Thoughts From The Couch – Time to say goodbye

Therapy is one of the few relationships that we enter into acknowledging that a time will come when it will end, and yet, so often neither therapist nor client is prepared for the powerful feelings that can emerge when faced with the actual ending. Attachment and separation are intertwined, thus by becoming attached in the therapeutic relationship, we have to accept that there will be a separation. Our ability to attach and detach will have a significant bearing on or our reaction to loss and, as a result, each of us will view the end of the therapeutic relationship differently. Bearing this in mind, I am always mindful of my client’s predominant attachment style when addressing the issue of the ending as the process leading up to the final session, for some, can be an anxiety-provoking and painful time.

At the start of my career, I would sometimes take my clients abrupt, unannounced ending personally, and when they left therapy unexpectedly would wonder what had happened. I would somehow make it personal and wonder what I could have done differently or better, sometimes feeling abandoned and unappreciated, triggered back to old beliefs of not being ‘good enough’. Today, I am aware that for the most part, clients find many different ways to avoid the pain and anxiety engendered by an ending that often has little, or nothing, to do with me. I also remind myself that just because a client disappears, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t get what they needed. For some, it might well be as simple as they got what they came for and have decided they no longer need further sessions, or to say goodbye. Above all, whatever the reason my clients have the right to choose when and how they end therapy, and for me, supervision is a place that I can take any unfinished business.

For the clients that imagine that as they leave the door for the final time, so does my memory of them, they are mistaken. So often, my work touches or re-opens my own wounds, and this has undoubtedly been the case around endings. Ending therapy is a real loss, not only for the client but for the therapist as well. The client-therapist relationship is often a profound and intimate journey that asks questions that can reshape identities and ways of being in the world for both. Although my own relationship to endings has changed over the years, I am still aware of my fragility around them. As my clients have learnt to tolerate endings and realise that they are not always as a result of something negative happening, so have I and for that, I am grateful. As as a result, I am better at what I do and trust what waits on the other side of the goodbye.

For those who want to experience a therapeutic ending, I see part of my role to not only support them in leaving therapy well but to guide them as they learn about themselves in the process. I am mindful not to collude with my clients whose emotions are triggered at the prospect of an ending. I make sure that we have plenty of time to work through what emerges to facilitate a valuable ending. For some clients fully completing the therapeutic journey can be the most enlightening and healing part of their whole therapy experience as they get to experience an end in a completely different way.

As the therapist-client relationship assumes some of the characteristics of a secure base, understandably, the ending of this relationship can trigger all sorts of unresolved past issues. For many, endings are associated with unfinished business, un-grieved losses, abandonment and a broken heart. Most of us revert to patterns of automatic response which have developed as creative adjustments for dealing with our feelings about loss or endings, and these are worth exploring. As we live in a constantly changing environment, we need to be mindful that our ways of behaving might have served us in the past or still serve us, in some cases, in the present, but can sometimes be misplaced. If our creative adjustments have become fixed around endings, they will stop us from responding to different situations accordingly. As a result, for some clients, their response to the prospect of therapy ending is no different to how they feel when faced with the sudden unexpected end of an intimate relationship. With the actual endings being different, the invitation is to explore the difference.

The client’s history and perspective, along with the length and depth of therapy all play a role in how facing the inevitable loss of the therapeutic relationship, will be experienced. Feelings of achievement and pride can often be overshadowed by feelings of fear, abandonment, grief, loss and anger as the reality of an approaching ending sinks in. Being willing to let go of a relationship that can stand alongside us as we touch the epicentre of our pain without being overwhelmed tests our trust in ourselves. The prospect of being fully responsible for what is precious inside us by leaving our therapist, who has become an ‘attachment figure’ requires us to commit to becoming that for ourselves. The need, sometimes, is to keep returning until we work through the fear and sense of abandonment reminiscent to past events and then, and only then, do we feel ready to ‘leave home.’

For those who feel cheerful and ready for the ending, these precious final sessions afford the opportunity to recognise our internal voice that feels joy-filled, proud, relief, complete or a mixture of them all. We can use the time to reminisce, reflect on our journey, seal and contain what has been achieved in therapy – express gratitude for the experience. However, the clients feel about the ending allowing them to acknowledge and feel their feelings is a vital part of the process. By exploring these feelings, therapy can be therapeutic up to the very end.

As my client stands to leave, I hold both the joy and sadness as our relationship as we have known it comes to an end. I marvel at their courage. I take pride in the relationship that has allowed my client to share parts of themselves that are hidden to the rest of the world. As my client ventures out into the world, I take pleasure in the knowledge that they have experiences and memories of valuable conversations that will provide nourishment to themselves, their loving relationships, friends and family. The extraordinary privilege replaces any tinge of sadness.

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