Just as what goes up must come down, so whatever begins must end.
Each of us comes to deal with this existential reality imposed on our own lives and all the living beings that we care for. As truly relational creatures we humans encounter the inescapable fact of death in those who die before us and we experience the pain of loss and bereavement.
And grief work itself is a common reason for people to seek therapeutic support. But whether it is through debilitating loss, or one of the many other reasons that spur people to commit to regular therapy, it is a fact that once therapy has begun, an ending of some sort will surely follow in the fullness of time.
Indeed the business of deciding when and how to end therapy is not straightforward.
Aspects that might make it easier to recognise when work is coming to an end can sit within the very beginnings of the work. Sometimes we go to therapy with a higher level of self knowledge about where our difficulties lie. With the help of our chosen therapist we can identify a working goal that will help us to recognise desirable change and a means of measuring how we will know when this has been achieved.
Through this means an ending may well present itself. In some senses this work might be likened to sailing whilst keeping the shoreline always in view.
Perhaps more often than not though, we can approach therapy with a less clear picture of who we are in our lives at that particular point in time, maybe even feeling unsure about quite what is ailing us or why.
In this case the beginnings of therapy can require a willingness to tolerate uncertainty. To deepen our self awareness, we might contract with our therapist to explore more deeply how we are in the world and this might come with a commitment to developing skills for new ways of being. We might compare this approach with setting sail beyond coastal waters to the open sea in search of new horizons.
When client and therapist first meet one question swirls for each of them: how is this for me to meet in relationship with this new person? And when the time comes to end therapy the question’s twin will arrive: how is this for me to end my relationship with this person I have known? An attuning therapist will process both these questions in the service of her client. For the client these valuable questions offer a way to better understand themselves and to evaluate any differences they experience in who they were back then at the beginning and who they feel they are now, at ‘the end’.
Much has been written about endings in therapy in terms of how this might relate to the ways in which both client and therapist have processed loss and bereavement in their own lives. Some family systems therapists have proposed that we can conceive other contexts to finishing therapeutic work than (1) ‘ending as loss’. Their framings suggest to me some useful additional questions for both client and therapist to consider:
• Ending as cure: does the client feel ‘better’ in relation to the way they originally felt ‘bad’?
• Ending as transition: how has this therapy supported the client to grow developmentally?
• Ending as release: does either client or therapist feel relief in this ending and if so, what might this mean?
• Ending as metamorphosis: how have both client and therapist changed through this relationship?
Reviewing these questions here reminds me of the vital importance of beginnings and endings in shaping the content of therapy and the emerging relationship between practitioner and client. Thus therapeutic beginnings and endings always invite our special attention.
As it is ultimately the client who decides to finish in therapy one final question becomes theirs alone: having begun, how much time and space will I allow myself to end?
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by Chris Horton –
Fredman G. & Dalal C. (1998) Ending discourses: implications for relationships and action in therapy. 1
Human Systems: The Journal of Systemic Consultation & Management. Vol 9 (Issue 1)