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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, collaborating on an action plan, and doing your homework, you can build a strong alliance and make progress on your goals.
Making Therapy Successful
To read the other two articles in the series, follow these links:
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 if and when 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?
The answer is simple: the purpose of therapy is to help you heal, and when you’ve healed, it’s time to move on.
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 how it feels to sit in their office?
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 or you find new goals you want to work on. 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 also signs you can look out for.
If you’ve noticed one or more of the following signs, it might be time to talk to your therapist about bringing your work together to a close.
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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.
Make Sure You Don't Quit Therapy at the Worst Possible Time
This article is about ending therapy at the right time, and making sure you don’t keep going out of comfort or habit when you’ve achieved your therapy goals.
But it’s important to note that the opposite can happen, too—and often does. It’s easy to bail out on therapy right before you have a major insight or advancement in your personal growth.
So, how can you tell the difference? Some signs you might be trying to end therapy too soon include:
- You start wanting to quit after a session that brought up difficult feelings or topics.
- You feel a sense of dread about going back to therapy and talking about that again.
- You’ve only been going to therapy for a while and haven’t had time to make much progress.
On the other hand, some signs it might be time to wrap up your time in therapy include:
- You’ve been in therapy a while and have accomplished many, if not all, of your therapy goals.
- You and your therapist have sensed that this was coming for a while and have talked about ending therapy.
- You’re no longer avoiding difficult feelings and feel a sense of satisfaction with therapy and life in general.
Therapy can bring up intense feelings, including painful ones that you want to avoid. Unfortunately, too many people quit therapy too soon because of this. So, please pause and reconsider if you’re wanting to quit because of how you’re feeling—a major breakthrough might be right around the corner.
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 therapy is likely to continue producing insights as long as you go, 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 and 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, though, 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 instead of writing a new song.
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. When you start feeling like meeting with your therapist is no different from lunchtime banter with a friend, it may be a sign that your work in therapy has lost steam.
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. And there are times that having a few moments of chatting can help you feel safe and connected so you can then dig into the deeper work of therapy.
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.
Early on, you probably left therapy sessions feeling different—sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always feeling something.
Some days, you might have come home beaming. You might have felt relieved of a burden you’d been carrying for years. At other times, you might have felt raw, but would then have a great conversation with a partner or friend that wouldn’t have been possible without that vulnerability.
Ask yourself: is therapy having less of an impact now? Do you come home feeling about the same as before? Do you feel 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 may 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, and you’ve 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 your life isn't any more hectic than usual, 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. It’s possible to take a break from therapy and come back, or do once-monthly sessions for a while until you get to the point you can dive back into some deeper work, but in many cases, wanting to taper the frequency of your sessions is a sign that you feel like there’s less to do.
It's hard to say goodbye to someone as important as a therapist who has helped you heal and grow.
But going to sporadic sessions just to chat and check in when you’re not actively working on anything anymore isn’t really helping you.
The risk of prolonging therapy past the point it’s useful is that you can waste time, money, and energy doing something that’s no longer serving you. It may even be blocking you from growing further and leaning into other changes you weren’t ready to make before—but are now, thanks to therapy.
The worst-case scenario is that you can block your growth by using therapy to avoid the next big step you know you need to take—something that might require the time and energy you’re currently putting into therapy.
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. Ending the relationship with your therapist in a healthy way can show you that it’s possible to let go and move on without negativity, conflict, or resentment when a relationship comes to a natural end.
One of the things you can learn from loss is that you never fully lose the people who made a difference in your life.
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 it might be 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. When it’s time to start the next chapter in your story of growth, you can feel confident knowing you can find just the right person to help you write it.
Starting therapy can be scary, but we’re here to help
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.