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Therapy

When and How to End Therapy

Knowing how to end therapy if we choose will help us stay in charge.

Key points

  • Talking about an ending early on in therapy can prepare people for the inevitable.
  • Some situations that can bring about an ending include reaching a point when one is happy, or changes in one's circumstances.
  • Talking with a therapist about wanting to end treatment can help resolve any outstanding issues.

One of the least-often discussed subjects at the beginning of therapy is when or how we can finish our treatment. Unless we are receiving time-limited therapy—six to eight sessions of solution-focused therapy, for example—it is unlikely we will know exactly when the end of therapy will be.

Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Your journey has just begun.
Source: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

However, therapy must come to an end at some point. Having built a therapeutic relationship with our therapist, it can be tough to get used to a life without them or the regular space for supportive interactions. Being without this can leave a big empty space in our life, especially if our therapy has been ongoing for some time.

The meetings with our therapist form a relationship that, while professional, may have gone deeper than our closest friendships. As with any other relationship we come to depend on, the ending is bound to have some effect on us. For this reason, and in most cases, it is important to make the completion of therapy graduated.

Our therapist might suggest a set number of sessions—for example, three to six—that are booked further and further apart. This enables us to work through any outstanding conversations and gradually let go of the comfort of therapy. The final sessions will then work as a check-in, a reminder of the tools and skills we have learned, and a look back to the beginning to see how far we have come.

When and How to Talk About Ending Therapy

Although it may seem an odd time to talk about endings, ideally this conversation should start at the beginning of therapy. This can help us to manage our expectations and so make the ending emotionally easier to cope with.

While many of us might ask how long therapy will take, this question is usually to plan time and finances. Asking how endings are managed will give us a clearer idea of what we can expect, helping us to prepare for when this moment arrives. Preparing for an emotional event cannot begin too soon.

Of course, the opportunity to have this conversation might not have been available at the beginning of therapy. If we are now wanting or needing to finish therapy, we might not know how.

The answer to this is always to talk with our therapist. They will have managed many endings and are likely to have a preferred way of completing therapy that has worked for their clients in the past.

Situations That Can Bring About an Ending

It is a common misunderstanding that therapists should be the ones to decide when therapy is to end. The fact is that we, the clients, have just as much control over this as our therapists. While a premature or abrupt ending can result in the undoing of some of the good work we have done, there are situations when an ending is preferable or necessary. When managed with care, we will get a sense of having some control of this ending and it can then be a celebration of all we have achieved.

A natural ending. When we have worked through the issues we brought to therapy and are managing life to our satisfaction, it is time to move on. Telling our therapist that we have reached a point we are happy with and that we would like to finish therapy is perfectly acceptable. They may suggest a graduated end and we can negotiate this according to what we feel we need.

Therapy is becoming too intense, or the pace isn’t right. Sometimes therapy can seem too powerful, or we might feel encouraged to look deeper than we feel comfortable with. Therapy can be a little overwhelming and we might not be ready or prepared for the depth of the conversation just yet. We need to talk with our therapist about our experiences; they may not know how we feel. However, if we really do not want to carry on with therapy, we have the right to tell our therapist that we need a break.

The therapeutic relationship is not a good fit. The fit with our therapist is important. If after a few sessions we experience a lack of trust and connection, or feel that therapy isn’t working for us, it is time to talk about it.

Having spoken with our therapist, and still finding that they don’t “get” us or that we are not gaining from therapy, then it’s time to find another therapist. Therapists are people, too, and sometimes the fit isn’t right with the first professional we see.

Circumstances prevent us from carrying on. There are all sorts of reasons why therapy might need to stop: loss of income, a long-term illness, or a tragic death (fresh grief can be too raw to work with in therapy immediately), or perhaps we entered therapy too soon after a trauma, or maybe we have to move away.

Whatever the reasons, we must talk with our therapist; the chances are that they will be able to work around us if we really do want to carry on with therapy.

A break in therapy. It isn’t unusual for clients to take a break for a couple of months or more before returning. We can work out a time scale with our therapist and establish a support structure should life throw us a curveball while we've stepped away.

Unethical therapeutic behaviour. If we experience our therapist as unethical, we would ideally talk with them about their behaviour. However, having this conversation isn’t always possible. If we, for example, feel intimidated or that the therapist’s behaviour has been inappropriate, it might be best not to have this conversation with them.

Ultimately, in these situations, we need to make sure that we are safe, and if having another session puts us in emotional, psychological, or physical danger, we must remove ourselves from therapy. (Learn more here.)

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The end of therapy is not the end of the therapeutic effect. Therapy will have given us tools, insights, and skills that will help us carry on developing. After the last session, we leave therapy with hope for our future and a sense of achievement knowing that if we should need, we can return to therapy and reconnect with the journey.

LinkedIn image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

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