All relationships must come to an end. Even the ones that last forever.
Even those that rack up grandkids, and anniversaries. Those end too. And if we don’t die, we break up, divorce, take space, drift away, cheat, or consciously uncouple over a bed of gluten free ziti.
Our relationships with our therapists are no differently vulnerable to the ups and downs of human connection. Perhaps you never clicked to begin with. Or maybe you’re no longer in crisis. Maybe your conversations have morphed into extremely expensive talks with a friend. Or it could be that you ran into them at a naked hot spring, and that was that.
Whatever the reason, you’ve done your work and now it’s time to go.
Luckily, you and your therapist don’t have to fight about who keeps the couch and the tea in the waiting room. But still, breaking up is hard to do.
Quitting therapy–even dumping your therapist– can set in motion feelings akin to ending a romantic relationship, or losing a best friend. Sure, it’s business, but it’s also very personal. Your dry cleaner isn’t privy to how you really feel about your in-laws. Your landlord will never sit through a panic attack with you. Your local farmers market vendors didn’t help you build the self-support you needed to confront your boss.
Ending therapy is a chance to grow. Actually, all endings are a chance to grow. But unlike most, which can be sudden and traumatic, therapeutic endings (in clinical language, called “termination”) can occur over time, with gentleness, and reflection, resembling a bittersweet graduation, rather than an abrupt and untimely finale.
(Unless of course, you don’t let them.)
A confession: Many years ago, before I became a therapist, I left my own therapist, without so much as a peace out.
My counselor, lets call her Chippa, was pretty great. She smiled widely and wore shoes with colorful, patterned beads in the shapes of hearts and sunburts. She was generous with her time, and her laughter, and she helped me find some ground through a very difficult point in my life.
But she also spent entire minutes asking for directions to places she’d never been, and boasting about her college bound daughter. She’d bring our sessions to a screeching halt, in order to admire the hummingbirds outside her garden window.
“Oh, Pilar! The hummies!” she’d exclaim.
And once, she fell asleep during an grounding excercise. For 5 minutes.
And here’s the thing: Instead of reporting that I wasn’t getting much out of therapy, if she chose to doze through it; Instead of admitting that “hummies” were the last thing on my mind… I left.
I didn’t show up at my next appointment, and for weeks, avoided her phone calls, feeling pangs of guilt when her name appeared on my caller ID.
Years later, I sent her a Christmas card, thanking her for our work, and apologizing for the way I’d left.
At the time, I hadn’t understood something that today, is glaringly obvious. Therapists are not automatons, or robotic receptacles for other people’s feelings. We’re not pez dispensers for empathy and positive regard. What I’m trying to say is that if we get dumped, it hurts.
Getting paid doesn’t make us impervious to hurt feelings. It doesn’t mean we don’t care if our clients disappear, or that we don’t wonder if it was something we did that drove them out the door, or whether the relationship had been silently corroding over time.
Psychotherapy isn’t all breathing techniques and inquiries into your father’s narcissistic wounding. In fact, that’s just the icing on the cake. Therapy is about building an authentic relationship with a caring other. Possibly one of the most intimate relationships of your life.
And after you build it? You’ve got to tear it down.
And make no mistake, how you do that matters.
* If you avoid phone calls or simply stop coming to your sessions, that’s hiding, not terminating.
* If your appointments suddenly become inconvenient given your busy schedule, job, or lover, that is running, not ending.
* If you make up a story in order to “let your therapist down easy,” that is avoiding, not terminating.
* If you slam the door behind you, leaving as a result of shame, or anger, that is also not ending, that is bolting.
We love you, but if it makes you feel any better, it’s our job to get you the hell off our couch, and back into the world! I promise you, we know its coming.
So, as soon as you start thinking about leaving, bring it up in your sessions, just like you would any other topic. Explore it with the same curiosity and interest as you would your romantic relationships, your mother’s depression, or the fact that you think about Jello every time you have sex.
Tell your therapist if you’ve been feeling dissatisfied with the course of treatment, if you don’t feel supported, challenged, loved, empowered, confronted, pushed, whatever. Just tell them. Or, tell them that you’re finally happy and you don’t want therapy to bring you down. Tell them. Tell them that you saw their frighteningly pale skin at a hot spring, and now you can’t un-see what you saw. Just tell them.
Allow your therapist to be a part of this important decision. If you dare, let them congratulate you on the strength it must have taken to make it.
How you end this relationship will influence how you remember it. Think of the good-bye as a way to seal in the value. If you sneak, or run away, that will forever taint your experience of therapy, giving you no choice but to dart behind dumpsters and parked cars whenever you see anyone who resembles Chippa. Um, I mean, your counselor.
The termination (ending) phase of therapy might just be the most pivotal part of your work. Patterns and textures around other endings in your life can be revisited, sometimes painfully, sometimes with new and wider eyes. Let this ending be a source of pride, collaboration, growth and strength. Don’t rob yourself of that.
In therapy, it is possible to have both a sad goodbye and a happy ending.