At the end of every session, my therapist — who I’ll call “Christine” — would propose a date for our next appointment, usually about a month out. We engaged in this scheduling ritual for nearly half a decade. And then, a little more than a year ago, she gave me a choice: I could set a date for the following month, or just let her know when I was ready to see her again.
Is she trying to break up with me? I wondered. A combination of anxiety and anticipatory grief set in — honestly, not unlike what I’d felt in a prelude to a recent breakup. I guess I should’ve seen this coming. For the past few months, I’d found us running out of stuff to talk about well before the end of each session. In our last session, Christine had said she was proud she of how far I’d come since I initially reached out to her, a bundle of anxiety, imploding in the face of her emotions.
I scheduled a session for the following month, at the end of which Christine, again, gave me the option of calling her when I needed her. If she believes I’m ready to see her less often, maybe I should, too, I thought. I took her up on her offer and began seeing her on an as-needed basis.
Arriving at this point might seem like a mystical ascendance of sorts, but like I said, it didn’t come out of nowhere. There are often signs that your time with your therapist is drawing to a close, or that you’re ready to see each other less often. Here’s how to tell whether it’s time to spread your wings and apply the lessons you learned in therapy on your own — and how to navigate the complicated feelings that might arise along the way.
You notice positive changes in your thought patterns and behaviors
If you can identify your thought patterns and behaviors without your therapist’s support, then you might be ready to see them less frequently, Nobrega tells me. She adds that this is especially true if you can also change those thought patterns and behaviors. In other words, you can consistently access the coping skills and tools you learned in therapy on your own.
Maybe, like me, you can now recognize and challenge all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, and other cognitive distortions. Nobrega offered the example of becoming aware that you engage in people pleasing and learning to set boundaries without feeling guilty or ashamed.
You can sit with discomfort
Being ready to lessen or end therapy doesn’t necessarily mean your symptoms have “disappeared,” which Nobrega notes isn't the case for most people. Instead, she explains, they learn to manage their symptoms and sit with the discomfort their negative feelings might bring up. “When you notice you can become more comfortable with being uncomfortable… I think that is also a sign that you’re making progress in therapy,” she says. It might be time to consider switching to biweekly appointments if you see your therapist weekly, for instance, or monthly appointments if you see them biweekly.
Your therapist reflects your progress back to you
Usually, you and your therapist will set up a treatment plan and goals within your first few sessions, Nobrega says, and they’ll periodically check in with you about them. Since you might not be aware of the progress you’ve made, they can play a key role in updating you about the progress they’ve seen, with specific examples. Nobrega usually does this with her clients at around the three-month mark, or earlier if they seem to be making swift progress. But if she notices them struggling, they’ll re-evaluate whether those goals are realistic.
All of this is to say that if your therapist checks in with you about your goals, evaluates where they think you are in terms of reaching them, and asks how you’re feeling, “that could be a sign that they’re thinking it’s time to change up the cadence,” Nobrega says. If they point out your progress, then it might mean you’re ready to start seeing them less frequently.
You run out of things to talk about
Like I mentioned earlier, at some point, I started drawing blanks about what to talk about during my sessions with Christine shortly before I shifted to seeing her only as needed. Nobrega says “that might be happening on the other end, too" — that is, your therapist’s silence might indicate that they think you’ve already met your goals.
That doesn’t mean you need to end therapy altogether per se, but rather, that you may want to consider working on other issues with another therapist who has a different area of expertise, says Nobrega, who’s worked with multiple therapists throughout her life.
How to deal
When you and your therapist agree that you’re ready to “graduate,” you might work together to come up with a termination plan, which basically sets an end date for your time together, Nobrega explains. That might look like meeting with your therapist for, say, another month, or two or three more sessions.
While you might feel pride in your growth, Nobrega notes, you might also experience sadness or grief over no longer seeing your therapist, or seeing them less often, which is totally normal. “Even though it’s a professional relationship, it’s also someone who you’ve been really vulnerable with,” she says. “Maybe you’ve shared more in therapy than you’ve shared with your friends and family.”
This transition might also trigger emotions related to past experiences when you didn’t receive closure, for example, or lost someone without having much say in the matter, Nobrega explains. In my case, I immediately spun into the headspace I occupied when someone I dated years ago started to pull the slow fade — a contributor to the anxiety that led me to my therapist.
Remember that as the client, you are ultimately in control of how, when, and if you say goodbye, Nobrega says. Ideally, your therapist will validate that you’re ready to see them less often, reminding you of the times you’ve managed whatever you’ve been working on without their support. But although trusting your therapist when they say you’re ready is important, Nobrega notes, so is advocating for what you need if you’re not ready for things to taper off.
Even if it might seem a little meta, Nobrega suggests turning to your therapist for help with the complicated feelings that might surface from lessening or ending your time with them. You can apply journaling, mindfulness, or other coping skills you learned in therapy to this situation, too.
And while the word "termination" doesn't make it easy, seeing the process less as a “goodbye forever” and more as a “see you later" can also help. As Nobrega points out, you can always go back to your therapist if you need to. “I think something that I’ve found to be helpful with clients when they’re ending therapy is always leaving the door open if something comes up, and they wanted to return to therapy, of course, as long as the therapist has availability,” she says.
Christine and I didn’t come up with a termination plan, but instead switched to an open-door policy like this one, which I appreciated because it empowered me to chart the course of my therapy as I saw fit. If I needed her, I could call her.
Plot twist: Amid the uptick in anti-Asian violence, pandemic, and various life circumstances, I have needed her more often lately. After not seeing her regularly in about a year, I recently went back to seeing her (virtually) once a month for the time being. And I know I’ll feel comfortable asking her if we can shift to less frequent sessions, once I’m ready.
Finally, Nobrega cautions against falling prey to the comparison trap. Don't deem your therapy journey too long or too short based on the amount of time others have spent in therapy. “That timeline is really unique to everybody,” she says.
Congratulate yourself for making this far, she notes, but hold space for the less-than-glowing feelings it can trigger. If I’ve learned anything from therapy, it’s that I can feel multiple emotions at once, and that even though change scares me, that doesn’t mean I’m not ready for it.
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