Boundary violations are violations of the law or of the licensing board’s Code of Ethics. They are generally believed to cause harm or the potential for harm. Some boundary violations are crimes, others are against ethical standards.
As a client, the terms ‘therapist abuse’, ‘therapist misconduct’, and ‘boundary violations’ are foreign concepts unless you’ve researched the topic. Most clients only know that their therapist helps them feel better or causes them to feel worse. They know if they feel uncomfortable, but they don’t have the language, nor have they usually read through their location’s laborious Code of Ethics to understand when a therapist is behaving poorly.
When people begin to feel uncomfortable, they may search for terms like “my therapist kissed me” or “sex with my therapist” or “my therapist told me he wants me to sleep with him”. By then, they have often been groomed by their therapist to believe the therapist is looking out for their best interests, when in fact, the client has disappeared in the eyes of the therapist, and the therapist is only concerned about himself.
Many clients blame themselves for the abuse because therapists may say things like, “this is to help you heal”, “this is part of your treatment”, “you’re so beautiful, I can’t help myself”, “I want to love you into wellness”, “if you weren’t _____, this wouldn’t have happened”. Therapists may also put a lot of guilt on the client about what will happen to the therapist, his life, and his family if the client tells anyone what is happening. In addition to the actual abuse taking place, this, in my opinion, is psychological rape.
Warning Signs Your Therapist May Be On the ‘Slippery Slope’
These are warning signs that your therapist is on the ‘slippery slope’ towards more serious and harmful boundary violations. Not every one of these is necessarily a red flag if it is a single, solitary situation taken in the context of appropriate therapy. When they begin to add up, get out. Your therapist is no longer behaving professionally or ethically.
The challenge is that many of these warning signs will initially make a client feel good and special, and no one wants to give that up. It’s part of the grooming process and makes leaving very difficult to do.
If you have any questions about the appropriateness of your therapist’s actions, please call your licensing board and ask.
You have reason for concern if your therapist:
- begins scheduling your appointments for the end of the day
- reduces your rate or stops charging you
- starts giving you hugs when that has never been part of your session
- changes the way hugs are given (elongates them, hugs you in a more private location, places hands in an awkward position, etc.)
- begins complimenting you more than usual on your appearance (Please note, this takes discernment. Sometimes a compliment is simply a compliment. Other times, it is a warning sign.)
- tells you personal information about him or herself, especially if it has no relevance to your reasons for being in therapy
- requests or agrees to any type of dual relationship (a dual relationship is when there is a relationship of any kind outside the therapeutic context. Dual relationships can be a separate business relationship, meeting for coffee or lunch as if you are friends, your therapist asking you to do a favor for them, etc. In the U.S., the idea of dual relationships is a fairly firm Code of Ethics violation. In other countries, there may be more leeway because cultural mores are different. Also in small towns, there may be dual relationships due to population size. If there is one doctor and one therapist, and they need each other’s services, a dual relationship is going to exist. If managed with care and respect for boundaries and ethics, this can be fine. Please use discernment.)
- asks you to do something for them that is outside the therapeutic context
- asks you professional advice (If you are an accountant and your therapist asks you for tax advice during your session or calls you separately, this is a boundary violation.)
- hires you to do small tasks
- calls you, texts you, or emails you outside the context of therapy
I’ll add more as I learn about or think of them. If these have already happened to you, it’s not your fault. All of these make a client feel special, valued, and important. It’s part of the grooming process so the therapist can more easily move into more serious violations.