Is There Really Such A Thing As 'Too Much Therapy'?

How do you know when it's time to stop therapy, if at all? We spoke to experts to find out.
Prince Harry
Prince Harry

Can you ever have too much therapy? Apparently Prince Harry has.

That’s according to NHS psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton, who wrote in a column for the Daily Mail: “He is starting to embody the characteristics of those who’ve had too much therapy – self-centred, self-obsessed, aggrieved and resentful.”

Dr Pemberton’s critique came after Harry spoke about leaving the royal family to break what the prince called a cycle of “genetic pain”. Most recently, the 36-year-old appeared in a mental health series on Apple TV, The Me You Can’t See, where he said the trauma of his mother’s death led to him using alcohol and drugs to numb his emotions. He was just 12 when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash while being pursued by the press in Paris.

Dr Pemberton opined that instead of talking, it would be better if he showed, through actions, how he’d turned his difficulties into something positive, “rather than sounding spoilt and angry”. He added “sometimes a stiff upper lip is what’s needed” rather than “airing every grievance”. But many others disagree.

Nobody has any idea about Prince Harry’s internal experiences, what happened in his therapy sessions, or the details of his closest relationships, says Dr Emma Taylor, clinical psychologist at City Psychology Group.

Rather, people have the illusion of knowing those things about him from what he chooses to talk about in public, and filling in the gaps with assumptions. “It’s an odd idea, that there’s a ‘right’ amount of comfort with emotions and he’s gone past that sweet spot into over-disclosure and lack of boundaries,” she says.

Counselling Directory member Karen Schumann is concerned public comments about Harry having “too much therapy” may contribute to stigma that exists surrounding seeking help in society. The comments “are not helpful for anyone who might be considering getting help with their mental health,” she says.

Away from the royal debate, the discussion did get us thinking: is it ever possible for someone to have “too much” therapy? And how do you know when it’s right to stop, if at all? We spoke to experts to find out.

Can you have ‘too much’ therapy?

As with anything in life, it is possible to have too much, to an extent. Whether a therapist would let you get to that stage is another question altogether.

In the UK, you only get so many chances at having free therapy on the NHS before your set number of sessions end and you’re added to the back of a (sometimes very long) queue if you require more. For those who pay privately, it can be costly to continue indefinitely, or have it more than once a week.

Psychologist Dr Taylor tells HuffPost UK: “You might imagine that as a therapist I’d be in favour of people being permanently in therapy, but in the models I work in, the point of being in therapy is to end therapy. It’s a great day at work for me when someone finishes because things have changed in their life, they’ve made good use of the work we’ve done and now they don’t need therapy anymore.”

Schumann suggests you shouldn’t have therapy more than once a week, “as there needs to be time to reflect, integrate and recuperate, particularly when working with trauma”. And psychotherapist Dee Johnson likens therapy to using stabilisers on a bike – it’s useful until the person is able to “cycle on their own”.

So when does therapy no longer serve its purpose?

There’s a natural point in therapy where it might not feel like it’s making a difference anymore because you’ve processed how you feel, or learned coping mechanisms for dealing with the issue you originally sought help for.

Schumann suggests therapy may no longer be needed when a person starts to feel better about what they came to therapy for – so, for example, someone with anxiety might feel like they have the tools to help them going forward. Others may reach acceptance. “They can’t change what they’ve been through, but they have come to an acceptance, a letting go, a feeling of wanting to live life again,” says Schumann.

A person might linger in therapy because they have a particular difficulty with endings, says Dr Taylor. They may have become dependent on the therapist and feel they’re continuing with them as more of a “safety blanket”, says Schumann. And when this is the case, therapy may no longer be serving its purpose. “With good boundaries in place and with the help of the therapist to explore these feelings, the relationship can come to an end with the person feeling safe and confident for the future,” she says.

Other times, people might use therapy as avoidance, says Dr Taylor, at which point it’s not helpful either. If this happens, you might talk endlessly about your feelings rather than actually feeling them, or always take problems to therapy rather than trying to solve them yourself. You might look to the therapist for advice and answers, rather than working out what you want. “A good therapist should notice those things going on and address them directly,” she says.

How do you know it’s the right time to end therapy?

Some people are only given a set amount of sessions, which would mean therapy ends whether you want it to or not. In other cases, there’s more of an organic ending process, where a therapist might check in with a person to see whether their feelings about what they first came to them for has shifted.

“I usually ask the person what they feel about booking more sessions, and the interesting natural responses tend to give a good indication,” says Johnson. “If a person is still keen, they still need therapy. But often, when a person hesitates and is not sure, that’s the point to reflect [on whether they need more].

“Working honestly and openly is key, but not fully shutting the door. If you find a therapist that really worked for you, if another life event occurs you have already got that alliance with them and may be able to contact them in the future.”

Johnson’s right, it’s important to remember therapy might not be a one-time thing – you can go back to it, even once it’s ended. “Life is complicated and things change,” adds Dr Taylor. “As a young adult, you might go to therapy to deal with the impact childhood experiences are having on your relationships, and you might get to a point where you’re ready to end therapy. But 10 years later, you might have children of your own and find some of your earlier experiences come back to the surface and you need more support at that point.

“It was still the right decision to end when you did, and the right decision to come back when you need more help.”

Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.