Ten Signs Your Therapist is Abusing You: What to Look For
The relationships in our lives are powerful. Good relationships strengthen us, empower us, and help us to be our best selves. Unhealthy relationships can give us a distorted view of ourselves and the world, and cause profound pain and damage.
Often, in an attempt to minimize the effect of unhealthy relationships, and learn to build healthy ones, people enter into therapy. Therapy is, itself, a relationship. In a nutshell, therapy helps us identify patterns in our relationships and behavior that don’t serve us well, and to develop new strategies that will work better. But in order to work as it is intended to, the therapeutic relationship requires certain things.
In effective therapy, the client must be willing to open up to the therapist, to be vulnerable. In return, the therapist must use that vulnerability to help, never to harm, the client. Unfortunately, not all therapists abide by this basic requirement of their profession.
How Abuse by a Therapist May Begin
There’s an old fable about boiling a frog that may be instructive in talking about recognizing the early signs of abuse. As the story goes, if you want to boil a frog, you don’t put it in boiling water; it will hop right out. Instead, you put it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat; the frog becomes accustomed to the rising temperature, and doesn’t escape the increasing danger.
There is a parallel with therapy. If you walked into a therapist’s office for the first time and they immediately did something grossly inappropriate, you’d turn and walk out and never come back, just like a frog would hop out of boiling water.
But if you establish a relationship over time with the therapist in which you open up to them and grow to trust them, and they do something that’s just a little “off,” you might find a way to excuse it in the larger context of your therapeutic relationship. The next time, they might push the boundary a little further, and then a little further. Before you know it, the person who is supposed to be helping you form healthy relationships has you trapped in an extremely unhealthy one.
The vast majority of clients who experience abuse by a therapist are women. The stereotypical abusive therapist is a man, and while most abusive therapists are men, a substantial minority—perhaps twenty to thirty percent— are women. Male and female therapists tend to differ along gender lines in their abusive behavior.
With male therapists, abuse is often (though not always) sexual in nature. It usually starts with slight blurred lines—say, the therapist commenting favorably on the client’s appearance. The therapist might tell the client how smart or special she is. This is a form of grooming. It is natural for clients to want their therapists to like and think well of them. But it is not appropriate for therapists to manipulate that natural tendency. Eventually, the therapist may start soliciting or sending inappropriate text messages or asking for nude photos. From there, the abuse may even escalate to sexual activity with the client.
With female therapists, abuse often looks somewhat different. The therapist may ask the client for help or services that would be more appropriate to ask of a friend or employee; for example, doing favors or chores. Whatever form it takes, therapist abuse or psychiatrist abuse is a form of medical malpractice.
How to Identify Abuse By a Therapist
To begin with what should be obvious: your therapist should never ask you for anything sexual or engage in sexual behavior with you. No matter what. Even if you confess your attraction to your therapist, even if you outright proposition your therapist: their job is to look out for your best interests. That never includes engaging in sexual behavior with them. Every therapist knows that this is not acceptable and that it is, in fact, abusive.
Here are ten other signs that your therapist may be abusive:
- Talking to you about their other clients, or sharing your information with other people you have not authorized to receive it.
- Commenting excessively on your physical appearance, especially in a sexual manner.
- Asking you to meet outside of the office.
- Texting, calling, or emailing you for reasons other than to schedule an appointment or engage in scheduled “teletherapy,” or asking to connect with you on social media.
- Confiding about their personal life to you, especially details about their sex life.
- Saying things to you that are shaming, humiliating, or degrading, or becoming angry at you.
- Telling you, or making you feel, that they are the only person who can help you.
- Pressuring you to do things that make you uncomfortable and that do not seem designed to help you become stronger and more independent.
- Encouraging you to harm yourself, or failing to respond to your statement that you feel suicidal or inclined to hurt yourself.
- Requesting financial help (other than your regular payments for therapy) or other favors from you.
The bottom line is: trust your gut. If something feels “off” about the therapeutic relationship, it probably is. You do not need proof of a therapist’s wrongdoing to terminate therapy that is not working for you.
The worst therapists try to keep clients stuck in a relationship by suggesting that the abusive behavior is necessary to help the client “work through” an issue (like previous sexual abuse) or worse, blaming the client for the therapist’s own abusive actions. An abusive therapist may also threaten to disclose personal or sensitive information about you to keep you from leaving the relationship.
Staying in an abusive “therapeutic” relationship is not only not helpful, it is very risky. Almost 15% of people who have been abused in therapy go on to attempt suicide. If you think your therapist has been abusive, please do not be afraid or ashamed to seek help. Abusive therapists should be held accountable for their actions; accountability helps their victims heal and prevents others from becoming victims.
If you have questions about whether your therapist was abusive, please contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation. You don’t have to navigate the aftermath of abuse alone.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.