The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Should you Stop Therapy or Counseling? 7 Simple Guidelines

It's never a personal failure to stop therapy.


It's not useful to continue therapy if you're spinning your wheels and not moving forward. Nor should you stick around if something doesn't "feel right" to you with a particular therapist or counselor. And staying in therapy out of fear of stopping-or fear of hurting your therapist's feelings-- is not a solid reason to continue

Sonia felt mired in this question when she came to me for a consultation. After meeting six times with a psychiatrist for depression, she told me that her therapist said a few things that made her feel uncomfortable. In their last meeting he told her that she was "a very desirable woman who didn't accept her sexuality." Sonia had been talking about her weight and she felt the comment was a bit out of the blue.

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Sonia told me:
 "When I got up the nerve to share my discomfort, he said that I was pushing him away because I had been sexually abused as a child. The abuse is why I'm there--so maybe I can't trust myself. My gut says leave, but he warned me that I'll get worse if I shop around for a new therapist. My husband is also encouraging me to stay because he's heard good things about this doctor."

Sonia had many questions. "Is it possible that I'm distorting reality? Am I ‘resisting' therapy? Can I hurt myself by leaving?" It made sense that she was struggling. Starting therapy is an anxious business, so an individual's fears, fantasies and projections can easily run amok. It's not easy to be objective about therapy or a particular therapist. So, yes, Sonia could be distorting--as could anyone in her shoes.

Nonetheless, I encouraged her to trust her gut reaction. The fact that Sonia had a history of sexual abuse was absolutely no reason to discount her current feelings and perceptions. Indeed, her painful history may have sharpened her radar, helping her to be especially sensitive, alert and self-protective.

I responded that since she felt unsafe and uncomfortable in the sessions, she should seek a consultation with one or more therapists until she found someone with whom she did feel safe and comfortable.

The fact that this particular psychiatrist had a stellar reputation said nothing about whether he was the right person for Sonia. Nor is reputation or status a guarantee of competence in this line of work.

I'd advise anybody to be wary of a psychotherapist who warns that you will get worse if you try another therapist or treatment. A good clinician will share an honest perspective while respecting your wish to "shop around" so that you can gather the facts that will allow you to make the best treatment decision on your own behalf.

Even if Sonia were fleeing therapy in response to irrational fears, she would not hurt herself by leaving. If she later discovered that she had made a mistake by leaving this psychiatrist, she could always call him and ask to resume the work. If he didn't welcome her back, or if he shamed or intimidated her for wanting to leaving in the first place--well, she shouldn't stick around with such a doctor.

Sonia can hurt herself by staying when her gut reaction tells her to get out.
Sonia's decision to honor her anxiety proved to be an act of strength and courage. She found her adult voice to tell her psychiatrist that although it was possible she was distorting, she didn't think the therapy was a "good fit" and she planned to leave and consult with someone else.

When Sonia was abused as a child, she didn't have the power or the ability to say, No, this is not right for me. I am leaving. I am going to protect myself. Children can't take control of an unsafe situation. But as an adult Sonia could-and she did.

To sum it up:
1. Interview any prospective therapist with care. Address any concerns and questions right up front, and also along the way.

2. Trust your evaluation and gut reactions, including negative ones.

3. Don't stay in a therapy process that doesn't feel right for you, no matter how highly the therapist is acclaimed and recommended by others.

4. Remember that stopping therapy is never a personal failure. There are countless therapists with different belief systems who work in different ways, so that if one therapist or therapy isn't helping you, another might.

5. If you are confused about staying or leaving, you can give it more time, or, alternatively, take a vacation from therapy. Either route may give you the information you're seeking.

6. It's not your job to worry about your therapist's feelings. She will survive your leaving her. People stay too long in therapy out of unconscious loyalties.

7. Listen to your therapist, family and friends who may have a valuable perspective on the staying or leaving issue. Consider their ideas with an open mind. But remember that ultimately you are the best expert on your own self. No one else can-or should-- make this decision for you, including your therapist.

 

 

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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