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What can you do if your therapist turns out to be abusive? Who can you tell? You can tell TELL, the Therapy Exploitation Link Line. Here’s the link to the link line, so you can tell TELL.
TELL is a resource, referral, and networking organization that seeks to help victims and survivors of exploitation by psychotherapists and other healthcare providers find the support and resources they will need to understand what has happened to them, take action, and heal.
I wouldn’t have known to tell you about TELL had I not been asked to review a book by one woman who turned to that organization for help in recovering from a psychotherapist gone bad. The book is Mending the Shattered Mirror: A Journey of Recovery from Abuse in Therapy by Analie Shepherd.
The book is a chronicle of Ms Shepherd’s journey into healing by way of an email correspondence with a volunteer from TELL. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of any epistolary memoir. You get the vivid, gripping immediacy of the two correspondents, while they discuss something off stage. There is no question about it, the author feels things deeply and the process you witness is majorly intense, but if you want an objective view of what happened, you have to read between the lines.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the book for psychotherapy patients who feel there is something not right about their therapist. They need to take a look at their own case more than at Analie Shepherd’s. But it would be good for those safely out of range of a therapy gone bad. I would definitely recommend it to therapists and therapy students as a case study from the client’s point of view. It’s easy for those of us who sit in the therapist’s chair to forget how powerful a relationship to a therapist can be for clients, how helpless they often are to our machinations, and how apocalyptic premature termination can feel.
What the book doesn’t do is explain how therapists go wrong. As far as Shepherd is concerned, there simply are good therapists and bad ones. She had a bad one, followed by at first others who weren’t good enough to help her recover; then she found one who was. Being able to sort the good from the bad may be all Ms Shepherd and other clients need to know, but we therapists need to recognize how we go bad and what to do about it.
It needs to be said that Ms Shepard had a difficult mental condition to treat, one that would challenge the best therapist to remain effective and ethical. She presented with dissociative identity disorder (DID), commonly known as multiple personalities. When you’re a therapist and you find yourself treating DID, you’re sitting down with a squad of clients, all whom are demanding different things from you, some of whom you may not even be aware exist. The condition is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, one that seems to be designed to lure, trap, and defeat you.
I’ve had a few such cases and was interested enough in DID to start to make it the subject of my master’s project. My study turned out to have more to do with clinicians’ reactions to the patients, than the condition itself. Countertransference, is our technical word for these reactions; the feelings a therapist has about the client, both positive and negative. I developed a psychological measure called the countertransference identification scale, had some therapists use the instrument, and analyzed the results.
I assumed that the positive feelings of love, fascination, concern, affiliation, and compassion would be inversely related to the negative feelings of anger, fear, disgust, frustration, and lust. In other words, I thought I’d find that the more you like a client, the less likely you were to hurt him. What I discovered was surprising. Therapists who had strong positive feelings were the same as the ones with strong negative feelings. The difference was not between those therapists who felt positive towards their clients and those who had negative feelings; the difference was between those who felt strongly and those who did not feel at all.
This makes sense, if you think about it. You’re the most angry at the people you love. It’s the ones you are the most interested in that you are more likely to take advantage of. This is exactly the kind of relationship Ms Shepherd had with her first therapist. It started off being very close, but then turned abusive and controlling.
Both her story and my research suggest that the very thing you might expect from a therapist: to show interest and care for you, increases the likelihood of abuse. It means that the moment your therapist gives you unbelievable love and support and promises to correct the injuries of your childhood by re-parenting you, it’s time to head for the hills.
Click here for Mending the Shattered Mirror.