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The Trauma of Having a Therapist Use Your Vulnerability Against You

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The therapeutic relationship is one of the most unique and, dare I say, sacred relationships we will ever experience in our lives. Unlike any other relationship, it’s one that at best can create the environment for us to be our most authentic selves in a completely safe and validating environment. That’s where the magic of healing happens and it takes a truly empathetic, ethical and gifted clinician to be able to navigate what will best serve each individual client. If you find a therapist like this, cherish them. They are far less common than I once thought they were.

• What is PTSD?

When I first started therapy, I just assumed that all therapists are basically good. They have the best intentions of their patients at heart, strive to help and most definitely do anything they can to “do no harm.” Maybe that was a naive assumption on my part. After all, there are bad eggs in all professions. But somehow, I thought I was good enough at reading people that I’d pick a good one. After all, I knew this person. She had been a guest of mine at my bed and breakfast on several occasions. We had many fascinating conversations where we found each other mutually interesting and where I felt a good rapport. I thought she was fiercely smart, had similar beliefs to mine and I had no reason to question her professionalism even if I found her to be a bit… quirky.

When I started seeing this woman, she initially seemed legitimately invested in helping me. She provided me with reading materials to educate me on themes of enmeshment, parentification and growing up with a parent who has borderline personality disorder (BPD). We began to unpack my insecure attachment and fear of abandonment. She presented herself to me as a secure base, a maternal facsimile who I could rely on to be the parental figure I never had growing up. She routinely engaged in lengthy conversations via text, making me feel special, cared for, and dare I even say… loved. 

She encouraged me to believe in her, not question her intentions and just trust that she knew exactly what she was doing and was going to help me even when something felt weird or off. She had all the degrees, after all, and I was always loyal and respectful to my elders and those in positions of authority. She knew this… and she exploited it. Some people refer to it as a “God complex” or a “savior complex” where basically one individual asserts their superiority in a relationship insisting that if the other individual simply follows what they tell them, they will be healed. I needed a savior, so I willingly participated in this dysfunctional dynamic.

As the years progressed, the relationship became more and more toxic. Her understanding of my need to be loved and cared for — and my desire to not upset my caregivers at the expense of getting my own needs met and to the detriment of my sense of self-worth — was being hustled and I couldn’t see it. My greatest vulnerability, the hurt inner child who we were trying to heal, was under attack by the one person who had promised to make it all better. She was inconsistent, her boundaries shifting with the wind, her mood a roller coaster that she made no attempt to moderate in my presence. If I felt uncomfortable or upset by anything she said, she didn’t encourage a discussion about it or allow me to express my anger toward her, she would gaslight me into thinking somehow I was the problem, invalidating my feelings while simultaneously regurgitating the line “just feel your feelings.” And, she deliberately attempted to undermine every other healthy relationship I had, including the one with my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist, in essence trapping me in the relationship with her.

It was like reliving my childhood with my mother all over again. Wrapped in the packaging of a caring and invested parental figure was a deeply unstable human who defined their own self-worth by how much they could command the obedience and full devotion of their “child/patient” with no regard to what that kind of manipulation entailed to the other person. And this time, the abusive caregiver wasn’t just a parent who had their own trauma and unresolved mental health issues at the root of their behavior, no… this time it was a highly educated so-called “professional” who not only should have known better, but deliberately abused the vulnerabilities she knew I had.

I don’t understand why, nor frankly do I care. I deserved better and she needed to be better. I find myself experiencing all of the same insecurities, hypervigilance to the feelings and emotional stability of others, fear of rejection and fragile sense of self-worth that brought me into therapy in the first place. Only now, I’m having to process that damage as it pertains to both my mother and my ex-therapist. In EMDR, I continually feel these familiar body sensations of my throat closing up — like I can’t speak — fear, anxiety in my stomach and this deep sense of betrayal and sadness that I can’t shake and it doesn’t matter if the person at the focus of that session is my mother or my ex-therapist.

A parent who isn’t capable of giving a child what they need often isn’t malicious in intent, and therefore deserving of some empathy for their own trauma. However, a paid professional with the education to know better doesn’t. There’s no excuse for what she did and even if it wasn’t blatantly malicious in intent, it was grossly incompetent and downright cruel. But, I did learn a valuable lesson as a result of this experience. Respect and trust is earned. Not all people deserve your vulnerability even if they insist they won’t hurt you. They need to prove it before you willingly give it to them. And, nobody is a savior. No matter how well-educated or how experienced someone is, they are still human and their willingness to experience their fallibility and humanity in the context of a relationship with you, even a therapeutic one, is crucial. We don’t owe anyone our stories until we are certain that their intentions in witnessing them are purely to be supportive and to reflect your true self back to you. That’s the connection where healing occurs… it’s magical, but not supernatural.

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Originally published: August 20, 2021
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