When do you stop going to therapy? An x-ray can tell you that a broken bone is mended and that you can walk on it. But you aren’t a bone. Here are some ideas to help you decide when you are done with therapy.
All of this assumes that you are working with a therapist who is a good fit for you. You feel you can trust them, you are in agreement on how to address your issues, and on what you are basically doing there. If you are there to understand your marriage and your therapist thinks you are there to feel less anxious, you have a mismatch and need to sort this out right away. If you want to learn better coping skills and your therapist thinks you are there to understand your dreams… get on the same page. If you can’t, find someone else.
Ideally you will leave therapy when you’ve accomplished the goals you’ve set for yourself. When you started, you should have had some sense how you wanted things (you) to be different when therapy is complete. You can and should check in from time to time with your therapist about how you are doing and where therapy is going. I like it when my clients do this. I like looking for signs of progress, and sharing our insights. You should see signs of progress within one to three months. It might take longer to resolve, but you should not be waiting years to see something happen.
Some issues resolve pretty quickly, others can take a long time. Part of this depends on what level of work you are doing. If you are trying to find strategies to deal with a specific life problem or make a decision, you probably won’t need to go for long. Changing a specific behaviour might not take that long either, depending on what it is. If you are trying to change a part of your personality, this can take quite a while – minimum six months, and it could be years. Trauma work generally takes a while, and the earlier it began and the longer it lasted, the more time it will usually take. Generally, short-term issues lead to short-term therapy. Long term issues, especially those that began in childhood, generally mean longer therapy to be resolved.
Other clues that you might be done are:
- When you have made or resolved the life transition that brought you to therapy and you are getting on with life.
- When you feel that you know how to deal with your feelings and relationships, and the problems life throws at you.
- When you feel confident in who you are, what you feel, and what you want and you can stand up for these.
- When you are able to make free, smart, and responsible choices for yourself out of love and not fear.
- When you are able to love as freely as you would like, and let others love you.
- When you have good boundaries with others. You can let them in… or not. You can go along with them… or not.
- When you are able to feel your feelings and you don’t take your feelings out on others.
- When you are not in the power of an addiction.
- When you are not haunted by past events any more.
- When you have some sense what you want from life and are able to go for your dreams.
- When you are able to work effectively, but also to have fun, play and relax.
- When you feel that you now thoroughly know yourself. You understand the sources of your happiness and unhappiness and know what to do about these.
- When the problem that brought you to therapy is solved and you have worked through the other issues that came up along the way.
It’s usually not a good idea to stop just because you start to touch uncomfortably strong feelings or issues. Or you get scared of your feelings or impulses that are coming up. It can be tempting at this point to think that therapy is not working or just making you worse. Strong feelings, including those about the therapy, are actually a great reason to continue. You are now getting ready to do some of the real work, discovery and healing. The deeper problems are now within reach and are available to be explored.
However, if you are not learning any more, this is a clue that you could either end therapy or else increase the heat. If you are just chatting session after session, there is something missing. Maybe you are not going deep enough, or maybe you are done and don’t realize it. Discuss this with therapist. It’s not criticism. Even if it were, the therapist should be able to take it.
I appreciate it when I know we are near the end, and the client doesn’t just stop coming without telling me. When I know we have just a session or two to go, I have a different focus, and use the sessions accordingly. There might be a specific piece of work I want to suggest or a skill I’d still like to teach, and if I don’t have warning, this gets lost. An end date might be next week, it might be in 5 months. Some of my long-term clients like to taper off – checking in less often and spreading out the appointments.
If you feel that you’ve accomplished what you wanted to, but your therapist hasn’t said anything, it’s up to you to tell him or her that you are ready to leave therapy. Then you can discuss it. The therapist may agree and be really pleased for you. Remember that the therapist’s job is to make him or herself unncessary. Or he or she might be able to point out a possible next step that you overlooked. Then you discuss whether you want to do that piece of work or not.
If you are a bit scared about leaving therapy, remember that you can always go back if you need to. And it can be nice and affirming to check in some time later, even if it is no longer a necessity. Because you now know it is not a necessity!
Brian Grady, Ph.D. Registered Psychologist
23 Marchh 2009