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The Connection Between Past and Future Therapy

New research shows people’s views of past therapy are tied to later therapy.

Key points

  • New research examined whether views on the utility of past therapy is linked to ending future therapy early.
  • Results revealed that people who reported any fruitless therapy experiences were apt to stop therapy earlier.
  • People who said that all of their therapy in the past had been useful came to more therapy sessions later on.
  • The results are not fault-finding, and there are various understandable reasons why people end therapy early.
Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

In life, we may not learn from every experience, but we learn from most of them. And whether we realize it or not, we take our impressions from the past and we carry them with us into the future.

This is true in all sorts of domains, including therapy. In a recent study, a team of researchers examined whether people’s judgments about the utility of the therapy they’ve received in the past are connected to what happens in later therapy.

The Impact of Past Therapy Experiences on Future Therapy

More to the point, the researchers considered whether people’s views of prior therapy are tied to how many therapy sessions they go to and whether they engage in what’s known as “premature termination.” The team described “premature termination” as a person leaving therapy before they experienced a certain shift in their stress level and ability to manage different facets of life.

The study revealed that people who said they had one (or more than one) therapy experience in the past that they viewed as unproductive had a threefold increase in the odds of stopping future therapy early, in contrast to people who said that all of the therapy they engaged in before felt useful.

Moreover, folks who said their past therapy was entirely beneficial came to more therapy sessions in the future relative to people who saw all of their prior therapy as fruitless.

Bearing all of this in mind, what can we take away from the research?

Therapists Should Ask About Past Therapy Experiences

As the research team noted, the beliefs people have about the therapy they’ve engaged in before could have a part in how long they stay in therapy later and what they might get out of it. Additionally, the researchers were right to recommend that therapists ask people about the therapy they’ve had before, whether they thought it was productive, and what led them to see any past therapy as ineffective.

Likewise, the researchers also pointed to other studies to highlight steps therapists might take to help people stay in therapy. Notably, the researchers were also correct to clarify that the goal is not to find fault with people who end therapy early, and they cited research on assorted causes people have for opting out of therapy which is quite understandable.

So if you’re a therapist and you aren’t asking people you’re working with (or are about to work with) about their outlook on therapy experiences in the past (including what they’ve experienced with you), try building or rebuilding this into how you practice. And if you’ve already taken the healthy step of engaging in therapy or are thinking about restarting therapy, consider reflecting on your past and current experiences and how they could be connected, and maybe even share your outlook with your therapist.

If they’re the right therapist for you, they’ll welcome ways to help you stay connected and enhance your experience.


Dunn, D., Donato, S., & Keenan-Miller, D. (2023). Perceived helpfulness of previous therapy: A predictor of premature termination. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 54(4), 275–283.

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