Why ‘Time’s Up’ in Therapy Should Be Difficult to Hear

Youth sits on sofa, looking away from camera“Ending a therapy session is a hostile act.”

This was said to me by my therapist once after we discussed how, regardless of whether I had a “good” session or a frustrating one, I usually felt annoyed at the end. Either I was upset it was over and afraid of losing momentum, or I was upset we didn’t get to the heart of what I wanted to talk about. I’d question whether anything really changed because of the therapy session, and I didn’t recognize the importance of the feelings that arose at the end of a session or what that ending was doing to me.

Unfortunately, that annoyance inevitably dissolved by the start of the next session. A whole other week had passed, and other things had come up. Feelings (as they are wont to do) had come and gone. It was difficult to find a way to process that fleeting end-of-session feeling.

Holding on to Feelings Between Therapy Sessions

I tried several ways to hold on to the feeling I’d have at the end of a session because I believed it was important. With one previous therapist, I got permission to record our sessions and then listen to the recording on the way to my next session. (I stole this idea from Irvin Yalom.) The idea was to connect each session to the previous one. This technique didn’t last. It was too much of a commitment: spending a whole other chunk of time rehashing the previous week. Also, it didn’t take into consideration what I was feeling at the time of the new session, which was just as valid.

Another tactic I tried was to jot down notes as I left therapy. I’d write down any insights I thought I’d want to return to or ideas I thought about as the session ended. I’d try to record associations I made later that day or that week. This helped a little (sometimes I still do this).

Doing that had reminded me of how I used to go to a coffee shop near my therapist’s office and journal for a while before meeting with her. That journaling became agenda writing: I’d compile a list of all the stuff I wanted to make sure we spoke about.

Gosh, I was working hard. And sometimes we’d get to a lot of that agenda. We’d really get somewhere and I’d settle in to how I was feeling and …

“Time’s up.”

“More to say next week.”

She could end at 45 minutes, but I had to keep living my life. I had to go back out into the world and manage and deal and, well, I wanted to be finished. Complete. My therapist hadn’t done her job because I needed to come back next week, right?

“That’s all the time we have.”

Or my favorite:

“To be continued.”

Those phrases would annoy me so much. They made me feel that, to my therapist, I was only 45 minutes’ worth of purging. She could end at 45 minutes, but I had to keep living my life. I had to go back out into the world and manage and deal and, well, I wanted to be finished. Complete. My therapist hadn’t done her job because I needed to come back next week, right?

It took a long time for me to realize this was anger.

It took a while to express it as anger.

It took quite some time (and another therapist—a man this time) to relate that anger at being “cut off” to all the other shames and endings and cut-offs in my life.

Talk to Your Therapist About These Feelings

The end of a therapy session can provide a lot of important fuel because it brings the feeling toward the therapist. This happens when the person in therapy feels safe enough to let the therapist “have it.” It happens when the person trusts that the therapist isn’t going to become defensive or punitive for expressing feelings they have spent weeks talking about.

This is the relational part of many types of therapy. It’s bringing real-world emotion into the therapy room where it’s most potent, where it can be held and fully expressed.

Written into the process of therapy is that the caring, patient, empathic person you’re paying to listen to you and witness your life will tell you time is up. That should suck. That should make you upset. And you should say all that to your therapist. And if you’re aware of those feelings at the end of a session, let your therapist know you need help expressing them at the next session.

I do the same thing now. I tell people it’s time to end a session and they have all kinds of feelings. Sometimes there’s relief. Often there’s annoyance. Sometimes there’s intense anger. But I’m always glad when they have enough courage to tell me how they feel about it.

Sometimes I’m brave enough to tell my therapist as well.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

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
  • Lora

    July 14th, 2016 at 8:18 AM

    There are times when you have started talking and it feels like you have just gotten started and then time is all up. ugh frustrating

  • Gary Direnfeld

    August 23rd, 2016 at 3:43 PM

    You know, there are other ways of providing therapy such that the client doesn’t need to feel like the rug was pulled from beneath week after week. Therapist can provide longer sessions. I do. I always set aside a good three hours for my sessions. I bill for actual time used. I wouldn’t want my surgeon to kick me off the table saying we’ll take the scalpel out next week and I don’t want my clients to experience that emotionally. You can read more about my approach here if you like: garydirenfeld.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/longer-sessions-real-work-better-results/

  • emory

    July 14th, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    If you are truly enjoying the process and getting something out of it then I think that it is only natural that you might feel some disappointment any time that your session is up.
    But hey think about it like this
    It does sort of give you something to look forward to later, right?

  • Justin Lioi

    July 14th, 2016 at 8:24 PM

    Emory-that’s a good reframe, although I would encourage people to not feel that they need to justify their feelings–whatever those feelings are–at the end of the session. Just to be in touch with them and talk about them. Vital information is there.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 14th, 2016 at 2:17 PM

    Lola–I hear you! If you’re ready, though, let your therapist in on that frustration. Can really deepen the process.

  • Clare

    July 14th, 2016 at 4:27 PM

    As a therapist, I find ending sessions in time very challenging. Can anyone share the most respectful and gentle ways to do this?

  • Kelly

    July 25th, 2016 at 9:05 AM

    Clare– long story short, I’m in the same boat. I’m a fairly new therapist (only been practicing 2 and 1/2 years) and often have a lot of difficulty ending sessions on time. It’s not that I forget to look at the clock, but I have flexibility in my own scheduling and don’t always have back-to-back appointments. If I have a few extra minutes and can help a client come to a better stopping place for the week versus cutting them off just to keep the session to its exact prescribed time, I’m always going to give a few extra minutes. However, this can be (and has been, unfortunately) a slippery slope when boundaries aren’t clear or a client comes to expect that extra time every week. My supervisor’s advice about these things is really good, and I try to utilize it. She says to set expectations and policies very clearly at the initial session and stick to them but also allow for flexibility with clients and their needs when it’s appropriate and possible. If you deviate from policy, that’s sometimes okay, but it’s important to make it known that the deviation is an exception and not always possible. Really good advice, but it’s a hard process to master and I am right there with you!

  • Justin Lioi

    July 25th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    Thanks for sharing, Kelly. It’s amazing all that goes into setting those boundaries.

  • Tamara

    August 26th, 2016 at 3:29 PM

    Hi Clare,
    I typically say something similar to “before we end…” and I make a statement or ask a question. I also have tried offering a tip for the next few days such as a self-care tip or offer “homework” as a way to end the session and signal that there is more to be done next session.
    It really is a challenge no matter how you do it.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 14th, 2016 at 8:14 PM

    Clare-great question! i look forward to hearing from some other therapists–and even from clients and how they’d like their therapist to end a session.

  • Katie

    July 14th, 2016 at 10:30 PM

    My therapist says… “See you next week”..
    It feels gentle to me. Sometimes it sounds in the form of a question, sometimes it just feels like a statement, and others it’s almost as if she is mirroring a sort of looking forward to see you that I often feel because there is a comfort about her presence. So to me when my therapist says, see you next week it feels reassuring she’s not going to ditch me, even when I struggle to share.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 15th, 2016 at 12:46 PM

    Katie-that’s great to hear. Sounds like you’re working with someone who’s very in tune with you. That’s awesome.

  • rose

    July 15th, 2016 at 7:15 AM

    I don’t like it when I feel like someone has one eye on the clock the whole time I am talking. That just makes me very anxious.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 15th, 2016 at 12:47 PM

    Rose-Yeah, that would make me feel that the person was preoccupied. If that’s happening to you I hope you’re bringing it up.

  • Keely

    July 15th, 2016 at 2:33 PM

    My therapist normally checks in with me on how I am doing before we end. Then when it is time to end I am almost ready for it and then he gently says it is time to end now. The end is never a shock then as he has prepared me and made sure I am ok… Such an abscond therapist who has helped changed my life….

  • Justin Lioi

    July 16th, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    Keely-That sounds great and seems to ensure your feelings are in the forefront. Thanks for sharing

  • Betsy

    July 17th, 2016 at 8:00 AM

    and if you are looking forward to the end of the session?
    maybe it could mean that you and the therapist are doing some uncomfortable work

  • Justin Lioi

    July 17th, 2016 at 11:57 AM

    Good thing to explore, Betsy. Thanks.

  • me

    July 17th, 2016 at 8:50 PM

    I have a really hard time in between sessions and when the session is over — so much so that once I physically felt this sensation in my core like a plug had just been pulled. My therapist and I talk about it all the time especially those times that are really emotional and more difficult to leave. When time is up, he will gently say it is time to stop or I have to let you go. Sometimes it is hard for both of us to leave the session cause we are both caught up in the conversation which is kind of nice. It means he is really engaged in the session as well.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 18th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    I’m glad you’re working with someone sensitive enough to support you and to be as attuned as he is. Thanks for writing and I wish you then best.

  • averett

    July 18th, 2016 at 9:46 AM

    I know that they don’t mean for it to be hostile, but you know, when you have always had these feelings of being abandoned it can feel like that all over again even though you logically know that this is not what is going on.

  • Justin Lioi

    July 18th, 2016 at 12:11 PM

    Averett–It definitely can feel like an abandonment and good for you for being in tune with that. Talking about the experience can move the understanding from the logic of it to the emotions within it. Good luck and thanks for writing! Justin

  • serena

    July 23rd, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    i sometimes wonder if my counselor too is like oh man, we are just getting started on something really good here and now we have to end !

  • Justin Lioi

    July 25th, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    I would say that I’ve often felt that way, Serena. Thanks for writing!

  • Sarah Swenson

    August 19th, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    Well done. As a therapist, I try to incorporate this into our sessions by pointing out at the half-hour mark that we have about twenty minutes remaining. This often gives clients the opportunity to recalibrate their thoughts for the time we still have together on that day.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 20th, 2016 at 12:53 PM

    Interesting, Sarah. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Julia D.

    December 30th, 2016 at 12:58 PM

    My therapist ended my session very abruptly this week after 45 mins and this has left
    Me feeling ghastly , should I discuss it with her

  • Elissa`

    September 23rd, 2018 at 6:23 PM

    It was strange at first- but I’ve gotten used to it- and I realized why she does it… but my current therapist often would say something like… we’re nearing the end – any last/final thoughts? Or something along the lines of “any final thoughts” – to give some “heads up” before it actually ends. At first I felt pressure to suddenly have a “final thought” – but eventually we talked about. She doesn’t always say it- but she does usually try some version of a “head up” on time… so the end doesn’t come as a shock.

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