Therapists 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, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York
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