I am extremely grateful for coming across this website. I would like an opportunity to share my experience of an abusive relationship I had with a “therapist.”
I am a male in my late 40’s who would like to tell of my account of emotional abuse: During the mid 1980’s, I was 20 years old and an undergraduate student in Psychology. My goal was to become a Psychoanalyst in order to help people. To address some personal problems and because I believed that one should be healthy before helping others, I enrolled myself for therapy at a psychoanalytic Clinic in New York City. I chose this Clinic since I had a great deal of respect for many of the founder’s ideas and I needed a place to start.
My analyst was a woman (approximately in her early 50’s). I started sharing my feelings and telling her my difficulties. I was hoping for someone who I could trust and to talk freely in a safe setting without being judged or criticized. (Someone who I could talk to and feel understood). Early on however as I would begin sharing my concerns with her, I noticed that she seemed very cold and distant, and on occasion sometimes out-right insensitive. I could give numerous examples. On a few occasions for example, her response after I would share a concern or personal difficulty (i.e. family, school, etc.) was “What do you expect—a magic wand?” I didn’t think it was inappropriate to discuss personal problems in a mental health clinic instead of talking superficial topics such as the weather. Initial superficial conversation can of course be very appropriate when used, for example, as an icebreaker, establishing rapport, and helping put people at ease. After a while though, it was as if I had no right to talk about what was going on in my life.
The more I looked for understanding from this woman, the more frustrated I became. I even started to feel afraid of this woman and more inhibited to share any of my concerns. Regarding a power differential, I was about 30 years younger than this analyst and completely vulnerable to this individual behind, figuratively speaking, “a blank armored wall” and a sophisticated system of defense. After a few months when I even suggested to her that I was gradually feeling worse, she in her cold and insensitive way didn’t even acknowledge my feelings. In fact she almost appeared to smirk with a restrained attempt not to smile or even laugh. With no place for my increasing feelings of fear, shame, and rage to go except inwards, I continued to deteriorate. On some occasions, she told me that my problem was self hate. I literally imploded from a process called “therapy” and then was told I had a self esteem problem. Here again was a subtle form of abuse in that of course I had a self esteem problem. However, I increasingly felt that this was not a safe place to express any of my thoughts or feelings. In this environment, of course we patients’ frustrations would be absorbed inwardly. Where else is the patient’s frustration suppose to go especially in the case of such talking to an abusive therapist where there is such a power differential. Then the patient is told that it is his/her fault. And the deterioration continued.
Once I believed she misused the concept of transference by suggesting that she reminded me of my mother. While I no doubt had some issues with my mother, my mother did the best she could and was not a cruel and insensitive person. It was I now believe this individual’s way of her justifying the process, collecting a fee and disowning responsibility for her actions. In addition to trying to connect herself with my mother, she was inadvertently denying any responsibility and inferred that I was confusing her with my mother as if my experience was a figment of my imagination. The mental abuse continued when she would then say something like “What makes you think I am blaming you or your mother for the therapy?” “Where did I ever say this is your imagination?” she would then ask.
Despite my getting sicker and sicker, she referred to this process as a science. On some level, I was led to believe that this was supposed to happen. She told me that I had an expectation that things should be “easy”. Once again she was engaging in more rationalization and mental abuse since therapy can of course be painful and an arduous task. (Not however to the point where you barely function.) Equating her treatment with science also I now believe had the implication that she or her school of thought had a monopoly on “Reality” and the “Truth”. If she was a scientist, then it would stand to reason that any questioning of her is a “resistance” against the “truth”. On one occasion when I disagreed with her, she referred to me as “stubborn.” If she represented “science” and “reality”, then I guess we patients experience represent “Unreality”. These were more subtle ways to invalidate our experiences.
After many months, I finally mustered some courage and told my intake worker that the treatment was not helping me. He stated that instead of 2 times per week, I should come 3 times a week. When I hinted what was going on, he dismissed me and stated that I should go back and talk about it with my “therapist”. Whenever I would sometimes see this same intake worker at the clinic, he would barely say hello. Afterwards, I saw him on another occasion, and he said hello as if he doing me a “big favor”. When I told my therapist about both his and her coldness, she stated that this is necessary in order not to “contaminate the treatment”. This type of coldness from this man in addition to my therapist discouraged me even more from complaining to the management about my experience. Lastly, I was afraid and didn’t think anyone cared to listen. In my opinion, the patient’s well being and functioning has very little importance due to the blind adherence to the ideas of the clinic’s founder (who creates an almost cult-like atmosphere).
On another occasion towards the end of this experience, the therapist asked me what I had learned from a particular session as I was about to leave the room. Out of my fear of her, I meekly mumbled something to the effect of “I don’t know.” Then in her callous tone of voice, she stated that I had “better think about all of the sessions”. It was as if she knew I was getting worse and wanted to blame it on me. (Sort of like let me beat the patient to the punch and put the blame on him before anybody questions me). Then when I suggested that she was blaming me for my getting worse in the therapy, she would respond, “Where did I say it is your fault?” I could go on and give many other examples of how this woman was unethical, incompetent and psychologically abusive. At the same time, she never in the entire process acknowledged any wrong doing, arrogant behavior, etc. In my desperation of trying to understand what was going on, I started researching about the “negative therapeutic reaction” in different Psychoanalytic journals. Not one single article attributed any responsibility to the analyst.
After about 8 months of this, I now believe that I had many signs of PTSD (much much worse than when I had started). Months and even years afterwards, I experienced symptoms such as bouts of rage, numbness, flashbacks, use of alcohol, depression, and hopelessness. Even during the last session with this individual, whenever I looked at her it was like looking into the eyes of a sociopath (cold, no shame, callous, and couldn’t care less).
Following this experience, I had to go to a social worker for 3 years and spend thousands of dollars more just to function and stabilize. In addition to the social worker, I also had to go to a psychiatrist and be placed on medication. It was so bad that I almost forgot what I went to the clinic for in the first place.
I eventually went on by some miracle to study and become a social worker. I received some validation of my horrifying experience in the course of my studies. We learned many basic fundamental skills, like building trust, compassionate and empathetic listening, and helping people to feel safe in order to tell their story, just to name a few. We also learned about contracting (i.e. this is the therapist’s job and this is what the patient’s job is). This analyst at no time explained to me what her role was or what was expected of me. After a while, I was frankly too afraid to even ask. I am also thankful that I was supervised by people in my internships that if my fellow students or I had treated people the way I was treated at this clinic, we would have been rightfully thrown out of the program. That goes also as well if a student should have become romantically involved with a client.
Although I have come a long way and despite the experience happening 30 years ago, I am sometimes still haunted by my experience. I am extremely grateful for this website. I become angry that so many people just like myself tried to get help, spent a great deal of money only to become much more sick afterwards. Whether the abuse is sexual or emotional, in the name of “help, science, or therapy”, it is unacceptable. Some of these practitioners in addition to losing their license, should be incarcerated for sexual assault. Regarding sexual abuse of patients, in my opinion they are not much different than a child molester. A child molester looks to groom their victims for the purpose of their own gratification. Speaking of criminals, if I had a choice I would have much rather have had 2 or 3 guys beat and rob me even if it meant having to go to a hospital for a few days/weeks. At least with physical and observable scars, I could have shown them to the authorities at the time and most of all recovered more quickly.
With what I went through and the stories I read on the website, the crimes of an abusive therapist (whether sexual or emotional) in the name of “therapy” often leave invisible and much more destructive effects on a human soul that are long lasting. Also, the typical mugger at least has the decency not to refer themselves as our “therapist”.
Thank you again for your wonderful website allowing me to share my experience. Thank you also for what you all do!