And so ... You ghost your therapist.
Every therapist has a story or 12 about clients who seem to be connecting and doing well, but then they suddenly disappear. Poof. Phone calls and emails lead nowhere, nothing comes back. The client has ghosted.
If you’re new to the term, “ghosting” is when someone in a close relationship suddenly disappears, like an avoidant apparition. They’re there one day, everything seems to be going fine, and then they disappear——they've ghosted. You can ghost on a micro or macro scale. Let’s say you’re at a party with friends, you want to leave, but don’t want to make the rounds of goodbye hugs and “Aw, you’re leaving? One more!” so you say you’re going to the restroom but walk out the door and Uber home. That's ghosting on a micro scale.
But let’s imagine that you’re in a new relationship, and while some parts of it are working, you’re just not that into the other person. Instead of having the challenging relationship talk when you discuss your ambivalence, feel bad, and perhaps induce tears, you just stop calling. And you stop answering calls and texts. In fact, you avoid the other person completely, telling yourself that the disappearance will send the message in a more subtle way, without tears or guilt or drama of a face-to-face interaction. This is ghosting on a macro scale, breaking hearts in absentia.
Why do we ghost? We’re human: We seek pleasure and avoid pain. Goodbyes are hard for many of us, whether the harmless goodbye of leaving a party or the more substantial goodbye of exiting a relationship. All that grief, loss, guilt, and conflicted feeling are unpleasant to experience. We seek an easier route through fading away, hoping it will mitigate our pain—and maybe even the pain of the other person. By avoiding the conflict, by avoiding the other person's feelings, and maybe even our own, maybe it won’t hurt as bad. Right?
All of these ideas and behaviors show up in therapy all the time. To avoid the conflict, the feelings, the other’s opinion, clients may ghost just when the therapist least expects it.
But unlike walking away from friendships or romantic relationships, clients have one more rationalization for ghosting in therapy: “It’s not a real relationship. I pay her. I can leave whenever I want and don’t have to explain anything.”
And you know what? That's partially correct. You can leave whenever you want—that is totally your right as a consumer and a citizen (unless you’re court ordered to attend). As I’ve said many times, it’s your time and your dime. You can leave whenever you’d like. But there are 4 reasons you may not want to ghost on your therapist, reasons that may benefit you, your therapist, and society as a whole:
1. You can say anything in therapy, and that’s for your benefit.
In other areas of your life, it may be impolite to say “This isn’t working for me anymore; I’m thinking about leaving.” But in therapy, talking about the relationship is one of the central components of the work. You can say things in therapy you might feel reluctant to in other relationships, because therapy is supposed to be a safe place where all topics are fair game. Therapists are trained to hear such statements non-defensively, but even if their response is pathetic, it’s still good for you to say it. You’re just being honest, talking about how you really feel. So why not take that approach for a spin?
2. We don’t have enough good endings in life.
Think about most endings—divorce, death, breakups, moving, fights, firing, etc. These are neither pleasant experiences nor memories. It is possible to have good endings, though. They happen all the time—graduations, for example. A journey ends with a celebration of accomplishments. Bittersweet goodbyes ensue, then brunch at the Olive Garden. That’s a decent ending. Why not model therapy’s ending on a graduation instead of a divorce?
3. What are you avoiding?
While not everyone who wants to leave therapy is avoiding their own issues, we know that at least some are. We’re getting too close to the childhood abuse. We’re focusing less on others in your life and more on your own contribution to your problems. We’re asking uncomfortable questions about our therapy relationship. Each of these scenarios have sent numerous people out of therapy, so they warrant mention. If you’re avoiding something you aren’t ready to talk about yet, how about talking about that? "There’s something about my childhood that I really don’t want to discuss. Can we talk about why I don't want to talk about it?” Therapists should be able to hang with that.
4. Think of the therapist’s future clients.
Let’s say the therapist kept horrible eye contact, and this made you want to leave therapy, so you ghost. That may be a fine resolution for you, but what about all the other people this eye-avoider sees (peripherally, I suppose)? Might it be helpful, exit-interview style, to tell the therapist why it is you’re leaving, with the hope that the information may help dozens (or hundreds) of people in the future? Again, I hear you : "It’s not my job to make my therapist a better therapist.” I agree. But we do lots of things that aren’t "our job" that benefit others.
I need to add one last piece, as a therapist: It’s hard when a client ghosts, not just for the lost business or the unanswered phone calls. Those sting, but only temporarily. It’s the unanswered questions that hurt most: "Why did you leave?” “What was going on that I didn’t know about?” And the iconic, "Was it something I said?” I come to care about my clients, even after just a session or two, and a disappearance makes an impact.
Why? We spend a lot of time in our training learning to help clients feel safe and comfortable, to help them say whatever they want. Ghosting tells us that something was wrong with our rapport. Even though it seemed like the relationship was functional, something else was going on underneath. Either there was no secure connection or the client didn’t feel safe enough to talk about their insecurities. That’s a problem we’d like to correct—but without contact we’ll never know. It’s like someone telling a surgeon: “Sorry, the heart transplant failed and we lost the patient. The body is gone now, though, so we’ll never know what happened. By the way, you have three more scheduled for this afternoon.”
What happened? What went wrong? How can I improve?
These feelings are part of the cost of choosing this profession and clients shouldn’t feel that this is the main reason not to ghost. More important for you is the loss of a clean, good ending—a missed opportunity to express yourself. You lose a chance to dive into material that may be difficult, but ultimately beneficial for you.
That’s why you chose to come to therapy in the first place, isn’t it?
If you’d like to know more about how to end therapy, take a look at this series I wrote a while ago. And if you’re interested in the ins and outs of therapy you may want to join me on my Facebook page and Twitter. And as you know, Facebook is not immune to ghosting.