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Making Therapy Successful: How Do You Know When to Quit?
The last article in the “Making Therapy Successful” series covered how to connect with your therapist. By communicating openly, respecting the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship, expecting and navigating strong feelings, and doing your homework, you can build a strong alliance and make progress on your goals.
It can feel great when you’re in a groove with your therapist and seeing the difference therapy is making in your daily life. But at some point, you’ll start wondering when and if you should stop. You might feel like you’ve done what you initially came to therapy to do, but there’s always more you can work on, isn’t there? Is it even okay to quit therapy? Isn’t that like quitting exercise? Why stop doing something that’s good for you?
Think about it this way: is it healthy to go see your doctor even when you’re not sick, just because you enjoy talking to them and like how it feels to sit in their office? The purpose of therapy is to help you heal, and when you’ve healed, it’s time to move on. This doesn’t mean that you have to have everything figured out or that things have to be perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t go back to therapy if your symptoms come back. What it means is that when you’ve started to stagnate in therapy, it’s better to move on so you can continue your growth on your own.
But how can you tell when therapy is keeping you stuck instead of helping you grow? It can be hard to know when a stuck place you’re in is temporary and when it’s a sign that your therapy has reached a natural end. Your therapist can help you figure that out, and there are some signs you can look out for. If you’ve noticed one or more of the following, it might be time to talk to your therapist about bringing your work together to a close.
You start feeling bored.
One of the primary reasons people keep going to therapy even after it’s stopped having much of an impact on their personal growth goals is that it’s comforting and familiar. Comfort and boredom come hand in hand when change slows down.
Early on, therapy feels exciting. You’re talking about things you haven’t talked about in years and telling your therapist secrets and fears you’ve never told anyone else. You’re discovering something new about yourself every week and starting to change your life outside of the therapy room. It feels monumental and exhilarating.
In the best therapy relationships, there are peak moments. You uncover an important memory, have a life-changing insight, or make a connection that transforms how you understand yourself. While the mind is deep, and there are always new things to learn about yourself, there’s a point when these revelations become less frequent, less profound, and therapy starts to feel a little more… boring. If you find your mind wandering in your therapist’s office and turning to what you’re having for dinner, or just feel bored most of the time you’re there, it’s a sign that therapy isn’t working in your life the way it once did.
You both start repeating yourselves.
Repetition is a natural dynamic in our lives and isn’t always a sign of stagnation. You sometimes have to circle back to the same thing you’ve looked at a million times to finally see it clearly. You learn by coming back to the same topics but going deeper each time. You get better by practicing a routine or skill, refining it a little more each time you practice. Therapy is similar: insights often come from returning to a thought or memory and going deeper into it.
At other times, repetition can be fruitless. You cover the same ground over and over and find nothing new. You chase a feeling, wanting to feel like you did the first time you had an important insight even when part of you knows you’ve already learned what you needed to learn. It’s almost like you want to replay your greatest hits and go back to the same songs you know by heart. If you find yourself repeating the same insights or observations you’ve already made, or find your therapist doing the same, it may indicate that your therapeutic relationship has stopped being productive.
Your interactions become "chattier" and include more small talk.
A therapist is not a friend, even if they feel like one. What distinguishes your work with a therapist from conversations you have with friends is the way your therapist keeps a laser focus on you, allowing you to go deeper into material that you pass over more superficially with friends. By keeping the focus off of your therapist, you both allow the work of therapy to unfold.
Sometimes trying to return the focus to your therapist can be a sign you’re getting close to deep or vulnerable material and your defenses are up. But if you find that the usual first few minutes of chit-chat are extending further and further into your session, and you’re asking your therapist more personal questions just to keep the conversation going, it may be a sign that you’ve covered what you needed to cover in therapy. It’s important to enjoy a good hour of pleasant and light-hearted talk, but the right place for that is with friends, not the therapy office.
You don't notice as much of a difference in your life after therapy.
Once, you left therapy sessions feeling different—sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always feeling something. Some days, you’d come home singing. At other times, you’d feel raw, but would have a great conversation with a partner or friend that wouldn’t have been possible without that vulnerability. Now, you come home feeling about the same as before, a little bored, a little blank, maybe even a little irritated at the hour you “lost” in therapy that you could have used to get important tasks done.
You also notice that you’re not learning as much in therapy as before. You make few changes to your life in response to what you discuss in sessions. Early on, you were making major shifts, and now you’re just holding steady. You sometimes vent, sometimes celebrate, but rarely report to your therapist that anything significant has changed. If all this is true because you achieved the goals you set at the beginning of therapy, it’s a sign that you’ve completed your work together.
You find more reasons to miss sessions and cancel more frequently.
We all go through rough spells when life is a struggle and we can’t keep up with what’s important to us. This can happen in therapy, too—you might have a month where you miss several sessions because you’re having a busy period at work, a kid who needs your help, or another major life transition or disruption. But if nothing like that is going on, and you still find that you’re missing sessions or frequently asking to reschedule, it might be a sign that you’re trying to move on.
One of the natural ways to close the therapy relationship is to start seeing your therapist less often. If you were going once a week, you might start going every other week, then once a month, and do that for a while until you set a date for your final session. Sometimes, this process starts happening informally and continues until you realize you’re missing sessions for a reason.
Ending any relationship is hard. We naturally avoid doing it. Loss is painful. We form attachments and feel the absence of people we were once close to. But endings can be important, and healing, and positive, even when they’re a little sad. One of the things we learn from loss is that we never fully lose the people who made a difference in our lives. If you got close, you’ll carry your therapist with you wherever you go, thinking of what they’d say or nudge you to notice. The work you did together changed you and will always be part of you.
Sometimes, quitting therapy is more of a pause. After finding your way on your own for a while, you may run into a new issue. At that point, it might be good to go back to your old therapist or better to find a new one with a different specialty or angle. If you’re ready for a new therapist, you can use the search tools on OpenCounseling or BetterHelp (a sponsor) to find affordable local or online therapy. You’ll know when it’s time to start the next chapter in your story of growth.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.