I “Graduated” Therapy: Now What?

Let me start by saying that I don’t like the term “graduated therapy.” Graduating connotes many things that I find antithetical to the therapeutic process. It suggests that there is some easily defined list of boxes to tick off, that there is a clear goal you’re working toward, and that the process can be wrapped up with a nice little bow when that goal is met.

Anyone who has invested in therapy knows that it’s not like that. Therapy is a moving target, with goals that shift and sometimes must be paused. Progress on long-term goals is halted when short-term challenges require our attention. And, perhaps most importantly, there isn’t an obvious “end.”

Nonetheless, we often say “graduated” because we really have no other word for that moment when we look at our therapist and say, “I don’t think I need to be here anymore.”

I reached that place a little over a year ago. Having spent two years in constant weekly therapy—sometimes with emergency sessions in between—I finally reached a place of healing. Those two years had focused on resolving surface-level problems that were happening in my marriage and with my self-image and identity. They also explored the more profound things (events from my childhood, suppressed wounds I’d forgotten about but were still there), to find out how those things were coloring my perception of current life events. My sessions were never long enough. We had so much to discuss, and it always felt like we were just getting to the good stuff when the session was over.

But after two years and lots of hard work, my sessions began to stall. Some days, it felt like we were grasping at straws to find something to work on. I was happy, healthy, and healed.

Therapy isn’t cheap, and I was out of things to say. So, I said the only thing there seemed left to say: goodbye.

I’ve taken a year off. I’ve spent that time investing in myself and my family—particularly in applying all the things I learned in therapy to my everyday life. There have been countless moments that would have become disastrous if my old, pre-therapy self had been the one to handle them. But the new me, equipped with useful tools for navigating the tough stuff of life, is doing great! Or, at least she’s managing.

I’m deliberating the possibility of returning to therapy. Maybe for periodic tune-ups? And I’m not sure what that would look like. Should I go once a month? Or perhaps just “as needed”? It’s been nice not having to re-traumatize myself all the time just to get to the healing. And I’m definitely enjoying not having those “post-therapy hangovers” anymore. Do I want to delve back into that world?

Therapy is never a bad idea. But is it necessarily always a good one? Do I actually want to go back to therapy, or is there simply some part of me who thinks I’m so fundamentally broken that happiness won’t stick around unless I’m being hand-held by my therapist? Or what if the opposite is true? What if somehow I’ve become arrogant and obtuse, completely oblivious to my need for therapy because I’m a narcissist now, and narcissists never think they need therapy?

Come to think of it, maybe these are things I should discuss with my therapist.

This is the thing about investing in our mental health: it’s messy and diffuse. There aren’t readily available answers. And often, those of us who have the self-awareness to take ourselves to therapy in the first place are also the ones who do this type of recursive self-reflection that makes us doubt if we can ever really graduate from therapy.

I don’t have any answers. This probably could have been a journal entry. I guess I just wanted folks like me to know they’re not alone. It’s hard to know what to do when we become healed enough to not need constant therapy to survive; when the fight or flight has subsided. Maybe some of us will never trust ourselves to live fully without therapy. And maybe that’s okay? For me personally, I’m going to take some more time to reflect on my decision. I think I need to answer some questions first so that I can understand what the real motivation is for possibly returning to therapy. Here are the questions I want to explore:

Am I considering returning to therapy because I see it as a healthy form of mental health maintenance, or because I’ve convinced myself I’m broken when I’m not?

Do I actually need therapy, or am I trying to fill some co-dependent need?

What if I’m actually doing just fine but refuse to let myself believe it?

Finding answers to these questions will help me decide what to do in the many post-therapy years I have ahead of me. You are welcome to use these questions for yourself. I think there are a lot of us feeling unmoored after therapy— tossed about in the sea and not knowing what to do from here.

But I think the fact that we are so carefully deliberating these questions shows us that the therapy did its job, after all.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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