Guilt and I are pretty well-acquainted. I’m constantly plagued by feelings of self-condemnation stemming from events past and present — that time I took a Sharpie to my sister’s wardrobe during adolescence (I was pissed), that other time I canceled one of two gym memberships I held concurrently (who needs two gyms?). These are things that I’ve long since put behind me, but every so often, the guilt will arrive without warning.
So I wasn’t surprised at the familiar sensation of warm shame that recently melted over me when I received a text message from a therapist I hadn’t seen in about a year, to let me know she was retiring. It wasn’t the content of the message that got to me, nor was it the length of time that had elapsed since we’d last spoken. It was the status of our relationship: I’d ghosted her.
As someone who’s also well-acquainted with the act of ghosting — that is, suddenly disappearing on a relationship with no prior warning or discussion — I understand that it’s wrong. I know firsthand that it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end. And I get that doing it myself is a sign that I need to work on my communication skills. But still, after a session where I’d felt particularly judged, I didn’t tell my therapist how I felt. Instead, I hit the road.
Ghosting your therapist isn’t that uncommon. Ryan Howes, a psychologist based in Pasadena, California, says about 80 percent of his clients end their therapy this way. “I’ll get a phone call from someone saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it next week and I’ll call you when I’m ready to make the next appointment,’ and I never hear from them again,” he says.
That could be due to the fact that most of us aren’t well-equipped to deal with endings, he adds: “People who haven’t had much experience with a good ending are afraid of any ending, and they try to preemptively cut it off.” Think about it — pulling the plug on any relationship is bittersweet at best, and often messy. It forces an uncomfortable conversation.
Without that conversation, though, we miss that sense of closure, especially within an intimate relationship like with a therapist. For this reason, some therapists will attempt to ward off ghosting when they take on a new client. “When I begin therapy, I have people sign [a document] explaining that I hope they will have a final session before they end,” says Washington, D.C., psychotherapist Elisabeth Joy LaMotte. “In the first session, I encourage people that they don’t have to worry about my feelings. If I say or do something they don’t like, I hope they’ll tell me afterwards.”
Keeping quiet and disappearing signals a lost opportunity for further therapeutic work, LaMotte adds. Any time a client expresses frustration, it’s a chance for growth and for feedback. When you don’t communicate the root of your concerns and instead opt to flee as I did, you miss that teachable moment for both patient and counselor.
And LaMotte points out that in counseling situations, where discussing emotions is par for the course, your therapist will let you down at some point. It’s the nature of therapy. “If you can let someone know how they’ve disappointed you,” LaMotte says, “and hear something from their feedback and from their apology or from their insights, that leads you to, on one level, feel respected and heard and validated.” Part of the reason I feel so guilty, in other words, is probably because I know deep down that what I imagine as a squirmy, cringeworthy scenario would likely have actually been a healthy, mutually beneficial exchange.
Howes tells me I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. “I put a lot of blame of that on therapists,” he says. “Therapists should be teaching clients how important it is to have clear communication” — including how to communicate endings. Since therapy shouldn’t go on forever, it’s important to discuss up front how long the relationship will exist and what its conclusion will look like. “[Therapists are] supposed to be professional communicators,” Howes says. “If we’re not creating an environment where we’re giving the clients the tools to know how to do that, a good part of that ghosting falls on us.”
That’s a little soothing, but I know I’m still not absolved. I’m listening to my guilt this time, and opting to be less flaky. While I didn’t tell my former therapist why I’d ghosted her, I did text her back wishing her the best in retirement. I also told my current therapist, inspired by that text conversation, that I would never ghost her, that I respected our time and work together too much. She seemed thankful for the gesture. One less thing to feel guilty about.