Taking Action Against the Abuser – Emotions and Inner Conflict

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.

* * *

Related post:

Taking Action Against Your Therapist — Whatever Your Feelings Are

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  1. Kristi, you described the conflicts of the situation very well. I had so many conflicting emotions when I filed a the complaint I lost, but over the long run I’m still glad I made the statement. Unfortunately, I believe few therapists understand this process and the necessity of it. Consumers who take a stand usually are considered the enemy rather than, heaven forbid, those who are brave enough to point out the contradictions and weaknesses in their profession.

    Someone recently linked to this piece of work on another blog. It is a “poor me” for the therapist complained against. Damage to the client isn’t even factored.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that your complaint did not turn out the way you’d hoped, but I’m glad that you feel good about having taken action. I think different people have vastly different experiences with the licensing boards. Some feel like the board doesn’t care about unethical therapists while others feel more supported in taking action. Education all around is desperately needed so that victims aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves.

      Thanks for the link. I believe that Kenneth Pope (co-author of the article) has written about both sides of the issue—for the therapist and for the patient. Despite my focus on abusive therapists, I still need to acknowledge that there are good, ethical practitioners out there who are victims of crazy clients. It can go both ways, unfortunately…

  2. kristi,
    very well stated. the dynamics and issues haven’t changed over decades when one is exploited by their therapist.
    it is completely about taking action for yourself, accountability and empowerment. prior to taking any action, i’d recommend obtaining information about the options available and the processes involved, so the action taken, if any, is informed. and of course, it will be a process. and finally, if anyone is considering any action, they should obtain information sooner rather than later, because statutes of limitations can preclude civil actions.
    you demonstrated great courage in standing up for yourself, and continue to do so by reaching out to others.

    • Hi Joe,
      Thanks so much for your comment. You make an excellent point about how important it is for someone who’s considering legal action to obtain information and seek good legal counsel as soon as possible. There are so many factors that can influence a complaint—statutes of limitations, the timing of a civil suit vs. a licensing complaint, etc.—it’s important to find these things out and not make assumptions. Victims who are remotely considering any type of action should contact an attorney who specializes in abuse cases (such as yourself) for accurate information.

    • I am reading all these blogs after ending a 6 year long, sad, traumatic, situation with my therapist
      (Psy D). It is so helpful to know that my experience is not singular, that my emotions are not abnormal, that the effects of the sexual abuse are indeed as traumatic as I am experiencing them to be.

      I feel so much pain, part of which is that I just learned that I cannot pursue a civil case due to the statue of limitations and I just want to ask if anyone can make sense of this:
      I saw my therapist initially for grief counseling after losing 2 loved ones to suicide over 4 days (completely unrelated). Twenty-one months later I ended my therapy to pursue a promised sexual relationship with my therapist that I didn’t intend on. This relationship lasted for the next 7 months with less than 3 weeks separating the therapy and the sexual relationship. Then this person insisted that I return for therapy and pause the sexual relationship as I wasn’t doing well (go figure!). I was immediately back in therapy with this person for the next 3 years during which time I became severely depressed and debilitated. In short, I lost the ability to function, to hold a job, and became suicidal. When I became so desperate I finally realized the dysfunctional, damaging nature of this patient-therapist relationship. The cost was all mine to be paid. I left my therapist and several months later had a lethal suicide attempt and short hospitalization. Shortly after that, and with the encouragement of others, I sought legal counsel. I was shocked to learn that I had no case because of the 7 month hiatus from therapy for the promised sexual relationship caused a statue of limitations issue. Apparently in New York state there is a 2 and 1/2 year statue. I feel so hopeless now, so helpless, so disarmed, so powerless, so discouraged. I don’t understand how a statue can be effective when there was no awareness on my part that damage was occurring to me as a direct result of this therapist. I have lost everything but my life because of this person and every day even my life is in the balance. I often wonder if taking my life would be the only way of getting justice for myself.

      • btw…I left my therapist only 6 months ago…but still the statue of limitations for the sexual relationship that happened 3 years ago is up! Seems my therapist knew this and kept me in therapy with him just long enough to surpass this limitation and then he started a neglect and mistreatment silent campaign so that I would either a) kill myself or b) leave him. Liability gone. Damage done. I just can’t make an ounce of sense to this. I just can’t understand why there can be no justice for me. I hope justice can be found in my death. Maybe my death could bring new legislation – a law named after me. A law that does not discriminate on time statues when there was no break in contact, just a change in its nature.

        • Nick,
          I hear your suffering and I am so sorry for what you’ve been through. It’s devastating. And I know that feeling of depression and despair. Truly, I do. Believe me, you are not alone in this. But your death will not solve anything and it will not bring justice. You have to be around for that. I know it’s hard to believe now, but your life has meaning and purpose. If it didn’t you wouldn’t be here. And just by coming on this blog and writing about your story, there are now new people who care about you and want to see you make it through this.

          Please, please if you are in a state of desperation and hopelessness, call a crisis support line. (There are some listed in the right sidebar further down the page.) Or call 911. There are people who can help you get through this. And please, if you’re up for it, get a referral for a new therapist — or seek support from a spiritual group/counselor (if that calls to you) or join a meditation group or something to get some support. You need people around you to support you through this, so please ask for help.

          I don’t know if you’ve spoken to an attorney who specializes in therapist abuse cases, but there are a few listed on the Legal resources page, and I encourage you to call one of them and see if you have any options, whether civil, criminal or administrative. If not, then you could try contacting local journalists (especially those who write about crime and legal news, or maybe human interest) and see if anyone would be interested in writing about your story. You could also write to your state legislators with your story and take action about getting the laws changed. (If this type of thing interests you, check out what Heather Sinclair has done in Maryland with Lynette’s Law http://www.lynetteslaw4maryland.com/)

          You’re not alone, and you DO have options. Please post as often as you need to if it helps you. We may not be able to fix the problem for you, but we offer you our care and support.


  3. Kristi,
    Your article is so timely for me. At a time when I am feeling so alone in my feelings and am in the initial stages of a civil action, I hear a voice that could be mine. I feel and have felt the very ways you detail. The way I can verbalize it is that the abuse has left a bruise or wound. I don’t see it or even feel it every day, but then sometimes it feels like someone’s jabbed the wound and it hurts all over again. I really don’t know if that will ever heal completely, but I hope so. I won’t even mind the scar so much as it would be proof of the healing.

    • Hi Ellie,
      I’m so glad the post resonated for you. I understand that feeling of having a bruise that you don’t always feel—then it gets poked and hurts like heck! For me, sometimes that reminder can feel depressing, like, “Hasn’t this stupid thing gone away yet?” But I have to remind myself of all the time I haven’t been feeling it, which means it’s getting better. Like you, I don’t know that it will ever heal completely, but I think the pain will soften over time to a dull ache.
      All the best to you!

  4. Kristi, every time I read this I feel more and more justified in what I did by filing a complaint with Chris A’s licensing board, the police, and in filing a civil suit against him as well. Ifeel as if I am disciplining him to some extent myself. I feel I have to do something to protect other innocent people, too. It has been an exhausting, difficult, and yet rewarding and growing life process. I am better for having stood up for myself, even if it was mostly after the fact. I’m determined to take back my life, and to find out who I am now that I am beginning to love and value myself. Life is different for me now: it is better, and I am wiser.

  5. I’m wondering what actions can be taken against an unlicensed therapist. It frustrates me to no end that I don’t even have the option of considering filing a licensing complaint because this woman who calls herself a therapist, but who is really untrained and totally self-absorbed has no license. I want people to be aware of how harmful this person is, because it’s so deceptive. She posts profiles that make her sound like the world’s greatest therapist. I wish there were a space on psychology today or Therapy Tribe websites to write a review. I’ve been looking for such websites, where one can write reviews of therapists. I found one, but it only allowed you to write a few words under the rating. Another site that seemed good ended up being broken, so that was out. I was wondering if anyone knew of such websites. If I could put a sign at the end of this woman’s street with big letters and an arrow pointing to the house number that says,”Don’t go here!” I would. I resonate with your thoughts on taking action as a way of holding the person accountable for bad behavior, as a parent would do for a child. My last contact with this person was a carefully thought out e-mail outlining my various concerns. I C.CD a group of others who I knew to be still involved in her care as part of workshops, her “comunity” as she calls it. The response I got back was very hurtful, and only served to re-enforce my concerns about how terribly she relates to others. Even so I don’t regret doing what I did. I felt good knowing I had at least given a warning, which will hopefully sink in and do some good one day. A past member of her “comunity” did a similar thing , wrote a concerned letter which was very helpful in the end with helping me to get out of such a destructive relationship. Thank you again for capturing the emotional conflicts so beautifully.

    • Hi Sam,
      Depending on where you live, if she doesn’t have a license and she’s actually calling herself a “therapist,” it’s possible she’s in violation of a business code. Check out your state’s regulations. You might actually be able to file a criminal complaint and have her investigated. You could give your state licensing board a call, explain the situation, and see if there’s anything they suggest. You could also try filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

      I know how tough it can be when you want to alert the public about an abusive therapist and there’s no good way to do it, no way to channel that anger and frustration. You want to take care that you don’t go too far and then get sued for defamation of character. Sometimes, unfortunately, we have to let things go and trust that God/karma/etc. will take care of it. But hopefully you will find an appropriate route for taking action.

      Good luck!!

    • Sam,
      I am sorry to hear you had such a bad experience. You deserved to be treated with more respect. I also can completely relate to your frustration with the mental health system. I have found a website that allows you to post a complaint, hopefully future clients will see the post and think twice about choosing her as a therapist.

      Best of luck

  6. Dear Kristi,
    Thank you so much for this article. I am experiencing everything you described. My therapist, who has a Phd as a licensed clinical pychologist violated the boundaries of our therapeutic relationship. She used my “transference” to meet her own needs, disclosed information about her personal life and sexual life, accepted almost $1000.00 in gifts over four years, discussed other clients, asking me to do her favors and much much more. I was so attached to her as a mother figure that I didn’t see any of it as a violation. When my husband became concerned and wanted me to raise issues with her. She turned on me. Telling me I seduced her with my gifts, that my husband was jealous of our relationship, she told me she would stop our long hugs at the end of our sessions, no more texting and other things that felt like abandonment. But believe it or not but it actually took me 8 more months to finally leave her. I am now with a wonderful new therapist and I am beginning to understand what happened to me. (It’s only been 10 weeks) My new therapist has told me I can file a compliant with the state licensing board but I have all the feelings you mention in your article. Also, because she disclosed so much I know her relationship with her husband is bad and I worry about what this would do to her children. I have always been a people pleaser and the “good girl” soI feel like I would be a bad person if I filed the complaint. However, I worry about other clients she continues to treat and I guess to be honest I feel like I want to “offically” know that she did violate the therapeutic boundaries in an emotional way. I have been told over and over by my new therapist that I did nothing wrong but it’s so hard for me to belive that she did all these things to me…I really thought she loved me. She told me she did all the time and I know this sounds crazy but I still miss her. This relationship has caused me more pain than anything I have ever experienced in my life. Thank you for sharing your story…I know mine isn’t asbad as yours but I hope you’ll understand.

    • Congratulations on getting away from this person! It’s not easy. Yes, all your feelings are totally normal. She reversed roles with you so that now you feel obliged to take care of her. But let her be accountable for her own actions. The choices she made are all hers, not yours. You are not responsible for anything she did. I’ve been telling people to try to take a more neutral position and not make it about how good, bad, etc. either of you are or about your feelings. Instead, let me ask you this: If someone commits a crime, do you believe it’s appropriate for them to be held accountable for their actions? Given what she’s done, do you believe she should be working with patients? Let go of whatever you know about her personal life. Criminals get off all the time because they seem like “good” or “deserving” people. Keep it simple.

      Good luck!

  7. Pingback: Therapist Abuse « Kate Is Rising

  8. hi kristi. i have been seeking help in counseling over a year now, from the beginning up until now i have experienced many unethical and abusive statements and actions throughout this period. i am seeking legal assistance but have not found any yet. can you steer me toward any lawyers who deal with these issues near utica NY? thanks

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