In my two previous blogs, I have talked about the process of deciding to have counselling and how to find a therapist and what to expect in the first sessions. This month sees the final part of this blog series in which I look at ending therapy.
(Oh, and just to clarify, the terms counselling and therapy mean the same thing, just as the terms counsellor and therapist are the same, so I will use them interchangeably.)
Ok, so why am I talking about ending in a series about starting therapy? That is a good question. Well, in every therapy session you experience an ending when the session reaches time. This is a boundaried and carefully handled part of the session, where a good therapist will check in with you and ensure you are feeling safe to ‘re-enter the world’. In the same way, as soon as you start therapy, you and your therapist are working towards therapy ending. The therapeutic relationship is not infinite. At the beginning of counselling, you set goals you want to achieve and may even discuss when you will know you have achieved them. Ethically, it is a counsellor’s duty to prepare clients for ending therapy and part of that involves reviewing what the client is getting from counselling, supporting the client to recognise the tools that are at their disposal and having conversations if the client is no longer benefitting from the counselling sessions.
With some types of counselling, you may be offered a set number of therapy sessions, called time-limited therapy. Therefore, you are aware from the start the ‘use-by’ date of the therapeutic relationship. In this instance, your therapist should be ensuring that the ending doesn’t suddenly arrive and take you by surprise. They may introduce which session number you are on, or that you have X number of sessions left. They may begin to review and reflect on what you have gotten from therapy and discuss the tools and strategies to cope now at your disposal and check how you feel about the upcoming ending. A good therapist will ask you to consider anything that you feel was missed or that you now recognise you could have benefitted from exploring, and this may lead to a consideration of future goals, resources or referrals for future support. This is a time to be honest and evaluate what you did and didn’t get.
Equally, other counsellors work in an ‘open-ended’ sort of way, which puts no time limits on the therapy offered. In this instance, a good counsellor should be reviewing with you what you are getting from therapy so you can make a decision as to whether you are benefitting from it. A client may feel they no longer want to continue with therapy for a number of reasons. Whether it is because they feel they have achieved their goals, something is impacting on their ability to continue with therapy sessions or the counsellor does not seem to be fulfilling their needs. The purpose of therapy is to empower the client to notice their needs and feel able to address them in a way which works for them. The question then becomes ‘how do I break up with my counsellor?’
It may feel like an uncomfortable conversation to initiate and the temptation may be to simply ‘ghost’ your counsellor, that is to say, you just don’t turn up to appointments or respond to their communications, but how you end your relationships is just as important as how you start them. How you choose to end your counselling relationship can be a helpful point of reflection and practice for how you face endings in other aspects of your life.
8 tips for ending counselling
1. discuss endings when therapy begins
It may feel strange to talk about ending within your first few sessions, but it is a helpful process to establish your goals and expectations and manage your experience of therapy. Knowing how your therapist prepares for endings means you will not be taken by surprise if they suddenly announce you have just 2 sessions left. Similarly, talking to your therapist about your own experiences of ending and how you would like your therapeutic ending to look like, is an important part of you giving yourself a positive ending.
2. Work out why you want it to end
There is always a reason for wanting something to end. Something that therapy teaches us, is that understanding the 'why' helps us choose 'how' we want to respond. If you have experienced abandonment, are you wanting to jump ship to protect yourself from being hurt? Has your therapist said something, or missed something which has left you feeling unheard/judged or anxious and you are avoiding having a discussion about it for fear of conflict? Do you feel stuck in the therapy and don't feel the therapists methods work for you? Has a change in finances meant you can’t afford therapy anymore or do you feel you have achieved all you wanted to at this point?
Getting clear about your reasoning will help you decide what you want from your therapy/therapist both now and in the future, and will help frame how you discuss your decision with your therapist.
3. Be honest
The purpose of therapy is to enable personal growth by learning more about yourself and using that increased self-awareness to give you choice and control over your thoughts and behaviours. Part of the work in therapy is learning how to show up in life and to feel empowered to say ‘this isn’t working for me, we are not meeting my goals’. Therefore, if you feel your therapist isn’t understanding or giving you what you need, tell them. It may feel like they are mind-readers sometimes, but they aren’t. Therefore sharing why you are considering leaving not only empowers you but also gives them the chance to reflect and make changes.
4. Consider a ‘conscious goodbye’
How often do you hear or use the phrase ‘see you later’? How often are you aware that the likelihood is there will be no later? Yet, we say it anyway. Why? Well, it is a good avoidance strategy; it keeps things open-ended so we ultimately don’t need to face something ending - we are actively avoiding saying the word ‘goodbye’ (if this sounds like you, refer back to point 1 and 2).
A conscious goodbye, where we acknowledge that this is the end can be incredibly validating. It enables you to have the opportunity to reflect upon what you have accomplished and gained through the counselling process, even if that is to recognise your needs weren’t being met and you were able to value yourself enough to be dissatisfied with that!
A conscious goodbye enables you to assess the journey travelled by comparing where you started and where you are now. If you are leaving because the therapist or their methods is not a good fit for you, consciously saying goodbye can give you the opportunity to talk through what you do want from a new therapist.
5. Talk to you therapist
Now depending on why you want to end your therapy this could feel like an easy or a monstrously hard step. If you have a good relationship with your therapist, it may feel easy to voice your reasons. However, if you do not feel heard, seen or accepted by your therapist it will likely feel uncomfortable to talk about this. It is important to remember that a good therapist works for the good of the client, even if that means that they are not the best choice themselves to continue therapy. Your reasoning is valid. It may be hard to hear, but a good therapist would rather you told them that you were finding their way of working difficult so they could either offer an alternative or support you to find something more suited to you, if you wanted.
That said, if there has been an ethical violation by your therapist such as a breach of confidentiality, a sexual advance or a violation of boundaries, you have the right to stop attending therapy immediately and report any misconduct to the therapist’s ethical body.
6. Send an email or text
If having a discussion face-to-face with your therapist just feels too difficult, it is still important for you to make clear that you want the therapy to end and state your reasons why. This doesn’t mean providing a long or involved explanation, but it will give you the opportunity to state your boundaries, reflect upon your needs and empower you to change how you experience endings. It enables you to draw a line in the sand so you do not have to wonder or worry about it. Also, your therapist is a person to and it is helpful to them to have an ending clearly marked.
A good therapist will be happy to read and respond to your email or text. It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship is about you, the client and not the therapist.
7. Have a timely ending
Remember to cancel your next appointment with appropriate notice (you do not want to incur any fees for a late-notice cancellation). You could send a message that says “I’ve decided I would like to end counselling with you at this time." You could also state your reason, for example, "I would like to try a different approach with a different therapist/ I don’t feel I am in the right place to continue with therapy at this time / I feel I would benefit from a different type of support at this time, thank you for your time and thoughts to date.”
Ensuring you give enough warning that an ending is approaching, also enables your therapist to offer you an ending session. Endings in any part of life can be difficult, more so if they are unexpected. By planning for and attending an ending session it enables both you and your therapist to experience a positive ending and gain closure.
8. Have a plan of next steps
If you were to be discharged from a healthcare service regarding your physical health, the professional involved would have a discussion with you regarding how to continue to look after yourself, signs to look out for and numbers to contact.
In the same way, it is important to plan when therapy ends, how you will continue to look after your mental health, what signs may indicate you need a ‘top up’ and where you can get that support. Therefore, it may be useful to seek out other therapists and set up a chat before ending with your current therapist so you are not left carrying everything alone.
Alternatively, you may have found through therapy that you benefitted from having an hour a week to yourself and choose to plan an hour to meet up with a friend for coffee or participate in something just for you or you may use journaling to empty out your stress bucket so it doesn’t get full and overflow.
If you feel you have benefitted from your therapy, you may want to check out what availability your therapist has for ‘check-in’ sessions, or whether they have an online presence where they post resources or ask for recommendations of other therapists in the area if you want to try something different. If therapy comes to an unplanned ending, it is important to not let this experience affect you in seeking support in the future. There are many different therapists, each with their own way of working. Just because this one therapist and their way of working didn’t suit you, doesn’t mean they are all the same.
How will my therapist react?
Many clients worry about how their therapist will take their decision to end counselling. Be assured, that a good therapist will have the client’s best interest at the front and foremost of the therapeutic relationship and will honour your decision – they deal with endings all the time, part of their ethical code is manage endings.
If, however, your therapist gives you a hard time or you feel forced to stay, consider this a huge ‘red flag’. As said earlier, ethical practice states that ‘the client comes first’ and so any therapist exerting their will over your choice is not working ethically. A good therapist welcomes feedback, it helps us become better therapists. By communicating what did and didn’t work for you, you are actually helping others!
To initiate an ending involves you being aware of your thoughts, feelings and needs and to value them enough to act upon them. This takes courage and a commitment to self. In seeking therapy you acted upon a strong need to provide yourself with self-care, ending therapy is no different.
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