Therapy Breaks Can Feel Like a Challenge – Or a Relief
Sometimes it feels daunting when there’s a therapy break ahead. Other times, therapy breaks can feel like a much-needed pause.
Either way, therapy breaks – times when either you or your therapist are away – can offer great growth opportunities when handled well.
In this blog post I’m going to unpack some of the things you might think about in regard to a therapy break. And in Part 2, I’ll offer some tips and things you might talk about with your therapist, as well as things to do before and during the break.Therapy breaks: When you or your therapist are away Click To Tweet
There Can Be Many Reasons for Therapy Breaks
It could be because your therapist is going on holiday and having a well-earned rest. Or they may be going on a training to improve and deepen their skills and knowledge (yay!)
Equally, breaks can happen because a therapist is undergoing medical treatment, or has to take time out because of a family crisis.
Therapy breaks also happen, of course, because your own circumstances have changed. Perhaps you have to spend time elsewhere temporarily, whether because of work, holidays, family issues, etc. (Although in many cases, your therapist may offer the option of online therapy or phone sessions).
Side Note: It’s strange, but even when you are the one to require the therapy break (whether because you’re going on holiday, or for some other reason) you may still find yourself feeling angry at your therapist, and let down by him/her! Our unconscious mind tends to like consistency in attachments, and may well interpret a break as a failure of your therapist, even when your conscious brain knows full well that you were the one to require the break.
Positive – and Negative
Sometimes a therapy break can feel like a relief, a chance to slow down the hard work of self-discovery and change, and focus more on putting your new learnings into practice. It may feel exhilarating, like you’ve been learning to ride a bike and now the training wheels have been removed and you can venture out on your own, wobbling but getting more and more confident.
However at other times it might be daunting for you as a therapy client to know that for a while you’re going to have to manage your therapist’s absence. You may not feel ready to go it alone. It may feel scary and overwhelming and you may wonder how you’ll cope without the structure and containment of your regular weekly session.
The Known and the Unknown
If your therapist is planning a holiday or going on a training, you will know the date when you can expect to see him or her next.
Other times it will be less clear, and your therapist won’t be able to precisely predict when therapy can resume. This may happen when there are hard-to-foresee things like your therapist’s return to health after an operation or illness, how things are going with their family commitments, or their recovery from a personal loss. (Because of course, therapists are like everyone else: we too can suffer bereavements, illnesses, or having to care for a sick relative, etc).
Make Sure You Talk
One thing is certain: Breaks in therapy are significant. This may especially apply if your therapist is working in an attachment-oriented and trauma-informed way.
And in therapy, significant things are best talked about.
If you know about the break in advance, make sure you allow yourself to tune into your feelings and thoughts about it. If you sense that you do have feelings about the break, don’t try and pretend to yourself that it’s not happening, or that it doesn’t matter. And try to talk as honestly as possible with your therapist about it all.
This way, the break itself (or more accurately, processing the break) can become a valuable part of your healing and growing in therapy.Processing breaks in therapy can be a valuable part of the work. Click To Tweet
Because let’s face it – in what other relationship can you have a really heartfelt, honest conversation about all the mixed feelings you may have towards the other person (including love, dependency, hate and anger)? Daring to feel and express everything, and being heard and responded to from a non-defensive position, can be incredibly healing.
Initially, I felt a bit abandoned – “How dare they have a life outside the therapy room”. After sharing this thought with [my therapist] and exploring what it meant for me I don’t have such a strong reaction. Sometimes I’m even glad of the break.” [Quoted by Alison Crosthwait]
Tempted to Miss a Session?
It’s not uncommon for therapy clients to skip a session just before a therapy break. Your conscious reasons for missing your session (or wanting to) often seem sensible and grounded in practicalities. But skipping a session before a break is often linked to something deeper too. Maybe you’ve been feeling annoyed with your therapist and unconsciously wanting to deprive or punish him/her.
Therapist Joseph Burgo explains: “Clients often begin to express doubts about the value of therapy just before a therapist’s vacation, or they come back for their first session afterward doubtful that they want to continue. “I’m not sure what I’m getting out of it,” she might say, even though she felt clear about the value a few weeks earlier. It’s a typical response to dependency and feelings of abandonment: I didn’t miss you at all. Why should I? You give me nothing of value anyway.”
I recommend that you make every effort to attend all the sessions in the run-up to the therapy break, so you can know you are facing things head-on and doing the work you came to do, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Is it Okay to Reach Out to Your Therapist During a Break?
It may – or may not – be possible, appropriate or helpful to reach out to your therapist during a break. Ideally the two of you will have been able to have a conversation about that before the break.
Different therapists have different boundaries and expectations. However these may change depending on circumstances. For example, Anna, a therapist in Essex, was fine with occasional contact with her client Lee when she went away on holiday. But when her mum experienced a sudden acute health crisis and Anna had to rush down to Devon for a week, she really didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be in contact with her clients. Luckily, Lee understood, and he and Anna were able to have a productive, honest conversation about this in their session following the break.Is it okay to reach out to your therapist during a therapy break? Click To Tweet
There may be times during a therapy break when you really, really miss your therapist. When you urgently want to connect, and to let him/her know how you’re feeling or what you’re going through.
Texting may seem a good option. But of course the emotions you are feeling, and the detailed stories of what’s going on in your life, are too big and complicated to belong in a text. And although text therapy is a ‘thing’, it won’t apply to you unless you and your therapist have a particular agreement. (And anyway, even in text-based therapies, therapists have breaks!)
One Low-Key Way of Reaching Out: the ‘Dots’ Text
The ‘dots text’ could be worth considering. With this arrangement in place, the client sends the therapist a text consisting simply of three or four dots; and the therapist at some point text some dots back. These dots represent connection and reaching out, as if to say “I am here, thinking of you; are you there?” No other words or emojis are used.
Of course, the dots text, just like any other text, requires that you can tolerate waiting. After hours or on a weekend, or if your therapist simply doesn’t check their phone for a long while, you may have to be prepared to wait a few hours, or until the next day.
Note: It’s crucial that you talk this through with your therapist ahead of time, so you’re both in agreement and have discussed potential difficulties, limits, etc.
Not all therapists favour contact during therapy breaks, even minimal contact like a dots text. Many therapists prefer to keep all interactions between the two of you ‘in the room’. So no emails, no texts, no phone calls. This doesn’t mean your therapist doesn’t care about you, or has forgotten you. In many cases, sticking to boundaries like this can be part of what makes therapy effective. And effective therapy is definitely what you want, in the long run.The 'dots' text: one way to help manage a therapy break #therapybreak Click To Tweet
On the Plus Side…
Therapy breaks certainly aren’t all bad! They can be a great chance to practise and reconsolidate the skills you’ve been learning in sessions. It can feel exciting to ‘fly solo’ for a bit, and gather experiences that you can report on to your therapist after the break.
In the therapy break, you get plenty of chances to work on developing your inner wise protector and guide. This is always a work in progress, and you’ll probably notice that it may seem like you take two steps forward, one step back (and sometimes, one step forward followed by two steps back).
Notice moments when you are behaving lovingly and wisely towards yourself, and moments when you are aware of your heartfelt intention to be a kind inner guide to yourself, even if it feels hard or out of reach.
Breaks Can Show Us How We’re Growing and Changing
Here’s a tweet from Clara Bridges, who blogs about her experience as a client in long-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Here Clara illustrates a seemingly small but actually quite profound shift in her psychological healing journey:
Tips for Handling a Therapy Break
In Part 2, I’m going to offer some tips that may help you manage therapy breaks as well as possible. I’ve divided them into three categories:
- Things you can plan for in the run-up to the therapy break
- Things you might do in your last session(s) before the therapy break
- Ways you can help yourself during the therapy break
One Last Very Important Point to Keep in Mind
And lastly, a reminder. If your therapist didn’t take breaks, he/she would eventually become burnt out and thus emotionally unavailable to you. Not what you’d want, really!
What’s your experience? And do you have any tips or perspectives to share?
Whether you’re a therapist or a therapy client (or both) please share your thoughts about therapy breaks, and any helpful suggestions, in the comments below.
And if you’re a thoughtful, sensitive person, I offer therapy in north Essex (CO7) and also online. Short-term and long-term psychotherapy and counselling available. For more details, see my therapy page. I also offer clinical supervision to psychotherapists and counsellors in Essex and online.
Joseph Burgo, Vacation Breaks in Psychotherapy and Defences Against Need
Jacqui Bingham says
I like the idea of the Dot Text.
My Therapist has gone on holiday for 3 weeks. I was on holiday for 2 weeks before she went. We seen each other for a week (2 sessions) in between this. So in 6 weeks we have missed 5 weeks. I have 2 sessions a week. I have being seeing my therapist for 6 month, I tried a counsellor before her she is a whole new story. I have panic attacks and various history i find it hard to trust people and open up honestly. It took a while but I finially clicked with my therapist. This time apart has felt impossible. I really think therapists should give you back up therapist for when they are on holiday.
Emma Cameron says
Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa. It’s hard when holidays don’t align! In an ideal world, clients would be able to co-ordinate their holidays with their therapists, if required. And (as I guess you found) real-life restrictions mean that that’s not always possible. I hope you find ways of supporting yourself during the break.
My therapist has had to discontinue therapy while they have treatment and her return day is unknown/uncertain. I have not at any point in the past thought about the attachment I have to her and this event and this blog is making me cry right now because I am thinking about the relationship we have. In my mind it has always been “professional” but in reality we do care for each other. I decided not to have a final therapy session because I knew she needed time to adjust to her situation. The last session did have was an outpouring of concern for her and a setting aside of my feelings. I moved immediately to find another therapist and after two sessions can see that this was mistake and that is because I have such a deep relationship with my long term therapist. This has all happened at a reality hard time for me. This blog has been really helpful and I will now take time to think about the relationship we have built up.
Emma Cameron says
That sounds like a difficult situation, Vicky. Thank you for sharing.
my therapist prepares me for the break.. i find my questioning the value and really worry about starting all over again in building the connections when they return. I miss her or the connection we have i feel silly for it. She says if of course I ever really need to get in contact then i can… i think she trusts i would never do that lightly as I respect her need to rest and the boundaries but does she mean it or is she just being polite?
Emma Cameron says
Sounds like both you and your therapist recognise the powerful impact that breaks – and attachment-related issues around breaks – can have.
My therapist doesn’t communicate well. I found out after my session she would not see me next week then she said maybe tell health. I hate being left on a hook, maybe maybe not. I get a email yes. But no text. I usually get both to confirm. Is it wrong to be left hanging. This really bothers me.
Emma Cameron says
Hopefully this is something that you’ll be able to talk through with your therapist.
My last therapist charged me when I was on holiday ( he hires a room and can’t see anyone in that time was his rationale ) is this common ? I want to go back to him to start working again but am put off by this .
Emma Cameron says
It’s not uncommon, and therapists will normally put it in the initial client agreement so that clients are aware from the start that this is their policy. And of course clients will have feelings about it!
Feelings about issues to do with ‘the therapeutic frame’ (stuff like fees, venue, timing of sessions, etc) are great to work on in therapy, and they may well reflect other stuff that happens in your life. For many clients, it can be fantastically helpful – and new – to be able to process their genuine feelings (of anger, or hurt, or whatever) with their therapist, without getting the expected response of collapse or retaliation. So by all means, go ahead and tell your therapist how you feel about his fee – hopefully he’ll be able to process it with you in a way that gives you a liberating new experience of being able to have your anger and/or hurt truly heard, but not necessarily given-in to. It could bring the two of you closer, to feel that you can be allies at the same time as having differences of opinion.
Dr Matt Campbell says
It’s not okay that your therapist charges you when they are away n vacation. In fact it’s unethical.
Emma Cameron says
I completely agree, Matt, that therapists shouldn’t charge clients when it’s the therapist who is on vacation – and thankfully, I am not aware of any therapist who does.
As for clients’ vacations, therapists should have it clear in their client contract (right from the start of therapy) as to whether cancellations and vacations will be chargeable or not. In my experience it seems that most therapists tend to be very clear (and human) about this, and most have a policy of not charging for a vacation when plenty of notice has been given.
I feel like i cannot talk to my therapist honestly at all, because i’m just too scared.
Since i’ve started therapy i’ve had one 8 week break and now one 12 week break.
i’m very uncomfortable with that and feel like it’s been greatly harming the whole therapy process, but i’m always too scared to speak up and say that i don’t feel comfortable with the break.
what should i do if i’m too scared to speak up?
Emma Cameron says
Hi Alina, one thing that might help is to hold in mind that it’s just a part of you who is scared – but it’s not all of you. Part of you (the part that wrote this) is clear that she feels uncomfortable about things as they are. Maybe that part of you can help the scared part, perhaps by speaking up or even putting things in writing to your therapist. There might be ways to make the breaks more manageable.