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Monday, May 21, 2018

Why Ghosting Your Psychotherapist is Harmful to You

Ending a relationship can be difficult, and many people try to avoid dealing with endings--whether those endings involve a romantic relationship, family members, coworkers and even psychotherapists.  "Ghosting" is a relatively new term to describe when someone disappears from a relationship, regardless of the type of relationship, in order to avoid a conflict or the fear of ending that relationship (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

Why Ghosting Your Psychotherapist is Harmful to You

Ghosting in Psychotherapy 
Clients in psychotherapy often talk about how emotionally painful it is when someone that they were dating ghosts them.

They talk about feeling abandoned, rejected and confused about why the other person disappeared from their life without telling them why.  And yet, some of these same clients will ghost their psychotherapist even when they have had a good therapeutic relationship with them before they disappeared.

Although ghosting a psychotherapist isn't the norm, it happens often enough for psychotherapists to begin talking about it.  Often, clients who ghost their therapist have a long history of passive-aggressive and avoidant behavior in other personal and work-related relationships.

Why Do Clients Ghost Their Psychotherapists?
With the advent of dating apps where people can swipe right or left for their dating preferences, some people haven't developed the necessary tact and interpersonal skills for interacting with others.

I hear from many clients, who are unhappy with online dating, that for many of the people they are meeting online, there is a feeling that there might be "someone better" one swipe away ("better" is often defined as better looking, sexier, richer, smarter, and so on).  So, these people tend to enter into the dating world lacking the interpersonal skills and motivation to get to know people before ghosting them.

Why Ghosting Your Psychotherapist is Harmful to You
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has carried over into the realm of psychotherapy with some clients opting to disappear from therapy rather than talking to their psychotherapist about whatever is bothering them (see my article: How to Talk to Your Psychotherapist About What's Bothering You About Your Therapy).

For people who ghost their psychotherapist, there is often little to no recognition that they have a  relationship with their psychotherapist--a therapeutic relationship, which is, of course, different from a personal relationship, but a relationship nonetheless, and that relationship deserves the respect of any other type of relationship.

As to why clients ghost their psychotherapist, there can be many reasons, including:
  • A History of Avoidant Behavior: Some people just haven't learned how to end a relationship in a way that is respectful to the other person and respectful to themselves.  They might have an avoidant attachment style or aspects of that attachment style.  In most cases, they want to avoid any kind of unpleasantness or conflict--even when they know, logically, that their psychotherapist is trained to deal with endings.  
  • A Problem With Interpersonal Skills: As mentioned before, some clients haven't developed the necessary social skills for interacting with others.  Either due to inexperience with relationships or a lack of recognition of the importance of relationships, they don't know how to talk about what's bothering them in a relationship and how to end a relationship that's not working for them, including a therapeutic relationship (see my article: How Psychotherapy Can Facilitate Emotional Development in Adult Clients).
  • A Fear of Emotional Intimacy: A client-therapist relationship is one of the most emotionally intimate relationships that many people have.  For some people, it's the only emotionally intimate relationship they have in their lives, especially if they're not connected to family member, friends or in a romantic relationship.  For clients who have never been in therapy before or who have skipped around to many different therapists without developing a therapeutic relationship, the emotional intensity of the therapeutic relationship can be uncomfortable.  If they have never developed a good therapeutic relationship with a psychotherapist, they might not have anticipated what opening up to a therapist would be like.  For some clients, when the therapy sessions become deeper than they anticipated, they bolt (see my article: Fear of Emotional Intimacy).
  • An Early History of Traumatic Endings:  Often ghosting is related to unresolved trauma where there were one or more early traumatic endings.  This might include: being abandoned by a parents early in life, experiencing marital separation or divorce where the parents didn't take the time to talk to the children about the change, sudden evictions from a home, etc.  Someone who has experienced traumatic endings has inadvertently learned that endings are dangerous and should be avoided, so rather than letting their therapist know that they are thinking about leaving therapy, they become too anxious about the ending and just leave (see my article: Fear of Abandonment and Adults Who Were Traumatized As Children Are Often Afraid to Express Their Feelings).
Why is Ghosting Your Psychotherapist Harmful to You?
While it's true that no psychotherapist likes to be ghosted by a client, when clients ghost their psychotherapist, they are mostly harming themselves for the following reasons:
  • Your Therapy Often Doesn't Go Beyond the Surface: When you disappear from your therapy, you often cheat yourself from having the experience of going beyond the surface in therapy.  Clients who leave therapy prematurely will often say to their next therapist that they didn't know what else to talk about once they talked briefly about the presenting problem.  A skilled psychotherapist will usually recognize that the client might have been defensively warding off delving deeper into their problems (see my article: Beyond the "Band-aid" Approach to Resolving Your Problems in Therapy).
  • You Might Be Avoiding Dealing With Your Problems:  Most, if not all, people begin psychotherapy with a degree of ambivalence.  Even the most motivated clients, who are serious about working on their problems, have some mixed feelings about being in therapy.  So, when you have an urge to disappear from your therapy sessions, you would be wise to ask yourself what you might be avoiding.   You might feel a temporary sense of relief by leaving therapy prematurely, but sooner or later your problems will resurface (usually, it's sooner), and you might be returning to your therapist or looking for another therapist.  If this is a pattern for you, you could reenact this ghosting pattern many times with different therapists and not resolve your problems (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).
  • You Don't Feel Good About Yourself After Ghosting Your Psychotherapist:  Except in rare cases of the most callous or narcissistic people, most people who have a pattern of ghosting their psychotherapists will often say that they feel shame and guilt afterwards for leaving in such a passive-aggressive way.  If this occurs with one therapist after another, they develop a sense of failure or the misconception that "therapy doesn't work for me."  Before disappearing from therapy, take some time to first reflect upon what you will feel like after the initial sense of relief, especially if you have skipped around a lot from one therapist to another.  
  • You Don't Learn to Assert Yourself in a Healthy Way:  Even when it's clear that you and your psychotherapist aren't a good match, rather than disappearing from therapy, you owe it to yourself to assert yourself so you can have a good ending in therapy.  If you have never learned to end a relationship in a healthy way, discussing termination with your psychotherapist is an opportunity to learn how to have a healthy ending.  This means having at least one session to end the therapy--not texting, emailing or leaving a voicemail message telling your therapist that you're ending therapy.  
What Can Psychotherapists Do to Help Clients With a Pattern of Ghosting?
Psychotherapists who recognize that a client has a pattern of ghosting people in relationships can help by doing the following:
  • Bring Up the Topic of Ghosting Early On in Therapy For Clients Who Have a Pattern of Ghosting:  Very often, whatever problem a client is having in his or her personal or work life also becomes a problem in therapy.  That's why it's important for a therapist to address the ghosting issue early on in therapy when she hears that a client has a pattern of doing this in relationships.  By bringing up this topic, the therapist lets the client know that she is receptive to hearing any complaints about the therapy or what the client thinks isn't working, so the client knows it's safe to talk about these issues and s/he doesn't have to disappear from therapy at the first sign of a problem.  This provides an opportunity for the client and therapist to talk about other ways of handling uncomfortable feelings, conflict or whatever might be causing the client to want to disappear.  For some clients, this might not be enough to keep them from bolting from therapy when they're uncomfortable, but at least it has been addressed.  It increases the chance that these clients might remember the discussion even after they leave, and they might consider returning (see my article: Starting Where the Client is in Psychotherapy and Why It's Important For Psychotherapist to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation).
  • Don't Take It Personally:  Most experienced psychotherapists are trained not to take abrupt endings in therapy personally.  This doesn't mean that the therapist might not have contributed to the abrupt ending in therapy.  It could mean that, even when the therapist made mistakes and had no opportunity for repairing the rupture, this isn't a personal abandonment (although it never feels good to be ghosted).  But if, as a psychotherapist, you experience it as a personal abandonment or if it triggers abandonment issues in you, you would do well to seek help in your own personal therapy to work out these unresolved issues.  Self care is important. You would also probably benefit from working with an experienced supervisor or colleagues who can help you to deal with this issue (see my article: Psychotherapists' Reactions to Their Clients).
  • Contact a Client Who Has Disappeared From Therapy: It can be very helpful to a client, who is fearful and avoidant, to hear from his or her therapist that the door remains open to returning.  This is especially true for clients who have been traumatized by unhealthy endings in their family where there was no opportunity to return to repair relationships.  The client might not come back soon or ever, but knowing that the therapist is open to discussing the reasons for leaving, even if the client still wants to end therapy after the discussion, can be a healing experience.  Some clients, who disappear from therapy, return months or years afterwards based on the therapist letting them know that her door remains open to them.  Also, let them know your policy regarding inactive cases (e.g., a client's case would be considered inactive after a month or whatever your policy is).
  • Help Clients to Work Through the Issue of Abrupt Endings If They Return: As previously mentioned, some clients return after they have heard from their psychotherapist that they can come back.  For those clients, who might still feel uncomfortable, guilty or ashamed, it's important to address their disappearance from therapy.  This can be a healing experience for the client and the therapeutic relationship (see my article: Ruptures and Repairs in Psychotherapy).
Conclusion
Ghosting is phenomenon which occurs for a variety of reasons, in personal relationships, work relationships and therapeutic relationships in psychotherapy.

When ghosting occurs in psychotherapy, it's harmful to the client, who might be perpetuating a pattern of disappearing from relationships or unconsciously recreating trauma from the past.

Psychotherapists, who recognize a pattern of ghosting with particular clients, can help these clients by providing psychoeducation about why ghosting is harmful to them and how to deal with problems directly rather than avoiding them.

When clients, who tend to bolt from relationships, learn to confront their fears in psychotherapy (rather than disappearing from therapy), they can take pride in achieving an important goal.  Learning to deal with problems related to psychotherapy can help clients to develop the necessary skills to deal with problems in their personal relationships and in their career.

Getting Help in Therapy
Rather than struggling alone, you could benefit from seeking help in psychotherapy (see my article:  The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Finding the psychotherapist that's right for you might take time and effort (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Freeing yourself in therapy from a traumatic history can allow you to lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.





























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