Ending therapy: why is the ending so important?

The following was written by Chloe Edwards, a counsellor with the Palmeira Practice

What do we mean by ‘endings’?

If you’ve ever had therapy, then it’s likely that you’ve been told about the importance of endings. But did what was said actually make sense?

When you think of the word ‘ending’ what do you think about? Ending a relationship? Finishing a good book? Leaving a job? Changing hairdressers? Death? You’re right. These are all endings, and the more of them we experience, the more you will likely form a pattern of how you deal with endings overall.

Endings are about a shift and transition between one state to another, often accompanied with feelings ranging from excitement for the future to loss.

Endings are about a shift and transition between one state to another, often accompanied with feelings ranging from excitement for the future to loss.

When I explain the importance of endings to my clients I talk about therapy in terms of tidying up the wardrobe of your mind – in order to create order, first you have to drag everything out, dump it on the floor and begin to sift through it! The longer you stay in therapy, the more thorough your organisation can be, and the more time you give to an ending, the more time you’re giving yourself to put it all back in an order that works for you. There’s no point in spending ages sorting everything into organised piles, if when it comes to putting it back you shove it all in together. Therapy is a process of taking apart everything you think, with the aim of only keeping the thoughts that are helpful to you. In giving time to a good ending you give yourself time to really see the progress you’ve made, and earn the experience of a mutually beneficial ending, without lingering regrets, sadness or anxiety.  

As well as offering a positive experience of endings as a whole, ending therapy is a chance to close all of the doors you’ve opened during your time working on yourself. The process of therapy whether long or short will likely have shaken up the way you think, and that deserves your respect. In fully completing the work you have begun you are showing yourself respect for the hard work you have put in, and leaving the door open for you to return to self reflection. 

Patterns in our behaviour

As humans, we are creatures of habit and so we tend to follow the same ‘scripts’ over and over again, as patterns in behaviour make us feel safe. We like to respond in the same ways to the same situations because then we know how things will turn out. But what if your pattern of behaviour also makes you feel anxious, guilty or afraid? We form patterns through early experiences – the first time we do something we learn how that scenario goes. Whether the outcome is positive or negative, we find ourselves preferring the guaranteed negative outcome over the gamble of an outcome that could potentially be better (or worse).

The familiarity of endings in the past, be the outcomes positive or negative, are often easier to deal with than the gamble of trying a new approach.

The familiarity of endings in the past, be the outcomes positive or negative, are often easier to deal with than the gamble of trying a new approach.

What if your pattern is that when you get a terrible haircut, instead of speaking up and getting it fixed, you politely say it’s lovely and leave, never to return? You might also do this in relationships – after a first date where you felt completely ignored or had no attraction to your date you tell them you had a wonderful time and would like to see them again soon, but when they call to make plans you just don’t answer.

These types of endings can leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth – not only did you not get what you wanted from the encounter, but you might be left with guilt for not speaking your mind, or you could feel harassed when being pursued by a potential suitor who just won’t take the hint. These endings make us wary of endings in future, and can lead us to stay in unhealthy situations simply to avoid what now feels inevitable to you in your next ending.

Examining how you cope with endings

When you think back to endings you’ve had, do you see a pattern in how you react? Do you ‘ghost’ people and silently slip out of their lives? Do you make abrupt choices to end, without thinking through the decision fully and then regret the choice after it’s too late? Do you linger too long, worried about guilt or focusing on the needs of the other rather than yourself? There are so many ways to end, and so many ways these endings can be unhelpful to your wellbeing if not amended.

Endings in Therapy

The idea of endings in therapy is to experience a healthy ending – once we have experienced something once, it is a lot easier to replicate it in other aspects of our life as opposed to trying to bring it about out of the blue with no help.

So what is a positive ending? Good endings might be like graduations – acknowledgement and celebration of what is ending, with a view to what the future will bring. Honouring what came before, be that years of happy marriage, or of struggles is an important way to move forward without lingering doubt. If we can end in a way that leaves us feeling that we have thought through all possibilities and made a decision that works best for us, then we can end without regret. If we don’t take the time to think everything through then there might always be a fear that there was more to achieve, more to learn, more chance for connection which we let get away.

Typical endings in therapy

Therapy tends to end in one of three ways...

The agreed ending

When there is mutual agreement with your therapist – either at the end of a set time together, or through discussion and exploration at the end of an open-ended contract at a time where you both feel happy with what has been achieved. These endings will have allowed time to work through feelings brought up by the prospect of ending together, and will allow for a return in the future should circumstances change, or if you need additional help in the future.

The one-sided ending

When the ending of therapy is a one-sided decision – you may one day decide you have had enough of therapy and stop coming. This leaves both you and your therapist to work through feelings brought up by this ending alone – abrupt endings can cause residual feelings of regret, loss, resentment and rejection for both parties and working through these feelings alone can be incredibly challenging.

An unavoidable ending

Endings can be forced – sometimes things happen that we cannot control – illness, financial strain, or logistical changes can mean that therapy needs to end before you are ready. Ideally time would still be given towards ending in which discussions could be had between you and your therapist regarding next steps, potential referral on to other service providers and emotions brought up by this unexpected change in circumstances.

The aim for the therapist will be to facilitate a mutual ending with every client, in order to provide a positive experience of ending which can be assimilated into your pattern of behaviour, and hopefully help you to develop new, more positive patterns in your life outside of therapy.

Learning from endings and evolving

Endings can seems trivial – we experience so many of them that we can forget just how big they can be. At the deepest level every ending will leave us with some level of grief, loss and separation anxiety. Even in situations where we are unhappy, ending is a complicated feeling.

For those school pupils who genuinely hate school, reaching the end of their final year can feel like a relief. However, alongside the positive feelings will also be a loss of familiarity, of routine, and of a strength which comes from knowing where you stand. In therapy, even if you feel it is no longer helping, it will likely have been a regular part of your life for a number of months and so it is important to acknowledge both the positives and negatives you have experienced to that point. Nothing is ever truly black and white, and in acknowledging those subtle shades of grey you are experiencing something fully, which should, if done correctly, leave no nasty taste in your mouth, just a clear sense of resolution.

The strength to say goodbye

Saying goodbye is bigger than just those words. Grief hurts and change can be scary, but in taking a step back, exploring the most hidden of our emotions and embracing transition we can experience growth. Healing comes through acceptance, and in learning to live with both the pain of loss, and the excitement of the change. When experienced well, endings need no longer be feared, but embraced as an intrinsic human experience. 

This article was written by Chloe Edwards, a counsellor with The Palmeira Practice.