How to Break Up With Your Therapist

Editor
iStock

Once, I had a therapist who I felt wasn’t a good fit for me. She would repeat the same simple anecdotes and generic pieces of advice from session to session, frequently meander off topic to discuss the fun things she did the previous weekend, and make dismissive comments. I felt like it was time to break up.

The problem? I didn’t exactly go about it in the way I should have.

I never voiced my concerns directly with my therapist. I feared hurting her feelings or coming off as rude and defiant, so instead I just nodded along awkwardly much of the time, even when I disagreed with what she was saying or found multiple sessions unhelpful. I wasn’t being an active partner in my own care.

And instead of having a real discussion with her about why I wanted to stop my sessions, I cowardly called her when I knew she was out of town and left a white-lie-laced break-up message on her voicemail, hoping she would accept it and never call me back (my wish was granted). Not my finest hour.

I’ve learned since then the importance of terminating therapy the right way. Here are three key things to keep in mind, according to professionals, in order to break up with your therapist in a productive and respectful manner.

1. First, discuss your concerns with your therapist

If you’re not getting what you want out of your therapy sessions, consider having a frank conversation with your therapist about your concerns before deciding to stop seeing them altogether. It may be possible to get back on the same page and move forward as a team.

“If you have a concern, it’s important to raise this with your therapist before finding a new one,” says Erin K. Engle, Psy.D., clinical director in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. “Therapy offers a corrective space that invites us to be curious, take different perspectives, experiment with new behaviors, and approach difficulties in relationships differently than we typically might. A therapist who is professional and genuinely concerned about your experience in treatment will make an effort to hear your concern and try to remedy it.”

2. Your therapist shouldn’t be offended

It’s natural to feel nervous or worried that you will hurt your therapist’s feelings by bringing up your concerns, but know that therapists fully expect to have these conversations now and again.

“It’s difficult to give others feedback that they may perceive critically or that may be perceived as causing conflict in a relationship,” Dr. Engle tells HealthCentral. “However, a therapist who is professional, respectful, and genuine in their intention to be helpful would certainly be willing to hear their patients’ concerns and would want to create space for related feelings as they would any other issues addressed in therapy.”

And just because a therapist isn’t a good fit for you personally, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a “bad therapist” or a poor fit for everyone.

“Even the most accomplished, senior, and respected therapists have clients who express the need to ‘move on’ or switch therapists,” says Tamara Goldman Sher, Ph.D., a clinical professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “In fact, if therapy isn’t progressing, it is the ethical responsibility of the therapist to discuss this with their client and offer to refer the client to somebody else.”

3. Be direct with your therapist

Just as it’s your therapist’s duty to be open to your feedback, it’s also your responsibility to voice your concerns with your therapist.

Not sure what to say? Dr. Sher suggests this simple script: “I am finding that therapy is no longer working for me like it once did. While I appreciate the work we have done together, I would like a change to see if another therapist might come at these issues from a different perspective.”

"If therapy isn’t progressing, it is the ethical responsibility of the therapist to discuss this with their client and offer to refer the client to somebody else." —Tamara Goldman Sher, Ph.D.

Try to have these conversations in person, Dr. Sher says, rather than over the phone, or worse — simply “ghosting” your therapist and disappearing without explanation.

“[By discussing this in person], the therapist can responsibly terminate the therapeutic relationship in a way that provides a good transition to another therapist,” says Dr. Sher.

Dr. Engle’s advice? Address your therapist in the way you would want to be addressed in their situation.

“This is important not only for the therapist to understand more about the patient’s perspective or related lack of fit, but [also] for the patient to be able to practice addressing their thoughts and feelings directly with their therapist, as this may also empower them to have more open and productive conversations with other key relationships in their personal or professional life.”

What if your therapist is a good fit, but you’re wondering about stopping treatment?

The same general rules apply when stopping treatment with your therapist, even when the reason is that you feel you’ve reached a place where you no longer need treatment, rather than you want to seek a different therapist who is a better fit.

“[Therapy] termination often is not abrupt but a process whereby the client decreases the frequency of their sessions from once a week, to once every other week, to once a month, to ‘as needed,’” Dr. Sher tells HealthCentral.

But how do you know you no longer need therapy as regularly? Here are three signs to watch for.

Three signs it’s time to end treatment

1. You’re feeling better

Have you noticed significant relief from your symptoms and quality of life? Are you feeling less stressed? Has your mood improved consistently? It may be time to move on. Keyword: May.

“After psychotherapy, research shows that changes in the brain occur [that] mimic the changes resulting from medications,” Dr. Engle says. “As with any lifestyle change, psychotherapy works by promoting healthy coping and self-care strategies, increased self-awareness and monitoring of behavior, and new ways of thinking and behaving that lead to meaningful life and relationship changes."

That said, just because you’ve seen improvement, that doesn’t always mean you should stop therapy. Even if you’re feeling better, you may still be able to benefit from therapy.

“Effective therapy also promotes an individual’s competency and independence,” says Dr. Engle. “Patients don’t always feel fully comfortable or ready to move on, even when they are ready.”

A good therapist will see signs that you may be ready to move on, as well, and initiate these conversations.

2. You were making progress before, but now you’ve reached a plateau

Do you head into your sessions frantically searching your brain for things to talk about, or find you and your therapist are chit-chatting about unrelated topics for much of the session? It could be time to move on.

“One broad indicator that it is time to move on from therapy is that there is little to say to your therapist or address in session,” says Dr. Engle. “Usually having little content to discuss, explore, or focus on changing is an indicator that you may be ready to move on. An effective therapist will also help the patient to identify their progress over time and encourage less frequent meetings over time if they feel they patient is making good progress.”

3. You’re regularly using what you learned in therapy in daily life

The goals of psychotherapy include “learning new skills that will help you see yourself and the world differently,” learning “how to distinguish between situations you can change and those you can’t,” and learning “how to focus on improving the things within your control,” according to the American Psychological Association. You should also learn emotional resilience to help you better cope in the future should new challenges inevitably arise.

“If a client can answer the question, ‘What would my therapist say in this situation?’ they are ready to terminate or decrease the frequency of therapy,” says Dr. Sher. “They should also know when to contact the therapist again, should old concerns or patterns or habits re-emerge.”

The bottom line on stopping therapy

It’s normal to be unsure or nervous about deciding to stop seeing your therapist, especially when the reason is they aren’t a good fit for you and you want to find someone new. But know that therapists who truly have your best interests at heart will expect and encourage conversations about the progress of your sessions and will be open and flexible when you raise concerns.

If you’re stopping therapy because you feel you are ready to move on independently, know that you can always resume your sessions.

“[A patient] should feel comfortable […] in reaching out to their therapist for some ‘booster’ sessions or to re-engage,” says Dr. Sher. “Some clients use their therapist as one tool they have for coping. Therefore, they might reach out during a crisis time or upon the re-emergence of symptoms.”

Maintaining good mental health is a lifelong process, full of ups and downs. Therapy is always an option when you feel you need extra support.

Not quite ready to break up with your therapist, but still not sure if they are a good fit or not? Here are the signs that your therapist is a poor match, according to experts.