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Mental Health - Overview | April 13, 2021, 8:45 CDT

How to Know When It's Time to Break Up With Your Therapist
If the relationship is no longer serving you, here's how to confidently navigate an exit.

Written by

Olga Alexandru
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The end of any relationship is hard. It can be painful, awkward and just plain sad. The bond with your therapist isn't quite on par with romantic connections, but you should be asking yourself similarly tough, if necessary, questions throughout your time together: Am I getting what I need? Is this helping me grow as a person? Am I moving forward in life?

In dating, it's usually pretty clear pretty quickly when you're not a match. But it can take a little longer to see whether you're connecting with the person you hired to listen to your innermost thoughts. Maybe you wanted a solution-focused therapist to help you tackle problems like a phobia or eating disorder, but end up with one who wants to dig deeper into who you are to help you address issues such as bereavement or anger management; after a few sessions, you might realize you're not getting what you most need out of the process.

And that's OK! In fact, understanding that is part of a therapist's job. 

"A healthy therapeutic alliance should include the therapist checking in and evaluating with the client (while having) an open discussion about this," said Dee Johnson, a BACP-certified counselor in Essex, England.

The right person for the job

Every therapist has a specialty. If you started out seeing one with a focus on sexual assault, once you've worked through that trauma you may want to stop therapy altogether or seek an expert in another area to focus on a different aspect of your life. Just like a primary care physician isn't the same doctor you'd see for a brain tumor or a broken leg, no therapist is an expert in everything, Johnson said—and it's entirely appropriate for them to signpost and refer elsewhere as needed. 

Even if your issues aren't specific enough to require someone in a particular field, you might still want a new perspective or feel that the relationship has gotten too comfortable. "Our needs change, so it's OK to want to try a different approach or perspective," Johnson said. It's your journey—you need to do what's best for your growth.

But what if you're unsure if it's time to move on? Maybe the chemistry feels off or you dislike their approach, but you're hesitant to rush into any decision.

Ask yourself: "Is the feeling about discomfort with the work, which is to be expected, or is it something else?" said Katriona O'Connor, an integrative therapist based in London. If therapy feels uncomfortable because it involves opening yourself up, that's completely normal—and you should stick with it because that's the point of therapy. Digging into unresolved issues can make you feel raw and vulnerable, but this is where real benefits begin. Still, if you're feeling uneasy with your therapist, the environment or the process, you might want to consider looking elsewhere.

Another good question to ask yourself, said O'Connor, is "Are you continuing out of habit?" Too often, people get stuck in holding patterns without even realizing it, which can lead to complacency and a lack of forward progress. It's important to be present and active in your therapeutic journey.

Get right to the point

Once you've decided to end the association, going about it respectfully is pretty straightforward. "It's best just to be honest; ultimately, you are a client and a customer," Johnson said. Like with ending a dating relationship, in-person conversations can be very positive experiences, she added. However, some people may prefer to write an email if that feels more comfortable. "Just know you should not feel obliged to stay in therapy or with a therapist (even if you really like them!) but you aren't getting what you need," Johnson said.

By the way, therapists often know it's time for the client to move on before the client does. Part of their job is watching for signs such as a client "showing less interest, being less engaged or bringing less to the sessions over a period of time," O'Connor said. And if a therapist is doing all the work—you're waiting for them to ask questions or tease things out of you—that's a pretty clear sign you guys are well past your sell-by date.

So even if it feels like you're breaking up with them, don't worry that you'll hurt your therapist's feelings when you tell them you're ready to end your time together. They train for these moments and are genuinely happy when their clients no longer need them. One way to "honor the work," as O'Connor put it, is to focus on "what was achieved, what shifts they experienced and what coping mechanisms they can deploy on their own."

If and when you are ready to dive back into the therapy pool, there will be plenty more therapists in the sea.

Written by

Olga Alexandru

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