Whether you're receiving therapy from a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, counsellor, or another licensed practitioner, therapy can make life-altering positive impacts. However, no matter the treatment provider, there is always a risk of experiencing harm from therapy.
Some studies suggest that 10% of people receiving therapy experience harm from treatment, while other studies suggest that number can be as high as 38%. Not all harmful outcomes of therapy can be considered abusive. When therapy has been abusive, almost 15% of victims go on to attempt suicide.
The best way to stay safe is to recognize the warning signs of a therapist grooming or abusing a patient or client. Once you realize the therapeutic relationship is unsafe, carefully consider your next steps. Therapists may hold a lot of power over your life and can, in some cases, make outlandish claims about you that could put your career or personal life in jeopardy. Escape planning from an unethical therapist needs to be done cautiously.
Below are signs of a therapist engaging in grooming or abusive behaviour. These behaviours usually escalate slowly, so that you're psychologically primed to accept increasingly inappropriate actions after previously tolerating something that seemed harmless.
These lists are not all-inclusive. Additional signs not seen on this page may indicate abuse. TherapyAbuse.org is a great resource for further information.
Early Therapist Red Flags:
– Connecting with you on social media.
– Scheduling appointments when nobody else is around.
– Having vague treatment goals or not allowing you to co-create goals.
– Making you question your competence at your job, parenting, or socializing.
– Calling to check in on you outside of a scheduled "teletherapy" appointment.
– Texting, calling, or emailing for reasons other than to schedule an appointment.
– Special treatment like not charging for sessions or allowing sessions to run long.
– Asking you to meet outside of the office, unrelated to anxiety exposure treatment.
– Making negative comments about your support system, planting seeds of doubt.
– Telling you, or making you feel, that they are the only person who can help you.
– Presenting like a "perfect fit" who understands you completely, unlike anyone else.
– Blaming you for lack of progress in therapy, or unwilling to refer you to others.
– Disclosing personal illnesses, family tragedies, or anything to elicit your sympathy.
Signs of Therapist Grooming:
– Confiding about their personal life to you, especially details about their sex life.
– Commenting excessively on your physical appearance, especially in a sexual manner.
– Attempting to exert control over your decisions around your personal life or career.
– Becoming angry with you when you don't comply with their expectations or instructions.
– Pressuring you to do things that make you uncomfortable but don't seem to be helpful.
– Comparing themselves to other people in your life and suggesting the therapist is better.
– Making comments that shame, humiliate, degrade, or blame you for upsetting them.
– Leading you to become increasingly isolated from your interpersonal relationships.
– Touching you for any reason other than to check for antipsychotic side effects.
– Initiating hugs, hand holding, cuddling, or any intimate physical contact.
– Making graphic statements or descriptive noises or gestures about sex.
– Making sexual jokes, flirtatious comments, or giving seductive looks.
– Denying something happened in therapy when confronted (gaslighting).
– Asking you to keep secrets about what happens in therapy.
Signs of Therapists Breaking Boundaries:
– Talking to you about their other clients in any level of detail.
– Requesting financial help beyond standard payments for therapy.
– Requesting any personal favours from you for any reason.
– Kissing you, touching you in intimate areas, or any type of sexual encounter.
– Sharing your information with other people you have not authorized to receive it.
– Threatening to ruin your career or relationships if you don't comply with expectations.
– Claiming you are inadequate, disturbed, unworthy, and incurable despite "heroic" therapeutic efforts.
Aftermath of Ending an Abusive Therapeutic Relationship:
When an abusive therapeutic relationship ends, the abuser does whatever possible to protect their own self-interest or seek revenge. As a result, victims may find themselves managing the manipulative fall-out, potentially including slander and sabotage of various aspects of the victim's life.
As a result of experiencing therapist abuse, people often struggle with intense feelings of guilt, shame, depression, rage, and heightened thoughts of suicide. They may struggle with ambivalence toward the person who both helped them and also hurt them tremendously, especially if the abuse was always provided with paradoxical kindness.
Difficulties with trust are a common outcome of therapist abuse, which causes challenges even within a healthy subsequent therapeutic relationship. Reporting the abuser to their licensing body or seeking civil action may provide a sense of closure and justice for many survivors, yet may prolong distress for other survivors. Trauma-informed therapists who can take a gentle, patient, non-controlling approach are able to guide the abuse survivor to a state of recovery and wellbeing over time.