What Being Ready To ‘Graduate’ From Therapy Really Means, According to Therapists

Photo: Stocksy/Jayme Burrows
Generally speaking, therapy is a learning process that involves picking up mental health skills for managing life’s challenges, big and small. In the same way that you’d graduate from school after demonstrating proficiency with the material in the curriculum, you can also graduate from therapy once you’re well-equipped to weather those challenges solo.

While your therapist will likely point out that you’re ready to graduate therapy when the time comes, that reality can manifest in different ways for different people. Learning the common signs that you’ve accomplished what you set out to achieve with your therapist can help you pinpoint where you might be in your therapy journey.

What graduating from therapy looks like in practice

Ideally, when starting therapy, you’ll outline specific goals for your time with your therapist; accomplishing those goals then becomes the barometer for graduation, says psychotherapist Jazmyne Thomas, LCSW. “This may not mean all challenges have been resolved 100 percent, but that you have the skills to confidently navigate life without the support of a clinician.”

“[Graduating therapy] may not mean all challenges have been resolved 100 percent, but that you have the skills to confidently navigate life without the support of a clinician.” —Jazmyne Thomas, LCSW, psychotherapist

Consider someone who sought therapy to stop people-pleasing: “They would be ready to graduate from therapy once they’re able to identify and effectively express their needs and enforce their boundaries with others,” says Thomas. Once that's true, they’re demonstrating competency with the skills and techniques they learned in therapy, as well as the ability to apply them when needed with people in the outside world, she says.

Reaching that level of growth can certainly take varying amounts of time depending on the person and the issue(s) at hand. “I’ve found that people with acute or situational stressors [e.g. getting laid off or losing a family member] are more likely to be ready to graduate sooner than individuals seeking support for more long-term or chronic issues,” says psychologist Philip Charles Hammel, PsyD. After all, specific stressors may simply lessen in magnitude over time, or once you've had a chance to develop particular coping mechanisms against them, he says, reducing the need for therapy. (Meanwhile, dealing with depression or an anxiety disorder can be a longer, complex process.)

Because therapy isn’t always a linear process, it’s also possible that your therapeutic goal(s) could change over time, which may, in turn, shift the timeline for achieving them. That’s why regular communication with your therapist is so essential to ensure that the process is continually meeting your needs, says psychotherapist Raven Waterman, LCSW. “You can give your therapist feedback, share any concerns you’re having, and be open to their feedback, as well,” she says. This way, you’ll stay on the same page about your progress—whether you’re nearing graduation, still have some more work to do together, or might even be better served by a different therapist.

In terms of the latter scenario, it’s possible to accomplish all that you can with a particular therapist (and essentially graduate from their care), while still having room to grow further with someone who has a different specialty or background, says Thomas. “For example, if you originally came to your therapist for couples therapy and later find that you have some unresolved first-responder trauma,” she says, “you may want to see a therapist with experience working with first responders as their care would fall more directly within the scope of what you need to work through those unique challenges.”

3 common signs that you may be ready to graduate from therapy, according to therapists

1. You have very little to say to your therapist in sessions

If you’re sitting in your therapy sessions trying to come up with something to talk about, chances are, you’re close to the finish line, says Thomas. In this situation, your therapist is becoming obsolete, as you have little if anything to explore, discuss, or work through with them.

2. You feel capable of solving everyday challenges

Once you’re confident about applying the skills and tools you’ve learned in therapy to various scenarios that arise in the real world, you’re likely ready to graduate, says Thomas.

That means your everyday life may seem to be going more smoothly—perhaps in terms of your ability to manage stress, effectively communicate in relationships, and/or be productive at work—and the instances where you feel like you’ve hit a snag and want to call your therapist are growing few and far between. As a result, you may also feel like you can go more extended periods between therapy sessions without issues, says Waterman, which is another sign that you’re basically ready for your therapy diploma.

3. You’re feeling at peace around the issue(s) that drove you to therapy

This one goes back to achieving your therapy goals—which is the core meaning of being ready to graduate therapy. If you’re feeling a sense of accomplishment and confidence in your life, particularly with regard to the issues you sought support for, you’re likely on the cusp of graduation, says Dr. Hammel.

Why graduating from therapy (or doing so permanently) isn’t essential for everyone

While graduation can imply a level of success, a person can also be successful in therapy without ever graduating, or when returning to therapy after graduating. In this way, therapy is like mental-health school: You can always choose to continue learning whenever you want or need to learn more.

Perhaps you graduated from therapy in the past, and over time, your initial concerns or symptoms return. In this case, the tools you already have in your arsenal may be less effective at helping you manage what you’re experiencing, and it may be worth returning to pick up new ones, says Waterman. “That does not mean the process did not work, but that there might be new or different stressors at play, or you may just need additional support,” she says.

It’s also possible that you might choose never to leave or graduate therapy in the first place even after achieving the goals you set out for yourself. Maybe new issues come up beyond the initial stressors that brought you into treatment, and you’d like to address them with your current therapist or a new one, as noted above. Or perhaps you find that, “with your therapist, for the first time in your life, you have someone that you can open up to who won’t judge you for your feelings or react emotionally to what you have to say,” says Dr. Hammel. Even if you’ve already learned key tools from them for managing challenges in your life, they can still act as a sounding board or a neutral third party that you might really value.

If a therapist senses that you’re utilizing them in this way, they might not suggest graduating from therapy as soon as they would with another client who’d achieved the same growth, says Dr. Hammel. “This becomes an interesting and delicate balance between helping the person be more independent and seek supportive attachments outside of therapy and also respecting that they may be in need of a more gentle approach when discussing ending therapy.”

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