Leaving a long-term practitioner is a skill, one we do not get a chance to practice much and probably did not learn growing up. We might learn the polite, “I don’t think this is a good fit,” while we decline to reschedule with someone we saw once or twice, but it is harder to know how to end with someone we have seen for a long time.
Even with short-term practitioners, we have to learn to trust our instincts about when to ask for what we need, and when to back away from the bog of not being understood.
When we finally connect with a practitioner who does understand, who is giving us some of what we need, we relax into the refuge of their help. We naturally become attached to their care. Over months and years we grow and change, and so do they. One day, we notice we are feeling uncomfortable and restless. Or perhaps receiving help has felt dangerous all along, and we reach a tipping point where we need to address it.
Pause to notice
We might wait a while to see if the rough patch resolves itself. We might sit with what changed inside us and in them and see if we have a request for what might meet our needs better. We might notice that our priorities have changed around how we spend our energy, time, or money. We might realize that we are clearly done, or even if it is not clear, that we want to try something different for a while.
We might feel like the practitioner is in a position of authority, and we need their permission to leave. We might feel surprised, confused, or guilty that their work does not fit anymore. We might feel angry about ways our needs are not being met now. We might worry about hurting the practitioner’s feelings or making them angry. We might worry about how to find someone who can better meet our current needs.
We could try a smaller change first, like shorter or less frequent sessions. We can also look for a new practitioner before stopping with the old one. Nervous systems often appreciate a more gradual transition.
We might urgently want to leave right now, and that is always our right. We are under no obligation to continue seeing any practitioner. We can check inside whether the urgency comes from a present-time event, or a past-time trigger. Note that triggered responses, “resistance,” feeling stuck, and unexplained discomfort are all valid reasons to stop.
We can choose how much or how little to communicate with the practitioner about wanting to leave. Speaking openly about how we feel might lead to a new phase of productive treatment, or respectful acknowledgment of our need to leave. Either way, it is an opportunity to make conscious choices about how we end a relationship that has been positive.
Practitioners are people
While we might feel some responsibility to take care of the practitioner’s feelings, we do not have to protect them from our truth. We can practice using “I” statements and naming what is going on for us, hopefully with their encouragement and support. They are there to help, and unless they are just starting out, they have faced this situation before. They know clients grow and change and leave over time.
If the practitioner is not respectful of the decision to leave or becomes defensive when receiving feedback, we can retreat to the polite and disappointed, “This is no longer a good fit.”
At the same time, there is no need to burn bridges by being intentionally hurtful or attacking. Even if we are angry with a practitioner, it is our responsibility to cancel any upcoming appointments rather than simply not show up. Best to tie up loose ends and not be left liable for an unpaid session. Practitioners are people and deserve basic respect for their time.
Here are some sample sentences to use with practitioners, preferably during a session, or by email, text, or phone between sessions.
- “Can we talk about what completing treatment and stopping would look like?”
- “I’m feeling uncomfortable with our work lately.” Possibly add specific reasons or, “I’m not sure why, but the feeling isn’t going away.”
- “I’ve noticed that my symptoms haven’t changed much.” Possibly add, “I’d like to focus on improving [specific symptom].”
- “I’ve realized that I need [specific need]. Is that something you can provide or recommend someone for?”
- “I’ve appreciated our work together, and it’s become clear to me that I need some time off. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to reschedule.”
- “I’m feeling a lot better, so I’m thinking of tapering off our sessions.”
- “I’m leaving town (starting school, changing jobs, etc.), so my last session will be on [date].”
Smooth the way
Practitioners can smooth the way by checking in with clients if they seem less engaged with their sessions, or if there is a plateau in their progress. By opening a conversation about ending, they show that it is a safe topic for discussion. Clients might also need reassurance that they are welcome to continue even without obvious progress.
The practitioner may offer a final session for closure. A formal ending could be healing, in contrast with sudden, jagged endings that often come with trauma. A final session can include appreciation from both sides, acknowledgement of any unresolved conflicts, and discussion of next steps. A practitioner can celebrate the client’s changes and achievements in their time together.
Leaving a longtime practitioner is like graduation. You have learned and grown and healed, and it is time to face new adventures. It might feel scary, and at the same time it is cause for pride as you look at how far you have come. It might also bring grief for a safe space and healing connection that you are outgrowing.
I did not find any information online about ending with bodyworkers, and not a lot about ending therapy.
- Ryan Howes’ article Terminating Therapy, Part I: What, Why, How? with followups Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 discuss therapy terminations in depth.