When I talk to female survivors of therapist abuse who are considering filing a civil lawsuit or licensing complaint (or who are in the early stages of such actions), I often hear them express the same kinds of emotions and inner conflicts that I experienced. They usually start off by saying, “I know this sounds weird, but…” and then relate to me their conflicting emotions about taking legal action, their uncertainty, their difficulty in committing to it. I tell them that what they’re experiencing is all completely normal. Really—how could they be feeling anything different?
For the record, here’s how I felt about filing the civil lawsuit against Dr. T:
Guilty, because I thought I should be taking care of Dr. T instead of doing something that would harm him. Honestly, I felt like I was betraying him by filing the lawsuit.
Afraid, like a child who knows she’s been “bad” and is scared that when the parent finds out what she’s done, he’ll get angry and punish her, and withhold the love that she craves. (Ratting out your “parent” to the authorities is not exactly going to win approval!)
Uncertain, because I wasn’t completely convinced that the whole thing wasn’t somehow my fault.
Defensive and self-righteous, in an attempt to counteract the guilt, fear and uncertainty and convince others (in general) and myself (in particular) that I was doing the right thing. (One way to shore up a shaky ego is to have a really good justification ready, in case you have to defend yourself.)
Bad-ass, because I felt powerful—and also like I was getting away with something subversive and a bit naughty. (Again, back to that little kid who, because she’s usually such a good girl, alternates between feeling fearless and terrified when going against the parent—depending on whether or not she thinks she’ll get into trouble.)
Given these conflicting emotions, I applied a few different tactics to convince myself I was doing the right thing. First, I decided that I would trust that the people who were suggesting that I file a civil lawsuit knew what they were talking about and were giving me good advice. One of the remarks I commonly heard from these trusted advisors was: “It’s a way for you to get your power back.” Since at the time I felt completely powerless, getting my power back sounded brilliant. If filing a civil suit would give that to me, I was all for it.
Second, I told myself that Dr. T had essentially stolen money from me and I had a right to get it back. (Taking money from a patient for sessions that are spent having sexual intercourse is not exactly a legitimate business transaction, is it? No?) I’d paid him thousands of dollars and he’d taken it, without any hesitation. I deserved to get that money back, darn it! There was no question in my mind that I was in the right about that.
On a relational level, however, I needed a mindset that would help me feel less guilty. I’d spent the past five years taking care of Dr. T, attending to his happiness and well-being. I’d done such a good job that the guy had compared me (quite favorably) to his mother, for heaven’s sake! So I decided to look at taking legal action against him as if I were a mother disciplining her child. After all, in caring for a child, a mother teaches them wrong from right, holds them accountable for their actions, and enforces consequences for bad behavior. There was no question that Dr. T had engaged in bad behavior. So it seemed reasonable for me to teach him that such behavior was simply not okay. Adopting this mother-like mindset allowed me to believe that, even though I was filing a lawsuit, I was still caring for him. And at the time, I really needed to believe this. I couldn’t just turn off five-plus years of love and devotion—or my “good girl” training. I needed to feel that my actions were rooted in love and peace, even though a part of me was starting to feel more like declaring all-out war.
I also felt a great deal of longing.
Despite my growing intellectual understanding that the man had exploited and abused me, the patient-therapist transference was still greatly in effect. I so wanted to believe that he had goodness inside of him and that he cared about me. He had been the Beloved—and I still very much wanted him to show love to me. I wanted him to understand what he’d done, the pain and harm he’d caused, and see the errors of his ways. I wanted him to feel sorry, to come to me with sincere remorse and understanding and ask my forgiveness. That would prove to me that he really had cared about me, that it hadn’t all been some horrible manipulation. That I hadn’t really been abused. (I just couldn’t face that truth quite yet.) I needed to feel that our relationship had meant something to him, that I had some value other than as some sort of concubine, whose only purpose was to fulfill the needs of her king. I wanted him on his knees in front of me, in tears, saying, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me! I love you—I never meant to hurt you!” At the time, I couldn’t admit these feelings to anyone. It felt shameful to still want love from someone who had acted with such complete disregard for my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. So, yes, there was shame, too.
It’s interesting that on some level filing the lawsuit was an attempt to get the love and understanding that I craved. Sometimes we think that if we punish those we love for their uncaring behavior, they’ll realize the error of their ways and come to us with apologies and avowals of love. We hope that by punishing them (either actively or passively) we can knock some sense into them, startle them awake, and then they’ll give us what we’ve been wanting. For some of us, punishing someone for their mistakes can seem easier than setting boundaries up front or (gulp!) asking for what we want. When we have worthiness issues, being up front with our needs and wants can feel too insecure. How can we justify our needs if we don’t inherently feel entitled to them? But when we “know” someone else is “wrong,” we feel more secure in our position; it’s easier to defend. So, we wait and suffer the painful consequences so that we’ll feel entitled to our boundaries, and then put our best defenses forward. Which is basically what I did.
Filing a lawsuit would show him that he was wrong, that he really had hurt me—that I hadn’t made it up. It would also show him that I wasn’t the pushover he apparently thought I was. Having a confident attorney on my side helped immensely.
What really helped seal the deal, however, was my painfully intimate knowledge of Dr. T himself. I knew on a gut level that, despite my desire to believe he was a good and caring person, he was in fact a highly manipulative man who had little (if any) empathy for others. If he could do this to me, he could do it to other patients as well. If I didn’t take action, someone else might be harmed and I could not, in good conscience, let that happen.
So, I filed the lawsuit because I believed it was the right thing to do. Despite my fear and uncertainty, taking action felt like the only choice I could make with integrity. For me, there was no other option. I needed to do it. And I did.
I didn’t really think through the consequences of what I was doing, but I’m not sure I was capable of that, given my emotional state and the effects of the PTSD. I simply trusted that everything would be all right. And, basically, it was.
I have no regrets. None.
And I continued to experience those challenging and conflicting emotions.
As time went by, the emotional balance did shift: less guilt, more anger, eventually less fear and less longing. That kind of longing is old, born from childhood wounds—the unrequited love for an absent or unavailable parent. That’s life work, there. Not something that’s going to resolve in a few months—or years. And this gets to the heart of the wounding: Our therapists, by crossing the lines that should never have been crossed, not only awakened those early wounds but fertilized them, caused them to grow exponentially. The very wounds they should have been helping us heal they made a thousand times worse. That’s what we get to carry away with us. Our baggage, made a thousand times heavier.
Here’s what I want to say to those of you who are struggling with your emotions about taking action:
It’s normal to feel guilty. And angry. And to want to take care of your therapist. And to want him or her to burn in hell (or at least rot in jail). And to worry that it’s all your fault and you have no right to file a lawsuit. And to long for a heartfelt apology.
As uncomfortable and disconcerting as it may be, you’re likely to feel all of these things. You may wonder if having these kinds of conflicting emotions means you shouldn’t take action. IT DOESN’T. Do not wait for this conflict to resolve before deciding whether or not to take action, because you’re likely to be waiting a long time. You’re having these conflicting emotions because of how this person betrayed you. You do not owe them anything. You do not need to take care of them. Did they take care of you? No. They used you to take care of their needs, without any serious consideration for how you would be affected by their actions. In all likelihood, they weren’t thinking of you at all. You may not want to hear that or be able to take it in, but it’s true. If this person truly cared about you, they would not have done what they did. They betrayed you.
I’m going to say this again: You do not owe them anything.
If you feel like you’re still in love with your therapist and believe that taking action would be a betrayal, I want to reassure you that setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their actions can be a loving act—for both of you. A lot of us people-pleasers grew up holding the mistaken belief that boundaries are unkind and unloving. The truth is that when we don’t set boundaries and instead try to take care of others’ needs and problems for them, we do them a disservice because we deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to take care of themselves and to grow. Look at taking action as an act of love. By holding people accountable for their actions, you are supporting their growth. Really. They may not like it, but that’s because they’ve gotten used to getting away with things and being taken care of. Do them a favor and stop protecting them. Cut the cord and let them grow.
More than anyone else, the person who deserves your love and care is you. What will best serve you at this time? Like me, you may have been an easy target of an unethical practitioner because you did not know how to speak out or stand up for yourself or take your own needs seriously. So, consider that this may be a really good time to learn how to do just that. Tell this person that what he or she did was NOT OKAY. It wasn’t okay for them to do this to you, and it’s not okay for them to do it to anyone else. They behaved unethically and caused harm to you, to your family, to their family, to their other clients—the list probably goes on. Given how much harm they’ve caused, do they deserve to continue to practice and treat other innocent and potentially vulnerable people? How much more damage might they cause? In my opinion, this person should be held accountable and have to face the consequences for their actions and their choices.
This therapist has probably been abusing and manipulating people in one way or another for most of their life. So if you don’t take action, then someone else probably will. Which means that another person may have to go through what you’ve just been through. How do you feel about that?
Okay. I think you know what my position is here. But having said all this, I believe it is very important that you carefully consider what you want to do and what you need to do. You’ve been through a horrible trauma and you are entitled to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself and your family. Taking action could mean more suffering, more disruption of your life. So you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it. And the tricky part is this: If you decide to take action, you have no control over the outcome. If you file a civil lawsuit, you may get money or you may not. If you go to trial, a jury may decide in your favor or they may not. You don’t even have control over the outcome of a licensing complaint. So whatever you do, DO IT FOR YOURSELF. Do it because it’s what you need to do. Because something in you will grow and become stronger by taking whatever action you decide is best. And when I say “Do it for yourself” I mean you. Not your partner or your children or your parents or your new therapist or anyone else. No one else can or should decide this for you—this is your choice. Your therapist took away your choice when they used their power to get you to take care of their needs. Now, it’s time for you to take back that power.
So I’ll leave you with this question: How will you feel six months or one year or five years from now if you file a complaint? How will you feel if you don’t?
It’s your choice.
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