Breaks in therapy can be very difficult for clients to manage. The consistency of therapy (eg// regular weekly appointments on the same day / same time each week) are what is known as the ‘therapeutic frame’. This frame provides regularity in clients lives, and it aims to give them something that they can rely and depend upon for the time that they are in therapy. If this frame changes for any reason it can be disruptive to the work, and often leave clients feeling unsettled.
Many people may have been let down in their lives. For example people may have left them, not been there for them or let them down at the last minute. Some clients may have experienced being abandoned by a parental figure for example, or others may have experienced someone going away for a short while, and never coming back (despite promising to do so). All of these experiences can contribute to the way that clients will feel about their therapist taking a break.
Logically people understand that like all professions / jobs, therapists also need a holiday or to take some time off. Emotionally however, this can be a very difficult experience. Some clients may feel angry at their therapist – and thoughts such as ‘how dare you leave me’, will go through their mind. Others may feel scared that their therapist won’t come back, or very upset and concerned about how they will manage without them.
The key to the feelings around breaks is how they are managed. It is really important that clients are encouraged to express the emotions that they feel in therapy. The therapeutic relationship is intense and unique, and clients need to be able to feel that they can say what is going on for them around the relationship.
Some clients may find it too hard to express what is going on for them. They may not know how to say that they feel scared or they may think it is silly to express anger towards their therapist for taking a holiday. Sometimes this results in what is called therapeutically ‘acting out’. This means that clients could for example cancel the last session before the therapist goes away, or the first one when they return. Maybe they will say they are unwell, or they have work commitments. This is usually a sign that they are expressing something towards their therapist. Other clients may come for the session, but not say anything, and hold back – disengaging is another form of acting out.
It is really important that a therapist handles all of this very delicately and with care. The key is to challenge clients on what they are doing, and to reflect back to them what the therapist is experiencing. This could mean asking them what it feels like that their therapist is going away for two weeks, and what do they imagine this means etc. Exploring the thoughts and feelings can really enable some good work to take place.
Breaks in therapy can bring up a huge amount for clients; anxiety can often be in the room a lot around this time. Therapists can also struggle with taking the break themselves. Perhaps they feel uneasy leaving their clients, or they worry about how they will manage. These feelings need to be worked through in the therapist’s supervision, or they will also be around in the counselling room / the therapeutic relationship.
The main point is that clients can and do survive breaks. Breaks are actually very important in the work. They enable clients to see that they can be self sufficient, and that they are not totally dependent on their therapist. They help clients to use other resources and to learn how to use peer support. In addition to this they can enable a lot of very intense and productive work to be done in the counselling room. Some of this work will be around the therapeutic relationship itself. This is the key to therapy, and addressing issues that are related to it, will really enable the therapy to move forward to the next level. Both counsellor and client need to be encouraged to not be fearful or anxious of breaks in the work, but rather use them productively as part of the ongoing powerful journey of therapy.