Signs It's Time To 'Graduate' Therapy

April 18th 2016

Laura Donovan

Knowing when to quit therapy can be hard if you've suffered from consistent mental health issues. I should know: I recently decided to stop going to therapy after four months.

I relied on therapy to cope with my emotional struggles. Two weeks ago, however, I realized there was less and less for me to say during these sessions. I appreciated having the resource, but it was beginning to feel like a crutch, and an expensive one at that. My therapist was sad to see me go, but happy to hear I felt ready to handle my troubles solo.

Many people leave therapy when the time is right.

Financial circumstances aside, here are some signs that you're ready to stop going to therapy or to start going less frequently, according to several therapists.

1. You've reached your goal.

"The clear indicator that it's time to end it or move on is if you've reached your goal," New York psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert told ATTN:. (Alpert has written a lot about when to leave therapy.)

"If the person has reached those goals, then it's probably a good time to part ways and maybe come back for a refresher session every so often," Alpert added.

Chicago psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber told ATTN: that he also takes a goals-based approach to patients.

"For example, in an intake session, when I start working with a client, I'll say, 'So what are your three objectives in our work together?'" Sumber said. "We'll work for the first few sessions to really crystallize the direction we want to go in and the goals that we have."

Reaching your goal is a good place to take a break, Sumber said. Later on down the road, "a new part of the work or a different incarnation of our own internal process" could arise and prompt you to come back in for more therapy, he added.

"In my experience, one of the most important times a client has reached their point of departure is not so much that they've 'done all the work,'" Sumber said. "I think there's a misunderstanding or a confusion about when is therapy 'done,' versus when is this part of therapy done. I think segmenting it conceptually is important for both the therapist and the client."

2. You experience long-term relief and improvement.

Having a "steady pattern of healthy behavior and symptom relief" could be a sign that you are ready to "graduate" from therapy, Arizona clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert told ATTN: via email.

"Feeling better for a week or two just isn’t enough time," Hibbert said. "You need to demonstrate to yourself that you have really changed, that what you’ve done to change is working, and that it's not just a temporary change."

Many clients stop going to therapy once they feel some relief from their struggles, but there is often more work to do, Hibbert added:

"Though symptom relief is an obvious trigger for people to start feeling like they’re ready to leave therapy, it’s not necessarily the best time to do so. You may be feeling much better, but there is usually a little more work to do. Some things can only be truly worked on once you’re out of the crisis mode that might have brought you to therapy. For instance, understanding what you’ve just been through is key in setting up a plan for the future, should your symptoms ever return."

3. There isn't much to talk about anymore.

"From the perspective of the patient, if they feel like there's nothing to talk about, if they feel like they're going in there, and it's just kind of the same old thing that they're doing, that might be a sign that you've maxed out your therapy, that you've gained all that you can from therapy," Alpert said. "People reach what I might call 'psychotherapy fatigue.' You just feel you're maxed out: You've gotten as far as you can with therapy, and at some point you have to get into the big, bad world and put into action what you're learning."

4. You feel good about the future.

A positive outlook on the future is a good sign for you, Hibbert said. "If you’re starting to look to the future, to plan, and to feel positive about what’s coming, you’re probably ready to leave therapy. If not, you’re likely still stuck in some issues that need your attention," she said.

Sumber relayed a similar sentiment, adding that it's "bittersweet" to say goodbye to clients:

"There's definitely a part of me that's excited for the client to have gotten to this ego strength to be able to say, 'I'm good. I was feeling broken when I came, and now I'm feeling healed and empowered.' We do a little dance inside and celebrate with the client. Then there's also a bittersweet part of it, because I'm sad. When I have a client that I really have a relationship with, and they come in and are a part of my life as well, and I see them every week for six months or a year, even, there's a loss. There's change. There's an adaptation I have to go through in terms of my Tuesdays or my Wednesdays. We definitely have to go through our own mourning in terms of finding a new norm."

5. You make a plan.

The best case scenario is when you and your therapist decide together when to end the relationship. This can help you as a client plan for the future without therapy, among other things, Hibbert told ATTN:.

"This not only allows for the two of you to discuss your progress, create a plan for the future, and make sure there aren’t any hidden issues that still need to be dealt with. It also allows you to have a termination session, which is very useful in finding closure with the therapy process," Hibbert said.

For anyone thinking about leaving therapy, "a good support system and plan" are key, she added:

"You may have overcome the issue for which you came to therapy, but do you have other people you can talk to when life gets to you? Perhaps a partner/spouse, friend, support group, faith community? Having a good support system and a plan of where to go if things start heading south again is a good sign you’re ready to leave your therapist and go it on your own."

Quitting therapy might be a short-term solution for some people, however, certain people may also switch therapists to find a better personal or professional fit, Hibbert added:

"In some cases, If you feel you’ve done all the work you can do with this specific therapist or type of therapy, it might be time to move on. Sometimes, you know you still have work to do, but you also know you need a different approach. Maybe you’ve gotten all you can from this therapist, or from this approach. Maybe you learn of another approach that might work better for your symptoms. Perhaps you want to see someone who specializes in a different issue than the one you’ve been working on with your current therapist. If you feel this, talk with your therapist. A good therapist will encourage whatever kind of treatment is going to truly be best for you, whether that’s with them or someone else."

RELATED: Why the Black Community Has a Fraught Relationship With Therapy