Finding a therapist that’s the right fit for you can be a challenge, and you may go through a few before you find the perfect match. This means you might have to break up with a couple of therapists along the way, and that can be a hard truth to face.
Once, I had to break up with a therapist because I no longer felt a connection with her, or like she was really listening to me. I kept delaying cutting ties. My anxious inhibition was likely linked to the fact that a therapist, though providing a clinical service, isn’t like a dentist or a PCP. A therapist is someone who you may feel knows you better than you know yourself.
“It feels tricky to break up with a therapist because the basis of the working relationship is an intimate bond,” says Sarah Epstein, a marriage and family therapist. “Your therapist knows the parts of you that you keep hidden from the people in your life. They know your struggles, your triumphs, your insecurities and your journey." A therapist is also somebody you typically see far more frequently than a PCP.
“Many therapy clients work with a therapist weekly or bi-weekly, which means the therapist becomes a routine part of a person’s life,” Epstein continues. “I think it’s also difficult to break up with a therapist because we worry about hurting our therapist’s feelings.”
Your therapist knows the parts of you that you keep hidden from the people in your life. They know your struggles, your triumphs, your insecurities and your journey.
Sarah Epstein, MFT
Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinician encourages you to “remind yourself that you are not getting what you need out of this relationship, and you are not being fair to yourself by staying. I think a lot of people struggle and feel badly for wanting to leave, but as therapists, we understand.”
Knowing how to go about this breakup tactfully should help lessen any anxiety you have about it.
Don’t ‘ghost’ your therapist
“Don’t just disappear without dealing directly with your therapist,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child”. “Many folks find it easier to avoid the discomfort of confrontation. They fear hurting someone’s feelings, being the target of one’s anger/rage, or collapsing into a river of tears. Be brave and use this as a learning opportunity for how to handle relationship endings.”
Tess Brigham, a psychotherapist and life coach adds that if you find yourself wanting to ghost your therapist, you should ask yourself if this is a pattern in your life, and whether you fear having hard conversations.
“This is your opportunity to work on something significant that could change how you approach other tough conversations,” Brigham says.
Remind yourself that you are not getting what you need out of this relationship, and you are not being fair to yourself by staying.
Celeste Viciere, LMHC
Talk openly about your decision in a session
Explain your decision with your therapist — face to face — as honestly as you can.
“Our job is to be able to take in your feedback and understand your concerns,” says Brigham. “If you've brought up your concerns and talked about them with your therapist but things still don't feel quite right, the best thing to do is to have the conversation in person.”
This is your opportunity to work on something significant that could change how you approach other tough conversations.
Tess Brigham, MFT
This may be scary, but it will be empowering
Epstein recognizes that calling on clients to end their relationships with therapists in person is “a huge ask in a culture where ghosting is the norm,” but that having this direct and honest talk can actually help you.
“It can feel pretty empowering to know that you can have a difficult conversation with somebody and the world won’t end,” she says. “It can be healing to see somebody (the therapist) accept feedback gracefully. It can be important to learn to have those difficult conversations. It also allows you the space to ask for a recommendation for another therapist.”
Don’t wait for the end of the session to do this
Use your full session time to discuss your decision to change therapists or quit therapy.
“Don't wait for the end of the hour to tell the therapist, bring it up right away and use the time to talk about what worked and didn't work for you,” says Brigham. “While your instinct might be to ‘ghost’ your therapist and just not schedule another appointment, in the end it would serve you to take the time to have the conversation.”
Your therapist is probably on the same page
If you’re feeling a disconnect with your therapist, they’re probably feeling it, too.
“If a client comes and does not feel connected to me or feel like I ‘get it’, I can guarantee that I felt it too,” says Lynn R. Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker. “I have never been surprised by this.”
“Therapy is really difficult work especially for those who have never really said a lot of their thoughts out loud before, ever,” Zakeri continues. “Sometimes it is just overwhelming and returning is not something they are ready for. Again, I am right where [the clients] are. I am never going to push you or say you really need to be here.”
Walfish says that if your therapist “becomes defensive and either denies accountability or points a finger at you and entirely blames you, you can be certain you are not with the right-fit therapist. It is time to leave ASAP.”
Key language to use
What exactly should you say? The more specific you are about your reasons for leaving, the more your therapist can understand you and whom to potentially refer you.
In addition to specifics, Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker recommends saying something along the following lines:
“Thank you so much for the work we’ve done together but I’m going to take a step back from therapy.”
Or: “I appreciate the work we’ve done together, I’m wondering if you could refer me to someone who might…(fill in the blank) have more of a direct approach, might be in network, has more availability for certain day/time, [etc.]”
If you just can’t do it in person, an email is okay
If a one-on-one talk just isn’t doable for whatever reason, write a polite email.
“If you are struggling with saying it, prior to a session you can write an email stating that while you are grateful for the time your therapist spent with you, you think it is time to move on,” says Viciere. “You can have one last session or not, but that is your choice. Be clear and direct in the email.”
Tell them what did work as well as what didn’t
If you made breakthroughs with your therapist, let them know. This is hard work for them, too, and any acknowledgments of your successes with them will be valued.
“I really appreciate it when clients say, ‘I am feeling so much better, and I learned so much and I don't feel I need to continue therapy’,” says Zakeri, who recalls one client who ended therapy in a way that felt celebratory of all that they had accomplished together.
Your therapist should gladly recommend someone else
Be sure to ask your therapist for a referral to another clinician if you wish to continue therapy elsewhere.
“If you can end a therapeutic relationship with your therapist honestly and openly, they may be able to help you find somebody who is a better fit,” says Epstein.
Brigham says she’s always happy to help a client find that better fit.
“I appreciate anyone who tells me why they're not happy and what it is they're looking for in a future therapist,” says Brigham. “If I'm not the right fit then I would love to be able to help you find the right therapist for you — then it feels like it was a successful and productive experience for everyone involved.”
I think a lot of people struggle and feel badly for wanting to leave, but as therapists, we understand.
CELESTE VICIERE, LMHC
After ending things, reflect on the process
“I usually suggest people do some reflection after they ‘break up’ with their therapist and get specific about what they are looking for — male/female, age range, location, training, areas of expertise, etc,” says Kitley. “Then do your research and ask for an initial consult with two to three therapists to find your best fit. We all have different styles and you need to find the one that works for you.”
This goodbye doesn’t have to be forever
The therapist with whom you’re cutting ties should not be forever lost to you should you decide to resume therapy in the future.
“One thing I say to clients is that they can keep me in their back pocket,” says Zakeri. “I am a text/email/call away, and I will always fit into my sometimes no-openings schedule a client who wants to come back.”
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