Should you break up with your therapist?
by Megan Cornish, LICSW
So you don’t like your therapist. In fact, you’re wondering if you should break up with your therapist. According to experts, it might be a good idea: as it turns out, the number one predictor of therapy success is the connection between you and your therapist. Researchers have dubbed this bond the “therapeutic alliance,” and having a good one is essential for growth.
The therapeutic alliance is so powerful, it has a greater influence on therapy success than the therapeutic method your therapist uses. It’s also more important than your therapists’ years of experience, not to mention your level of commitment to making a change in your life. So if you have a poor alliance or are not sure if your therapist is a good fit for you, it might be time for a change.
Why can finding a therapist feel so overwhelming?
Unlike finding a doctor to heal a broken bone, the most important part of therapy is the connection you have with your therapist. That connection is based on multiple factors, such as personality, shared experiences, and a general vibe. Finding a therapist can feel overwhelming because you must balance those factors along with convenience, affordability, and specialization.
That’s why clients should interview multiple therapists to find the right fit. Think that sounds like a lot of work? You’re in good company. Almost three-quarters of Americans said searching for the right therapist overwhelms them, according to one recent survey.
Logistics like insurance and location can narrow down your options, and once you’ve managed to make that first appointment, factors like communication style, worldview, and even sense of humor can influence whether you feel like you “click” with your clinician.
What kind of connection should you expect with a new therapist?
Expect good (not perfect) compatibility with your therapist. A strong connection is important, but expecting your therapist to make you feel good all the time is setting yourself up for disappointment. With any meaningful therapy, there will be both positive and negative emotions. The challenges, tough conversations, and emotional processing are where the growth happens.
Don’t break up with your therapist just because they don’t laugh at your jokes or share your interests. You don’t pay them to be your friend — you pay them for support that will help you grow.
Try limiting your criteria for a long-term therapist to three things: safety, competence, and a sense of connection. A therapist/client relationship with those three key factors might be worth holding on to while you wait to see what grows.
Discuss your concerns and expectations with your therapist
Therapists are famously intuitive, but they aren’t mind readers. Your therapist may have no idea you’re feeling disconnected, that you don’t like them, or even that your therapist makes you feel worse. .
Having hard conversations is the point of therapy. If you’ve seen growth in therapy but have hit a rough spot, speak up. Be clear about what you want out of therapy and your frustrations. Need an opening line? Try, “Can we talk about changing things up?” or “I have a few concerns I’m hoping to share with you.”
Five signs you should break up with your therapist
Every therapeutic relationship has an eventual endpoint. Here are five signs that yours should come sooner rather than later:
You’ve given it a fair shot, and it’s still not feeling right.
The connection with your therapist doesn’t have to be perfect, but you still need to feel connected to them. Keep in mind that getting in the groove with a new therapist takes time. Most people don’t open up to their therapist about their mental health until around session five.
If you’re still not vibing after five sessions— or you don’t like your therapist after that long— you may need to move on. No rock-solid reason necessary — “I’m just not feeling it” is good enough.
You can’t agree on basic things— like why you’re there.
Your therapist may offer unexpected insights, but overall, you should be on the same page. If it seems like you always have a different version of events — like what your ultimate goals are or where the problem lies — it can be a hint that your therapist is not a good fit.
You don’t make decisions together.
You want to work on your anxiety, but your therapist wants to talk about your ADHD. You’d like to find strategies to cope better at work, but your therapist thinks you should focus on your marriage.
Therapy is a team sport; you only win if you work together. If you feel your therapist is calling all the shots — and leaving you in the dust — consider it a clear sign you’re not a good match.
You’re not making any progress.
There’s a reason you sought help, and you deserve to have that reason addressed. You might like your clinician or even enjoy your sessions together, but if you haven’t made any improvements after a few months— or if your therapist makes you feel worse— move on. It’s time look for someone who can help you realize your goals.
They don’t respect your boundaries
Mental health professionals are held to certain ethical codes, but some may not follow them. A therapist may push boundaries and break the rules, putting their clients — and careers — at risk.
Examples of unethical behavior by therapists can include:
- Asking to see you outside of your scheduled sessions
- Oversharing about their personal life in ways that make you feel uncomfortable
- Sharing details about you with others in your life
- Using shady or illegitimate billing practices
If your gut tells you that your therapist is behaving inappropriately, that’s a toxic therapist. Walk away and don’t look back.
You should know that complaints about unethical behavior by mental health professionals are taken very seriously — please reach out to your state or local licensing board to report such behavior.
How to break up with your therapist
It takes a lot of courage and self-confidence to stop working with a therapist– even for someone who feels mentally healthy and strong. The client/clinician relationship has an inherent power imbalance that can make your therapist feel like an authority figure in your life.
If you’ve decided your therapist isn’t a good fit and you’re going to seek another provider, bring the topic up in your next session. A soft start, like “I think I want to try seeing a practitioner who uses different techniques,” might be enough to launch the conversation. But remember — like a romantic breakup, the decision to move on doesn’t require unanimous approval. Only you get to decide when you’re done.
You don’t have to end things face-to-face. If you have a toxic therapist with a history of ignoring your boundaries, or you just find yourself unable to get the words out in person, give yourself permission to send them a note instead.
Keep things kind, but brief and to the point if you opt to end things by email. Thank your therapist for their help and wish them well, but leave no room for discussion. Ultimately, your therapist works for you, not the other way around.
Feel free to use this template for inspiration for your email:
I wanted to thank you for the time you’ve spent working with me over the past _____ (months/years). I really appreciate your investment in my life and your commitment to helping me.
For personal reasons, I have decided I’m going to try a different approach with another therapist. No hard feelings— I just feel like I need to explore something new.
Best of luck in everything you do!
If your therapist is any good, they’ll be understanding. If you get any pushback, remember: “no” is a complete sentence.
Stay committed to your mental health
The hardest part of a therapist breakup comes after you’ve had the talk or sent the note. You might be tempted to just stop pursuing mental health goals altogether, since finding a therapist (again!) may be time-consuming.
Take a deep breath, and keep going! Leaving the wrong therapist only moves you one step closer to the right one — and the life you want.
(Want a shortcut for your search? Mental Health Match has a tool that helps you find the perfect therapist for you.)