Ashely Coats had been seeing her therapist for about four and a half years when their professional relationship came to an end over the summer. They would both be moving away, but Coats had barely been going over the previous few months anyway—as she said over email, she felt like she could “finally function as a human being without needing to cry to my therapist every week”—so it was still a natural end.
Over the next couple of months, though, a lot happened for Coats. Completing her move across the country, driving around a big city by herself, and flying in an airplane had been major points of anxiety for her, but she did them all, accomplishing more than she’d ever thought she’d would by 19 years old, and she wanted to share those successes with her former therapist.
“I was so excited and proud, and while my friends and family were happy for me as well, I just had this overwhelming need to tell her, to show her how everything I learned from her worked,” Coats said.
She admits she felt “a little stupid,” about wanting to reach out. After all, she wasn’t paying her therapist anymore.
You may not hesitate to reconnect with an old friend with whom you used to talk to regularly, or to update a helpful teacher or mentor on your accomplishments. When it comes to a therapist who you paid to listen to you, though, it may feel more complicated. But missing your former therapist is completely normal, experts say.
“Generally I would just tell someone, ‘That makes sense,’” said Laura Reagan, a clinical social worker and trauma therapist in Maryland who hosts the Therapy Chat podcast. “Not having the same ongoing connection and interaction with them that you used to can be hard, and that’s OK.”
The exact way you forge that connection with your therapist may vary, depending on what type of therapy they specialize in (say, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychoanalysis). But whatever the technique, the most important factor for improving someone’s well being, studies have found, is that patient-therapist relationship.
“It’s actually considered a good sign in therapy if you start to think about your therapist when you’re not in therapy,” Reagan said. “You’re carrying them with you instead of just, it’s someone who sits in a room and they’re there when you show up and you talk to them and you leave and you forget about them until next time. If you can allow yourself to really trust that person, it can be one of the deepest types relationships you can have.”
That relationship is, by design, one-sided (even if a therapist shares small details about themselves), but both parties can feel that connection. As Daniel Walinsky, an associate professor in Temple University’s counseling psychology program, said, “We make impressions on each other.”
That was certainly the case for Brooke Buonauro who, at 19, saw a bereavement therapist as part of a parent loss support group on her college’s campus. Now 24, Buonaruo said she can’t imagine her life if she had never met that counselor; she was a “keeper of stories and memories of our parents,” Buonauro said, and even shared that she had lost both of her parents at relatively young ages.
So when Buonauro graduated, she missed her therapist and the bond they formed over four semesters. That therapist actually organized a reunion breakfast for support group students who had graduated—timed to be between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day—and Buonauro enjoyed the chance to catch up.
That’s a rare situation though. Walinsky said it violates most therapists’ ethics codes to reach out to former clients. (The fact that Buonauro was involved in a campus group may be the differentiating factor). Once that professional relationship is over, it would be on the client to ever reach out.
But, he added, “I would always welcome past clients to send me an email and let me know how they're doing,” a sentiment echoed by other therapists I spoke to. Walkinsky himself recently emailed a therapist after he moved from the Boston area to Philadelphia (yes, plenty of therapist see a therapist, too) to update them on things they had specifically talked about.
Walinsky said he personally would respond to an update, but if it got to the point where he and a former client were emailing back and forth, that couldn’t continue very long. Reach out, say hello, give an update, but don’t expect to reopen that relationship or have things go back to how they were when you were working together.
“If that’s something you feel like you need,” he added, “that’s a great time to go back into therapy, either with that person or someone else.”
That’s why it’s important to think about what you want to get out of reaching out to a former therapist, said Rachel Kazez, a licensed therapist and founder of All Along, a service to help people find therapists and better understand mental health. It’s totally valid to want to let them know how you’re doing or to thank them for their help, but you shouldn’t do it if you’re searching for more support (unless you’re trying to be their client again) or attempting to change the parameters of that relationship, like by asking to hang out or be friends.
“Do things that are low pressure and put the therapist in some control of how much interaction there is,” she said, like “sending an email or text, leaving a voicemail, or a phone call where you say, ‘Hey this is just a quick call.’”
Coats did recently email her former therapist and got a response back that her desire to reach out “wasn’t stupid at all,” and that she could go ahead and share what had happened over the past few months. They emailed back and forth a few times, and though they haven’t talked again since, Coats said she’s happy she reached out.
That sort of update may be satisfying for therapists, as well. Though they can’t ever email you to see how you’re doing, they may still be curious, Reagan said.
“Even though the therapeutic relationship has ended, we’re still people,” she said. “We carry in our hearts the clients that we worked with and wonder how they're doing or whatever happened to them.”
Ideally, you would talk about this boundary before ending therapy, and most professionals will bring up in a final session what, if any at all, post-working together contact looks like. If it’s something you didn’t get to discuss for some reason and you’re unsure if you’re update would be welcomed, Reagan’s advice is simple: “I’d say, ‘Well have you thought about just reaching out and asking?’”
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