Why It’s OK to ‘Break Up’ With Your Therapist
It’s late on a rainy evening in 2017. I’m restless. My shoulders are tense. I should be asleep by now, but I need to press send on this email. In the past week, I’ve talked to three different people about my situation, but my fear surpasses any sound advice they’ve texted. See, it’s time for me to break up with my therapist. There have been several red flags in the past several sessions, and I know I’m not getting the care I need. The irony is, I could use an appointment right now to help me cope with ending such a complicated, intimate relationship.
I’ve been in therapy since my first year of college. A good friend encouraged me to seek help with managing my anxiety. Years later, I’d meet with various practitioners, each with their own style, approach and level of professionalism. One therapist ate lunch and took personal calls during my session. Another once exclaimed, “Why can you just get over this already?!” And then there was the therapist who supported me in making several life-altering decisions in a short amount of time, never once naming my mania, providing redirects, nor notifying my emergency contacts.
Fortunately, I’ve had a few caring, competent therapists who’ve helped me manage the shame associated with my diagnoses, guided me in working through childhood trauma, and have met me with cultural sensitivity, empathy and wisdom.
When’s it’s come breaking up with a therapist who’s done more harm than good, however, the struggle has been threefold:
- Worrying about hurting their feelings,
- Fearing retaliation,
- Concern that they’ll convince me to continue our relationship.
Much of this mirrors the dissonance one might experience when attempting to leave a codependent. For me, the added layer is a past full of trauma, and a struggle to follow through on healthy boundaries. As a recovering people-pleaser, my self-worth has been tied up in making decisions that can lead me to a better, more balanced state. There’s also the sunk cost fallacy, which in this case is continuing to remain with a therapist because of all the money, time, energy and vulnerability invested. Why leave now and have to start all over again?
At present, I’m much more comfortable with leaving a therapist. When I’m ready to exit the relationship, I send an email to establish the next steps. Typically, I write: “Hello, Thank you for your support these past several months. I’m writing to cancel our services as I am seeking other services. Take care, Sinclair.” Then I use the subject line: Cancellation of Services and finally hit send.
For the most part, I’ve received well wishes and understanding. Only one person called and replied asking if I could share why I was ending the relationship after only the intake session — to which I replied, “no thank you,” and moved on because I felt completely unsafe and unsatisfied during the intake session.
This leads to me a few important considerations when it comes to breaking up with a therapist and self-advocacy:
1. You don’t owe anyone an explanation when setting boundaries for yourself.
Yes, qualifying your decision is considerate, but should only be done in instances where you trust the person. If a practitioner has been treating you with disrespect or hasn’t been truly invested in your process (listening, providing guidance over giving directives, etc.) then sharing why you’ve made the decision to leave isn’t necessary. This could lead to more conversations you’re uncomfortable with.
2. Remember that the relationship is a two-way street.
Therapists reserve the right to end a client/therapist relationship at any time. While they typically have an ethical and standardized process for this and prepare clients, you’re not the therapist and don’t have to take care of their feelings. However, this isn’t permission to be rude or disrespectful.
3. You can’t heal if you don’t feel seen and heard.
In recent years, I’ve become aware of how important it is for my therapist to be culturally sensitive. I recently told a therapist about my fears of harm while being a Black man in this racial climate, and they responded by challenging me and invalidating my experiences. Recently, a therapist asked me to explain why, “Black men don’t follow through on attending therapy,” and why they struggle to open up. Situations like this can grueling to navigate. And, outside of clear they-crossed-the-line instances like this, sometimes there’s no clear answer on when to leave.
The guilt is real, but there’s no shame in remaining with a therapist who isn’t serving you well. Perhaps, the relationship is still salvageable. Perhaps, you’re still seeking clarity. Or maybe you’re frozen in inaction, which is still a choice according to therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.
But, don’t feel you need to stay because of scarcity. While it can be challenging to identify new therapists who fit your budget, take your insurance (if applicable), have availability, and align with your values, it’s absolutely worth it to find someone new if you feel unsafe, disrespected or just like you’ve soared as high as you can with this person. I recommend heavily leaning on your support network during this process.
The discussions between my wife and I are honest and lovingly direct with these types of situations. We’re reminded of the benefits of my stability each time we look at our daughter, our home, our future plans. I’m committed to remaining in therapy to manage my mood as a compliment to the work I do with my psychiatrist and other aspects of my wellness journey. For there’s a dark place to which I never want to return. So, I’m OK to say “goodbye” if it means still having everything that matters to me.
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