Emotional Abuse in Therapy

I’ve already talked about a great deal of denial in the mental health community about abuse of clients that takes place in therapy much more often than professionals would like to admit. The available information on the subject is very scarce, and, mostly, the only type of abuse of clients that gets some minimal attention is sexual abuse when the therapist’s misconduct is impossible to deny. However, even those instances are minimized as a “bad apple” problem and not a problem of a dysfunctional system.

While sexual abuse of clients is a very serious matter and deserves a hell of a lot more attention than it gets, another type of abuse that gets completely dismissed and denied and occurs on a much larger scale is emotional abuse of clients, and, while sexual abuse is massively under reported, emotional abuse by therapists is barely reported at all and there are reasons for that. Before I explain why emotional abuse of clients doesn’t get any traction, let us first define what emotional abuse by therapist is.

Emotional abuse in general in its essence is the behavior towards another person with conscious or unconscious intend either to inflict emotional suffering or to use that person’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to fulfill one’s emotional needs or both.

Emotional abuse, as it applies to the therapy situation, means the same thing but the abuser in this case is the therapist and the victim is the client.

I’d like to make an important note that the abuser’s intention to harm or to exploit the victim for their emotional gratification is, in most cases, unconscious. This is very important to understand because people often believe that if someone doesn’t have a malicious intend to harm then they are not abusive even if their behavior is hurtful to the person who is on the receiving end of it.

One doesn’t have to wish any harm on someone else (at least, not consciously) in order to abuse them. Quite often the perpetrator of abuse not only doesn’t believe that their behavior is harmful to the other human being but, on a contrary, they might believe that they act in a caring way towards the victim. Their level of self-awareness and their conscious intention make no difference. If their actions qualify as exploitative/abusive, this is what matters and this has to be confronted no matter what the intentions behind those actions may be.

Now, here are some examples of how emotional abuse gets perpetrated in therapy. There are four major ways in which abusive therapists perpetrate emotional abuse:

  1. Gaslighting
  2. Power play
  3. Emotional seduction
  4. Abuse of transference

Each one of those harmful behaviors is described in a corresponding post.

People who are unfamiliar with therapy process and even some “seasoned” therapy clients who were lucky enough not to come across abusive therapists often wonder why those who have been abused by their therapists usually don’t complaint to the licensing boards and the therapists’ professional organizations. The reasons are simple.

The most common reason is that emotional abuse is virtually impossible to prove unless there is some tangible evidence like email or SMS correspondence by which the dynamics of communications between the client and the therapist can be analyzed and evaluated. Therapy is a private process that takes place in a private settings with no witnesses usually. A complaint that isn’t supported by the tangible objective evidence will get nowhere. For the most part, the therapist and the client communicate face-to-face, not via email or phone, and so, even if some of the recorded communications may be found questionable from the ethical standpoint, they are not seen as representative of the therapist’s general style.

The other big reason for a victim not to report an abusive therapist is psychological. Despite the superficial understanding that seeking and receiving psychological help is not a sign of “craziness” but a healthy decision to improve one’s well-being, there is a very strong, unspoken bias in our society against those who seek psychological assistance. Whenever there is a dispute between a “mental patient” and a professional who “treated” them, the trust is often automatically granted to a professional even before the facts are presented because a “patient”, by definition, is seen as someone who is not quite in the “right mind” while a professional is seen as an “expert”, the one who is more capable of making sound judgments. Thus, investigators of clients’ complaints and those who evaluate the results of investigations may not be completely impartial from the beginning. Clients are often well aware of the negative bias against them and feel that they would be treated unfairly by the system if they proceed with the complaint process, which will only exacerbate their trauma.

Because of the two reasons above people, in most cases, don’t report emotional abuse they have suffered at the hands of their therapists and continue to suffer in silence. This is why it’s so important to bring this issue into public awareness and to address it as a systemic issue.

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2 Comments  comments 

2 Responses

  1. Sue

    Marina, I am sitting here unable to stop nodding my head in agreement with every word–in this post and on this website. I suffered for over two years in an inverted, abusive therapeutic environment until, after three consults from outside therapists I finally left. It was like jumping out of a burning building. I am now with a terrific therapist and have been repairing a lot of damage which includes being on the cusp of filing a complaint with the Board (thank you for that post as well on complaint filing.) I cannot thank you enough for this website which I am bookmarking. My story and my healing process around this bad therapy are here: I will be adding your site to my “things that can help” section.

    • Marina Tonkonogy


      First off, I am terribly sorry for that awful, traumatic experience in therapy you had to go through that made you feel like your very survival was at stake. I relate to so much of what you are describing. Leaving abusive therapists (there was more than one in my life) did feel like a matter of sheer survival at some point.

      I’ve just read your story on your blog. It’s absolutely shocking. I haven’t read all the posts describing your awful therapy experience, only the introduction, but what was there is enough to make it clear that your former therapist was someone who should have never gotten her license in the first place. I’ve read and heard many therapy horror stories and they never stop shocking me. There are so many violations in the stories like yours that it’s hard even to begin to unpack it. I really hope that your complaint will result in the licensing board taking a proper disciplinary action against your former therapist that fits her misconduct. But if it doesn’t happen let it be a stepping stone in your healing process. I found that just writing and sending a complaint in and of itself was a healing experience. After I sent out my complaint, it felt like a huge load that didn’t belong to me was lifted off and it was easier to breathe quite literally.

      I am glad you are working with the good therapist right now and that your current therapy is helping.

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