If you are in distress, you can text WELLNESS to 741741 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.
The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
Subscribe to get our magazine delivered right to your inbox
In a famous episode of the popular TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David, the curmudgeonly main “character” (said to be an exaggerated version of himself), decides he must end therapy after seeing his middle-aged psychiatrist at the beach in a thong. When he announces his intention to leave, the psychiatrist seems surprised by the decision and keeps pressing Larry to tell him why it’s over. Larry keeps hedging, then ungracefully bolts.
In reality, the question of why and how to end therapy — to “break up” with your therapist — is for most more complicated than this scenario suggests. Ideally, the decision to move on is mutual, anticipated, and planned. If your therapist is a good fit, and you’ve developed a trusting relationship, you’ll both probably know when it makes sense to do so. It’s also likely that you’ll be able to discuss it openly: you’re feeling better; you’ve worked together toward gaining insights on the challenges that brought you into therapy, you’ve grappled with grieving, worked to improve or let go of toxic relationships, begun to heal from trauma, etc. Now, you both sense that you have the tools and understanding to deal with situations that trigger anxiety or other issues. You’ve grown, your therapist has genuinely helped you, and with respect and goodwill on both sides, the time to part has come.
But what if you and your therapist are not such a good fit? They’re just not “getting” you, and it seems unlikely that you’ll feel better any time soon. While the most frequent advice is to “shop around,” in practice it can be hard to tell your story — in all its intimate, painful details — multiple times to different strangers. That kind of reluctance can tempt you to stick with the therapist you’ve been working with, despite your reservations.
At this point, it’s all too easy to rationalize your way back into familiar territory. Maybe you’re relying on community or employee services, where choices are more affordable. Maybe you have trouble asserting yourself. Maybe you don’t want to say something that might hurt your therapist’s feelings or invite some kind of judgment. While each of these reasons might be valid, continuing on when you’re not fully invested will be an unfortunate waste of time for you both.
Take “Jean,” for instance, a woman in her 60s who sought therapy when she found herself stuck getting over the death of a pet. Her online therapist, a woman in her 30s, seemed to pigeonhole Jean as a lonely empty nester who needed to get out more. “Yet I’m not lonely,” says Jean, a creative spirit who is happily married, sees her grown children often, and enjoys a wide circle of friends. “She was very nice, but she was off about who I am.” Jean felt stereotyped, but being conflict-avoidant, didn’t know how to convey it. She ended up leaving after completing several sessions and didn’t seek out another therapist. Eventually, she moved past her grief on her own, without the external help and insight she had been looking for. Jean still wonders if, with the right therapist, the process might not have taken so long or been so painful.
So, though it may not be easy, if you’re dissatisfied for any reason, you owe it to yourself and your therapist to communicate your feelings and end the therapeutic relationship.
Starting wellOf course, incompatibility can be avoided by finding a good fit from the beginning. Many therapists detail their specialties and training in online biographies, which makes it easier to narrow the field and choose someone with expertise in what you’re experiencing — someone who has a good chance of understanding and appreciating who you are and what you need.
According to Lindsey Thomson, a registered psychotherapist based in Kanata, Ontario, and public affairs director for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, with 13,000 members across the country, as you go through this process “it’s important to be truthful about your preferences. Let’s say you’re a woman who wants to work on your experience of a past trauma that makes you uncomfortable talking with a man. Or maybe you’re part of a marginalized community and feel more comfortable with someone who shares the same cultural background. If you have preferences like that,” she says, “you need to find someone who meets them.” Many therapists, including Thomson, offer a 30-minute complimentary session to help potential clients test the waters and see if the fit is good for both people.
Also essential is understanding what type of therapy the counsellor is offering and what their overall philosophy is. As Thomson points out, studies suggest that what matters most is the dynamic between client and therapist. “This is a working relationship we’re dealing with,” she says, “you know, human to human. If something comes up that you don’t agree with, or if you don’t like the way the therapist has framed something — or you were challenged, and you weren’t ready for it — bring that up. It’s really important. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. But just know that all therapists want to know what’s going on for you in that process.”
Definitely don’t “ghost”!While therapeutic situations differ, says Thomson, clients will average between 12 and 20 sessions, particularly with goal-oriented models like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
“Let’s say I’m a client in therapy with generalized anxiety, and I’ve had 10 sessions. I’ve noticed a decrease because I’ve been working on some behaviour changes to help reduce it. At that point, the therapist can do a progress check on my initial goals and see how I’ve been doing with practising those skills — whether it’s behaviour changes, regulating emotions, or challenging an automatic negative thought to let it go and move on. Do I feel confident that I can maintain that without the therapist’s support?” For the therapist in this situation, says Thomson, rather than a complete termination, “maybe we switch the frequency of sessions. I typically see clients every two weeks. So why don’t we try seeing each other once a month for what we call maintenance-type therapy? If the skill implementation isn’t going so well, then we can go back to where we left off.”
At every stage of the process, the key to success is being comfortable communicating your feelings. You’re there to gain insight and develop the skills to grow, heal, and cope. Your therapist should be in your corner all the way.
If they do or say something truly unprofessional, and the organization they are registered with has a code of ethics and disciplinary measures, you can make a complaint. Check the laws and regulations in your province or territory to determine how to proceed in this kind of situation.
Resource: Fact Sheet: Common Mental Health Myths and Misconceptions.
Further reading: Weaving Through the Challenges: The ABCs of Finding an ACB Therapist
Exploring the impact, resources, and strategies for suicide prevention
Author Dr. Jennifer Mullan’s new book takes a critical look at care
When one size does not fit all. A look at Waypoint’s approach to structured psychotherapy
Getting started on a new plan for meaningful change