There’s a reason Neil Sedaka’s snappy song from the ‘60s became such a big-time hit. We can all agree that “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Fortunately, we don’t have to trudge through the mental anguish of a breakup alone! A good therapist can teach us healthy coping skills and help us reframe negative thoughts.
There’s only one small catch: What if the person we need to break up with is our therapist?
As mental health awareness has grown in recent years (and more and more celebrities have come forward with their struggles), the percentage of people seeking professional help has also increased dramatically, with nearly 30 percent of Americans reporting that they saw a therapist during the coronavirus pandemic. The reality is, though, that finding a therapist with whom we have a strong rapport (especially on the first try) is harder than it looks in the movies. Just as in picking a partner for a romantic relationship, we don’t have to settle on the first (or third) person we meet, and we deserve to be picky when our mental health is at stake.
If you’ve been diligently attending your therapy sessions but still feel that something is “off,” it may not be all in your head. Here, mental health experts uncover some top signs you should break up with your therapist – and how to end things professionally and productively.
Reasons To Break Up With Your Therapist
It may be time to break up with your therapist if:
1. Your Sessions Are More About The Therapist Than About You
Sometimes, a little self-disclosure from your therapist (i.e., sharing personal stories) can play a helpful role during sessions, especially if the share illustrates how the therapist can relate to your feelings. And “a good, well-trained therapist will know when it is okay to self-disclose and how to do it effectively,” notes Catherine Tillinghast, M.A., a licensed professional counselor associate. “Our rule of thumb when feeling the need to self-disclose is: Would I be saying this for my clients’ benefit or for my own benefit?”
If the self-disclosure spirals into over-sharing and your therapist constantly talks about him- or herself, your sessions may no longer be healthy or productive. “Therapy sessions are not the time nor the place for therapists to go in-depth about their personal lives,” Tillinghast says. “When a therapist over-shares or becomes too personal with you, it can cross boundaries and damage the therapeutic relationship. So, when you hear your therapist responding with their personal experience to everything you say, or if you notice they are taking up too much time talking about themselves, it might be time to bring it up with your therapist or make the decision to move on.”
2. You Feel Misunderstood By Your Therapist
One important purpose of therapy is to offer a space where you feel understood, especially when it seems like no one else understands your struggles. “Therapists are trained to communicate their understanding and caring to the client,” explains Steve Sultanoff, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “If you are not feeling understood and cared for, then it may not be present within the therapist. If it is not present within the therapist — or if the therapist does not have the ability to communicate it — then this is a very serious issue, and you are best seeking another therapist.”
3. Your Therapist Gives You Advice
Even though you may want your therapist to give you advice or direction, therapy is not life coaching — and “competent therapists rarely, if ever, offer advice,” Dr. Sultanoff points out. “They also avoid talking to the client with words like ‘should, must, ought to, etc.’, except when reflecting what the client has said directly,” he says. If it seems like your therapist is trying to sway you in one direction or another, it may be time to seek therapy elsewhere.
4. Your Therapist Isn’t Respectful Of Your Time
For the therapeutic relationship to be successful, your therapist should respect your time and give you undivided attention during sessions. But “if your therapist struggles to be professional with you, that’s a problem,” says Kevin Coleman, L.M.F.T.-A., a licensed marriage and family therapist. “That could include not responding to phone calls or emails, being distracted in session, or not showing up to your scheduled sessions together.”
Another red flag is if you have to constantly remind your therapist of important events or people in your life, notes Amy Rollo, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist. “Therapists are people, too — and it’s been hard to be a therapist the last two years — but forgetfulness shouldn’t happen on repeat,” she says.
5. You’re Not Making Progress In Therapy
Don’t expect to have a therapeutic breakthrough overnight, or even in just a few sessions. But “if you find yourself walking away from sessions with no new understanding or knowledge about yourself or your goals for multiple weeks in a row, it may be that the style of therapy isn’t challenging you the way others could,” says Kali Wolken, L.M.H.C., L.P.C., C.C.C., a licensed professional counselor and career counselor.
“You might also find that you are spending your therapy sessions venting with no real outcome, which is often a reason people seek a therapist in the first place,” Wolken adds. If you’ve been dragging yourself to therapy for weeks or months and it feels like not much has changed — in your life or in your own psyche – you may find better results with a different provider.
6. Your Therapist Violates Your Boundaries
Therapists must adhere to strict ethical guidelines in their relationships with clients, and maintaining safe and healthy boundaries is a key component. But occasionally, a therapist may act unethically or push professional boundaries. “If a therapist attempts to develop a personal relationship with you, by making romantic overtures, or even asking you to perform personal favors (e.g., dog-sit while they’re on vacation or asking you to arrange an introduction with someone in your professional network), it might be advisable to terminate treatment,” recommends Catherine Hall, L.M.S.W., a licensed master social worker.
7. You No Longer Need Therapy
Remember, there’s no timeline for therapy. Whether you’re seeking treatment for trauma, depression and anxiety, relationship issues, or job stress, everyone recovers at a different pace. But “therapy doesn’t have to last a lifetime,” Dr. Rollo points out. “When you feel like you don’t need it anymore, you can talk to your therapist about terminating or pausing! This is the best type of therapy break-up!”
How To Break Up With Your Therapist
Feel like it’s time to finalize the breakup, but not sure how to deliver the dumping? Here’s a hint: Don’t ghost your therapist.
Instead, “have a conversation with them,” advises Julie Landry, Psy.D., A.B.P.P., a clinical psychologist in private practice. Sure, having a discussion about termination may feel uncomfortable (breaking up is hard to do), but it offers several advantages, she says.
Have A Conversation
“Ending the therapeutic relationship with a face-to-face conversation will provide closure for you, which will be especially important if you’ve worked with the therapist for an extended period of time,” Dr. Landry explains. “While this relationship is different from others in your life, there is still an emotional investment, and this discussion provides an opportunity to work through an awkward interpersonal interaction, which will inform your behavior in future relationships.”
Ask For Referrals
Having this conversation gives you an opportunity to ask for referrals to other providers, Dr. Landry points out. “This may feel awkward, but it won’t be for the clinician who is accustomed to therapy relationships ending and can recommend someone who is a better fit,” she says.
As for how comprehensive the break-up convo should be? “You only need to provide as much explanation about your reasoning as feels comfortable to you,” Dr. Landry says. “But talking through your decision may be cathartic, and honesty is usually the best practice.
“Therapists don’t take this personally, and they understand the importance of a good working relationship and therapeutic alliance,” she adds. “If your therapist doesn’t, it’s confirmation the relationship wasn’t a good one.”
Have you recently started therapy or changed therapists? What’s your advice for finding the right kind of therapist? Share your tips in the comments below.
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