Why Is It So Hard To Break Up With A Therapist?

Photographed by Leia Morrison.
Breakups, no matter why they happen or who they’re with, are tough. But deciding it’s time to stop seeing your therapist can, in the best cases, be a happy occasion — a sign that your work together was successful, and that you’re ready to move forward without the regular check-ins. Other times you may realise after a few sessions that you and your therapist are fundamentally incompatible. Maybe your schedules don’t align, or they favour a professional, progress-driven approach while you’re looking for something more intuitive and feelings-based, or vice versa. But sometimes, a therapist breakup can be fraught, triggered by a misstep on your therapist’s part that felt harmful or even abusive.
Kenya R., for instance, stopped seeing two mental health professionals — one in 2017, and a second during the pandemic. Kenya is Black and non-binary; the therapists were white and cis women. While they say both therapists tried to be helpful, and one even had diversity training, they realised they wanted to see someone with a similar lived experience. The first therapist “would mostly tell me, ‘Oh you’ve gone through so much,’ which ultimately wasn’t affirming, but more alienating,” they says. “She didn’t have experience to help me cope with the trauma in my life as a Black person who grew up in low-income communities, who’s queer, and has ADHD.” They felt a similar disconnect with the second. 
Kenya says ending treatment with the first therapist was easier than the second. After Kenya told the latter that they no longer wanted to see her as a therapist, but were comfortable keeping her on as a psychiatrist for medication management, she called them and asked why they “had a wall up.” “This was a surprise because a lot of the work we’d been doing together was around boundaries,” Kenya says. “I ultimately had to tell her, ‘I don’t feel comfortable speaking to you.’ She tried to keep me on the phone and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to hang up now.’” The experience was dismaying. A few months later, Kenya began seeing a Black therapist who was better equipped to understand their identity. 
In an ideal world, a conversation about ending mental health treatment would always be handled professionally and respectfully — on both sides, but especially by the mental health professional. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. 
Sometimes, even reaching the decision to stop seeing a certain therapist can feel stressful and complicated. After all, therapy can bring up feelings, memories, and subjects that are naturally uncomfortable, and there are times when progress feels like discomfort at first, says Tamar Chansky, PhD, psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety. Knowing that, some people may feel pressure to “stick it out” even when they suspect their sessions have become unproductive. They may blame themselves for not feeling like they’re getting enough out of therapy, or not trust their instincts about a therapist’s inappropriate behavior. It can be hard to know what is “normal” therapy discomfort, and what is a sign of a disconnect or even inappropriate behaviour from a therapist.
That’s why it can be a good idea to set clear goals and expectations for your therapy sessions and check in every few months about whether your therapist is meeting your needs, just as you would any service you’re paying for, from going to the doctor to getting your tires changed. If you consistently don’t feel that you're growing or meeting your goals, even after bringing up your concerns to your therapist, it may be time to move on, Dr. Chansky says. 
There are other indicators that it may be time to stop seeing a certain therapist. If your therapist is consistently late, or frequently cancels on you at the last minute, that’s a red flag. “Disrespecting your time, that’d be something to pay attention to,” says JaNaè Taylor, PhD, psychotherapist and founder of Minding My Black Business.
Another warning sign, though one that’s a little less easily quantified, is if you don’t feel heard by your therapist, Dr Taylor says. “That’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve heard from folks who’ve tried again with a new therapist,” she notes. “They might start to share parts of their life, and before the whole story is completed, the therapist has already made an assumption about what they’re trying to say, what their needs are, or about their history.” 
This can be annoying, hurtful, and downright harmful. “For example, with a Black male client, I heard of another therapist just assuming they weren’t raised with a father in the home,” Dr Taylor says. Another scenario: you could be misdiagnosed by the mental health expert, and the record of that could potentially follow you through the medical system, says Lilac Vylette Maldonado, who uses she/they pronouns, a community organizer at the mental health- and social justice-focused Fireweed Collective. Because of such incidences, she and the Fireweed Collective team stress the importance of thoroughly interviewing therapists before starting treatment, and asking questions such as how the mental health professional uses the DSM, whether they collect demographic information, if they’re willing to show clients their notes, and whether they’re open to negotiating diagnoses. 
Other reasons to stop seeing a therapist: if they disrespect you, cross your boundaries, act more like a friend or parent, or consistently make you feel uncomfortable. If you’re having trouble distinguishing between the feelings caused by being challenged and the feelings caused by someone being inappropriate with you, Dr. Chansky recommends asking yourself if it’s the person or the work that’s making you uncomfortable, and if the discomfort is serving a productive purpose. If it’s the person, that’s a sign that your therapist may be behaving inappropriately, or that the therapeutic relationship is not conducive to your growth.
Photographed by Serena Brown.
Brianna A. Baker, a PhD student in counseling psychology in North Carolina, began to consider breaking up with her therapist not long after she began seeing her in October 2020. “She called me her favourite client, which at first made me feel special but wasn’t good for me. By December I realised I hadn’t made any progress in the areas I wanted to, like improving confidence… And I was nervous to tell her certain things that didn’t align with my typical, bubbly attitude. She had praised me so much for being this positive, happy client, that when I did want to talk about deep, distressing events, I felt like she was judging me.” The therapist also joked about bipolar disorder to Baker. To top it all off, she was frequently late. 
By February 2020, Baker knew it was time to stop treatment. She felt so uncomfortable, however, that she contacted the company the therapist worked for directly to terminate services. The therapist texted her to confront her about leaving. “I lied and told her it was a financial thing. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to her about it,” she says. “In hindsight I might have done it differently. But I felt there was this power imbalance and I felt pressure and judgement.” 
Dr. Taylor says it’s common to feel such a power imbalance. “This is such an intimate relationship and mental health professionals certainly hold a lot of power, and you don’t owe them anything if they abuse it,” Dr Taylor says. In a positive therapy relationship, you’ll feel you hold power too. “Ideally, you feel like you have a partner working alongside you and not that you’re going into this Wizard Of Oz situation with this all-knowing being and you don’t have any say so in what happens in the process," she says. "If you feel that way, that you’re at the whim of a mental health professional, that’s a [bad] sign.” 
This is why Dr Taylor says that ultimately, there is no one “right” way to stop seeing a therapist. You can give them no information about your decision, or be completely candid. You can arrange for a couple of wind-down sessions, or stop treatment immediately. It’s just about the healthiest choice for you. At times, that’s going to mean quitting in a non-direct way, such as via email or text, or through a third party. (Be sure to communicate in some way that you’re not coming to any more sessions to avoid getting billed as a no-show.) 
If it’s safe to do so, though, “having that honest conversation about why it wasn't a good match may be helpful for a variety of reasons,” Dr Chansky says. “For example, if you realised you wanted a different kind of therapy, they might be able to refer you to someone good.” Your feedback may also be helpful to them in their practice — but it’s also not your responsibility to help them improve. Another time it can be helpful to be upfront is if your primary reason for leaving is financial concerns. Your therapist may offer a discounted fee, or refer you to someone else more affordable. Anytime you decide to talk directly with a therapist about breaking up with them, consider writing down what you want to say, Woodland suggests. Having even a few notes jotted down can help you ensure you hit the points you want to make, especially if you're feeling nervous. And being able to get it all out may help you get closure. 
No matter how you leave a therapist, Woodland says that it’s a good idea to plan out your next step before you end treatment. When you begin to suspect it may not work out with your current therapist, start searching for a new one so you don’t have a potentially harmful gap in your care. “I generally wouldn’t advise bouncing without your next step set up,” Woodland says.
Post-breakup guilt is common, Dr Taylor says, and you may even worry about hurting your therapists’ feelings. “It can feel strange, especially for those of us who are pleasers, but if we’re making the decision to step away from a harmful or unhelpful situation, it’s a good thing,” she says. “Remind yourself you’ve made a decision in your best interest.” 
If your therapist takes it badly, remember, “these are paid professionals who experience rejection daily... Ignore them, and move on,” Baker says. “Taking your breakup poorly should confirm that they were not the right therapist for you as they still refuse to listen to your truest needs. A great therapist can admit you're not the right fit for each other and wishes you well on your journey to self-actualisation.” 
Mental health isn’t one-size-fits all, and it may take a few tries to find a program or therapist who works for you. That’s okay, and even common. Don’t give up, and remember that taking steps to prioritise your wellbeing — whether that means finding a therapist or breaking up with one — are worth celebrating. 

More from Wellness