Attachment to Your Therapist: Saying Good Bye

saying goodbye to therapist

*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***

Kori’s beloved therapist is retiring. “Emotionally, well, it feels heart breaking.  It obviously triggers many things.  I think some of the hardest things are old messages of never depend or count on anyone because you will be left.”  She continues:  “And feelings of insignificance.  I realize that I am a client.  I have never shared with my therapist how much she means to me (that would break every rule!).  But seeing them walk away and knowing that I just have to be okay with it.  That I have to be okay with never seeing or hearing from her again.  Knowing that I have to lose a lot.  (Prior to this therapist I had never experienced someone so attuned.  If felt so odd at first and now it feels terrifying to know that I may never experience it again.)”

I’m so sorry to hear of your pain and anguish. You and several other readers have brought up the difficult subject of termination when you are strongly attached to a good therapist. Thank you for sharing your feelings in as much detail as you have. A big part of the answer is that it just hurts, and if I go on to say more, it is not to minimize the pain that you are going through.

The next thing that jumps out is that, “I have never shared with my therapist how much she means to me” There is no rule that you should not tell your therapist about your feelings, in fact, to the contrary it is extremely important and therapeutic to do just that. Sometimes therapists hold back from telling you about their feelings, but this is not a symmetrical relationship. Your job is to talk about all your feelings because that is how they can heal or be transformed, and grief is one of the most important feelings that you can deal with. By the way, therapists are human, too, and usually do get attached to patients. Saying good bye may not be as traumatic to a therapist, but it can still be sad and painful.

Many readers have talked about the shame that often goes with strong attachment to your therapist. Shame is a sad consequence of trauma. There is no reason to feel ashamed of caring about a person who has been very helpful to you. The reason for the shame is usually that, long ago, a child yearned for closeness with someone who could not or would not give it. Faced with repeated rejection, we naturally internalize the value that to yearn is bad. The conscience then generates feelings of shame every time we find ourselves having longing feelings. (See my post on getting over shame.)

Then there are the reactions like thinking you can never count on anyone. That, too sounds like a defense from long ago against rejection. It is natural to have those thoughts, but the reason for talking about them is that, by bringing them out in the open, you can see that they are not appropriate to the present, and that acting on those kinds of feelings, for example, stopping therapy before you are done, would be a tragedy.

In the end, this is what therapists call “termination.” It is a chance to experience feelings about separations and losses that may not have had a chance to come up before. What is important about going through the process of termination is taking the opportunity to work through all those feelings till they are healed and put in perspective. Only then will you be as ready as you ever will, to say good bye.

See the next post in this series: Will I Ever Get Over My Attachment?

JS

16 Comments

  • JS. I am 10 years out of a therapy. I have just recently been able
    to give a name to my feelings of shame. Your article brought me so much
    clarity. I was very attached to my therapist of five years. The ending was not good and I was left with a lot of confusion. Your post helped me to see
    that some of the feelings I had about attachment came from long ago. It played out again in therapy. I really beat myself up about those feelings of closeness. Even though things didn’t end as I wished I believe that ending my therapy allowed me to take the journey on my own. All the ingredients were there. The therapy brought out the feelings but I had to discover what they meant for me. I have been discovering shame and your writing came in a timely fashion for me. Many thanks for your good words

  • I’ve been in psychotherapy for 15 months. I have the gamut of emotions in regards to my therapist. At times I hated her because I felt I needed her too much. I yearned to be close to her when I was elsewhere which made me want to pull back, keep quiet and quit therapy all together. The need frightened me and I also felt so ashamed of it. I knew about transference and that most of these needs and yearnings were the workings of my “inner child” wanting what she never got, but i was still ashamed of my feelings~better yet~my needs. During one session, I finally braved up and asked her, “How does this end?” which opened up the dialogue. My therapist, being extremely attuned (love her!

  • A huge thanks to Kori and Dr. Smith for this sharing and post. It comes at a bittersweet time in my course of therapy (nearly 17 years) that my therapist is also retiring. I was relieved she gave me over a year of notice, but at the same time it feels like the end is hovering and I’m bummed that *I* didn’t choose to end the process. I’m trusting that we will have enough time and we will continue to do good work until she leaves. I hope to be emotionally present in the time we have in session and to be open with how I feel along the way.

    I cannot imagine my life (parenting, going through losses, etc) without her. The people in my life are loving and safe, but they don’t get “it” (trauma, shame, attachment) and I often feel invalidated and frustrated and end up pulling away from them. I have been pretty private with my therapeutic work over the years and I’m wondering how I can best handle or explain my grief when people may not even realize I’ve done so much personal healing/work.

    Thank you for all you do. Your explanation of shame and attachment has taught me so much over the months. When these issues come up for me, namely related to my therapist, your writing has been extremely helpful.

  • I have felt all of these things and more as I face my own therapy coming to a close. Sometimes it feels like such a power differential! When my therapist and I negotiated termination I felt he gave me some power over my own fate. We aren’t done yet, but knowing I can come back if I get stuck really helped me to talk about a lot of feelings.

    Now he thinks that continuing sessions weekly would be good support for me. I am a little confused by this because we had been talking about
    Cutting down sessions. ( Maybe I was the one talking about that…)
    I’ve been in therapy almost seven years so I’ve been thinking its time to leave. My husband thinks it’s time, too. My therapist has cancer but he is doing well. I thought he was going to die, but he looks OK and feels OK.

    This Spring he’s taking me on a therapy field trip for a few hours. I’m really excited about this and maybe a little fearful. It’s a change of venue.
    But I trust him so much! My healing has been deep because of a close, warm, safe relationship. His boundaries have been reliable but not rigid which have also helped me to feel closer to him in a healthy way. Perhaps I was starting to run away before tackling a few of the feelings you’ve mentioned.

    Thank you for another post that explains termination so clients can understand it, as well as the shame that comes with it.
    This is me , and certainly many other clients as well. Your shared wisdom brings us new insights into therapy and helps us understand our feelings in the process.

  • This post hit very close to home. My therapist of 17 years retired last month. Our relationship as therapist and client was an issue we worked on for many years. We discussed how it would end. I knew long in advance when she would be retiring. But still, I have been in turmoil these past few weeks. Most of all, I feel this is unfair! She moves on, and I am left. All the years that I told her that I was too dependent upon her, and she assured me that it was ok, expected, and how things change. Now I’m thinking I was right all along, I was too dependent, and now I am lost. She gave me the name of a therapist that I can call if I have trouble with ending therapy. She said if I get stuck, we will find out how to get me what I need. I just don’t believe there is a way for me to move on after this loss. It’s just too hard.

  • A few sessions before the termination session, I expressed to my therapist how I felt about her. I couldn’t tell her in person because I was shy so I sent her an email and spoke through the phone to tell her how much she means to me. She responded positively and also expressed how she felt too working with me. It was bittersweet – having to say goodbye to someone who had been supportive throughout a difficult process and yet not able to see or speak to anymore. However I know I will carry a part of her in me everyday. The skills I need, the kindness she has shown me (which I began to have more compassion for myself) and wisdom imparted during therapy.

  • JS, your posts are always so educational. I am glad you make yourself available via blogs. I feel you help so many. Thank you.

    I am confused and hoping you can clarify termination. Are there two types of termination you are addressing here? One is of stopping sessions with your therapist and the other is experiencing termination? In stopping sessions, wouldn’t one naturally feel a sense of loss? And then with whom does the individual process that with if sessions are no longer occurring? If experiencing termination as a healing process to take place with your therapist, is not that one part of an individual’s goal in therapy? (If this is a goal, I think the conversation about termination should begin as soon as possible.)

    I am asking because I am experiencing both scenarios simultaneously and left with no therapist to process the healing or the loss. My schedule has changed and unfortunately for me, my therapist has no availability for evening sessions. So I have been left with the choice to wait for an opening, which could be months or never, or to take authorship of my life and terminate. Both scenarios evoke major emotions of abandonment, shame, loss, anxiety… Both circumstances have triggered a ripe opportunity for major catharsis, yet my therapist is unavailable.

    I wonder how many people end up in this situation and left feeling like me?
    What do you do with new clients coming in with unprocessed terminations?
    Snow

    • Dear Snow,

      Yes, I guess there are two meanings to the word “termination.” It has been used for the fact of ending therapy, but also for the proper processing of important feelings brought up by the separation. By the way, anxiety about separation is one of the seven fundamental feeling states built into the brains of all mammals, so it really does merit the time for examination and working through.

      On another note, I can’t tell about the interaction with your therapist, but I it seems unusual that schedule should trump the need to find time for termination in the second sense. I’m not sure if you haven’t voiced firmly enough your need for this time, or your therapist has not shown a readiness to bend boundaries, but in my view the situation warrants at least some phone time.

      JS

  • JS,

    I am home from the session talking about termination. . . A part of me understands why my therapist is pushing me out the door, the other part just doesn’t. As much as I want to say I can handle this and really feel that way, I am flooded beyond my capacity. I want so desperately to be different and see my current circumstance as a pathway towards that, yet I feel lost without my therapist.

    Therapy is not for the faint at heart or the weak. I feel we therapy patients/clients are kindred spirits traveling along an invisible road of daring greatly. If only my therapist would hop in my car.

    Snow

  • I will have my final session with my therapist next week. I am choosing to leave, it is time. I feel so sad to go, it is heartbreaking. The relationship I have with him is the best relationship of my life. I also know hanging on because I am so in love with him is not beneficial to me. It seems like a double edge sword. I cry all the time, I know the last day will be tough. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? The whole situation is so sad for me.

  • My psychiatrist of 13 years died of colon cancer (at 51) several months ago. He had closed his practice and set his patients up new doctors months earlier as his condition took a sudden turn for the worse. We kept in touch by email until about a month before he died. This man saved my life and was a great doctor, but he was also a wonderful, kind and funny person. I miss him every day. I have a new doc and a wonderful therapist, but my heart will always be a little broken because of his loss.

  • I only knew my therapist for 6 months but I still had a more stable relationship with her than almost anyone. I’m disappointed in myself for how sad I am because I knew from the beginning that she was a grad student and leaving soon. There’s only 2 sessions left and I’m ashamed for feeling such strong emotions. Thank you for this article for making me feel like I’m not so alone in this experience.

  • Sorry, but I just think this is all B.S. My therapist told me to my face after 2 years that he doesn’t want to see me anymore after he leaves the clinic. (his internship came to an end). And despite my desperate efforts to continuing work after he leaves, he finally said: “I don’t want to work with you anymore.” I am a borderliner and sometimes I had bad insecurity explosions with him, as he said: “He has a life and don’t need to receive nasty messages from me anymore.” I know I can be difficult, but many times I expressed my feelings of closeness, security, and comfort he gave me. I also told him how he was changing my life and how much I needed him. I praised him with many compliments about his work, our work and how I thanked God for placing him in my life journey to help me. I have been very mistreated in my childhood what contributed to my borderline disorders, OCD, and attachment disorder. I just think that if someone is willing to go into this profession to help people they should expect to be shaken sometimes and to realize that sometimes the same person that agreed them are the ones that love and need them the most. As he said when we started therapy:”this is a safe place and you can express all your feelings here.” Well, he obviously couldn’t handle them. Now, I am left more traumatized them when I started therapy. It is so bad that I been sick for the past weeks. I just hope this pain goes away. And, I am sorry but I don’t think my therapist is going through any pain or emotion. I just think he is relieved of not having to see me anymore.

    • Dear Lucy, I’m really sorry to hear about another bad ending. I have written before that there are two primary principles to doing ethical practice. The first is that the patient’s needs must come first, and the second is that therapists must not make or imply promises that they can’t or won’t keep. It sounds as if your therapist made promises that he couldn’t keep, and it was his responsibility to help you understand and deal with the fact of his burn-out.

      That said, I want to be realistic with you. For a therapist who cares about really tuning in empathically, those rages really do take a toll. It is hard to hear oneself being criticized and vilified when all the therapist did was try very hard to say things and do things in a way that would be as comfortable as possible for the patient. What I find when I work with difficult patients is that I need a little more of the things that make me feel that the exchange is equitable. Those are the things that keep me from burning out after 40 years. Your positive statements are certainly important. In addition, the hope of seeing improvement, even in small increments, is something that is highly rewarding for me. And I must say that monetary compensation is a significant part of the balance that keeps me from burning out. In addition, for your intern therapist, he was receiving a great deal of important learning from working with you. I’m afraid he may not have been aware of the value of that. Unfortunately, there is a lot of prejudice about working with people who are “borderline.” That is terribly unfortunate, because it is an important and rewarding part of what therapists, and few others, can do.

      Perhaps the most important thing I could say is that therapists need to inform their patients if they are moving towards burn-out. A frank discussion of the therapist’s needs is part of keeping the relationship positive. Even if it is a difficult conversation, it should absolutely take place in order to prevent an ugly scene like the one you describe at the end of your therapy. Thanks for sharing your experience. Jeffery

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