Opening up in therapy is hard. Add in poor previous experiences with an unprofessional therapist and it can become super difficult to persevere with. In episode 278, I received a question from a listener who was subject to sexual advances from their therapist leaving them, quite understandably, uncomfortable and feeling unable to create meaningful connections in therapy today. In this post, I dive into why this is completely unacceptable and should never happen as well as offer my advice on how to move forward and begin a positive working connection with a new therapist.
Hey Mr. Duff, I have a question about allowing myself to feel connected to my therapist. I’ve had some not-so-great clinical experiences in the past. In particular, there is one experience that makes it hard for me to connect. I was about 15 when I saw started seeing a grief counselor. He seemed fixated on women and attraction. Asking me questions like, “Are you attracted to men?”, “What about older men?”, “How’s your relationship with your dad?”. Followed by things like, “I have a hard time attracting beautiful women”, “There are attractive qualities about me, right?”, “I struggle with sexual connections with women”, “Do you struggle like that?”, “Do older men hit on you?”, “Do you like being attracted to?” It made me very uncomfortable and I’m not sure what to think of the experience. It’s made it very hard for me to open up with other therapists, having a fear that they may feel I’m attracted to them or acting in a way that attracts them.
Wow. Just wow.
I wanted to take this one because I wanted to give you some reassurance and validation here. That SHOULD NOT have happened to you. Especially in regards to grief counseling, those questions seem totally irrelevant and inappropriate. Unfortunately, I think you got a weirdo for a counselor that was not being overtly sexual in terms of touching you or hitting on you, but was very clearly skirting around the edges of that. This was something that should not have happened and I’m sorry that it did. I can totally understand why you would feel soured to therapy in general and have a hard time connecting after something like that. In the simplest cases, this could be uncomfortable and at the other end of the spectrum, this could be possibly traumatic, especially when you take it in context with the reason you were there and the vulnerability it took to try to open up to someone like that.
The therapeutic relationship
It makes me feel icky for you and super pissed that someone like this is or was out there tarnishing our field. We have an ethical code partially for this reason. Part of it is to protect the clients we work with and part of it is to protect the integrity of the field. Therapy only works if you are able to build a relationship and trust someone. It’s inherently an uphill battle to get people to trust psychology as a field. It feels invasive and people have a healthy skepticism toward it. This is double for marginalized groups that have even more reason to be suspicious. We want people to understand that therapy is a resource, we want people to expect that they will be treated in a safe and respectful manner, and we want people to trust us enough to be vulnerable. This is at the level where I would not blame you for contacting the state licensing board and asking if this is something that is reportable. I wouldn’t want that creep treating others.
Let’s say that I’m giving this person WAY more benefit of the doubt than they deserve… Questions of are you attracted to men or what is your relationship with your dad could be potentially clinically useful as context. However, I would be more inclined to ask something open-ended such as “can you tell me more about the types of people you are attracted to?” and I would probably ask about things like gender identity and romantic preferences in the first session. But I don’t understand where that fits into grief counseling.
Let’s move on to “I have a hard time attracting beautiful women.” Again, giving him way more benefit of the doubt than he deserves, if this was actually intentionally used as a technique, this is what we could call self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is a real technique that you can use in therapy. But it’s often one that is used sparingly and it should be used with intention. Therapy is not just a casual conversation where you share equally. However, at times, it can be helpful to share a bit about yourself to build trust, provide an example, or show that you really get it. For instance, in myself, I might talk about my background of being born to a teenage mom or my own relationship structure as a means to help someone know that I can actually empathize with them. But in this case, that really does not seem like what he was trying to do. It sounds like he was trying to garner pity from you so that you would like him sexually. You ABSOLUTELY should have felt uncomfortable, taken advantage of, and grossed out. Attraction, real flirting, and sexual advances have NO place in therapy. It is normal for people to have feelings for their therapist and for therapists to have feelings toward or find their clients attractive. We are all human. But those feelings are their responsibility to process on their own. Those are not to be acted on. That should not have happened to you.
Moving forward with therapy
When it comes to allowing yourself to feel connected to your therapists now… first off I’m proud of you for not just being completely done with therapy. A lot of people in your situation would be. It’s going to be a challenge given what you’ve been through and that’s totally okay. I would absolutely encourage you to talk about your past experiences with any new therapists you work with. Let them know that you might have a bit of a hard time trusting and letting your guard down due to the behaviors of your previous therapist. This is something they would not judge you for. They would be grateful to know so that they don’t accidentally make you feel uncomfortable. It also doesn’t mean they will just tiptoe around you, but it’s important context to understand your behaviors and to keep in mind when considering how they interact with you in therapy.
Given your past experiences, it could be a really healing experience and corrective even to find a therapist that you can be confident in trusting. To build a solid rapport and working relationship with them. That is something that can help you to move forward from the mistreatment that you experienced. You are also allowed to have preferences. For instance, if you don’t feel comfortable working with male therapists at this point, then don’t! It’s super common for people to have preferences when it comes to things like gender or age. That’s okay. You are also always allowed to ask questions. The initial consultation or intake can be just as much about evaluating a therapist as it is them evaluating you. If you find that you are uncomfortable and your intuition says it’s not a good fit, then move on to someone else and try again. If you’re curious about the regulations regarding this, there is a handout called “professional therapy never includes sex” that you can easily find online by searching. In California, sexual advances are illegal in therapy. There is a power dynamic and an inherent risk of exploitation. It’s also just fundamentally incompatible with the therapy relationship.
So hopefully these thoughts were helpful to you. It’s not okay what happened and you are understandably hesitant now. I hope that in time you can find a good fit and have a better experience.
You can listen to this on Episode 278 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
If you know someone else who might benefit from this, please do share it with them. Send them a link or shoot over a screenshot, and share it on social media to show your support – you never know who needs to hear this type of information.
Got a topic or a guest you’d like to appear on the show? Or interested in having Duff answer a question on the podcast? Please get in touch! Email Duff and maybe you’ll hear it on a future episode!
Want to help out the show and Duff the Psych?
- Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
- Leave a podcast review on iTunes. These reviews really help Duff reach potential listeners, and he appreciates every one!
- Share the show on Facebook or Twitter.
- You can also buy Duff a cup of coffee, which helps fuel the energy that goes straight back into creating more content for YOU!