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Early Termination: An Obstacle to Productive Therapy


Darlene Kirtley, MS LPC


Entering therapy can be hard. It takes a lot of courage and ego-strength to face the fact that we have things to work on.  Maybe we haven’t been the best parents or spouses and our kids and/or relationship is the worse for it. Or we struggle with depression or self-defeating habits.  During counseling, the therapist will gently throw pebbles at our defenses.  Sometimes they feel like boulders.  Strong feelings emerge.  Things we’d invested precious energy to keep out of conscious awareness are laid bare.  We feel naked, exposed,  sometimes pissed-off.   Our back-up defenses are deployed and we terminate therapy prematurely.


It would be too threatening to our self-esteem to accept the fact that we are terrified, vulnerable, wounded or fill-in-the-blank.  If we have narcissistic tendencies, we cannot tolerate any hint that we are not perfect. If we have OCD, we may find it hard to accept that we are out of control. Maybe guilt overwhelms us as we take more accountability for our actions.  Some aspect of therapy threatens us. So we rationalize our escape.  We really didn’t need therapy anyway.  That lady didn’t know what she was talking about. Or we obsess on one particular comment, uncomfortable moment or misunderstanding without talking to the therapist about it.  In the psychological community we call this defensiveness “resistance.”  Resistance is Enemy #1 for therapist and client alike.


Children do not have as many of these resistance issues and therefore are able to make amazing progress in therapy.  Unfortunately, they are dependent upon their parents to bring them to their counseling appointments.  As a therapist, nothing is sadder to me than seeing a child client’s therapy terminated abruptly or not started at all due to the parent’s resistance issues.


When it comes to resistance, therapists are really in a Catch-22 situation.  Therapy takes a lot of self-awareness, humility, openness, courage, relationship and communication skills.  Yet those clients who have the most resistance are least likely to possess these inner resources.  Before the therapist can help build these up, the client has often bolted.  Ironically, the clients most likely to stick it out are those who are the healthiest.  So the healthy become healthier and the dysfunctional remain stagnant or spiral downward.


What are a therapist and client to do? One practice that can be helpful for therapists is to educate clients about the resistance trap upfront.  Let them know some of the signs and dynamics of resistance: canceling appointments, showing up late, critiquing minor aspects of the office, feeling angry at the therapist, withholding helpful information, and terminating therapy abruptly.  Even with the most careful planning, there is still sometimes nothing we can do to prevent untimely terminations.  A co-worker once told me “The truth hurts, but the truth heals. Sometimes people aren’t ready to heal.”


Talk to your therapist about your feelings. If you have concerns about something your therapist has said, about the fee, schedule of appointments, progress, or any other matter, open communication is key especially in a relationship as intimate as the client-therapist relationship.  I believe it is a disservice to yourself, your therapist and your child (if s/he is a client), to terminate therapy over a concern that was never brought to the therapist’s awareness.  If after discussing it you decide that you would like to conclude the therapy relationship for the time being, then perhaps you can at least end it in the best possible way. Therapists are trained in smooth beginnings, middles and endings and there is something to be said for that notion of “closure.”


© 2011 Darlene Kirtley





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