Beginnings and Endings in Therapy and in Life: Two Sides of a Coin

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The endings of counselling relationships, like those of all relationships, can be difficult and painful. But they also have the potential to offer great therapeutic benefit to clients whose prior experience of endings has been traumatic. Counsellors too can benefit from a well-handled end to therapeutic work.

Beginnings and endings have a lot in common: they are times of transition, uncertainty, sometimes chaos. They evoke strong emotions: anxiety, rejection, curiosity, excitement, anticipation, fear, sometimes anger and loss. Above all, the way we have experienced beginnings and endings earlier in our lives will profoundly influence the way we anticipate and experience endings later in our lives too.

In real life (as opposed, hopefully, to therapy), the ending of relationships is rarely straightforward, rarely a well-handled and mutually satisfactory affair. Whenever a relationship comes to a sudden end — through death, break-up, argument or whatever — there is a huge potential for emotional harm to one or both parties. The younger you were when you first experienced a traumatic parting, the greater the potential for lasting harm: if one of your parents died or suddenly left the scene when you were very young, just beginning to explore the safe boundaries of your world, then your expectations for future endings might be that they will all have elements of abandonment, unresolved loss, anxiety and fear of intimacy with another, in case they too disappear ‘just like my mother/father did’.

And it’s not just the end of relationships that can cause turmoil. For the person whose whole meaning in life is to be found in his or her career, the sudden onset of redundancy or retirement can trigger memories of past endings that were painful, difficult or unwanted. Becoming disabled or having a life-changing illness can also bring back memories of earlier, traumatic losses.

The beginnings and endings of counselling relationships carry the same potential as any other relationship for all of these difficult emotions to surface, and to think otherwise is to diminish the depth and emotional intimacy that counselling relationships can achieve. Coming to counselling is, or should be, a series of choices for the individual — a choice to enter therapy, a choice as to which form of therapy to go for, a choice as to which counsellor to work with. The choices will culminate in the decision about entering — beginning — a counselling relationship.

Many counselling services, especially those offering free or concessionary counselling, offer time-limited therapy — typically between 4 and 12 sessions. It doesn’t give much time in which to build up a trusting relationship, let alone time to explore all the factors that may have led to the current difficulties. Despite that, a bond does develop between counsellor and client. And then, it’s over.

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Because endings are so potent and so imbued with the emotional traces of previous endings, it’s important to pay attention to the ending from the very beginning of therapy. This was something I really struggled with when I first started seeing clients — having had some difficult ‘endings’ in my own life, I found it hard to introduce the subject of endings with clients. I didn’t want them to feel rejected by me, nor did I want them to feel they had to protect themselves from delving too deep in their search for answers because ‘what was the point if we’re ending soon?’. And yet, it’s my responsibility as a therapist to ensure clients can delve as deeply as they need to and still have time to come back to a safe place — a point of relative stability — before the therapy ends.

What enables that delving-deep process is the creation of a framework for the counselling process, a framework in which the ending is held in mind — if only in my mind, rather than the client’s — from the start of the very first session. The image I use for this was given to me by a colleague at a counselling service where therapy was routinely limited to only 4 sessions. She visualised the framework as a diamond. It stands on one point to represent the start of therapy, when the relationship is new and has little depth. As the sessions proceed and the relationship develops, the diamond broadens out and deeper issues are explored. The mid-point of therapy is the widest point of the diamond, when the greatest depth is reached. From here, the therapist doing strictly time-limited work needs to help the client pull together the strands they’ve unpicked together and to prepare for the end of the therapeutic relationship, to take care not to open up new areas of emotional depth unless they have the choice of extending the therapy and making it safe to go deep again.

In fact, endings happen all the time in therapy — at the end of every session in fact. I’m conscious of the time going by when I’m with a client, and knowing that however tempting it might be to follow the bright currents of a client’s story down one deep-diving stream or another, when the clock is telling me there are only a few minutes left to us, I must pull back and return to the surface of everyday life.

It is possible to have a ‘good ending’ to a counselling relationship, and experiencing that can go some way to making up for the damage wrought by previous endings.

What do I mean by a ‘good ending’? Well, for me, a good ending with a client is one where we both get a chance to express what the counselling process has been like for us, what the client feels they’ve gained from it, and what they feel was left undone. I always try to express my sense of how the client has changed or grown in the course of the counselling, and my appreciation of getting to know them and sharing some of their life story. I also tell clients that the ending is shared between the two of us — it’s an ending for me, too. I think sometimes this can come as a surprise, but I’m not a detached, uninvolved counsellor — I’m with the veteran psychotherapist Irvin D Yalom, who famously advocated ‘allowing the client to matter to you’. And when you allow someone to matter to you in a relationship, the ending of that relationship will always be emotionally charged — and that needs proper and respectful acknowledgement.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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