Congratulations! When you decided to enter therapy, whether to treat a bout of depression, boost your self-esteem, or increase your capacity for intimacy, you took a huge step toward greater mental wellness and self-care. But just as starting a relationship with a therapist may seem challenging, deciding when it’s time to end that relationship may seem even harder. The good news is that breaking up with your therapist can yield positive long-lasting results and be an emotionally rewarding experience, if done at the right time and for the right reasons. To figure out when and how to do it, consider the following.
How To Recognize When It’s Time to End Therapy
Take a look at the questions below to help you clarify your thinking and feelings about whether it’s time to end therapy. Keep in mind that this is a guide and not a rulebook. Answering “yes” to any of these questions doesn’t mean you have to end therapy. And, you can certainly choose to end therapy without answering “yes” to any of the questions. Ultimately, it’s your decision.
1. Does your therapist get you?
You can usually tell, even from the first several sessions, whether you feel a connection with your therapist. Do you feel comfortable, supported, and heard? If not, try to identify why. Maybe the therapist seems like they are judging you. Or makes light of your concerns. Or perhaps there are cross-cultural or other differences that make you feel unseen, misunderstood, or even frustrated. Experts have studied this as well. For example, R., a woman of mixed race, noted that her therapist demonstrated “book-learned” rather than emotional understanding of what she experienced. Similarly, J., a Black man working with a white female therapist found that because the therapist only had “secondhand knowledge” of the African American community, “it was difficult for her to truly understand what I was talking about and the true level of value that I thought that it deserved.”
In short, if you feel that your therapist doesn’t share certain major aspects of your identity or doesn’t demonstrate particular sensitivity to who you are and where you’re coming from, then start looking for someone else.
2. Have you achieved your goals?
Ideally, you and your therapist articulated your goals from the first session and have continued to assess your progress throughout your time together. "I believe that all treatment should be goal-directed," says Alma provider Zachary Alti, LCSW. "Therapy can be an impactful experience, client-chosen direction for this impact is critical. When clients have trouble developing their goals I like to ask the prompt, ‘How would your life look different after successful therapy?’”
Once you’ve done this, you should be able to realize what you have accomplished and gained from the therapy and whether it is time to end. For example, if you began therapy to get over your fear of driving and can now navigate highways without anxiety, you may no longer need regular support for this problem. Alternatively, if you set out to work on a more general goal, such as reducing social anxiety, you may feel as if you need to continue to learn more strategies to forge better relationships with your neighbors or coworkers or to make small talk at a party. But if you feel like you’ve gotten all you need from therapy or from a particular therapist, you may want to see how you do back on your own.
3. Do you feel stuck?
Your therapist is nice, but doesn’t give you much guidance on say, how to re-establish your broken relationship with your brother. You want practical advice along with empathy, but find that you walk out of each session feeling just as burdened as when you first walk in. Or maybe the therapist doesn’t have the specific skills you need to address your problem, such as training in alcohol or drug dependency, or sexual abuse. Although your first thought may be to cut ties and run, recognize that you have agency in this relationship—your therapy is for you—and tell them what you need. You might say that while you appreciate their attentive listening, you need to discuss specific ideas or strategies for handling holidays or family events. And if you generally want more two-way interaction during a session, let the therapist know. Depending on their reaction—receptive, defensive, interested or impassive—you can then decide whether to continue working with them or to look elsewhere.
4. Is your gut telling you it’s time to move on?
Trust and safety are essential to a successful client-therapist relationship. And if you don’t feel safe confiding in your therapist, or experience clear red flags such as feeling criticized, diminished, exploited, or the object of sexual advances, you need to get out of this relationship as soon as possible. But even with a decent and competent and highly recommended therapist, your gut may be telling you that something is not right. Maybe this therapist doesn’t have the right skills to help you with your OCD or can’t see you as often as you want. Perhaps they were helpful to you at first in providing guidance on parenting, but then started dispensing non-standard medical advice or tried to impose their political or religious beliefs. Trust yourself. If your gut is telling you that you’re not getting or no longer getting what you need from your therapist, you should let them know that you’re moving on and why.
“I believe one of the most important relationships we have is between client and therapist,” says Alma clinician Amaranta Henriquez, LMHC. “I always let clients know that by our third session, we will develop a treatment plan together and discuss how our therapeutic relationship is going. On my end as the clinician, I take note if there is anything outside of my scope of practice that is in the treatment plan; if so, I recommend a different therapist. On the client’s end, I probe them about their comfort in the past few sessions and whether they feel they can make progress with my therapy style. It’s important to discuss in the intake session that it is completely normal to not feel connected with a therapist and that you won’t hurt the therapist's feelings if you’d like to change!”
5. Does being in therapy make your life feel more stressful?
Suppose that scheduling daytime appointments has become too difficult, but your therapist doesn’t work nights. Or you learn that your therapist is moving to an office that is much less accessible to your home or workplace. If working out the logistics at this time and with this therapist is causing you further anxiety and stress, you should reconsider the cost–benefits of being in this relationship or being in therapy at this time. And the cost itself may also be a problem. Depending on your financial circumstances, you may not or may no longer be able to afford treatment. Again, you should let your therapist know what’s going on. You may find that some accommodations are possible.
How to Tell Your Therapist You Don’t Want to See Them Anymore
Breaking up with your therapist may be hard, but don’t just stop showing up for appointments or “ghost” them—it’s not only unfair to your therapist, it also denies you the opportunity to achieve some sort of closure.
“Like most, if not all therapists, I have experienced a client ending therapy abruptly prior to fully meeting their treatment goals,” says Alma clinician Diane Botta, LCSW. “Typically this happens when a client has become busier or is feeling more positive due to recent life developments or changes. Sometimes, however, clients can lose motivation due to feeling that changes are not happening quickly enough. More often than not, when termination is premature, clients do tend to return months later. When this happens, it can provide an opportunity to discuss client expectations regarding the therapeutic process and the therapeutic relationship. Therapy is often a marathon, not a sprint; a fact that is easily forgotten given the instant gratification culture that we live in."
If you’ve been seeing your provider for at least several months or years, it’s best to tell them in person and at the beginning of a session. If you’ve only had a few sessions and feel it’s not working but don’t want a face-to-face conversation, then send them an email.
However, if your therapist asks for one more session to “offboard” you, consider using that as your final session. And if cost is a concern, ask them if this final session could be shorter (e.g., 30 minutes rather than 45–60) and for a lower rate.
What to Expect From a Final Session
In the best-case scenario, you and your provider should have laid the groundwork for terminating therapy from the very beginning. And if you’ve had a close bond, you may want to keep the tissue box even closer during this last session. But what you should expect to do is assess what you’ve worked on, how you’ve grown, and how you will continue to use what you’ve learned. Your therapist may also ask you for feedback about what they could have done better or differently. Depending on the nature or severity of your problem, you and your therapist might also talk about a mental health maintenance plan or discuss other options or types of therapy to explore in the future.
“Generally, I recommend a ‘booster’ session one month after the final session if the client is open to it,” says Botta. “This provides the client with an opportunity to discuss how they have been feeling and what has come up during that time and can provide them with the opportunity to restart regular sessions if new treatment goals have been identified.”
So terminating therapy doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back. Like Botta, most therapists will leave the door open and invite you to reach out if you do decide you want to start therapy again.