How to break up with your therapist once you realize it's time to move on
Let’s say you’ve let someone important into your life for a few weeks, months, or even years. They know all of your deepest, darkest secrets. They’ve seen you cry and laugh and they’ve helped you get through some seriously rough patches. But, whether you’re not getting anything out of the relationship anymore and it’s time to be with someone new or your time together has simply run out, breaking up can be hard to do — especially when you’re ending things with your therapist.
Deciding to stop seeing your therapist can be a difficult decision to make. It’s also one that can feel awkward when it’s time to actually have the talk with them. After all, if you’re in therapy, there’s a chance you may already have issues with expressing your feelings, handling interpersonal relationships, and/or codependency.
So, how do you know when it’s time to end things with a therapist, figure out what to say, and determine when to say it to them? We spoke to three therapists on this very subject.
How to tell it's time to move on
Some signs that it may be time to end things with your therapist include experiencing boredom during appointments, getting into conflicts over how to navigate your goals, having different values in general, or not feeling like your issues are being adequately addressed, according to Dr. Colleen Fagan, a Kansas-city based clinical psychologist.
As someone who has had switched therapists before, I can understand this. While I had a good rapport with my therapist I saw in my early 30s, and she would listen and let me vent, I felt like I didn’t make enough progress in processing all of my feelings. I needed more goal-setting and homework (like keeping a journal), and eventually I found that with another therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy.
Alternately, Dr. Fagan says another reason you may be ready to walk away from your current therapist is because “you feel you have met your goals and addressed or resolved your problems that brought you to therapy [in the first place].”
If you are starting to get the itch to move on from your therapist, Dr. Fagan suggests making a pro-and-con list in regards to ending therapy and thoroughly thinking through your decision. For instance, ask yourself — has this been a long-ruminating problem? Or, did you simply have one or two sessions that left a bad taste in your mouth — perhaps the therapist presented you with some challenging inner work that made you uncomfortable, or made a comment you didn't totally agree with?
Whatever the reasons are that are causing you to think about calling it quits, it’s an important conversation to have with yourself before deciding to end therapy.
How to have "the talk"
Whatever the reason you’ve decided to stop seeing your therapist, you should make an appointment to see them at least one more time and have that conversation in person, says San Diego-based marriage and family therapist Cory Anderson. This can be especially important because you may be able to reconcile the issues you’re having and continue working together in some circumstances. “Addressing and working through these issues in therapy could be beneficial and healing,” says Dr. Fagan.
But even if it’s a matter of feeling like you’ve gotten all you can out of therapy, having that conversation is still important. While it may be difficult for you, the experts agree it’s probably better than ghosting.
When you do meet in person, Anderson says that you can either tell them that you're leaving at the beginning of the session or the end; Ultimately, it’s about what makes you the most comfortable. “The main concern is that you want to leave enough time in the session to process this and say your goodbyes,” he says.
If you’re struggling with exactly what to say during your farewell, especially if you have anxiety about expressing your feelings, Anderson suggests you can start with something like, “It’s really hard for me to say this, but ...” or “I’m having a lot of anxiety even bringing this up.” From there you can explain your reasons for concluding therapy.
However, if you feel like you can only do it by phone or email, or even if you do ghost, a decent therapist will be understanding of the variety of circumstances that may have caused the break-up to happen.
“We, as therapists, ultimately respect and know it’s the client’s decision and choice to discontinue therapy and to convey this in whatever way they feel most comfortable,” says Dr. Fagan. “It’s ultimately a professional relationship, not a personal one... if a client feels that more harm than good would come from contacting the therapist, then it’s understandable to not communicate with them.”
A thoughtful therapist will also want to have the conversation about you moving on “because we are invested in your forward progress and safety,” says North Carolina-based psychotherapist Dr. Holly Cox. “We are healthcare providers, so we are very invested in making sure that you have the resources you need to take good care of your mental health.”
She notes that this can include medication prescriptions, referrals to other therapists (if that’s what you want), and other helpful resources to help you with your ongoing progress. “We want to know that if we have concerns about your safety or well-being, those conversations have been had robustly, and plans are in place to keep you well,” Dr. Cox says.
Why ending therapy can be crucial to your emotional growth
As awkward or even uncomfortable as it may be, having that farewell conversation with your therapist can end an important chapter in your life and allow you to transition to the next, giving you closure.
“Ending therapy is an opportunity to learn how to say goodbye and cope with endings which are an inevitable part of life,” says Dr. Fagan. “After all, therapy serves as a microcosm of all that happens in our lives, outside of the therapy room.”
If you’re leaving on good terms, you can thank the therapist for their help, discuss all the progress you’ve made, and tell them all the things you learned in therapy that you plan to use throughout your life. “It's important for people to know that they should not at all be worried about hurting our feelings if you are considering terminating care. The therapeutic relationship is about the client's preferences, benefit and progress,” says Dr. Cox.
Cox says that a responsible therapist will handle a termination with “grace, kindness and honesty about any concerns s/he has about that client's well-being and safety” and that they understand the courage it takes to be honest in every part of your life. Now, if only all breakups could come with that level of understanding.