-on. Recent research shows that the relationship you have with your therapist (also known as the therapeutic alliance) is one of the biggest indicators of effective treatment.
Still, at some point you may feel like it’s time to end this therapeutic alliance for one reason or another.
The question then becomes, “How do I ‘break up’ with my therapist?”
You might be tempted to stop showing up for appointments, but how you end all relationships is just as vital as how you start them. In fact, how you stop counseling can be a helpful practice for what takes place outside of your therapist’s office.
Collaboration, responsiveness, sensitivity to a client’s sexual orientation and spiritual beliefs — all are key to a successful client-therapist relationship.
Maybe you indeed found a beneficial relationship with a therapist, but you now feel ready to tackle life’s complexities without their assistance. Or perhaps you feel your therapist doesn’t get your cultural or gender identity, and you want to switch to a different one.
“This is intensely personal work and you won’t fit with every therapist out there. Trust your gut,” says Susan Mecca, PhD, a psychologist, organizational consultant, and the author of “The Gift of Crisis: Finding Your Best Self in the Worst of Times.”
Whatever the reason may be, the decision to end therapy or switch therapists is entirely in your hands.
1. Figure out the ‘why’ behind it
Your reason for ending therapy could run the gamut from thinking “my therapist is frustrated with me” to feeling abandoned by therapists — either with the one you have or historically.
Maybe therapy is no longer useful. Or perhaps it seems that something is just… off.
Joanne King, LMHC, and author of “Too Good To Go, Too Bad To Stay: 5 Steps To Finding Freedom From a Toxic Relationship,” suggests asking yourself:
- Do I feel that my therapist is empathetic? Present? Competent?
- Do I feel judged?
- Did I clearly state my goals? If so, am I moving toward them?
Getting clear around your choice will help you determine what you want in a therapist, either now or in the future. It’ll also help you prepare to discuss your decision with your therapist.
2. Talk with your therapist
Ideally, you would navigate the feelings that arise when ending therapy with your therapist. But this may sound strange to some, if not impossible. And yet, if you have a good relationship with your therapist, this may be exactly the strategy you should take.
“Ending therapy should be as intentional as starting therapy,” says Charna Cassell, MFT, a psychotherapist and the founder of the Center for Passionate Living. “It’s an opportunity to evaluate any established patterns around endings, such as how you’ve left jobs and relationships in the past. A good therapist can also help you process your decision.”
That said, if there’s been an ethical violation by your therapist, you may want to terminate the relationship immediately and report the misconduct to the licensing board or another therapist. These include:
- a sexual advance
- a violation of your boundaries
- a breach of confidence
3. Or send an email or text
Perhaps you’ve had two sessions with a new therapist and the connection isn’t there. It could be that their style of interaction or approach doesn’t resonate with you.
If this is the case, “You don’t owe your therapist a long or involved explanation, just the courtesy of a goodbye,” Mecca says. She suggests:
- canceling your next appointment with appropriate notice, or
- sending a message that says, “I’ve decided I’d like to try a different approach with another therapist but appreciate your time and thoughts”
King also recommends this tactic for those who aren’t comfortable with confrontation. “A good therapist would be happy to read and respond to your email or text. The end of a therapeutic relationship is about the client — not the therapist,” she says.
4. Be honest
“Therapy is about personal growth,” Mecca says. “If you feel that your therapist doesn’t understand the issue or isn’t helping you gain new insights into a problem, tell them.”
King agrees. “It’s important to be able to share why you are leaving,” she says. “Part of the work in therapy is learning how to show up in life and to feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working for me’ or ‘we’re not meeting my goals.’”
5. Consider the ‘conscious goodbye’
“We live in a ‘see you later’ culture that’s afraid of goodbyes and avoids them at all costs,” Cassell says. A conscious goodbye, however, can help you see what you may have accomplished throughout therapy. This can be validating and energizing.
“I encourage ‘conscious goodbyes’ where clients take time to assess where they were when they started and where they are now,” Cassell says. “If they’re leaving because we’re not a good fit, we examine the growth they want to find with a new therapist.”
Cassell says she also practices saying the word “goodbye” with some clients. “This is profoundly helpful for people who have trouble with endings, or who have held on to relationships past their expiration date.”
6. Have a plan
Several mental health conditions may require ongoing care. For example, if you’re in therapy for depression and it’s continuing to affect your day-to-day functioning, you might want to line up a new therapist before ending your current relationship.
Similarly, if you choose to end your therapeutic relationship, it’s important to continue taking your medications. This will help you
7. Discuss ending therapy at the get-go
King spends her first two sessions with clients identifying and rating their goals on a scale of 1 to 10 in a method she calls “brain spotting.” Once they’ve reached zero, their work together is considered finished.
While not every approach may be as clear cut, you might consider discussing how you and your therapist will end your relationship when you start. This, too, can be a valuable practice for how you choose to manage, and conclude, other relationships.
It’s common to worry about how a therapist will react to a client’s decision to end the relationship. But “a good therapist always has their clients’ best interests in mind, first and foremost,” says King. “This is dictated in our code of ethics.”
If your therapist gives you a hard time or forces you to stay, consider it a “huge red flag,” King says. She also suggests that you should, again, be honest — and provide feedback.
“It helps us become better therapists,” King says. “Plus, when you communicate what did and didn’t work for you, you’re helping others.”
“I normalize endings,” says Cassell. She also notes that she recognizes that she may “walk with a person for only part of their journey before they need something else.” In other words, she doesn’t take it personally.
“I love goodbyes and try to teach clients not to fear them,” Cassell says. “I also acknowledge the courage it takes to initiate them.”
What all agree on is that you should never ghost your therapist. “We’re human beings too,” King says. “We worry and care about people — that’s our job.”
There are multiple reasons to go into therapy — and there are just as many reasons to end it.
If you feel it’s time to “break up” with your therapist, you can do so in a diplomatic way. Consider outlining your reasons so that you have a handle on your motivation. Open up a dialogue with your therapist. Be kind and honest.
Additionally, if you’re ready to switch therapists, know there are resources available. If you’re looking for a more culturally sensitive therapist, for example, you can check out:
- African American Therapists Directory
- Inclusive Therapists
- Therapy for Latinx
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Black Female Therapists
Your current therapist can also offer referrals.
Above all, keep in mind that “you drive the therapy process,” says Mecca. “Listen to your heart — or your gut — about what feels right to you.” That, after all, is a mark of therapy in action.