Coping with abandonment after breaking up with my therapist of 9 years
June 6, 2019 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I just ended it with a very long term therapist and want to know how to deal with the feelings of abandonment and loss?

Therapist had been very good but it was becoming apparent they couldn't offer the level of care I needed. The last month or so had been particularly difficult in our relationship. It culminated in an episode that left me incredibly distressed, betrayed, and feeling a complete lack of trust. (NB: No boundaries were crossed, nothing unethical was done).

I called them and said as a result of this episode, I no longer could trust them and therefore work with them. They agreed. I am now feeling a huge sense of loss. How do I process this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I worked with a therapist for nearly 15 years and ended my work when it became clear that change simply wasn’t occurring with them. My ending did not culminate in any traumatic episode, but there were definitely feelings of loss I experienced.

For me, to name some emotions, I felt that I had lost the ability to unabashedly sink my whole trust into a therapist, and felt as if part of me will now be watchful in a “meta” sense to see if my goals are being worked towards and if the therapist in question still deserves my trust. I’m not so sure that development is a bad one.

I also very much regretted the significant loss of time. I wish I had come to the realization earlier.

(It did not help that the therapist immediately following that one decided that she was not skilled enough in the field of my diagnosis, and ended our sessions prior to me finding a new one to transition to.)

I will say that for me, four things particularly helped. The first was to acknowledge the feelings, that they were the result of understandable stimuli, and to simply let them exist and play out their course, as opposed to trying to quash, mask, or eliminate them. You were vulnerable and placed trust in someone, and your relationship (at least as you currently perceive it) resulted in betrayal and lack of trust. If you are damaged in some way, you are going to hurt. Sometimes trying to suppress or mask emotions will basically cause them to spring up larger than they were before -- sort of like when you irritate a healing wound and it decides to get worse. Letting them be can be like letting a scab exist -- it will fall off (heal) when it's finished its job.

The second was to focus on extra self-care to some extent and to rely on some elements of Internet positivity. There are Twitter accounts that are emoji aquariums, or that simply remind you throughout the day to take care of yourself in certain ways (if you’re thirsty, go get a drink of water, etc.). There are Tumblrs that have positive messages (positivedoodles and chibird on Tumblr). I’m fairly sure we’ve had some questions here. If I remember and get to it tonight, I will pass along the links to the above, and I think there’s at least two or three Asks and MetaTalks that collect more resources.

The third is to begin shopping around for a new therapist. Try to determine what quality your therapist was lacking that you need to find in a new one. See if you believe you may have a particular issue that therapists would advertise as having a specialty in. Ask for recommendations from your primary care physician, friends, here on Ask, etc., and then start wading through. Don’t immediately rule someone out because of price or being out of network; many can operate on a sliding scale.

And a fourth suggestion would be to not overlook the power of some of the best books out there for self-help. Self-help and books cannot take the place of therapy with another breathing human being, but they can supplement it very well. It can be a selection, but when specific issues are mentioned, you’ll find that certain books often consistently float to the top of the recommendation pile. That can be another Ask, or just the product of your own research as well.

Good luck.
posted by WCityMike at 10:35 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]

It's out of print, but When to Say Goodbye to Your Therapist is available used on Amazon and eBay. It deals with a lot of the issues you're struggling with. I found it very helpful.
posted by FencingGal at 11:17 AM on June 6

My very first therapist - who made a huge difference in my self-awareness - moved from western Massachusetts to the Bay Area somewhat abruptly while we were working together.

Ten years later when I moved to San Francisco I called her and asked her if she could recommend a therapist or if I could work with her again. First, she didn't remember me and then she scoffed at me when I told her my price range.

That's obviously not anywhere near your situation but I remember feeling the loss surprisingly strongly.
posted by bendy at 2:44 PM on June 6

As WCityMike suggests, it seems important to honor, validate, and accept your feelings. You would likely be feeling some sense of loss if your therapeutic relationship were ending because of something like your therapist moving away. In that situation, you'd probably go through a period of grieving. In other words, you are experiencing a real loss.

And, because of the painful experience you recently had with your therapist, you're dealing with a lot of other difficult feelings on top of the grief. You might find some helpful resources/framework by looking up "complicated grief."

So, you may find it helpful to do the things that people typically do around grief and loss.

I'm also wondering about something which is hard to fully suggest without knowing more specifics about how your therapist failed to hold you, but it sounds like the end of your work together was sudden and unexpected. So it's possible that it could help to have a closing session, either soon or after you've found another therapists -- both to simply be witnessed by your former therapist in these feelings and to create more of a sense of wrapping up the work you've spent nine years on together. Of course, depending on what happened and/or on the lack of trust you're feeling, doing so might not be emotionally safe or helpful for you. You might also ask if your former therapist would be willing to help you find closure in some other way, i.e. by writing you a letter of summary of your work together or something along those lines.
posted by overglow at 2:47 PM on June 6

+1 on “go back for one more session” unless it would cause you more distress than you’re already feeling. Without quite signing on with the way some therapists say “so you want to terminate our therapy? Let’s talk about it for a year!” I think the nature of this relationship does give you the opportunity, missing in many kinds of loss, to address it directly. If, loss of trust not withstanding, you feel there is any relationship there to work with, it is arguably part of your therapist’s job to help you process the end of what was once a meaningful relationship.
posted by Smearcase at 2:59 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]

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