Perhaps you’re wondering how to know if this is the right decision.
Maybe you are even experiencing a strong, almost overwhelming urge to leave – but you’re vaguely aware of a nagging sense that perhaps this urge might not be coming from a solid ‘place of health’ inside you.
How can you tell if the time really is right for your therapy to end?How can you tell if it's time for your therapy to end? Click To Tweet
Step one: Check in with yourself
The first step is to check in with yourself. What is going on in your body when you think of leaving therapy? See if you can focus in on your inner feeling about this and try and get a sense of the quality of it.
Does it feel urgent, like something that must happen as soon as possible? Or has the idea been slowly building over a period of time? Do you feel a bittersweet sadness when you think of ending? Or a sense of relief and escape?
Make a note of these feelings. Check in with yourself again at different moments through the day(s) and see whether anything changes or develops. Let yourself keep feeling curious about it. See if you can keep an attitude of acceptance towards whatever emerges, and try not to shut down any unwelcome thoughts or feelings.
Step two: What’s the thinking?
The second step is to acknowledge your rational thoughts about ending therapy. This is a really tricky one, because most of us can rationalise to ourselves pretty much anything (numerous psychological studies have proved this, and shown that much of the time, we are completely unaware of the unconscious feelings that motivate us to rationalise things).
Step three: Get clearer on your reasons
Thirdly, read through the list I’ve made (below) of some of the most common reasons why people may want to end therapy. Notice whether any of them strike a chord, and see if you can elaborate on that and pinpoint exactly what’s going on for you.
Step four: Talk about it
The fourth step is to discuss all of this with your therapist. This may sound alarming, and it might feel a whole lot easier to cut-and-run, but it really is worth having ‘the talk’. You’ll feel stronger inside if you can steel yourself to talk frankly and openly with your therapist about your thoughts of ending the work.
If your therapist is a clinically sound and ethical practitioner (as almost all well-trained therapists are) he or she will take your concerns seriously, and will genuinely wish to support you in doing whatever is right for you. He or she is unlikely to be motivated by wanting to keep you in therapy for his/her own selfish reasons (such as money).
This article cannot tell you, of course, what you should do. It may be entirely and absolutely right that this therapy relationship should end. On the other hand, it may be that your desire to end therapy is based on self-destructive or frightened urges which would be best not acted upon.
Why people want to quit counselling or psychotherapy
Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons. All of these come up regularly and are completely normal. In fact a lot of them are pretty much guaranteed to come up at times during the course of most people’s therapy.17 very common reasons why you might want to quit #counselling or #psychotherapy - and what to do about them. Click To Tweet
1. You are feeling better and you worry that you do not ‘deserve’ to have sessions any more.
Therapists call this ‘the flight into health’. It’s particularly likely to happen if you are the sort of person who has always been ‘the strong one’ in your family or social group. It can feel strange and unsettling to be on the receiving end of help, and it can take a lot of courage to allow yourself to try out this different role.
It might help to know that many people are in therapy just because they value getting to know themselves in a fuller, deeper way. They find that therapy enriches their life and makes them more resilient so that when setbacks and storms do occur, they have built up a much sturdier ability to cope.
2. You’re feeling worse and therapy seems to be the cause.
It’s not unusual for people to have a phase in therapy where they actually feel worse rather than better. At this point you may conclude that the therapy isn’t working, and decide it’s best to leave. But that’s a bit like closing up a wound too soon, before the underlying infection has been fully treated. What’s really needed is to re-open the wound so that it can be cleaned up. Yes, opening up a wound can be painful. But once that’s done properly, it can be safely closed and nature can get on with the healing process.
Yes, it can be painful when things come up, memories are recalled, and you get clearer about what your problems really are. Sharing this with your therapist is a bit like cleaning up a wound, by shining the light of empathy, curiosity and understanding on it. Things that felt confusing and troubling start to make sense at last. Healing happens.Is therapy or counselling making you feel worse instead of better? Click To Tweet
3. Your therapist has said (or not said) something that left you feeling hurt or angry, and you are anxious about saying anything because you don’t want to hurt your therapist’s feelings.
I have explained in a previous article (read it here) that this is a golden opportunity for some powerful healing work to take place. In a nutshell: talk with your therapist about it!
4. Your therapist has ‘missed’ you (misunderstood or simply not heard something that you were trying to communicate) and you feel anxious about saying anything because you worry that you would be ‘making a fuss about nothing’.
Therapists ‘miss’ their clients more often than they’d like. But they also want to know – really want to know – when this happens. Please tell your therapist! He or she won’t think you’re making a fuss about nothing. Your therapist knows that what upsets us is very individual and is always a sign that we are hurting.
5. The pace of therapy has been too fast and you would like to slow things down and assimilate the work that has been done so far.
Sometimes a client is so ready for the work, and so naturally skilled at diving deeper, that they go very deep very fast. This may be absolutely right for them. But often, they then get to a point where it all starts to feel rather overwhelming. This is where it can be valuable to slow things down and go a bit more gently. If this fits your situation, it’s often important that your therapy doesn’t end at this point, because that could make you feel a bit scared of what’s inside you. Again, talk with your therapist about what’s going on, and see if they have any suggestions.Is your therapy going a bit too fast? Or not fast enough? Click To Tweet
6. Therapy has been going too slowly and you don’t feel you’re progressing as fast as you’d like to.
Definitely a time to talk with your therapist! There are many ways that a good therapist can speed things up and deepen the work. After a few sessions, if you don’t notice any change in the therapist’s methods it might then be time to talk again and/or look elsewhere. It would also be useful to ask the therapist what he or she thinks is happening through your work together. Quite often a client will genuinely not realise the improvements that are being made, and will not feel the value of the work until quite a while later.
7. (In the case of online or phone sessions) difficulties with the technology have meant that a session has felt disjointed and unsatisfactory, and this feels painful.
This is a tricky one. The online experience can work well when the technology is working smoothly, but therapy can feel unsettled and broken when the communication channel isn’t clear. If you’re unhappy with it, the chances are that your therapist is too. If you can resolve the issues through using a different program or getting faster broadband, that’s great. Or, for a while, stick to phone sessions on a landline, which may have a better signal. If it’s possible to meet in person every couple of months (or more frequently) then do that – it could make all the difference.
8. You have a history of ending things abruptly when you feel that there is a problem; and you don’t yet know how to do things differently.
Reflect on how you’ve handled difficulties in the past. Have you tended to quit, and dive straight into the next thing? If so, it’s very likely that you are going to want to do this in therapy too. Our problematic patterns have an annoying habit of playing out in therapy, as well as everywhere else. The great thing is, in therapy we have a chance to notice what’s going on, and find a way to do things differently. These skills can then follow you into the rest of your life. Brilliant!
9. You have started to feel feelings of love, attachment, desire or yearning for your therapist – and this troubles you.
This may sound very odd, but actually this can be a sign that the therapy will be a healing experience for you. Therapists are used to this happening, and many have experienced it from the client end themselves in their own personal therapy. Don’t be afraid to talk with your therapist about it. Although it may feel entirely inter-personal, it’s actually also an intra-personal experience (to do with what’s inside you): you are connecting with a source of energy and creativity within. Welcome it. Be clear that the therapy relationship has well-defined boundaries, and no matter how strong your feelings of desire or love, you will never have any other kind of relationship with your therapist. This knowledge can help you feel safe. Therapists are bound by strict ethical codes never to act on or take advantage of their clients’ erotic feelings. (In the unlikely event that your therapist suggests blurring the boundaries, you are at risk and should speak to their professional organisation).
10. You have started to feel feelings of distrust, hate or fear towards your therapist – and this troubles you.
This is known as the ‘negative transference’. It’s normal, and phases of this are not uncommon in depth or medium-to-long-term psychotherapy. Your therapist knows not to take it personally, and will help you to understand and make sense of it. The mechanisms can be quite complex and take some unravelling, but if you can get through it together and out the other side, there’s a lot of freedom and emotional solidity to be found. [However, if there is actual negligence or failing on the therapist’s part, and you’ve not managed to reach resolution by talking with them about it, then by all means follow your instinct and end the therapy].
11. You are starting to experience thoughts or memories coming up that you would prefer to push down or try to avoid.
It’s natural to want to steer clear of pain. Who could blame you for wanting to avoid such painful stuff? But think about it – you’ve tried pushing this stuff down over the years, and that hasn’t left you feeling okay. Yes, it can be painful. Ask your therapist to teach you some methods for handling anxiety and difficult feelings. And let her/him know when you need to take things slowly. If what’s coming up re-traumatizes you, that’s not going to be therapeutic. There are ways of letting stuff come up in a calibrated, graded fashion that can feel manageable and tolerable.
12. You worry that you are in some way ‘too much’ for your therapist, and that it’s only a matter of time before she gives up on you.
The absolute classic. Has any therapy client not thought this, at one time or another? What I love about this one is that it often comes along with an almost opposite fear: you worry that you are ‘not enough’ as well. It’s normal. Don’t believe it, but do discuss it.
13. You have always believed that you should magically be able to ‘do it yourself’ and the thought of receiving help or support from your therapist feels scary and ‘wrong’.
This one is most often found in people who grew up in a family where there were significant psychological difficulties (such as an alcoholic parent, or a parent who was having affairs, or a family member with an unresolved trauma history). If you grew up having to ‘hold it all together’ because one or both parents were preoccupied with their own troubles, you are likely to have developed a very strong coping style. This got you through life very successfully, but it means that it’s going to be extra hard for you to loosen your ‘walls’ and allow your therapist in to help you. You can do it, but it’s going to feel very scary at times. Stick with the therapy: the benefits can be huge.
14. You are worried that your therapist may be thinking negative thoughts about you, and you don’t dare to ask her directly.
This one is probably well-known to most therapy clients. And you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Dare to talk with your therapist about it! And try to remind yourself, again and again, that your therapist will not be judging you, because (a) she’s seen it all before, and far ‘worse’ cases than you; (b) she is familiar with her own ‘shadow’ and she knows that whatever you’re ashamed of in yourself, she has an equivalent part in herself; (c) she’s trained to know that judgements tell us more about the ‘judger’ than about the ‘judged’; and (d) her training also taught her that judging people in therapy is never helpful.
15. You don’t want to become dependent on your therapist.
In many westernised cultures, we get very anxious about feelings of dependency. There is a cultural notion that everyone should be ‘independent’. But humans as a species evolved to be inter-dependent, not independent. Our brains are hard-wired to need connection. We grow through connections with significant others. If you can allow yourself to let your therapist matter to you, and be one of your ‘significant others’, then you will be able to let yourself grow and flourish, using the relationship as the ‘soil’ you are growing in. And here the plant-growth analogy stops, because this won’t be a life-long thing. In time, you will notice gradually that your feelings are altering, and you don’t feel that same pull and dependency on your therapist any more. You may still want to check in with him or her very occasionally, but the feeling of that will be quite different.
16. You can’t afford it.
Well, yes, therapy can be expensive. But is it really true that you can’t afford it? Think about that. What coping mechanism do you currently tend to use to manage your difficult feelings? Food? Cigarettes? Buying things you don’t need? Alcohol? Through therapy you can discover new inner strengths so you gradually stop needing these other money-sucking (and happiness-sucking) strategies.
And what about the future: what might be the consequences if you don’t work on yourself in therapy? Consider the potential costs of divorce (because you take your unhappiness, anger or anxiety out on your partner), job loss (because your mental health deteriorates), or future help for your children (because your difficulties escalate and affect them)? Thinking about it this way, can you afford not to have therapy?
Okay, I do get it that sometimes somebody really, really, really can’t afford it. You have three options (at least). One, you speak with your therapist and negotiate a lower fee, or less frequent sessions. Two, you find a charity or other service that offers low-cost or free therapy. Three, you take a break from therapy. If you choose option three, make sure you still work really hard on what you can. I think self-help methods related to mindful self-compassion can get you a long way. Christopher Germer, Professor Mark Williams or Dr Kristin Neff are some names to look out for, and you can find free resources from them online, such as audio meditations and Youtube videos.
17. You want to be in therapy, but you feel that the ‘fit’ between you and your therapist isn’t right.
This is an interesting one, and I can’t really give any advice here. You may be absolutely right to follow your sense that you need a different therapist who will ‘spark’ with you in a different way. On the other hand, if you have a pattern in your life of abandoning projects or people when things got a bit sticky or close, then it may be really important for you to work through this one and stay with your therapist. I know for myself, that there were many times over the first year or so, when I seriously considered that my therapist was not a good fit for me. And I’m so, so glad I stayed with her: it was the best investment I ever made.
Not every therapist will be a good fit for you. Different people need different things, and sometimes it’s about the ‘chemistry’ (or what neuroscientists might perhaps call the ‘right-brain to right-brain synchrony’).
Don’t keep it to yourself!
I hope that this article has been helpful and given you some useful things to think about as you wrestle with your decision. And as you’ve probably spotted, one common thread runs throughout: don’t keep it to yourself – talk with your therapist! You will not be wasting time. Talking about these things in therapy is a healing and constructive act in itself. And if your therapist can’t seem to listen, or doesn’t want to discuss the topic of ending, then yes, it may be time to call it a day and find someone more suited to what you need.
Good luck! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. How did you know the time was right/ not right to end your therapy? And do you have any tips for others in this situation?
‘How to Know if I am Done’ – A therapy client who worries that she’s starting to get too attached to her therapist seeks advice from Dr Jeffery Smith.
‘How Do You Know When to Quit Therapy?’ – writer Emma Garland reflects on her decision to quit therapy – and how she changed her mind.
‘Thinking About Cancelling Therapy? Tell Me About It’ – by Laurie Leinwand MA, LPC
Further Reading for Therapists
‘A Structured Approach to Processing Clients’ Unilateral Termination Decisions’ – Judith A. Schaeffer, PH.D. & Erika M. Kaiser , JD, PSY.D.