When Therapists Behave Unethically

In the past month alone, I have had two new clients report egregious ethical violations from their previous therapists. In one case, a male therapist made repeated narcissistic advances toward a woman who came to him to unravel the trauma of her ongoing divorce proceedings. This therapist repeatedly told the client details of his personal life which had no bearing on her therapy, and which frankly shocked me both in their content and in the manner in which he presented the information. The client ultimately stopped the counseling relationship, which the therapist was reluctant to sever.

In the other, a female therapist repeatedly fended off efforts to discuss the client’s presenting trauma, sent the client a social media friend request, and invited her on a weekend getaway with no therapeutic agenda. This therapist then abruptly abandoned the client with no stated reason and no offer to refer to another counselor.

In both cases, the clients felt responsible for the well-being of their therapists. They both experienced the breach of the relationship as abandonment. Remember that these individuals sought counseling support for their own trauma and pain and were vulnerable and trusting of the professionals they chose as their therapists. Rather than being seen as individuals in distress by these therapists, they were grossly mistreated and re-traumatized.

My work with these individuals involves not only support in easing the original distress, but also creation of a strong therapeutic bond when both clients are ambivalent and defensive about exposing themselves vulnerably to another counselor.

This infuriates me, as it no doubt infuriates you. What can be done if you experience something that feels off in your relationship with your counselor?

First, trust your instincts. Trust the way you feel both during the session and particularly afterward, when you’ve had time to recognize and identify your emotional response to a conversation. Sometimes, during a session it is possible to feel flooded and overwhelmed, so your reactions may not be clear to you until later. This may be a subtle discomfort that you can’t seem to put your finger on, or a more specific discomfort about a particular comment or behavior from your therapist. You may feel misunderstood. You may feel “dirty” or shamed. You may feel confused after having asked questions that did not get answered to your satisfaction.

If you feel your therapist is behaving unethically, the first thing to consider is bringing it up in session. Express your concern. Ask for clarification of something that doesn’t make sense to you or doesn’t feel right. If you don’t feel confident in the response you get, please terminate the relationship.

Also, remember that you chose your therapist carefully. You therefore expected professional expertise and ethical behavior, so you may be holding a cognitive bias in favor of the therapist. This can lead you to doubt yourself and the validity of your reactions, instead of questioning the therapist’s behavior or treatment.

Skilled therapists can help you move forward in your life, which is the reason you seek counseling support in the first place. Most therapists are sensitive, competent professionals who hold your best interests and work conscientiously on your behalf. But every now and then, for whatever personal reasons, therapists depart from the norm into ethical violations that harm their clients.

If you feel your therapist is behaving unethically, the first thing to consider is bringing it up in session. Express your concern. Ask for clarification of something that doesn’t make sense to you or doesn’t feel right. If you don’t feel confident in the response you get, please terminate the relationship.

All licensed therapists are governed by the laws of the state that grants them the license to practice. You can file an ethics violation complaint with the licensing board. Sometimes, doing so may feel like adding more pain to your experience, which you may prefer to put behind you and move on. I understand this reluctance. But consider making an inquiry at the state board and at the therapist’s professional association (you can identify this by the letters after the therapist’s name—LMHC or LMFT, for example) to learn about the specific steps involved in submitting a complaint. Then you can decide whether to proceed. It is entirely up to you. Bear in mind, though, that if a therapist has behaved unethically with you, it is possible this is happening with others as well. Yours may not be the first complaint of an ethics violation.

One last word: Please do not let a bad counseling experience deter you from finding a skilled therapist. Search directories (such as GoodTherapy) for your specific geographical region and your specific concerns. Select a few therapists for contact, then request a brief telephone chat. Once you select a new therapist, please share your experience in session so you can get the relief you need from the burden of your previous counseling encounter, which you may still be carrying.

Author’s note: To protect the privacy of all concerned, I changed the client and therapist details while remaining true to the nature of the ethical breaches described.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Elbrus

    August 18th, 2021 at 12:44 PM

    Le’ts be honest: therapists’ education is flawed from the very beginning. You need degree and then start education. Are you fit to be therapist? Nobody asks. Then comes tons of theory and “personal work”. We all know that no therapy is effective 100% even for “just” depression, not to mention narcissistic and antisocial traits if not full blown disorders. So, after personal work at least some therapists will be problematic. Even more, psychoanalytic training actually foster such traits. Since nobody knows what is really going on behind the doors, unless client record sessions, and because requirements are very lax (“if therapist believes he/she is helping, there is no need to terminate”, so, no proof is need, opinion is enough) and the very fact that clients pay per session, not per job done, implies that for therapists the only really important thing is scheduled slot. If people change, never mind, as long as they pay. Ask any therapist, even those trained for PDs (in most cases BPD) or complex PTSD to accept paying per goal basis with approximate time frame and some (maybe up to 50%) slack and if in that time there is no progress, “goodbye, I pay you nothing”. Nobody would accept. To risky, clients could trick therapist, that is unacceptable, while vice versa is quite normal and common. So why client paid therapist? Paid friend, shoulder for crying, bad acting “I accept you”, therapist’s precious time? Skills? None. Therapeutic relationship is just wallet to wallet kind of “relationship”. All “acceptance” and other psycho bable are just euphemisms for “I’ll take your money and spend time with you, but otherwise, I would not touch you with 10 foot pole”. Which is perfectly okay, but is in huge contrast with professional literature (unconditional positive regard, limited reparanting, transference, choose whatever you want) and it is false advertising. Psychotherapy research is a joke. Even some old enough schools (like gestalt) can’t scrap credible evidence even for depression. Or you have DBT with all kind of lies like empirically validated (actually just first phase out of four), improvement (actually reduced self harm and suicide attempts, hardly success, it is like calling paracetamol for toothache “dental healing”), claims that complete therapy should be done two or three times for full effect (there is no 3 years long DBT trial), DBT simply don’t bother with how people feel, it is just about acting normal and giving no problems to people around you and finally, in most cases trials’ subjects are female so if you are a male, evidence level is a joke. Not to mention that “20 yo girl with self harm, many suicide attempts and substance abuse” is totally different population from 40 yo males without self harm and no dependency (and regarding attempts, when you are 40 you don’t play with attempts, you do it just once in right way).
    And psychoanalysts, they consider themselves beyond any law, code of ethics… Lying, avoiding, bending, skewing, from the very first session. I wasn’t even informed it supposed to be psychoanalytical therapy, it always state “psychotherapy”. Goals? My goal was to feel better, normal, be able to finish the university and get degree. But, nobody promised me anything, nobody made plans, set goals. I didn’t knew. Why? Maybe because 20 years ago there was no wiki, google, all texts about psychotherapy.
    Therapy is service industry and it should be just like any other. Clients pay for results, no results, many back. Of course, that is unsustainable which say very much about quality of therapy. And those very some therapists would freak out about ordering and paying pizza which was never delivered. So pizza is more important than human health and life. And that says enough about what therapists really think about clients. We are trash, useful, lucrative trash, but still trash, unlike grandiose therapists with their even more grandiose egos and all letters and diplomas and certificates. Lay person would think “they should have 99% rate”, in reality it is more like 9.9% success rate. Resistance is magic word for therapists’ impotence, and funny thing, they tell clients “don’t blame other for your problems”. And saying that client is resistant is what? Is there objective test for that? None. Or mantra “client has to do the job”. If I have to do it all myself, why should I pay therapist? To enable some useless narcissistic idiot who is unable to do real work, where you have real responsibility and measurable success, to enjoy high class life style? And just mention any mistake to therapist, oh boy, how they become defensive and even hostile. “Alliance rupture”? They don’t care, why would they? They are grown up people, long time ago disconnected from ideals about “helping”, the only “helping” is to their wallets. Success? Getting huge amount of money and effectively dumping “hard case” is excellent deal for therapist.
    You don’t like this? I am writing from experience. Small sample? Sure. But let me ask you this: if you got killed by one bullet, how you can conclude anything, it was just one? See? For some things one unethical therapist is enough to destroy your life. Therapists want money and zero problems, that is the truth, everything else is… you know, useful to impress gullible public and nothing else beyond that. But admitting “I can’t help you”, nope, every therapist think she is up to the task. Which again says a lot about their training, egos, self perception and lack of insight.

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