It’s okay to feel upset, sad, or even angry when your therapist goes on vacation.
A relationship with a therapist, which is a significant relationship for many clients, can make separation extra hard.
If therapy is the stabilizing force that gets us through a week, then it makes sense that losing the routine and reassurance of our weekly therapy appointment would be upsetting.
Why It’s Hard when a Therapist Goes on Vacation
One of the main reasons that a therapist going on vacation is so upsetting is because the therapeutic relationship is a relationship that activates emotional attachment.
Attachment provides emotional vibrancy to a therapeutic relationship and it is one of the main reasons that therapy is able to help us change. Therapy relationships can help us change how we think, what we feel, and the way that we engage in relationships beyond the therapeutic one.
Like losing a therapist, coping with a therapist who is on vacation can feel like disenfranchised grief.
Disenfranchised grief is a type of grief that is not socially accepted or openly acknowledged in our culture. Like losing a loved one to a preventable illness or grieving the loss of a beloved pet, our culture isn’t good at recognizing all the forms that grief takes. The grief we feel when separated from an attachment figure is a legitimate source of pain and it is worthy of gentle self-soothing, kindness, and also a dose of distraction.
For many people, especially those who tend towards an avoidant attachment style, feeling dependent on a therapist can be frightening.
After all, when we are used to fending for ourselves and relying on no one, it’s disorienting to feel upset when our therapist takes a vacation or cancels on us last-minute.
It’s important to remember in these uncomfortable spaces that the discomfort is actually a sign that a healing relationship has formed and that recovery is happening.
“I worry that without my 45 straight minutes of blabbing each Friday, the bolts in my life will loosen and I’ll come shuddering to a complete halt (…) I find some comfort in knowing I’m not alone in being left alone. Lots of New Yorkers lose their therapists in this most grotesque of all the summer months. Perhaps all of the therapists travel together in a calm herd. Maybe they swim, silently gliding through the water, managing to stay in their lanes even in the ocean.” – Higgins M. (Aug. 3, 2019). “Be Kind, It’s Hot and My Therapist Is on Vacation.” The New York Times.
Good therapists, particularly those who work with attachment issues, childhood trauma, or other intensely relational work, are often sensitive to how difficult their absence may be for their clients. A good therapist who is mindful of attachment and the challenges that their vacation may cause can often help. For example, many therapists minimize the discomfort of separation by preparing clients in advance for their absence.
In this doodle, I’ve illustrated a few of the ways that I have found to make a week, or even months-long separation from a therapist a bit less difficult. This doodle spans the range from adaptation to simple distraction.
Download “Ways to Cope during Therapist Vacation” PDF
I have learned through my experience both as a therapist and as a client doing my own intense work in therapy that it can be challenging when a therapist goes on vacation. (Ask me about the time my therapist went to Switzerland for a month during my most challenging term of graduate school! 😱)
The key to getting through is to acknowledge and validate your own feelings. It is okay to miss them, and it’s okay to give yourself really good care in their absence.
What this Resource Is
This printable PDF includes activities that clients can use when their therapist is on leave. Therapists can use this download as a digital (pr printed!) Handout to give clients to help them brainstorm ways to thrive despite a difficult separation.
The list includes:
- ideas for self-care
- ideas for coping during a therapy hiatus.
- strategies to continue to grow outside of therapy
While these are specifically designed for coping with the therapist’s vacation, many of these skills can also be ways to cope with the termination (a.k.a. end) of work with a therapist or to cope with a transition from one therapist to another.
Ways to Cope with a Therapist’s Vacation
1. Talk About it Before they Leave:
This first doodle illustrates what is most likely the most important part of getting through a therapist vacation: talking about it. Most therapists will give you a few weeks’ notice before they take time off. This allows you time to process and talk about any feelings you have about their trip.
If you’re able, it’s best to talk openly about what you are experiencing in the relationship as the absence approaches.
Often, the degree to which we are vulnerable about uncomfortable emotions—such as getting emotional about a counselor’s vacation—predicts the degree to which our therapy is helping us heal.
2. Make A Plan for A Distraction:
When an attachment figure is away for a short time, sometimes a simple distraction is the best method.
Like putting on a Disney movie for a cranky toddler, immersive entertainment can be an effective way for adults to muscle through a difficult time. And there’s nothing wrong with muscling through short seasons of difficulty!
While distraction might not be the ideal way to cope, it’s a valid tool!
Be careful to avoid harmful distractions, and lean into immersive activities like reading novels or graphic novels, creating art, preparing good food, or diving into a new video game.
PRO TIP: Save a bingeable season of TV or a much-anticipated new video game for seasons of life- like a therapist’s vacation – when distraction is self care.
3. Plan for Ways to Sustain Your Growth:
When a therapist that we are very attached to goes out of town, it can be easy to become static in our personal growth. Without our advocate, comforter, or challenger, many of us may slip into the stuckness that might have brought us to therapy in the first place.
One way to cope with a therapist on vacation is to brainstorm ways to keep the personal growth wave rolling. This might mean using your extra time to go to a yoga class, try out a support group, or take a cooking class. With luck, you might even find an activity that becomes part of your routine and community long after your therapist returns to the office.
Some examples of ways to sustain your growth during a break from therapy include:
- Mindfulness classes
- Yoga classes
- Community center activities
- Swimming or other exercise
- Joining a walking club or hiking club
- Studying a language
- Reading a self-help book
One creative coping strategy suggested by a client: Imagining a therapy session and journaling.
This client would take her journal to a coffee shop during the regular appointment time and imagined the conversation that might have happened in therapy that week if it had happened on its regular schedule.
To participate in this coping activity, keep the time you normally set aside for your therapy session and instead keep the appointment with yourself and your journal.
Sit quietly and imagine the words you might bring to therapy if you saw your therapist today. Journal what their response might be.
While you can’t conjure up your therapist out of your imagination, it is possible to call up the internalized version of our therapist. Through the ways that their care has been integrated into our mind, we might discover that we’re actually pretty good at imagining their words and the care they might offer if they were present.
This journaling practice can be a really helpful way to reduce stress about missed meetings. It can also help increase our understanding of how therapy is helping change our brain by introducing a kinder, gentler internal voice that we can access when we need it.
5. Borrowing Objects from Their Office (with Permission):
In the world of counseling and psychology, objects that bring us comfort in a time of transition are called “transitional objects.” Normally, transitional objects get more conversation and attention for children—after all, we are all familiar with kids who use a stuffed animal or blanket to cope when they are experiencing distress.
Truthfully, however, most of us enjoy the comfort of transitional objects throughout our lives.
Have you ever gotten a little too attached to a coffee cup or cherished a sweater borrowed from a romantic partner? If you said yes, you too have experienced the magical thinking attached to transitional objects.
When a therapist is out of town is actually a good time to harness the power of transitional objects with intention. For many people, a small object gifted temporarily from the office of the therapist can be a soothing, concrete reminder that the relationship is real and will return to normal soon. Transitional objects can be as simple as loaning a book from a shelf or borrowing a tiny object from a sand tray to keep in your pocket as a reminder of the care you have known.
When your therapist returns, you can return the transitional object (or keep it, with negotiation!) with appreciation for the comfort that it brought temporarily.
6. Choose A Book or Workbook to Complete:
If your therapist will be gone for awhile, it can be helpful to find a book or workbook that you can work on during their absence. This allows you to maintain momentum while also having something to keep you busy during your therapist’s vacation. Many counselors have favorite books that they like to recommend to their clients or particular workbooks.
Pro tip: Don’t choose something too challenging. While it’s generally a bad idea to avoid triggers even when your therapist is out of town, it is appropriate to avoid things that might be intentionally triggering. Since you may not have the same access to support, choose a resource that won’t be too disruptive.
7. Set Boundaries for Contact and Have A Backup:
Every therapist will have slightly different boundaries around contact outside of sessions.
Sometimes, it’s okay to text your therapist with permission, while other therapists will choose not to provide their number. Most therapists opt to be unreachable while on vacation- and that’s a good thing! 1
Not all therapists allow contact between sessions. Some do and some do not. It’s not personal! It’s more about how therapists set their own limits and boundaries to keep their work manageable and sustainable.
If you haven’t already, before your therapist goes on vacation, you should talk about boundaries for contact outside of sessions. Some therapists who normally allow clients to text or call them may not allow this during vacation. After all, therapists need full breaks sometimes to prevent burnout.
💡 One way some therapists and clients stay connected while avoiding therapist burnout is by having a codeword that can be texted back and forth. This coded communication allows a client to check-in and for a therapist to affirm the connection while avoiding lengthy between-session communication. This doodle illustrates an example of this type of coded communication, where a client texts a therapist on vacation “Still true?” and the therapist responds simply “Every bit.”
Having a backup: If you are struggling intensely or your therapist will be away for an extended period, there should be a backup plan for who and how you can reach out for care if you need it. This may simply be emergency contacts for the crisis hotline or another therapist who is responsible for handling your counselor’s emergencies while they are away.
8. Allow Yourself A Break to Rest and Consolidate:
This final doodle illustrates what might be the most important strategy for coping with the absence of a therapist and canceled therapy appointments: rest.
Once we get a taste of the personal growth and recovery that comes through good therapy, it’s easy to become hungry for more. However, seasons of rest and consolidation are just as important as seasons of intense therapeutic work.
While a therapist being out of the office and unavailable can be distressing, it can also be an opportunity to let things settle. Often, after a break from therapy, things may seem clearer—that’s the result of the consolidating effect of taking time away from therapeutic work to rest and relax.
In conclusion, it’s okay to feel upset when your therapist goes on vacation. This special relationship we have with them is important, and it can be hard when they’re not there. We might feel sad or even angry. But remember, it’s a sign that we have a strong connection.
There are ways we can cope during this time, like talking about our feelings, finding distractions, and continuing to grow on our own. It’s also important to take breaks and rest.
Therapy will be there when the therapist comes back, and we can keep getting better. So, even though it’s tough when they’re away, we can find ways to take care of ourselves and keep moving forward.
Image Description for Screen Readers:
The image is a comic-style drawing discussing how to survive a therapist’s vacation, drawn by Lindsay Braman.
The first image shows a drawing of a brown door with light brown trim on a grey wall with white carpet and a sound machine plugged in outside the door. A glass window on the door has “Therapist” written on it. A speech bubble is coming out of the door and reads, “I’m feeling _ about you going…” At the bottom of the image is text that reads, “Talk about it before.”
The second image shows a person with long, grey hair sitting in a pink hammock reading a yellow book. Their hammock is strung to a tall tree trunk on the right and a full tree with bare leaves on the left. There are evergreen trees in the drawing, with a mountain behind as the sun is setting behind it.
The third image has a white background and black text that read, “Make a plan for distracting.” Under this is a pile of distracting materials, including a gaming device, a pink novel, a green bag of cookies, two paintbrushes in a vase, and a yellow notepad.
The fourth image shows a drawing of a yoga studio with two grey mats laid out, one of which has a green cushion on it, and the other has a pink water bottle next to it. There are also two brown-colored blocks lying on the floor. On one wall is a stack of yoga mats and on the wall adjacent is a window with a green plant in a grey pot sitting on the windowsill. On the wall closest to the viewer, a pink sign reads, “Yoga for noobs” with an arrow drawn that is pointing inside the studio. At the top of the image is text that reads, “Plan for ways to sustain your growth.”
The fifth image shows a grey desk with a green chair sitting at it. On the deck are a journal with writing in it, a pencil beside it, a blue and white polka dot cup sitting at the corner of the desk, and a slice of pie with a fork below the cup. At the top of the image is text that reads, “Journal during the cancelled sessions.”
The sixth image shows the inside of a therapy office with green walls, white carpet, and a brown door with light brown trim. On the door is a glass window that reads, “Therapist.” The word is backwards, as it is written on the outside of the glass. The room has a shelf on one wall with a white, pink, and yellow abstract painting above it and a brown pot with a pink flower on top of the shelf. On the shelf is an array of material, including books, a Rubik’s cube, a bear, a bunny, and a few boxes. Also inside the office is a beige couch with an emotion wheel pillow on it. Across from this is a blue, high-backed chair. On the image, there is text that reads, “Borrow an object from their office.” At the bottom of the image is a note that reads, “Do not do crimes.”
The seventh image shows a person with short, tight-curly hair and deep tan-colored skin wearing an eye mask and holding a loofa soaking in a bathtub that is sitting atop a green-tiled floor. The bath is filled with bubbly water and has a candle and more soap sitting on the ledges. On the bathroom floor is a grey-green bathmat with grey slippers and a mess of pink and blue clothes lying on top. Text above the drawing read, “Allow yourself a break to rest and consolidate.”
The eighth and last image shows a person with tan-colored hands holding up a phone with a beach background, including blue waves, tan sand, and a pink beach towel laid out under a pink umbrella with a water bottle and a green cooler next to them. The phone screen shows a texting conversation that reads, “Still true?” “Every bit.” At the top of the image is text that reads, “Know boundaries for contact and have a backup.”
- Kuykendall, L., Craig, L., Stiksma, M., & Guarino, K. (2021). Understanding employees’ unused vacation days: A social cognitive approach. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 26(2), 69.