Endings in Counselling
Endings in counselling may be planned or unplanned. Endings can be difficult or painful, but at the same time offer a great growth opportunity for clients who have previously experienced traumatic endings.
Ideally, you and the client should be aware that the last counselling session is approaching, and prepare for this ending.
Ending the counselling relationship is sometimes called ‘termination’. Irvin Yalom, in his book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (1975, p. 365), uses this term in this valuable quote on endings in counselling:
‘Termination is more than an act signifying the end of therapy; it is an integral part of the process of therapy and, if properly understood and managed, may be an important factor in the instigation of change.’
Planning for Endings in therapy
As a counsellor, you should plan for endings where possible, seeing the ending as a process, not a one-off event.
This process starts at the very beginning of the therapeutic relationship when you explain to clients in contracting any limits on the number of sessions available.
For example, charitable agencies typically offer six to ten sessions.
Each time you meet the client, it is useful to remind them how many sessions they have left; this helps them prepare for ending.
As you progress through the course of sessions, it is useful to build in regular reviews of how the client is experiencing counselling. This too helps prevent the ending coming as an unpleasant surprise or even shock.
Click the link to listen to the podcast on endings in counselling.
There are three key stages in planned endings in therapy:
- assessing the client’s readiness to end therapy, e.g. picking up on statements by the client that the original presenting issues are now less troublesome
- acknowledging the relationship, since the client is ending not only their therapy but also their relationship with you
- empowering the client and aiming for an increase in resilience, linked to the client’s self-belief
Unplanned endings in counselling
Endings in any part of life - counselling included - can be difficult, especially if unexpected.
Unplanned endings – where a client just does not return – can produce difficult feelings in the counsellor.
You have a relationship that you’ve formed, and you don’t know why they haven’t come back.
It can be easy to question your own practice and wonder whether you inadvertently did something wrong.
Supervision can help here, as can processing your thoughts and feelings through writing in a journal.
While it is always good to reflect on your practice and identify if there are any points for improvement, it is important too not to let your confidence be knocked by clients not returning.
This may well relate to events in their life, their personality, or which of the seven stages of process they find themselves at.
How to manange breaks and endings in counselling
If, as the therapist, you need to take a break from counselling (e.g. if you are going on holiday), it is best practice to tell clients as soon as possible. Especially if a client has been coming to you for a long time, it provides them maximum notice.
Try to give clients at least one week’s notice for each month you have been working with them.
For example, you might say:
‘Just to let you know, I will be away in two months’ time, from [date] to [date].
I’m not assuming that you will still be coming then, but I just feel it’s respectful to let you know.’ Nearer the time, you might say: ‘I wonder how you might manage while I’m away and how you might feel during that time.’
Invite them to respond, and work on that in therapy.
Feelings about Endings
Endings in any part of life can be difficult, especially if unexpected. They can key into the natural human tendency to avoid loss – both for counsellors and for clients.
"It is worth thinking about how your own attachment style may impact on your endings with clients."
If a client is resisting ending, you could explore this with the client.
If possible (within the policy of your agency), it can be helpful to remind the client that they are free to return if they are struggling again in the future.
It can be difficult if the agency offers a set number of sessions and the client has revealed heavy material: perhaps you could negotiate more sessions or else make a referral.
If you as counsellor feel that you avoid endings, you could make the client dependent on you, going against the principle of autonomy (‘respect for the client’s right to be self-governing’), as set out in the Ethical Framework of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
A warning sign of this might be if a client says something like: ‘I wouldn’t be able to manage in life if it wasn’t for you.’
If you feel sad when ending with a client, and feel you will miss them – or indeed if you feel you are looking forward to a client ending – take this to supervision and, if the feeling persists, to personal counselling.
It is worth thinking about how your own attachment style may impact on your endings with clients. Many complaints submitted to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) relate to endings being poorly handled or even avoided by therapists.
For example, a client might feel that they were abandoned, or that the therapy stretched on longer than they needed it to. Self-awareness is the key to avoiding such problems.
In summary, Endings in therapeutic relationships are often not straightforward, but with good self-awareness and preparation, they can be managed professionally and effectively for both counsellor and client.