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Bittersweet: Saying Goodbye to Therapy Clients

How do we conclude these relationships rife with emotion?

Key points

  • Therapy is a two-way street. Our clients are impacted by us as we are by them.
  • Clinicians must tend to our own vat of emotions when concluding therapeutic relationships.
  • The term "termination" in psychotherapy is a misnomer. It's cold and doesn't do justice to the complexity of this right of passage.

Yesterday, my very first client, Evan, and I completed our therapeutic journey together. The experience was poignant, humbling, and empowering for both of us. It was a milestone in my new career as a therapist — a passage I had dreaded. Early in my master’s program, a professor asked me to share my greatest fears about becoming a counselor. One of them, I replied, was saying goodbye to my clients.

Therapeutic relationships create a form of intimacy that is peculiar. If the relationship works, client and clinician develop a powerful emotional bond, but ethical boundaries limit our interaction to 53-minute therapy sessions. It’s also one-sided because, as a clinician, I only provide the client with a snapshot of myself while they are encouraged to open their entire photo album to me. Oh, and clients pay therapists for our services. So, despite what some would suggest, this is not a relationship of equals.

The arena I work in is steeped in vulnerability. Clients tell me their deepest, darkest secrets — stories and feelings they have never shared with anyone. Raw emotions are accessed, processed, and navigated. Tears flow. Challenges are issued, and confrontations are had. Consequently, we — client and clinician, become inextricably attached. It’s unavoidable.

And so, I have feared the loss of these brave souls who entrust me with their frailties. I’ve wondered how I will be able to walk away from people who have been in the trenches with me. How will I grieve their loss?

Evan and I worked together for eight months, digging into his childhood relational trauma and exploring how it conspired to sabotage his self-concept and relationships. Evan’s experience with anxiety had become intrusive. It was fueled by a passionate, petulant, and turbulent relationship with a young woman. We discovered that in times of conflict, Evan would assume his mother’s reactive personality, which had become progressively problematic.

Evan grew up in a divisive, ambivalent home, raised by a fiery, hypercritical mother and a passive father who had been beaten down by his wife’s badgering. While he didn’t experience physical assaults, Evan weathered significant ongoing emotional distress. His mom was overly involved and relentless. His dad appeared disinterested and detached. Evan was left feeling inadequate, unwanted, and lonely. He mused that something must be wrong with him for his parents to treat him this way. And so, Evan carried the hefty burden of shame through the first 25 years of his life. He was deeply wounded.

So, how do we, as two men, access and process those debilitating feelings? Evan resisted when I attempted to probe his emotions in our first session. But two weeks later, his tears began to flow. And then, he trusted me enough to share his deepest, darkest secret, the burden of which was crushing his spirit. Evan told me he “lost it” on his girlfriend. He scared her, and he scared himself even more. That was the impetus that brought him to therapy. Evan understood their relationship was toxic, but he had perhaps become "addicted" to the intensity of their sex and the chaos of her impulses.

They broke up and soon thereafter reconciled, until Evan discovered what he had long suspected, that she had betrayed him. So, Evan ended the relationship delicately. Still, he left the door open a crack — until he summoned the courage to close it completely. Evan worked through the progression of his grief, sadness, hurt, loneliness, and myriad other feelings. He reflected, took stock of his emotional wellbeing, and developed a strong sense of self. I was moved by the transformation he was making.

Then, a few months later, Evan lost his job because of another betrayal. He reacted and responded thoughtfully, with grace and maturity. His community of friends embraced him with unconditional love and acceptance. Quickly, Evan found himself in demand professionally. Several companies courted him with expanded leadership roles, more money, and the respect he was seeking.

Evan and his mom had already achieved significant healing in their relationship. He was beginning to understand his dad’s limitations and accept him as he is. Evan had become thoughtful, confident, and acutely self-aware. He was ready to “graduate” from therapy and conclude our short-lived but powerful term of relationship. When I sensed Evan was ready, I planted the seeds, but he didn’t want to cut the cord just yet. Yesterday, he told me he was ready.

We both choked back tears as we concluded our final session together. The emotion was palpable. I told him how much admiration, respect, and affection I have for him. He thanked me for caring so much and for guiding him on our bittersweet expedition of discovery. I wanted to hug him, and I think he wanted to hug me. But the entirety of our relationship was virtual. We never even met in person. And just like that, it was over.

My emotions wavered between sadness and joy as we closed this chapter in our lives. I felt a profound sense of fulfillment in the work we accomplished together. Evan gritted his teeth and embraced his vulnerability. He shared his secrets, insecurities, and fears with a guy who went from stranger to intimate confidante in a matter of weeks. The process worked, and it worked beautifully. After Evan disappeared from my computer screen, I sat with my feelings for a few minutes before starting my next session with a client still in the early stages of our work together. The beat goes on. But, I’ll never forget Evan and the integral role he played in my new life as a counselor.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

'Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels'
Source: 'Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels'
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