No, you don’t need to worry about hurting their feelings.
I remember breaking up with Dave very clearly.
My therapist Dave, I mean.
Dave wasn’t a “bad” therapist by any stretch. But something in my gut told me I needed something else.
Maybe it was his “try meditating” suggestion when my obsessive-compulsive disorder was ramping up (the answer was actually Zoloft, Dave). It might’ve been the fact that he was only available every 3 weeks.
Or maybe it was the simple fact that he never told me what to call him — Dr. Reese or Dave — and a few weeks in, it felt too late to ask. So I spent months avoiding using his name, until he finally signed an email off decidedly as “Dave.”
After a year of working together, I still hadn’t gotten to a point of feeling truly comfortable with him; I wasn’t getting the kind of support I needed at the frequency I needed it. So, I made the decision to pull the plug.
Since then, I’ve found a therapist who I clicked with almost immediately. We’ve done amazing work together in the last few years. My only regret was not cutting Dave loose earlier on.
So… why hadn’t I?
Honestly, I didn’t know how. And each time I contemplated it, I worried I didn’t have a “good reason” to end the relationship.
If you’ve arrived at this article, I want to reassure you that your reasons — whatever they are — are “good enough.” And if you’re struggling to figure out how to cut ties, these seven tips should steer you in the right direction.
A lot of people don’t realize they can undergo a repair process with their therapist!
You can always bring up issues you’re having in your relationship and look for solutions, even if the solution you both arrive at still means ending things.
You also don’t have to know exactly what’s feeling off. Your therapist can help you work with what you know and uncover more about where the relationship might not be serving you, and you can explore your options together.
If upon reading this your gut is telling you “Hell no”? That’s as good an indication as any that repair work isn’t right for you. Skip right ahead to #2 on this list.
How do I know if the relationship can be repaired?
Only you can truly know this, but some questions to consider:
- Do I have trust and safety with this therapist? If so, does it feel possible to build on that?
- What would I need from my therapist to feel better about our relationship? Do I feel comfortable asking for those needs to be met?
- Am I feeling as though I’ve been put in the ‘hot seat’? Some people end up “fleeing” from therapy just when they’re getting to the root of the issue! It’s okay if therapy feels hard — but you can always share that with your therapist, too.
- What is my gut telling me? Am I open to exploring these feelings with my therapist?
- Do I even want to repair things in the first place? Remember: “No” is a complete sentence!
If your therapist is acting unethically, inappropriately, abusively, or making you feel unsafe for any reason, you’re under no obligation to repair the relationship.
In such cases, it’s critical to get support outside of that relationship — which, yes, can include getting another therapist to help you untangle yourself from your current one.
I believe the best way to do this is through journaling. You don’t have to share it with your therapist, but this can help you gather your thoughts ahead of time.
Try asking yourself: What do I need from a therapist that I’m not getting?
For example, you can look at this on a practical level: Do they not specialize in a particular disorder or modality that you’re wanting to explore further? Do you have a certain identity that your therapist isn’t culturally competent around?
You can also explore the personal side of this, too. Do you find it difficult to trust them? If so, do you have thoughts on why that might be? Are you finding them to be judgmental, or not giving you enough space to form an opinion for yourself? Do they talk too much about themselves?
This kind of self-reflection can open up a rich conversation on how to have a better therapeutic relationship in the future, whether that’s with your current clinician or a future one.
You don’t actually owe your therapist an explanation if you don’t want to give one. You get to say as much or as little as you’d like!
They aren’t entitled to any emotional labor on your part to explain where the relationship might have gone awry. That said, you may benefit from unpacking some of what led you to move away from therapy, as it could help you to uncover some helpful insights for the future.
This is your space and time to find closure and end this relationship in a way that feels good for you.
Your parting ways should be for your benefit, not theirs.
For example, part of why I ended my therapeutic relationship with Dave is that I felt he didn’t fully understand my experiences as a transgender person.
However, I made the decision not to speak extensively on this. I didn’t want to educate my therapist, but rather, I chose to simply name that he needed to educate himself further.
You get to decide where you are and aren’t willing to go in the conversation.
Speaking of limits, you’re allowed to set boundaries in this conversation.
Even if a therapist is asking for you to explain your reasons or go into more detail about an issue in your work together, you get to decide if that’s something you’d like to share or not.
Some therapists don’t handle “breakups” terribly well (thankfully, I find that they’re not the majority!), so it’s good to have a clear idea of what you will and won’t tolerate in a session.
Some examples of boundaries you might set
- “I’m happy to talk more about why I need a specialist, but I’m not comfortable going into much detail about the other issues that I raised earlier.”
- “I’m not in a place where I’m able to educate you on this issue specifically.”
- “I really need this to be a supportive conversation that helps me figure out my next steps. Is that something you’re able to provide right now?”
- “I feel like this conversation is getting derailed. Can we refocus on what I need right now instead of processing past issues?”
- “I don’t think I need to schedule another session to continue this conversation with you, but if I change my mind, I can reach out and let you know.”
Remember, you get to define your comfort zone and needs. There’s no wrong way to advocate for yourself in this space.
Therapists are professionals. That means they technically work for you! These relationships end all the time. It’s a normal part of their profession.
This means your therapist should be well equipped to handle the conversation, no matter where it goes or how difficult your feedback might be to hear.
You don’t need to overthink your approach or worry about hurting their feelings.
Therapists are trained to navigate these types of conversations without taking it personally. Ideally, they will also be able to help you with your next steps if you need that support.
Therapy is about YOU, the client. And if your therapist is unable to center your needs and feelings in that conversation? You’ve got confirmation that you dodged a bullet there.
If the conversation has gone well, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist if they have recommendations that will better meet your needs.
Many therapists are happy to share the resources that they have, including referrals for trusted colleagues.
That said, if your therapist is on the lousier end of the spectrum? You’re under no obligation to follow up on any resources or recommendations from them (in fact, you’re likely better off if you don’t).
Ultimately, your therapist might disagree with your decision to end the relationship, and that’s OK, too. That doesn’t make your decision wrong or irrational.
Some of their reservations might be coming from a place of genuine concern (“Do you have the support you need to transition out of my care?”), while others might come from a place of defensiveness (“You appear to be acting out”).
Regardless, this is your decision and yours alone. Your therapist can have their own opinion, but if your gut is telling you to explore your other options, that’s a valid reason to proceed.
You just need to remember the acronym BYE-BYE! If any of these steps don’t feel right in the context of your unique situation, you can always skip them:
B — Broach the subject. This is where you’ll set the tone for the conversation. Ideally, this conversation starts with an open mind: discussing your therapeutic relationship, what unmet needs you have, and what you’re hoping to get from the conversation.
Y — “Yes, and.” Your therapist might begin offering feedback. If it feels genuine, a “yes, and” approach — validating their perspective while unpacking yours — can make the conversation feel more collaborative.
E — Emotional impact. It can help to share the emotional impact your therapeutic relationship has had. If it’s been helpful in certain areas, feel free to provide that feedback! If it was harmful and you feel safe enough to share where that harm occurred, you can do that as well.
B — Boundaries. Like I mentioned above, you may need to set firm boundaries around what you are and aren’t willing to discuss. If your therapist presses you or makes you uncomfortable in the course of the conversation, know that you can and should hold those boundaries.
Y — Yield. If possible, take a few seconds to check in with yourself. Do you feel safe? Are you checking out or eager to leave? Bring some awareness to how you’re experiencing this conversation.
E — Explore or exit. Depending on how you’re feeling, you can choose to explore next steps with your therapist, or you can choose to end the session.
Let’s see it in action!
Here’s an example of how my conversation with Dave might have gone:
- Broach: “Hi Dave! If it’s OK with you, I wanted to check in about how things are going. I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we’re doing together, and I’m wondering if seeing a new therapist might be best for my mental health. Do you have any thoughts?”
- Yes, and: “Yes, I get why this might feel a little unexpected! And I think that’s part of where I’m struggling, actually — I don’t always feel like I can open up to you. I’m also wondering if EMDR therapy might be a more helpful form of therapy for my specific struggles.”
- Emotional impact: “I want to make sure you know that I’m so grateful for what we were able to do together. Part of why I’m able to advocate for myself right now is because our work together has helped me become more assertive.”
- Boundaries: “I was wondering if you’d be open to helping me navigate next steps. I don’t necessarily want to get lost in the weeds of what did and didn’t work — I’d like to focus on what needs to happen next during this transition.”
- Yield: Deep breath. OK, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable, but Dave seems receptive. I’d like to ask him for some referrals. Alternative: This doesn’t feel right. I think Dave is getting a little hostile. I’d like to end this conversation.
- Explore: “I appreciate you being so open to having this conversation. It would be great if you could tell me a little more about EMDR and make some recommendations for providers or resources that could support me right now.”
- Exit: “Dave, I really appreciate your time, but this conversation isn’t feeling helpful for me right now. I’d like to cut things short, but I’ll follow up if I need anything.”
The only person who gets to decide what your mental healthcare looks like moving forward is YOU.
And if your (soon to be ex) therapist is a good one, they’ll celebrate the fact that you’re stepping up, taking ownership of your mental health, and advocating for yourself.
You’ve got this.
Sam Dylan Finch is an editor, writer, and media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.