A while back, I received an email from a survivor of therapist sexual abuse. She and I had been in touch, and she was struggling with her feelings about her former therapist and about taking legal action against him.
The conflicting feelings that I have come and go on a regular basis. One day I am angry and want revenge for the way he treated me and I really don’t care what happens to him. But then other days I feel as though doing this is going to ruin his life, and that makes me feel like a bad person. During the time we were together he seemed like such a good person. He was spiritual and acted as though he really cared about me. I really wanted to believe this. I think about the fact…that this will completely mess up his life. I know I shouldn’t care, but sometimes I do. Other days I see him for what he truly is, a Monster. And I believe it is up to me to stop him from ever doing this again. I wasn’t the first, and probably wouldn’t have been the last.
So many victims write to me with similar stories, similar feelings and fears. They worry that their conflicted, fluctuating feelings are strange, abnormal—that there’s something wrong with them for not feeling one way all the time. They have this idea that they should feel emotionally clear about their therapist and in their intention to take action. That it should be a simple, straightforward, black and white issue.
I want to reassure all of you that having conflicting feelings following therapist abuse is completely normal. In fact, your confusion is a result of what you’ve been through. You’re confused because your therapist fostered your attachment and dependence on him (for this post, I’m referring to the abusive therapist as male, though there are many abusive female therapists as well); then he took advantage of your attachment to manipulate you and violate your trust. How could you be anything but confused?
Think of your attachment to your therapist as similar to the attachment you have to your parents. If one of your parents—let’s say your father—committed a crime, could you report him? Could you call the police and have him arrested? Even if he’d done something horribly wrong to you or another family member, wouldn’t you still have a hard time turning him in? After all, he’s your father. He’s family. You are bonded to him, whether you like it or not. To turn him in would feel like a betrayal of that bond.
Now consider your relationship with your therapist. You entrusted yourself, your deepest feelings and secrets to this person. You looked up to him as a teacher/guide/spiritual/parental figure. You believed that he would never do anything to harm you, that he had your best interests at heart. You wove that belief into your mind, your heart, and your body as the relationship became more intimate and your emotional and physical attachment to him deepened. He became more important than perhaps anyone else in your life. Is it any surprise that, even though he violated and betrayed your trust, taking action against him feels like an act of disloyalty, as if you are the one betraying him—not the other way around?
How nice it would be if, once you understood you’d been violated, all those feelings of love and attachment simply evaporated. It would make things so much easier! But those feelings are there because of your attachment, and they may linger a long time as you heal from this traumatic betrayal.
So if you believe that taking action is the right thing for you to do, you must find a way to move forward despite your conflicting feelings about your therapist.
Even though you formed intense emotional bonds with your therapist, it helps if you can approach the situation with a bit of detachment and neutrality. As I responded to the author of the email:
I’m wondering if you can find the place in between “good person” and “monster” where you know that he’s a human who committed a crime. In your opinion, should people who commit crimes be held accountable? I’m not saying it has to be you holding him accountable, but would you want him to take responsibility for his actions? It doesn’t have to be about whether he’s a good person or a monster or whether you’re a helpless victim or a hero. The fact is: He committed a crime. So what needs to happen? Try to see it in a more neutral way, with more emotional detachment.
I think it’s common for victims to regard their abusers as mythic figures—terrifying in their power—who must be vanquished, and to cast themselves in the role of the warrior-hero who’s destined to rid the world of this evil being. While seeing things in this way can help victims marshal their internal resources to take action, it’s difficult to sustain this rather intense level of motivation and sense of purpose. Taking it out of the mythic realm and humanizing it (even though you may not be willing or able to see your therapist as human at this point) may make things a bit easier and perhaps clearer.
First of all, it helps to get out of the black and white thinking. Your therapist was never a saint and he’s probably not the devil incarnate, either (though I could be wrong). He doesn’t have to be one or the other. He can be (and most likely is) human. Which means that buried in that blackened heart he has some good qualities along with the hideous ones. Yes, it would be easier if he were all bad. You would feel much less conflicted if he were. But people rarely are all good or all bad. Even narcissistic sociopaths can have some light in them.
Likewise, your therapist is also not “a good person” who’s beyond reproach. Aside from, perhaps, the Dalai Lama, do you know anyone who’s beyond reproach? So-called “good people” do bad things all the time. And many of these “good people” get away with untold crimes simply because of their golden image. Some even use this to their advantage. Consider how many religious leaders and spiritual teachers have committed horrendous abuses of power, while their loyal followers continued to believe in their “goodness,” denied any possibility of intentional wrongdoing, excused their behavior, and remained steadfastly devoted to these spiritual criminals. These kinds of abusive authority figures can be highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions and shifting blame onto those around them—often making it seem like they themselves are innocent victims (a classic narcissistic tendency). Their friends, fans and followers believe whatever story they’re told, and the crooks get away scot-free.
As the victim of an abusive therapist, you fell into a similar trap. You believed your therapist was a good person who held your best interests at heart. (That’s how he sold himself, so why would you have believed otherwise?) You looked up to him, perhaps like a father figure or teacher or spiritual authority—someone seemingly beyond reproach. In looking up to him, you may have also bought into the idea that he was somehow better than you, smarter, that he knew you better than you knew yourself. You put his authority above your own. Perhaps you began to see yourself as “less than.” Don’t feel bad or ashamed about this—it’s something many of us do with authority figures. We put them on pedestals and forget that we’re all human, that we’re all equally worthy—and all equally capable of bad behavior.
Your therapist liked being put on a pedestal. It fulfilled his need to be in a “one-up” position. He wanted you to look up to him, to depend on him. It gave him a sense of power and authority. It put him in a position of control. That’s how he was able to get you to do what he wanted—all in the name of love and care. That was the story he wanted you to believe.
So go ahead and knock him off his pedestal. Whether you like it or not, he’s human, as capable of wrongdoing as anyone else, and he needs to be held accountable for his actions.
If it helps, think of your therapist as a child who’s misbehaved (a serious understatement!) and needs to be disciplined. If you had a child who was running around, wreaking havoc and hurting others, would you let him continue?
The abusive therapist needs to be taught that what he’s done is wrong. You’re not doing him a favor by not taking action. In fact, you’re keeping him from learning something he really needs to learn! Yes, a civil suit and/or licensing complaint is going to mess up his life and potentially cost him his livelihood. But you are not responsible for that. He is. He was not a helpless victim. He made a choice to do what he did, and he committed grievous harm. He needs to learn that what he did is not okay. Just like that misbehaving little kid. You are not taking care of him by not holding him accountable. You may think that’s the “loving” thing to do, but it’s not. Loving someone doesn’t mean allowing them to get away with bad behavior or protecting them from the consequences of their actions. When you deny bad behavior or refrain from establishing boundaries or enforcing consequences, you inhibit others from learning how to deal with their lives and take responsibility for themselves. The best way to support someone’s growth is to let them be responsible for their own choices and their own messes. Having to accept the consequences for our actions isn’t comfortable for anyone. But this is what (hopefully) compels us to learn, grow and change.
So don’t hesitate to take action on his account.
Remember: The therapist holds sole responsibility for upholding and maintaining the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship. You as the patient entrusted yourself to the therapist. You opened yourself up to him, made yourself vulnerable. That’s not something you did wrong—that’s the basis of the therapeutic relationship. If you weren’t being open and vulnerable, then what would be the point of going to therapy? It’s the therapist’s job to create a safe space for you, so that you can be vulnerable and do the work you’re there to do. You are entrusting yourself to this person. It’s the therapist’s responsibility to uphold that trust.
He didn’t do that. He completely violated the terms of the relationship and took advantage of your vulnerability. You may have felt as though he was taking care of you, but he wasn’t. In fact, he wasn’t even considering the impact of his actions on your well-being, your life, your future. He was only thinking of himself and taking care of his own needs—needs that he put before yours.
Now it’s up to you to put your needs and your life before his. Stop taking care of him. You don’t owe him anything. He’s taking care of his own life. Who’s taking care of yours? You owe your loyalty to yourself.
I know you’re worried about the impact that legal action will have on him. You’ve cared for him and, despite what he’s done, there’s a part of you that doesn’t want him to suffer. But you are not responsible for him, his choices, his happiness, or his life. You are also not responsible for his suffering. I’m sure he’d like you to think that you are, but that’s just part of the role reversal he perpetrated. It was never your job to take care of him and his needs. It was his job to take care of your therapeutic needs and to leave his own needs out of it. That is the business agreement made between a therapist and patient. He violated that agreement, and there are consequences for that. Legal consequences.
We are all responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take. Let your therapist be responsible for what he did. You can take responsibility for yourself by working through this trauma and focusing on your own healing and growth.
Again, you don’t have to turn this into some epic, mythological battle between good and evil in order to justify taking action against your therapist. He doesn’t have to be “good person” or “monster.” And you don’t have to be “victim” or “hero.” Believe me, I understand your insecurities and uncertainties and the need to somehow make your position unassailable. You may be feeling the fear that you alone are not worthy enough to do this, and that you must defend your choice and bolster your position. If he is a monster, then clearly YOU MUST DO SOMETHING! You have to protect the other innocents from the evil that may befall them. Maybe this is your life’s mission: To destroy the monster and rid the world of this evil.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to protect others and make the world (or your town) safer for those seeking counseling. It’s a very noble intention. We need people like that who are willing to put themselves out there for the sake of the greater good. Just know that it’s not necessary in order to justify taking action. You can take action on your own behalf without having to be responsible for all the other potential victims. You don’t have to save anyone or somehow make yourself more “worthy.” You are important enough all on your own to warrant taking action and holding this person accountable. And you are important enough to not have to do anything. You get to choose. You get to decide what’s right for you and your life.
Taking action isn’t a cure-all, and it’s not the only path. But it is one path—a choice that you can make for yourself. It doesn’t have to be all about him. It doesn’t have to be about anyone else, either. It can be something you do for yourself: an opportunity for you to say that you are no longer going to play the role of caretaker to your therapist—a role you should never have had to play in the first place.
More importantly, taking action can be an opportunity for you to assert that what happened matters, that you matter. It can be an enormously healing thing to do, not as a means of vengeance and payback, but as a way of declaring your own importance and value in the world. So if you decide to move forward on this path, try to see it as something you’re doing not because you hate him, but because you love yourself. Hopefully, that will give you something a lot stronger to hold onto.
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