When you enter therapy, your relationship with your therapist may become one of the closest and the most important in your life. Your sessions together may take priority over other commitments or even feel crucial to your being able to function and maintain those other commitments – for a time. Therapy won’t – nor should it – last forever.
The goal of therapy is to gain insights and develop tools to effectively handle the issues that brought you to therapy and guide you as other life stressors occur. Unfortunately, there is no final exam to show you have achieved that goal and no graduation to mark therapy’s official end. Although your therapist will provide guidance, the decision whether and when to end therapy is ultimately up to you.
Research shows that for many people, somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 therapy sessions is optimal. You may not need that many, but you could need significantly more. How long it takes to achieve your therapeutic goals is highly individual and will depend on a number of factors including the complexity of the problems for which you are seeking therapy, your specific goals of therapy, your relationship (“fit”) with your therapist, and — importantly — your commitment to achieving the goals of therapy.
Going to therapy isn’t just a matter of showing up or even having a trusted friend to confide in — although that is part of it. Successful therapy involves putting in effort outside of your time together — considering points the therapist has made, practicing skills the therapist has taught you, and, in some cases, doing homework, such as reading a book or keeping a journal your therapist has assigned. The timeline and success of therapy lies in large part with you.
The decision of when to end therapy is an ongoing process that begins with your first meeting or meetings with your therapist. Within the first few sessions, you will likely have a good feel as to whether this is someone you want to have an ongoing relationship and continue therapy with.
From the first session, you can begin to ask questions of your therapist — and yourself — that will help the process.
You probably won’t just wake up one day and decide you are through with therapy. Getting to that point is a progression and you’ll probably have clues along the way. Here are some signs the time is getting close:
Alternatively, you may choose to end therapy for negative reasons. For example, you discover your therapy has not been helpful, the therapist doesn’t have the expertise to address your particular problem, or you simply are not comfortable with your therapist. Or maybe you discover that you are not ready for the therapy process. Sometimes, life events happen that can make it challenging. If your job, school, or family responsibilities make it impossible for you to attend regular sessions, or you are not committed to doing the work required outside of your sessions, you should consider ending therapy and trying again when you are fully ready.
If you think you’re getting close to the end, work with your therapist to determine the right time and prepare for the transition. In fact, your therapist may be the one to initiate this discussion if they feel you are ready. Discuss progress you have made over the course of therapy. Go over the skills you have learned and how to use them going forward.
If you have trouble with ending relationships or saying good-byes, address that with your therapist. Unless your therapist is retiring, moving, or is otherwise unable to continue seeing you, ask about the possibility of scheduling less frequent sessions instead of ending them abruptly. Also, ask about the possibility of returning from time to time as new issues arise in your life. Even if therapy is ending now, that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again when and if you need it later.
Bhatia, A. (2017, June). Ending Therapy: The Therapeutic Relationship During the Termination Phase. Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy.
Goode, J.; Park, J.; Parkin, S.; Tompkins, KA.; Swift, JK. (2017, November 21). A collaborative approach to psychotherapy termination. Psychotherapy (Chic).
Harvard Health Publishing. (2014, March 9). Dropping out of psychotherapy. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/dropping-out-of-psychotherapy
Syracuse University School of Education Termination of Counseling (n.d.). Termination of Counseling.