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Breaking up is hard to do: Especially with your therapist

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Finding a good therapist is a lot like dating – which means breaking up with your therapist closely (and perhaps eerily) resembles ending a relationship.

But how do you know when it's time to seek care elsewhere? And how do you go about it gracefully?

Experts say above all, pay attention to how you're feeling as you embark on the therapeutic process and be honest with your therapist if you're starting to sense your progress fizzling.

"You know it's time when you are no longer growing or learning, you feel stuck or have the sense that your therapist does not seem to be invested in your success, or you often feel worse than when you started treatment," says Cecille Ahrens, a licensed clinical social worker at Transcend Therapy in California.

Hmm: Mental health TikTok is powerful. But is it therapy?

When it's time to dump your therapist

First, watch out for bad therapist traits like reliability issues, unprofessional conduct, poor boundaries, a tendency to be judgmental, or imposing their beliefs onto you, Ahrens says.

Consider doing a check-in with yourself, recommends Alex Jenny, a licensed clinical social worker known as "The Drag Therapist." Ask questions like: "Have my symptoms decreased in frequency and intensity? Do I have more insight about my mental health needs? Am I able to stay motivated in maintaining my mental health? Do I have systems of support in place in my life?"

Remember, you don't have to stay with someone who isn't helping you better yourself. 

"You're talking and sharing the deepest parts of yourself," says psychologist Alice Shepard, of health care company Sesame. "Things that maybe you haven't even shared with friends or family."

Think about the kind of relationship you're building with a therapist, and you'll see it's as serious as picking a close friend or partner. Once you accept that, you'll realize when a breakup might be necessary.

"You're coming in, and you're meeting with a therapist, whether it's Zoom or in person, because you're looking to feel better," Shepard says. "Being able to click with someone, or to feel like you have a really good fit, just makes it so much easier to go into the things that maybe you never wanted to think about or have pushed far to the side."

More details: The importance of finding a good therapist – and why it's so difficult

How to break up with your therapist

Breaking up with a partner over text or email screams "rude." The same applies to breaking up with your therapist.

While you may not feel up to it, it's ideal to tell your therapist about your feelings during a session. That's what you're there for anyway, right?

"That way you and the therapist can process any issues that led to that decision and give you an opportunity to practice or deepen important life skills such as managing conflicts and ending relationships in a healthy way," Ahrens says. "It's much easier to avoid the conversation, but the real work is in 'leaning in' and stretching out of your comfort zone."

Talking about it also opens the door for a conversation and could make the end less abrupt and awkward. "Your therapist can share their perspective and help you wrap up your work together in a way that brings closure," Jenny says.

It is your right to "ghost" your therapist if you want to, Shepard says. But hopefully, you have enough of a relationship that you can express how you feel and why you think it's no longer a fit.

"It's really important that the client let the therapist know, but you should not feel any kind of reservation in just saying, 'I'd like to pause for now' or, 'I feel like I came in and was looking for something and I've been able to feel like that was met and now I want to look for somebody else,'" Shepard says.

Once you've done the breaking up – and you're ready to seek therapy again – be prepared to power through directories to find a clinician that might more accurately fit your current needs. Whether it's through your workplace, insurance provider, or Psychology Today, plenty of databases exist to get you started. As of 2020, there were about 179,000 therapists in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Much like dating, remember that there's plenty of therapist fish in the sea.

Take it from Shepard: "There are enough therapists out there that you don't need to settle."

Good to bookmark: What is languishing? Alonely? A mental health glossary to explain what you're feeling