When Your Therapist Is Away: Their Break, Your Breakthrough

Shot of a mature woman standing by a window at home deep in thoughtTherapists go on vacation. Therapists need time off for health reasons. Therapists have emergencies.

But what does it mean for you when your therapist needs a break?

It can be difficult to wait an extra week between appointments, let alone two or three. It’s a reminder your therapist has a life outside of the office. Often, we like to think of our therapist as ours and ours alone. Are you connected with the feelings that arise when your therapist tells you they’re going to be away?

Many people tell me they are “fine” with me not being around for a session or two. Depending on the person, I sometimes ask a few more questions about that. Not for personal reasons—I’m not trying to get a person in therapy to make me feel important and needed—but to help them bridge that feeling to other relationships in their lives.

While you may know intellectually your therapist takes time off, just like you (hopefully!) do, that doesn’t mean you won’t feel a whole swath of feelings when it happens. Some common ones are abandonment, sadness, and anger, but also happiness and even relief!

Whatever you feel upon hearing your therapist will be away, it may be helpful to dig deep to see if there is a small spark of feeling that may be familiar. Once you connect to the part of you that is angry (even just a little), for example, you may be able to bridge that to another time in your life when someone left. This is a great opportunity: You get to use the therapy session to let the therapist know how you felt back then. You get to see you can say, “I’m angry you’re leaving” and know the therapist can take it. You can have what we call a “corrective emotional experience.”

“I’m angry you’re leaving. If you really cared about my well-being, you’d make yourself available.” That might sound confrontational, but it’s actually progress.

You can even go a step further: “I’m angry you’re leaving. If you really cared about my well-being, you’d make yourself available.” That might sound confrontational, but it’s actually progress. It’s being vulnerable with your therapist, which is both really, really difficult and incredibly important.

You’re not going to change your therapist’s plans, but you’re going to know what it’s like to say how you’re feeling. It opens the door to an exploration of hurts you’ve experienced in the past—but had nowhere to go with.

Boundaries and Safety

If the prospect of your therapist going away causes anxiety or worry, talk to them about what you can do in their absence. Some good questions are:

  • “Can I call or email or text you?” You need to know your therapist’s boundaries. Some therapists take calls while on vacation; sometimes, only in special circumstances. Know before the therapist goes away.
  • “Is there someone else I can talk to in the meantime?” Some therapists provide the name and contact information of someone you can call if the therapist is unreachable. This is rarer, but it’s good information to have.
  • “What do I do if I’m really stuck or thinking of harming myself?” If you’re struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide and your therapist is aware of this, you may already have a safety plan with your therapist. Go over it with them before they leave, and if you don’t have one, create one together. No matter the circumstances, if you are ever in crisis or concerned about hurting yourself, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Your therapist going away can open some old wounds and bring up surprising feelings. Listen to those feelings and bring them forward. They could lead to breakthroughs that serve you not only while your therapist is unavailable, but long after you’ve parted on your terms.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Scott

    April 17th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    I would have to think that I would feel pretty petty to begrudge someone for wanting to get away and take a vacation. They wouldn’t feel that way about me so what Kind of right do I have to feel that toward them? I mean, if they are making accommodations for me and have some one to talk to if I felt like I was overwhelmed or needed someone then that is where things should end. I wouldn’t be comfortable at all tracking someone down on their vacation.

  • Jenn

    April 18th, 2017 at 4:30 PM

    For people with disorders Scott, it’s not that simple. We need our therapists, often they are the only people we have to talk to. Take BPD for example – most people with it have had horrendous childhoods locked in secrecy and isolation. Our therapists may be the only caring person we’ve known, our first experience of true acceptance. Working through intense trauma is hard enough without having to do it alone for weeks at a time. It is not about begrudging the therapist anything (mine is in training over our next session and of course I don’t begrudge her the time) I actually WANT to know she is taking care of herself and continuing her professional development. If she’s well rested, it means I feel she’s less likely to be overwhelmed by me. It is freeing. However, I need her to help me through, give me someone to talk to who is safe and won’t judge me. When I am feeling suicidal or wanting to self-harm, knowing I have to wait weeks to see her is hard, damn hard.

    If you genuinely feel that you would have no issue with your therapist going away then I am happy for you that you do not seem to have the kind of deep seated, traumatic issues which would lead you to feel abandoned. However, please do not judge those of us that do. We are not petty, we accept and want our therapists to have happy lives, we just miss them when they aren’t around, that’s all. Dependency in therapy is a natural state to be in, at least at first. A skilled therapist helps a client work through that. It’s why therapy lasts for a good number of years in cases of attachment issues and abuse – first trust must be established so the client feels safe being as vulnerable as Justin describes (which often involves the client becoming dependent on the therapist), then the issues are explored and resolved and finally the detachment process begins. There’s no need to be scared of becoming attached to your therapist, doing so is like gold dust, means you have established a true connection and feel safe with them (she says while feeling it’s totally unacceptable for herself).

    Like I said above though – however you handle therapy is fine. You cannot become too attached for therapy. But please don’t judge those of us that do – we have problems you cannot imagine (lucky you).

  • sutherland

    April 18th, 2017 at 10:41 AM

    You could look at this as a time for more growth to occur. You don’t have someone there looking over your shoulder, so it is a good time to consider what would life be like after therapy? And how are you going to handle things when they arise but you aren’t in treatment any longer? It is at least a good time to consider whether this is a time when you would like to try to take a break from it or if you have learned all the right tools to go it alone. If not and you know it just take it as a little vacation before he or she comes back and you start working on the hard stuff all over again.

  • WishIwasYou

    April 18th, 2017 at 12:47 PM

    I live in Scandinavia and here all the therapists take at least 6weeks sometimes 10weeks off during the summer and often about 2weeks during X-mas… plus all the emergencies and other vacations and training etc. Oh, I only wish we’d have therapists like you do where it would be an issue that needed talking when they miss a few sessions let alone are gone for the whole summer! Lucky you :D

  • Bret

    April 20th, 2017 at 2:38 PM

    how about talking with someone online?
    do you think that could help to fill the void when the therapist that you are accustomed to working with is away?

  • Lee

    December 29th, 2018 at 4:01 PM

    I have a terrible time every time my therapist leaves. He leaves for at least two weeks several times a year. I never handle it well and I have seen him for years. He is gone now on vacation at a critical time. It’s been 10 days and I have another week plus to go. I am so angry and hurt and feel so abandoned I can hardly function. I hate myself for not being better about this after years of dealing with it. Nothing helps when we talk about it. I don’t think he even cares about what it’s like for me. He used to care. Nothing helps when we talk about it. The only thing that helps is if I can talk to him while he is away and that does not happen anymore. I don’t know why I am sharing this with strangers. I am so ashamed while at the same time so inferiated.

  • Stephanie

    January 5th, 2019 at 7:15 AM

    Don’t feel ashamed! I am (almost) in the same boat you are. I am in my first year of extensive therapy. I’ve been seeing my therapist for about 10 months or so every single Thursday at 4 pm. It is the ONLY thing I have going for me. It is the ONLY thing keeping me alive. She is now away on a two week vacation. I need to survive four more days until she comes back. I really had no idea it would be this hard. I feel ya. It’s not anything to be ashamed of. I understand the anger and emotions. All I can (which I am telling myself) is it’s almost over, four more days to go and I can explode (release everything during therapy at 4pm on Thursday) again.

  • Luanne

    November 10th, 2019 at 4:04 PM

    I have been in therapy for just over 2 years. Until now, like Scott my therapist going on vacation was no big deal, why would I begrudge him? Now, 2 yrs plus later, I guess I was in denial. I feel so alone and abandoned, I am angry and have so many mixed emotions. Our last session I brought up “separation anxiety” not knowing fully what it meant. Wow, did that ever give him the opportunity to confront me about my abandonment issues. I argued with him. Left the session an emotional mess. Now, 4 days later after reading your comments i am seeing it as time for me to trust him to help me deal with lifelong issues that I did not want to accept or deal with. Thank you for your sharing, my feelings of shame have gone way down.

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