It’s pretty easy to tell when you’re done with most medical treatments: You either finish the prescribed medication, or whatever it was that was oozing/bleeding/itching/flaking stops what it was doing and you forget to take the remaining doses. Either way, it’s pretty cut-and-dry.
Therapy, on the other hand, seems different — more open-ended, with less tangible goals. So after you’ve been going for a while and you feel like you’ve achieved some level of personal growth, how do you know when you’re good to go (or rather, not go anymore)?
According to Ronald B. Cohen, a family therapist at Family Focused Solutions, the laying-on-the-couch, psychoanalytic approach to therapy that you see on reruns of Frasier is a bit dated. Nowadays, therapy is a bit less open-ended — usually, goals are set at the beginning, and they’re regularly addressed during treatment. “Periodically, I will review the goals they set when they first came to me and ask if they feel that we’ve addressed them,” says psychotherapist Amy Olshever. Additionally, they’ll decide if their goals needs revising or if new goals need to be added.
During this process, you may also decide you don’t really have any goals, which may be a sign that you’re done. However, Olshever says that she sometimes challenges her clients to see if there’s more work to be done, and after diving a bit deeper, the client may decide to proceed.
Oftentimes this is how therapy goes: You’ll enter into it because of what’s called a “presenting problem,” like maybe there’s been a death in your life or you’re having marital problems, but as you proceed, things go deeper. Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, says that you want to be sure that you’re not avoiding getting to the hard stuff after dealing with some of the original issues. In fact, these new, uncomfortable subjects may be what gets at the root of your problem.
Or, you may not want to dig deeper, and that’s okay too. Some people benefit from simpler, more short-term treatment, and they don’t want to get at the root cause of all their issues. Instead, they may go to therapy because of one specific reason — say, fear of flying — and once they’ve handled that issue, they move on until the next issue in their life arises. “The client is in charge,” says family therapist Katie Helpley.
Therapy isn’t just about talk, though. A big part of knowing when to move on is also how you’re handling things in the real world. Gary McClain, a psychologist and founder of Just Got Diagnosed, says, “Hopefully the client has gained insight into themselves and has learned new ways to react to situations.” In other words, you may not have “fixed” yourself or rid yourself of your problems, but perhaps you can now deal with stress in healthier ways.
It’s also possible that you’ve lost sight of your goals, which might be the case if you find that therapy has become a place where you just complain about your everyday life without venturing deeper. Helpley says that while it should be the therapist’s job to keep these goals prevalent, it’s a good idea for you to not lose sight of them yourself either. So if you find yourself just complaining about your jerk boss every week, you may want to redirect your treatment and bring it back to your original goals, or perhaps reexamine your goals entirely.
While it’s less common now, Helpley says that sometimes goals aren’t set at all. “This can happen because people arrive in crisis, and you just start dealing with that,” she says. In those cases, you’ll have to assess how your life is going as a whole. If you find that things are a little easier and that you’re better at coping with stress, it may actually be time to move on.
One important thing you’d want to consider is if you’re moving on from therapy because you’re actually “done,” or if you just need a new therapist. Sometimes this is apparent right away — Greif says that if you’ve been seeing someone for a few months and feel like you’re not making progress, you might discuss this with them and ultimately decide to see someone else.
In other cases, it may be that a therapist was right for you, but is no longer. For example, Helpley points to some of her teen clients, who may grow attached to her as they mature. Because they care what she thinks of them, they may be unwilling to talk about issues around sex or substance abuse. At that point, because the relationship has almost gotten “too personal,” it may be time to move onto someone else so that they can once again open up in a way that’s beneficial. Ultimately, Helpley says the biggest sign that you need a different therapist is if you find yourself holding back.
Once you feel like you may be ready to move on from therapy, it’s going to come down to a conversation between you and your therapist. “You can address your goals and ask how close you think you’re coming to achieving them,” Greif says. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and there’s not that much left to cover, you should say exactly that to your therapist. The whole point of the relationship is to be open and honest, so you shouldn’t worry about offending them by bringing up the idea of not seeing them anymore.
One thing, though — don’t ghost your therapist. McClain says, “I’ve been ghosted by clients, and because it’s a personal relationship, I’m always disappointed.” So, even if it’s uncomfortable or you’re not quite sure how to bring it up, don’t just bail — it’s not cool. More importantly, actually approaching this conversation in a mature way shows you’ve grown during treatment.
If you’ve addressed the idea of moving on with your therapist but aren’t quite sure if you’re 100 percent done, you can also reduce the amount of therapy you get. You may go from weekly to every other week to once a month, and then you may be done.
It’s important to note, however — and every single one of our therapists here said this — that once you’re “done,” it may not be forever. Many people return to therapy because they realize that there was more work to do, or because a new crisis arises. There’s nothing wrong with doing this and it’s very normal to come back.
Ultimately, like much of the therapeutic process, ending therapy may be a bit difficult, and it may not be entirely clear when it should happen. But, to put it as simply as possible, Cohen says, “While it’s a bit cliché, you’ll know when you know.”