When Your Therapist Does Harm (1)
By: Beth McHugh 2007
Therapists are supposed to help us, right? Technically, yes. But as in any profession there are unscrupulous ones and people who suffer from emotional illnesses are more vulnerable than most to the dealings of a less-than-helpful therapist.
Because a patient needs to feel completely comfortable with a therapist for positive changes to take place, the patient must learn to trust and open up to the therapist. In doing so, the therapist can observe what factors caused the illness, and what factors are keeping the illness going. In revealing their inner lives to their therapist, often in a manner in which they have never opened up to another person, the patient trustingly allows the therapist to come to know their innermost thoughts, feelings and secrets.
This is a positive occurrence. It may take interviews with several therapists to find the one that feels right for you. This sense of trust and comfort is essential to recovery and is known as the therapeutic alliance. Without the presence of the therapeutic alliance, therapy either will not work or only minimal results can be achieved.
However, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that a vulnerable person, placed in a situation where they completely trust their therapist, can be potentially exposed to harm if that therapist incorrectly uses the enormous power that they wield. Thankfully the vast majority of therapists are honest, caring people whose goal is to encourage their patients to find a better way of living. But, patients as consumers need to know that therapists are humans not gods, and some of them at some time will fail in their duty to “first do no harm.”
The most common form of potential harm involves sexual feelings between the patient and therapist. Most commonly, the female patient becomes infatuated with her male therapist. In fact, this is such a commonplace occurrence that therapists must be on the look out for signs of infatuation and assiduously guard against any action or phrase that may be taken by the patient as encouragement.
This phenomenon can be very difficult at times for a therapist to deal with, both personally and professionally. It also interrupts the therapeutic process. When the infatuation is overt, wise therapists will advise the patient to seek help elsewhere. This in itself can lead to a torrent of abuse from the vulnerable patient, however it is the best option for the patient as little or no recovery can take place under these circumstances.
It is easy to see why any patient, male or female, can become attracted to their therapist. Depending on their life circumstances, the association with the therapist may be the first time a person has ever demonstrated any real interest in them in the course of their entire lives. It is no wonder they fall “in love.”
In coming blogs, we will look at actual circumstances where therapy has gone wrong in an attempt to bring this phenomenon out into the open and provide tools for patients to combat suspect therapists.