Ending Therapy: A How-To Guide
Recently, I said goodbye to a few beloved clients. It was bittersweet! I’m so happy that they’ve accomplished their goals in our work, and the reality is we also had lovely relationships. During a really shitty time in the world, nonetheless.
Whenever clients leave it gets me thinking about how confusing the end of therapy can be. Because clients are usually like “uhhh…soooo….how do we do this?”
Part of our job as therapists is to talk with you about ending therapy way before it happens. Like during the first session. But, the truth is that doesn’t always happen. We’re building rapport, and trying to help you feel comfortable with us in the therapy space, and there’s just so much to explore. Especially if you're in crisis state when you first start. And other times, when people have been been working with a therapist for a while, the conversation is forgotten after some time.
So, for if and when you feel like you’re ready to part ways with your therapist, here are some pointers to make the process a little more smooth.
The safety disclaimer
There are times when leaving therapy is a matter of safety - whether physical, emotional, or otherwise. Mostly therapists are good people. But, we are people, and that means we’re capable of inflicting harm and making people feel unsafe. The truth is there’s a power dynamic. I know myself and many of my colleagues work hard to manage that dynamic so that our clients feel empowered to make choices about their treatment. But, if you feel your therapist has violated your boundaries or used the power dynamic in a manipulative way it’s OK to peace the fuck out and find someone else who can help you process that experience and decide what’s next.
Prepare for ending therapy
Try to notice when sessions aren’t feeling as necessary. When you start to feel like “I don’t know what to talk about this week,” bring that up with your therapist. The goal is not for you to be in therapy all the time, forever. The two of you can discuss if you need to specify your goals, want to work on other goals, or if it’s time to end therapy. If you want to end with your therapist, it could be that you’ve accomplished your goals and you’re ready to live your best life, or it could be that it’s time to find a different kind of therapist who specializes in something else.
Close intentionally. Closure isn’t something we often get in other areas of our lives. Relationships ending often happens without warning or in response to some sort of conflict. So it can really be quite transformative to intentionally close a relationship, and to be doing so for good reasons - you accomplished your goals! This was a nice perspective a supervisor of mine shared with me early in my career. You can use your last session to reflect on what worked, how you grew, what you’re hoping for in the future, and how you’ll know if and when it’s time to come back to therapy.
When I reached out to some colleagues to get their take on this blog, Oumou Sylla highlighted that our therapeutic relationships are ones we get to grieve and get to co-create the end of. I appreciated her wording and what it allows for.
My colleague Emily Hill of Deconstructing Feelings mentioned that the last session is an opportunity to help clients brainstorm any resources, additional therapies, or community resources that might help the them transition out of therapy. Great point!
A friend and potential future therapist Kate Balzer also pointed out that last sessions can be good to get clarification on if, how, or when to stay in contact with your therapist. Can I call you if I need you? Is it appropriate to send you life updates like when I graduate college or have a baby? (I love getting catch-up emails from old clients, personally).
Share your needs
If you need to end for financial reasons, let your therapist know. I’ve had long-term clients email me to say they have to end for financial reasons effective immediately. In some cases, particularly depending on the nature and the depth of the work, I’ve learned it’s important to offer that closure and I’ve sometimes decided to be more flexible with if, or even just how soon, I need the last session's payment just so we can meet once more.
Same goes for scheduling issues - ask your therapist if they'd be willing to meet with you once more at a time that works for both of you.
It’s not goodbye forever
Remember that ending therapy doesn’t have to be goodbye forever. You can always go back to therapy. Therapist Nicole Peterson emphasized that you can still find ways to honor this chapter of work even if you are “pausing” for now.
Now, you might not be able to get in immediately if your therapist has a waitlist, but as long as they feel like they continue to be a good fit for you I’m sure they’d love to see an old face! I love meeting new clients, but it can kind of feel like dating! When old clients have come back, it often feels like home. I will make room for old clients in my schedule whenever I can.
You matter to your therapist
You matter to us! And we want ending therapy to be as meaningful as beginning therapy. I hope these tips helped and would love to hear from you - what made ending therapy in the past a good or not-so-good experience?