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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