There are many, many examples of red flags in abusive therapy. While important to note, some of these warning signs are well…easy to detect. Therapists yell at you, fall asleep during sessions, dismiss your feelings, or are perpetually late. They divulge information about other clients or make the session all about them. Most of us would recognize those and leave, don’t you think?
What I want to discuss are those “slippery slope” actions that don’t seem bad; in fact, they often feel good to a client. Like when a therapist allows your session to run over because you were particularly emotional or when he or she offers physical contact when you are crying.
Because here’s the scary part…many of the warning signs of abusive therapy feel good to the client. They aren’t blatant. They don’t look like red flags. In fact, they seem legitimate and quite honestly seem to be helping. I refer to them as gifts with invisible strings attached. Clients only see the gifts.
To make matters more confusing, some of the warning signs can also appear on the okay list. What?! I feel an extreme bond with my therapist; in fact, I don’t know what I would do without him or her. My therapist takes my hand to comfort me when I’m upset. My therapist admitted that she feels a connection with me too. My therapist spent extra time with me today because I was a mess, and she had a cancellation. Time to panic? Of course not. Could those become worrisome? Yes.
So, let’s analyze some of the more subtle red flags in therapy and try to distinguish them from safe, ethical therapy.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #1
Dual Relationship: a dual relationship occurs when the therapist plays any other role in the client’s life besides the therapist
Ethical therapists should not interact with you outside of the counseling session; however…
- They may allow you to call them in case of emergency.
- They may need to reach out to you regarding scheduling.
- They may smile or nod as a small gesture of recognition if they see you in public, but they will not break confidentiality and act as if they know you.
An unethical therapist will interact with clients in a variety of settings and will take on other roles other than a therapist, such as a parent figure, partner, or friend.
Unethical therapists will offer clients a full-access pass to them outside of sessions via phone, text, social media, email, or even in-person contact.
They will gladly offer to fill the role of mother or father.
They may suggest they want to save or rescue you. My abusive therapist told me he wanted to be the knight and shining armor who would rescue me from all the bad guys.
They may make sexual innuendos or advances.
They may invite you to attend outside events where they will be present.
I’ve even heard of abusive therapists having a favorite client sit in on other clients’ sessions!
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #2
Single you out or make you believe you are more special to them than other “regular” clients
Ethical therapists can and will attempt to make you feel cared about—seen, heard, valued.
They may even tell a client that they are special, but not special in the therapist’s eyes per se—in a general sense, such as you are more valuable and special than you give yourself credit for. You are special because you are made in God’s image. You are loved and special to your children or your spouse. Always deflecting the therapist as the source of love and support and helping the client find this love inside themselves, from a higher power, or from significant others in their lives.
Ethical therapists might even admit that they have a fondness or a connection with a particular client, and this is okay. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that while this will feel exhilarating at first, it opens a whole can of worms for the client down the road.
Clients need to feel cared about but singling them out as a favorite in any way causes harm. It magnifies the attachment to the therapist the client is already (oftentimes) battling and creates a sense of competition for the coveted spot of favorite.
Unethical therapists will attempt to make you feel like the most favored client they have or have ever had. “I think every client I’ve ever worked with has led up to this moment right now right here with you. So that I could heal you.” Eye roll. Yes, I heard this from my abusive therapist.
Unethical therapists will show you in repeated ways that you are special to them through gifts, flattery, or attention.
They will suggest that you share a unique, once-in-a-lifetime bond, a relationship that was heaven-sent.
They will not point out other significant relationships in your life that might fall into that category. In fact, they will discourage those. “Your husband can’t love you in the ways you need to be loved,” my therapist told one of his victims.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #3
Offer to be Stand-In Parent
They will tell you that you are the daughter or son they never had. Now this one falls into a gray area. I can see a loving, ethical therapist making this comment after spending countless hours working with a client. It would be a tremendous boost to any client’s low self-esteem, for sure.
So, when is that statement a red flag? It’s a red flag when the therapist craves the parent/child relationship more than the client does. In other words, the therapist will initiate the idea of becoming a stand-in parent whether the client has hinted at it or not, and the therapist will continue to perpetuate that dynamic. For example, my abusive therapist told me months into therapy that he had adopted me. While I hadn’t craved that before, now I desired more than anything to be his actual daughter.
When unethical therapists act as mothers or fathers by showing parental affection through their words or physical touching, they are emotionally crippling their clients.
These therapists will further infantilize clients by assigning them pet names such as honey, sweetie, or precious girl, for example.
Clients you can want your therapist to adopt you and take you home and be the mom or dad you never had, but the therapist must help you navigate these feelings and help you take back your power instead of claiming it for themselves. A narcissistic therapist feeds on this adoration.
The feelings of longing are normal and healthy. Therapists know this very well, and they are trained to assist you with this attachment. If they seem to be encouraging the attachment rather than promoting self-sufficiency, whether it feels loving at the time or not, they are harming you.
Can an ethical therapist have feelings of longing toward a client? Can they feel like the client was the daughter they never had? Sure. An ethical therapist may want to scoop you up and take you home and protect you forever and ever and give you all the love that you deserved and never had, but she won’t. Why? Because she knows she would be damaging an already hurting soul. She understands that she would be taking advantage of a traumatized person to satisfy her need to be needed.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #4
Offer longer sessions or go over the allotted 45-60 minutes once a week
An ethical therapist will typically see a client in his or her office once a week for 45 minutes to one hour. Will they occasionally go over for a particularly tough session? Yes. Is that a red flag? No.
An ethical therapist will see a client once a week unless it is deemed that two sessions a week are needed. However, the goal should be to return to once a week when the crisis period has passed.
Ethical therapists will help clients set goals and envision an end to therapy. They will essentially raise them up and then release them to fend for themselves when they believe the clients have the support and skillset to do so successfully, with the condition that they may return if needed, of course. The door is never permanently shut.
An unethical therapist will extend sessions without even consulting the client first. “Oh, I was able to rework my schedule to get us an extra hour,” my abusive therapist told me at the end of one session. Two-hour sessions became standard after that.
An unethical therapist will entice the client with longer sessions. “If you don’t take the job in the fall, I could see you twice a week” was another line the abuser used.
An unethical therapist will schedule sessions first thing in the morning before office staff arrives or during the last part of the day so that office staff leaves before the sessions end.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #5
Ethical therapists might ask a client if they want a hug after a session.
They may offer a handshake upon introduction.
They might briefly touch a client on the hand or arm or shoulder or back when the client is especially upset.
They may ask if it is okay if they touch a client before offering comfort.
Ethical therapists will remove the nurturing when they think the client has returned to the present and feels centered again.
Some ethical therapists provide zero physical contact with clients just to ensure a safe boundary is maintained.
Unethical therapists, on the other hand, will find ways to invade a client’s personal space right away. My abusive therapist did this by covering me up with an afghan at the beginning of the first session.
Unethical therapists may offer a big hug upon meeting or leaving.
They may hug you or kiss you on the cheek when they see you in public. My abuser made sure to hug me in front of the congregation every Sunday at church. This conditions onlookers that the abuser is just a touchy-feely kind of person in case a victim speaks up at a later date.
Unethical therapists will find ways to get physically closer to the client. My abusive therapist offered/suggested that I rest my feet on the ottoman that sat between us every week for months. Once I finally obliged, he moved on to the next phase of grooming by placing his feet on the ottoman near mine.
They may offer comfort when clients are upset just like ethical therapists might, but unethical therapists will not ask permission first and they will maintain the behavior well after the client has calmed down.
They will also take the nurturing above and beyond what is needed in the situation. They may hold clients, stroke their hair, soothe them with words, hold hands, and/or maintain intense eye contact. The therapist who abused me had one client sit on his lap during sessions pretending to be the daddy she never had.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #6
Ethical therapists will share enough information about themselves to form a connection with a client, to put a client at ease, or to help a client see that he or she is not alone. Everything they share should be for the client’s benefit.
They will remain anonymous in all other ways. There should be no personal sharing that would burden clients. As soon as clients get a glimpse of the therapist’s personal brokenness or struggle, they are no longer able to dump on/burden the therapist with their issues and feelings.
Ethical therapists will never talk more than they listen.
Ethical therapists will ensure that sessions are focused solely on the clients and the clients’ needs.
Unethical therapists will share personal details about themselves to intensify the attachment that the client already has with them.
They will allow clients rare peeks into their psyches to induce pity or empathy or compassion. My abusive therapist told me that he moved a lot growing up and never had friends.
Unethical therapists will also point out that they only allow a select few to see this side of them. My abusive therapist once told me something personal about his life and then followed it with “I’ve never shared that with anyone.”
A client who feels somewhat responsible for a sweet and broken therapist is less likely to turn him or her in down the road. This personal sharing also causes guilt in the clients when it comes time to report the abuse. I can’t hurt him after all he’s done for me. He’s been through so much.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #7
Claiming to have false credentials
Ethical therapists should have verifiable licenses and verifiable membership to any counseling associations they claim.
They will also only advertise a degree in the field in which they work. For example, a therapist with a masters in divinity is not a master’s level therapist unless they also have a masters in counseling. In the same way, it is wrong for a Ph.D. in say history to practice counseling as Dr. So and so. Yes, they have a doctorate but in a different field. This is false advertising! Make sure these people have the credentials they say they have in the actual field of counseling.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #8
A sudden shift in mood or personality
Ethical therapists can have a bad day, sure, but they will never allow that to leak into their clients’ sessions. Again, they will present a blank slate allowing clients to feel anything they need to feel.
They should maintain a similar mood or tone with you throughout—one that is nurturing and grounding, encouraging and safe.
I have heard so many stories of abusive therapists suddenly turning on their clients, months or years down the road. While this cruelty would have been easy to walk away from in the beginning, it is not so easy now. At this late stage in the game, the client is so entrenched in the relationship, so isolated from others, that the prospect of leaving the once adoring therapist is next to impossible.
This is when cognitive dissonance kicks in. Cognitive dissonance occurs when people have vastly conflicting thoughts and/or feelings about someone or something at the same time. This is so uncomfortable that we begin to compartmentalize. Well, the abusive person is loving most of the time. I recall asking, “Is he helping me or hurting me? And how can it be both?!”
The therapist must be going through something and will surely return to the loving, compassionate person he or she once was, we think. When we are particularly desperate, we will even accept the blame for the abuse because if the therapist’s behavior is our fault, then we can fix it. We can stop doing X,Y or Z and the therapist will not treat us that way again. It can go back to how it was before. We can get our much-needed safe place back.
While there are many hazard signs to watch out for in therapy, these are a few that I have found to be the trickiest to detect and navigate. Many of them feel good and seem quite harmless. It is also important to note that when clients’ are in the process of being groomed or manipulated, they only see each individual incident. By itself, each red flag seems innocuous. They can’t see the bigger picture, the web that is being woven around them.
Abusive Therapy Danger Area #9
Progress in Therapy
In ethical therapy, a client may get worse before he or she get better. That is natural when digging up past traumas. But clients should reach a stage where they can look back and see improvement. And that growth should amount to an increased ability to function outside of therapy, an improvement in personal relationships outside of therapy, and an added sense of independence outside of therapy. Notice the repeated phrase–OUTSIDE OF THERAPY.
In unethical therapy, the same may be true at first and clients may indeed start to feel better, much better, but…they will notice a decrease in their ability to function outside of therapy, a lessening of connection with loved ones outside of therapy and at the same time a vastly increased need for therapy and the therapist.
This intense need for therapy is a normal feeling for many clients with ethical, honest therapists too. It’s normal for clients to think, Omg if I can only survive until my next appointment. But in time this need should coexist with some or all of the above improvements.
Another way to say it is this—your outside world should be improving or growing while in therapy. If your outside world is shrinking, meaning the therapist is moving higher and higher up the priority list and friends and family are falling by the wayside or your ability to perform at work or at home is steadily decreasing then you might be in trouble.
Abusers will isolate clients while ethical therapists will encourage them to nurture and foster outside relationships. And ethical therapists will certainly never enter that real life—not as a friend, not as a parent, not as anything. They will always be on the periphery acting as therapists. Therapy and a client’s personal life should never merge.
So how can we avoid these potential hazards before it’s too late?
As someone who has been abused by more than one therapist in my life, some blatant and some sneaky and insidious, the best advice I can give is this—share what is happening in therapy with someone you trust on the outside. And not just one person.
When I had doubts and was later assaulted, I turned to a close mentor who was also the pastor’s wife at my church, and guess what? She took the abuser’s side. Why? Because the abusive therapist was an elder at our church. She later told me that her husband, the pastor, could be fired by the elder board. So, she protected her own well-being and threw me under the bus.
It is important, then, to tell and continue to tell until you are heard. Don’t let the first one or two rejections cause you to give up and retreat inward. I did exactly that and guess who that left? Me and my abuser. So what did I do? I turned to the abusive therapist to comfort me for the pain he was causing me! Crazy, I know.
If you don’t have someone you trust to share these intimate details with, reach out to me or to an organization like T.E.L.L., Therapy Exploitation Link Line, and run it by us. And remember, if it feels too good to be true, it probably is. No one, not a therapist or a pastor or anyone for that matter, can save us. They can walk alongside us. They can cheer us on from the sidelines, but they are not the healer or the source of healing. You have that ability inside of you. And an ethical therapist will empower you discover it!