If you are just starting out on your therapeutic journey, you probably don’t want to think about the end of it or maybe you can’t even imagine what that would be like. Although it may not seem like it the process of terminating psychotherapy and saying goodbye is an important part of the process and shouldn’t be disregarded. Clients and psychotherapists should use it as an unique opportunity to work on struggles with separation and loss.
Psychotherapy is temporary
Going for psychotherapy is supposed to be temporary. I consider my job as a psychotherapist to basically make myself redundant for my clients. Clients usually start psychotherapy in a time of crisis when they feel they can’t deal with the challenges they are facing by themselves anymore. Generally speaking, the psychotherapist then supports the client in finding back to stability by developing and strengthening resources, establishing helpful coping strategies and finding new approaches to solve problems. Ideally, the client feels safe and trusts the psychotherapist enough to be able to lean on them for the time being. As they regain more autonomy and confidence, they get back on their feet and can leave psychotherapy eventually feeling comfortable with facing challenges on their own again. That’s the optimal time to separate and terminate psychotherapy. Of course it’s not always that simple and easy.
Dealing with separation and saying goodbye
Saying goodbye is always hard. It is a process that naturally comes along with discomfort and restlessness since it marks a stage of loss and change. A working relationship and therefore some form of bond has formed between the psychotherapist and the client. By saying goodbye, this bond changes and more distance grows between parties. Depending on the attachment style and previous experiences with separation clients may react to the ending of psychotherapy in different ways. If someone is securely attached, they are usually better at tolerating the discomfort and can grief the loss in an appropriate way while staying hopeful in relation to what comes next. But most of us aren’t securely attached but rather either ambivalently or avoidantly attached. People with an ambivalent attachment style usually fear loss and separation a lot and tend to hold on to the other person as long as possible, sometimes even neglecting their own needs and boundaries and denying the reality of the impending goodbye. In contrast, people who are avoidantly attached tend to leave uncomfortable situations, therefore rather leaving the other person instead of waiting to be left by them. So, these people may cut everything off prematurely in order to protect themselves from wrench and pain. There is one more attachment style, which is less common: the disorganized attachment style. For people with this attachment style separation can lead to deep existential crisis and therefore it is especially necessary to take time in terminating psychotherapy with clients who fall into this category. But despite which attachment style a client has, the termination of psychotherapy can offer a chance for them to have an experience that is different to previous encounters with separation and loss.
Terminating psychotherapy as a shared experience
In psychotherapy, the client and psychotherapist can share the experience of saying goodbye and separation as part of their working relationship. Ideally, they can take enough time to look back on the course of treatment and discuss what the client needs in order to plan ahead and say goodbye. By reflecting on the shared experience over the course of psychotherapy clients can internalize growth and gain a new perspective on themselves and their achievements. At the same time, the client and psychotherapist can work through the experience of loss together especially when the client expresses difficulty with ending relationships. They can mourn and share their feelings about the termination of their shared time. Reflecting on it in context of previous losses can provide a unique opportunity for the client to gain perspective and come more to terms with experiences of loss and separation.
Just like a child who learns to stand on their own feet and will become increasingly more independent (given a sufficiently loving, accepting and supporting environment), at the end of therapy the client can also move forward by themselves and won’t need the psychotherapist’s support anymore. Endings don’t have to only mean loss, they can signal a new beginning, too. And the termination of psychotherapy doesn’t have to mean the end of growth. All shared experience, changes and memory will stay with both the client and the psychotherapist, even if they won’t see each other anymore. It’s what both can keep and what I personally cherish about doing this job.