Could people in the helping profession really be wolves in sheep’s clothing? The therapy profession is an ideal breeding ground when you think about it. Clients come to therapists in fragile states, desperate for help, and share their innermost thoughts and feelings. To benefit from therapy, clients must trust the therapist and the therapy process. If something goes awry and the patient decides to speak up, an abusive therapist can suggest that the patient is mentally ill or unstable. My abuser informed his colleagues that I was delusional and imagined the abuse, but I was fortunate. Investigators with the Oklahoma Medical Board found me a reliable and credible witness. Many victims are not so lucky.
Abusive Therapist Definition
Therapist abuse occurs when therapists breach boundaries and put their needs ahead of clients’ physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. They use their position of power over clients to exploit them, which can play out in many ways. I have spoken with countless victims over the years, and although many techniques overlap, I have noticed two prominent themes or methods of abuse.
Some therapists use their position of power to exploit clients sexually. They may use transference to confuse the clients that the strong attachment they feel towards the therapist is about themself rather than the more likely scenario that the feelings are about significant childhood relationships. Other abusive therapists may ensnare clients by playing the savior role, fostering extreme dependency on themselves only to discard the client down the road. Other abusers foster an attachment with clients only to use them as personal assistants or human punching bags. Alternating between affection and abuse is typical of narcissists. Regardless of the abuse style therapists employ, it leaves victims utterly gutted.
Therapist as Sexual Predator
When I began therapy in 2013, little did I know I was sharing my deepest darkest secrets with a sexual predator. Predators seek out voids in their victims and then attempt to fill them. When Dr. D discovered I did not have a relationship with my father, he jumped to fill that role. When he told me he had adopted me, I was elated.
As he discovered other voids in my life, a disconnected marriage, for example, he attempted to meet those needs as well. He told me my husband could not love me in the ways he could. In this way, we become attached not to the abusers themselves but to the fulfillment of these deep-seated needs. Unaware this is happening, it is akin to being given a taste of a drug, essentially chaining victims to their abusers.
A predatory therapist will use other grooming tactics to entrap their victims—breaching boundaries through hugs, personal sharing about their lives, or possibly contact outside of sessions. They will use gifts or flattery to love-bomb victims. My abuser bought me my very own blanket for the office and, in time, gave me longer sessions than other clients. The predator will share secrets with victims, making the clients believe there is something special about them. It is common to hear abusive therapists say, I have never shared that with anyone, or I have never met anyone quite like you. Feeling special creates another link in the ever-growing chain that keeps victims trapped.
Once grooming is underway, clients will feel supported, heard, and seen. They will crave time with the therapist without really understanding why. The abusive therapists will move to the top of the victims’ priority list while friends and family will fall by the wayside. When these abusers are also church leaders, we might believe the relationship was heaven-sent, a gift from God. My abuser told me he loved me as Jesus would if He were here in the flesh.
A predator will attempt to isolate victims, informing them that outsiders would not understand their special bond. The spiritual therapy my abuser used felt legit at times and crazy at others, but not wanting my friends to judge me, I kept it to myself. When my sessions became two hours instead of one, I hid that, as well, because it was embarrassing. A predator will not make his first big move until he has an attached and somewhat isolated victim. He will also ensure that his loyal fan base is already in place. Dr. D was an elder at my church and a cross-wearing prayer team member. No one was going to suspect him of foul play.
Eventually, these predators will up the ante, expecting more and more from their victims. Already bonded to their abuser, victims are more likely to overlook transgressions. They will cling to the good parts of the relationship and minimize the bad. Cognitive dissonance is when we have vastly conflicting attitudes or feelings toward someone or something simultaneously. This inner conflict is so uncomfortable for humans that we will do anything to rectify this contradiction.
Often, we do this by denying reality, rationalizing, or accepting blame for the abuser’s behavior. We see this with abused children. Safe caregivers are a matter of survival for a child. To rectify this madness and maintain some semblance of safety, the abused children decide that they caused the abuse and that their abusers had only acted as they should.
Therapists who are sexual predators operate from the same playbook. Victims are often astounded by the similarities when comparing notes with other victims. While the details may vary, the techniques employed are the same. Knowing the abuse was not unique to me was a painful but necessary step in my healing. Victims are 0% responsible for what happened. Their only mistake was encountering a sexual predator.
Therapist as Narcissistic Savior
This type of therapist abuse is very prevalent. Equally powerful and just as destructive, therapists implementing this style of abuse will seduce their victims by playing the savior. As the word implies, they will offer to rescue or save the clients from their past hurts, present struggles, and future hurdles. Often, the therapists become the mother or father that the victims never had. Again, using transference to their advantage, they will use the clients’ overwhelming feelings of attachment to them to manipulate them further. Unlike predatory therapists who use clients for their own sexual gratification, these abusive therapists are often using clients to feed their egos or narcissistic supply.
Savior therapists will claim to have the power to meet their clients’ every need. In this scenario, it is not uncommon for clients to have unlimited access to these therapists via email, phone, or personal visits. Therapists will relinquish all physical boundaries and may cuddle with clients during sessions, hold hands with clients, or stroke their hair. Clients hoping to move away from childhood emotions are now encouraged to regress into a childlike state.
These kinds of abusers want the clients to be totally dependent on them. Common phrases with this style of abuse are: I will never ever abandon you as your mom did, You can call me day or night, or You are like the daughter I never had. Like sexual predators, they implement love bombing and mirroring. Mirroring occurs when abusers use what their victims share and mirror it back to them to create commonalities; for example, I am sensitive too, I cannot believe how similar we are, or Our special bond had to be predestined.
When the clients believe they cannot live without their therapist, the therapist has them right where they want them. Now they may slack off. Where they had been available day or night, now maybe they suddenly limit outside contact to email only. Instead of cuddling with clients during sessions, they may restrict physical touch to a quick hug when the client leaves. Once the adoring mother figure, they are now cold and distant.
I spoke to one victim who used to hold hands with her therapist at every session. Sometimes they sat facing each other while maintaining eye contact. She described it as the most loved she had ever felt. When her therapist suddenly abandoned her, she found herself unable to function. The therapist had weaseled her way into every facet of her life, becoming her lifeline. And now she was abandoned by the very person claiming to save her.
These abusers tend to flip the nurturing off like a light switch. The relationship goes from enmeshed: texting before bed every night, sharing phone calls throughout the day, allowing the victim to be present in other clients’ sessions! I knew of a victim who was promised future sleepovers with her abusive therapist. When narcissists no longer need their victims, they discard them without explanation, leaving them utterly confused, rejected, and alone. This betrayal exacerbates the trauma they went to therapy to get help with in the first place!
The savior therapists use language such as—I will save you; you are the daughter I always wanted and never had, or I will never ever abandon you. In other words, I want you to depend on me so that I can control you, I want you to attach yourself to me and worship me to fuel my narcissistic supply, and I will be there for you until you are no longer useful.
While therapists can abuse clients in many ways, I recognize the therapist as a sexual predator and the therapist as a savior most when speaking with victims. These methods of abuse are pre-meditated and habitual. These are not one-time occurrences. These abusers typically have victims in the hundreds. My abuser told his victims they had multiple personalities. He wanted to find the missing young parts of them that he claimed split off due to extreme trauma. Why? Because he was into little girls. “An average serial child-molester may have as many as 400 victims in his lifetime,” according to Race Against Abuse of Children Everywhere.
Regardless of how therapy abuse occurs, it is never ok, and it always does extreme damage to the clients, who are now faced with the fear of finding another therapist to help them process what happened. Therapists have a code of ethics and should maintain high moral standards. They know the risk it poses to clients if they stray from these ethical boundaries. No matter how kind it appears, when they cross that line, they are not looking to help their clients. They are looking to benefit themselves. These therapists need to be reported to the supervisory boards and removed from practice.
If a therapist has harmed you in any way, shape, or form, I want you to know that you are not alone and that it was not your fault.