How Therapy Induced Trauma Happens

Therapy Induced Trauma

What is therapy induced trauma, you might wonder? Many toxic relationship survivors have experienced it. Somehow they managed to cajole their character disturbed partner into going to a counseling session. Their partner was on their best behavior. They said all the right things; did all the right things. They had on their best face. And in their gift for making positive impressions, they charmed. If they’re really good at charming, they may have even seduced! Now the aggrieved party looks bad, while their oppressor looks great. And there you have it: therapy induced trauma. It happens when you go for help with hope in your heart, only to feel worse for the effort.

It can happen another way, too. You drag your cheating spouse into a session. You caught him or her red-handed. The text messages on the phone told the whole story. Trust has been destroyed – the very foundation of a sound relationship. But somehow it becomes your fault. How? Your partner laments you can’t let things go. It’s been weeks since he/she has corresponded with that other person! Yet you still harp on what he/she did. You always do that! Now, he/she looks like the victim. You’re so unreasonable! The counselor asks if you have trouble letting go of things. They muse about what that might mean going forward. Little focus is given the perpetrator’s tactics, let alone his/her responsibility to repair all the damage. And there you have it again: therapy induced trauma! And covertly-engineered gaslighting by proxy, to boot!

Where and How Real Change Occurs

There are a few things I stress strongly and repeatedly in professional training workshops. The most important principle is that real change always occurs in the here-and-now. People will say anything…promise anything. But you can’t base a relationship or its repair on promises. Right there, right then, in the therapy room, if he/she is doing the same manipulative things, you know no change is coming. And if the therapist doesn’t call such behavior out and reinforce only its correction, you know you’re wasting your time. That’s how you avoid therapy induced trauma. The counselor’s office is a great place to “rehearse” doing things differently. And if it isn’t happening there, you can bet it probably won’t happen elsewhere.

I talk about therapy induced trauma a lot in training workshops, too. I explain how it happens, even inadvertently, and the damage it does an already wounded party. How wish I could say awareness is high about it and that it doesn’t happen much anymore. But sadly, that’s not the case.

Character Matters and Other Matters

Catch the latest Character Matters podcast by following this YouTube link. I talk a bit more on the program about therapy induced trauma. And check out the page for the Spanish Language Edition of In Sheep’s Clothing. And look for an announcement next week about my upcoming book.

13 thoughts on “How Therapy Induced Trauma Happens

  1. Dear Dr. Simon,

    Thank you for addressing this important topic. As I mentioned this still causes me considerable difficulty. It has seriously degraded my trust, my confidence in the world As damaging as I found my ex-husband and my family, even more so when they joined forces, nothing damaged me more than the therapy.

    ‘It happens when you go for help with hope in your heart, only to feel worse for the effort.’ Your words made me gasp and seeing them in writing was such a validation for me. I went for HELP with HOPE. What I found was there was no help for me and I lost all hope which caused a downward spiral in which some days the urge to end things was nearly overwhelming. I often describe it as some days I clung to life by my fingernails.

    I knew that I found the therapy process, both individual and couple, to be traumatizing but I didn’t consider the term ‘therapy induced trauma.’ It helps to know this is common enough to warrant a label.

    Your example were very relatable and showed how easily the ‘twist’ occurs. Through my experience, I can tell you that it wasn’t I who cajoled or dragged my now ex husband to therapy. He actually cajoled/dragged me to counseling. I didn’t feel that I could refuse going to couples counseling without looking unreasonable.

    I also have an example to add if you choose to use it during your professional development sessions.

    My then husband was working out of state, I filed for divorce as his controlling behavior was extreme (I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, he could only feel connected to me and our home if I was ‘sitting on the couch waiting for his phone call.’). He insisted on couples counseling once again. When we arrived at our first session, the counselor asked our goals. His was to save/repair the marriage. Mine was a divorce/closure.

    By the third session, my then husband was bitterly complaining about all my faults and difficulties. The counselor looked directly at me and said, ‘Can’t you see how much he’s hurting? If you could only make a few small changes, he could be happy.’

    I was completely speechless, flabbergasted. I refused to continue with couple counseling but the divorce didn’t occur. He continued to go to a number of different counselors browbeating me to attend sessions with him. He continued to harrass me to attend with his counselors calling me, stating they couldn’t figure out what was ‘wrong with him’ and they ‘needed my help to figure it out.’ I attended two sessions with different counselors, only to leave the office sobbing as I was told this was a couple issue requiring couple counseling. It would be ‘easy to fix me so we could have a happy relationship.’

    It took me years to have a Duh! moment where I responded to another round of his couple counseling haranguing with the question of, ‘How does the unhappy person who wants a divorce need to make changes for the happy person who wants to keep the relationship happy. That makes no sense and is completely backwards. His reaction was very telling, he smirked and stated he manipulates the counselor into ‘getting me under control.’

    It was that moment, when he admitted he manipulates, that I found your site after a Google search on manipulation. It had never occurred to me that he was manipulative. Your description of manipulation tactics put his confusing behaviors in context and I finally understood what I was dealing with. Without your site, your books I believe I would still be stuck in the unhealthy, toxic relationship. As it is, after 28 years of marriage, I’m finally divorced and freeing myself from him and working through your articles and books on repairing the all the damage.

    Thank you so very much! You quite literally saved my life.

    1. Mind boggling that the counselor couldn’t see what was going on when the ex was so controlling he didn’t want you to leave the house. Whats wrong with these counselors, they should know what manipulation looks like. That would be devastating when you have the narc and all the flying monkeys seeing you as the problem and then the counselor basically saying the same. Professionals need training!

      1. Hi, Kat,

        Thanks and I agree, although, honestly, I’m not sure training will help. I don’t want to accuse psychologists or therapists of being malignant but it certainly felt /feels that way. I had asked one of his counselors if she had ever did this before, brought the spouse into individual sessions and she said ‘no, she hadn’t ever needed to before.’ Now I ask you, how is that not a red flag to the therapist? She was also the one who said his big lie to me was really, really bad but he’s sorry for it, won’t make that mistake again and it’s time for me to let it go. I glanced over to my then husband who smirked at me. I felt like the kid getting in trouble by mom for something my sibling instigated while the sibling is still instigating.

        It is mind boggling and completely kicked the legs out from beneath me. Of course, arguments between us consisted of he was right, nothing wrong with him, he’s perfect and I’m the screwed up one, no one else has these complaints about him, I’m the only one who thinks he’s not ok, everyone else likes him just fine so what’s wrong with me, even the 6 counselors he’s seen thinks nothing is wrong with him, what’s a guy to do? I’m so completely unreasonable.

        Of course, my response was no one else is married to him and I found that to be really strange because my experience with counseling was they can always find an area to work and improve upon and I never had a counselor suggest I bring him into therapy even when he tried to insist on coming into my sessions ‘with his side.’

        One of his counselors, who conned me into coming into talk with him, responded to my statement that my then husband lies, that he lies all the time by word, by omission even when the truth would be acceptable with a 20 minute diatribe on how sincere and honest he found my ex-husband, that’s he’s (the counselor) an expert, worked with criminals in jails and can ‘easily recognize when someone is lying.’ His answer to me when I pointed out several of the lies my then husband admitted to in counseling was how much my then husband regretted those lies. And, of course, when I challenged him that he must think I was lying, he responded that he could tell that I sincerely believed what I was saying and wasn’t lying (lying was literally in finger quotes) either, he wanted to work with me individually on my thinking distortions. Talk about gas lighting by proxy.

        There was one thought that I clung to through all of this, if people professionally educated, trained and making a living understanding psychology couldn’t see through him, could get caught up with his charm, his charisma, couldn’t identify his behaviors and motives then I certainly couldn’t place any blame on myself for not understanding what was happening especially when I was so emotionally connected to him, our marriage, building a life together. As the axim goes, ‘It’s always the hardest to see the forest through the trees.’ So if the psychologists were taken in by him it certainly isn’t surprising that I was as well and doesn’t reflect on my intelligence, my character.

        My biggest difficulty at this point has to do with the therapy issues. If someone said what I was saying and I was reading it, I would have a hard time believing it, I would be very suspicious about what sounds like a very one sided, highly exaggerated version of the truth. I would suspect that person was ‘playing the victim’, that the story just sounds too unbelievable.

        Sad part is, I’m being completely honest, completely transparent, this stuff really happened to me. It’s a large part of the reason I believe I was married to a psychopath (a mind boggling thing to try to accept by itself). And unfortunately, psychologists are treated as unfailable authority figures so knowing my story sounds completely unbelievable just continues to cause a gaslighting effect. And, seriously, how can I ever have a close relationship again platonically or romantically? At worst, my story makes me sound like a histrionic-drama queen-liar and at best, I sound like a complete fruit loop.

        1. Charlie, thank-you for writing this. I’m sitting here in the early hours of the morning and as usual I’m invaded by inner demons that are never far from the surface. I live with suppressed anger and hurt and I have thought about seeking therapy many times, your experience is exactly what I’m afraid of.

          “If someone said what I was saying and I was reading it, I would have a hard time believing it, I would be very suspicious about what sounds like a very one sided, highly exaggerated version of the truth. I would suspect that person was ‘playing the victim’, that the story just sounds too unbelievable.”

          This is how I feel. I can’t risk not being believed then falling down another rabbit hole.

          1. D.,

            I’m so sorry you’re struggling. I certainly know how that feels. One of the reasons I’ve been writing about the issues with therapy is because I know I need someone to talk with regarding trauma. And, like you, I can’t risk going down the rabbit hole again.

            On the other side of this equation, my divorce has been finalized for several months and I no longer have to compete with him. My reactions to him are calming down and I’m more often amused at his machinations than confused. For some reason, he still thinks his tactics will work. He’s failing to recognize that now that his legal hold over me has been terminated, my obligation to cooperate and reason with him has also terminated.

            My story still sounds unbelievable though. One of the ways I got caught in his trap was that when his masked dropped, which was not often, and I really saw him for who and what he was, I used to chastised myself saying, ‘Girl, get a grip! You’re not living a Lifetime movie.’ And, quite frankly, felt relieved that I no longer had to look that devil in the eye.

            I hate to think my post put you off counseling but at the same time I’m glad my cautionary tale puts you on guard, if that makes sense. Honestly, I think I need counsel versus therapy. And, I don’t want to be therapied. It’s too much like the tactics I’ve lived with for so many years. The therapist is the dominant authority, I’m supposed to cooperate and submit to their expertise. Nope, been there, done that.

            Well, I don’t know where that leaves us. I know that not all in the psychology field are ‘bad’, take Dr. Simon for instance. But I know the field of psychology has some serious professional issues that are not being addressed/corrected from the top down.

        2. I can relate to how your experiences with the narc sound to others who are not educated about narcissism. My ex was a sociopath as well, he was diagnosed in a drug treatment facitility and they told me he had zero chance of recovery. I attend a womens group on codependency and when I have expressed some of my experiences with the narc I leave feeling I said too much because they aren’t aware of the effects the narc has on the psyche, the effects of gaslighting on an individual, especially one like myself who had no idea what was going on at the time.
          I get what you are saying that if the counselor’s were sucked into his manipulation, and so many flying monkeys as well, how was I supposed to know what I was dealing with.
          Reading the truth of it here on Dr. Simon’s site and the others that have lived with it are the only place I truly feel understood, except with a sister who knows me well and realizes and sees what narcissism truly is. Now I look for red flags in individuals who have narcisstic behaviors and just observe what is going on, I don’t want to be around manipulative people.

          1. Hi, Kat,

            Thanks so much! It helps to be understood and to know there are others out there struggling with the same things. I found when I went to ‘therapy,’ it felt like I was traumatizing my therapists with the truths about psychopathy / sociopathy. The concept of zero empathy / zero conscience is tough to accept and digest and the ‘therapists’ didn’t seem to be able to deal wirh it any better than I was.

            I realize that I married right under my family tree so to speak. Most of my family is highly narcissistic with low empathy / low conscience. What I failed to grasp is my now ex-husband and my mother are the same. Growing up, I believed my mother’s I’m-such-a-nervous-anxious-victim narrative so I was pretty shocked to see the same dynamic with my husband early in our marriage and so fell into the family pattern of ‘caretaking.’ As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’ve been labeled codependent before and have researched that label pretty throughly. I also have a friend that’s a severe alcoholic so I’m familiar with AA’s definition.

            I’m not surprised you’re not finding validation with your Codependents group. Honestly, it’s more likely the true codependents of your group engage in the very behavior you’re describing. Maybe Alanon would be more validating for you, although CODA will really help establish a baseline for functional, healthy relationship dynamics whether or not you’re codependent.

            I’ve noticed most of the psychological community don’t seem to fully understand what codependency really is. They seem to equate it with caretaking and enabling, good traits gone awry, when caretaking and enabling is simply part of the impression management codependents present to outsiders. The ‘therapists’ seem to believe all people who are abused, who stayed long term or is currently staying within that dynamic is ‘caretaking.’ Avoiding rage / punishment / vindictive / spiteful behaviors by submitting to the caretaking demands of the abuser is not codependency. It’s simply survival.

            Not all caretakers are codependent and not all codependents are caretakers (they better fit the description of controllers through caretaking or the guise of caretaking.). Ironically, the therapists who are in a ‘helping’ profession don’t seem to recognize their own caretaking behavior as codependency but will quickly label others disregarding any assessment of the nature of the caretaking.

  2. Charlie, your post didn’t put me off therapy, it put into words what I feel.

    A few years ago I took it upon myself to write my story, it took many hours of editing to get it just the way I wanted it. I did this because one day if I decide to seek out therapy then I will hand my story over to the therapist to read. It was as if a weight had been lifted and I could put my story on a shelf and leave it alone because I’ve never had the urge to look at again.

    The thing is I get triggered occasionally and when it happens it can take hours or days or even weeks to come back to peace, but eventually I do get there:)

    1. D.,

      Thank you. I’m so glad to know my words match your feelings. It’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one.

      I love how you described putting your story on the shelf and leaving it alone. What great imagery to create a sense of peace with one’s difficult past. I wonder, if when you get triggered, if you picked up your story and said something like ‘this is in my past but not my present’ if it would help.

      And I totally get being triggered, although I’m still being triggered frequently. And it does take hours, days, weeks to get back to equilibrium. It’s frustrating.

      The holidays are always triggering for me as is Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. When we are experiencing high virus loads like now it’s actually triggering for me. I see the fights about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures as contempt for rules and civility. I see the contempt for rules and civility as a lack of empathy and conscience for people at risk, hospital workers, friends, family, neighbors, even strangers who may get severely sick by one’s spread of the virus. I debate whether I’m ‘projecting’ my trauma with psychopathy and narcissism onto current events or if I’m completely spot on and cutting through all the bs or if there is a truth in the middle that I’m just missing.

  3. Charlie,
    Interesting about codependency. We have a book that I find goes into depth about codependency and where it comes from. According to the book, it is from not having the needs for love and security met in our childhood, usually where there is alcoholism present or some other form of dysfunction in the home. We may get our worth from behaviors like people pleasing, and caretaking to feel like we are needed. Rescuing is what I did, I think I felt sorry for every boyfriend I ever had, and had a need to “fix” them. I wondered why I was attracted to certain types and didn’t have a clue why. It also showed up in my life through various forms. Some of my control issues showed up as withdrawing – which is what I did in my family home to cope – and I controlled people by withdrawing and isolation – which suited my natural tendencies of being an introvert. These “defects” of character alanon talks about were actually coping mechanisms that we continue on in our adult life and are just not working for us anymore and in fact are harmful. But the cycle of coming from an alcoholic family continues unless we break it. I agree that codependency is about control, but I could not see it in myself because I wasn’t presenting as bossing people around but I did offer unasked for advice and felt responsible in situations where I did not have responsibility – as if I had that much power I could change people and was somehow responsible for their feelings. I don’t find many CODA meetings but I see there are some online ones and I thank you for mentioning that, I am definately interested in healthier relationships, that is the reason I started attending these groups, that and feeling miserable and not knowing why.

    1. Kat,

      Sounds like you have come a long way in understanding yourself and what’s causing some of your pain. Love reading these stories and how one comes to realize the sources of pain and/or lack of growth in their life. It’s inspiring.

    2. Hi, Kat,

      Apologies for the late reply, I was waylaid by the holidays and personal drama and lost track of quite a few things.

      I’m glad your meetings are helping you. Whether alchohol is involved or not, we can certainly develop some very unhealthy, unhelpful coping mechanisms.

      I’m wondering how much balance (for the lack of a better word) you’ve experienced within your meetings. Sometimes, as I see psychologists and others define certain traits, it strikes me as harmful to good traits. For example, your comment on unasked for advice. Now me, while I don’t usually appreciate an unasked for opinion, I usually appreciate unasked for advice particularly if it’s sound. I tend to see unsolicited advice as a pro social behavior.

      I’m not sure if like most things, too much of a good trait could become a bad thing or if appreciation for good traits is lagging in today’s society or if I’m missing the point. Anyway, I hope you had a lovely, peaceful holiday and start to the new year.

  4. Unfortunately I’ve had several instances of therapist induced trauma. One was when I went to therapy to help deal with my daughter as well as trying to recover from working with a group of partners (5) who were a mix sociopaths and psychopaths. I was trying to find another job before I quit, but I was spiraling down quickly once they turned on me. One in particular took joy in trying to trigger/upset me. He tried to get me to commit a theft and I refused, that he couldn’t corrupt me seemed to turn a switch for him. He loved to torment me. I finally quit when one tried to talk me out of going to my father’s funeral…”your father would want you to move on” What? They had no low they wouldn’t sink to.

    I cried every day on the way home and went to bathroom dozens of times a day to collect myself to keep my sanity.

    I was mentally broken down and easily triggered. When I thought about getting a job, I would have a panic attack. I explained what happened to me to the “therapist” and how I was still struggling. He was the listening type of therapist – not a good fit. Just quietly listening, no real feedback or reassurance.

    Anyway. I finally decided to face my fears (still had panic attacks talking about going to work). I had an interview, prepared very well for it. It was with 8 people in one room taking turns asking me questions. I disassociated at one point of the interview, I couldn’t remember what I said, but it must have been fine because no one seemed to notice. There was one woman who’s mannerisms triggered me. (As many of you have probably have, I have learned to spot body language and facial expressions of folks that are less than kind individuals. We learn that pretty quickly as children growing up in abusive homes).

    I went back to the “therapist” feeling very proud of myself for doing it, with 8 people, no less! I expressed that. I also mentioned the woman and worried allowed that she would somehow sabotage my chances. He proceeded to yell at me and say “are you that willing to hurt yourself”. I was stunned into silence. I don’t remember what happened in his office after that. I left. I never went back of course. He called me up and was hyperventilating on the phone when I told him I wouldn’t be back. He kept saying oh no, oh no. I ended up consoling him! He later tried again to get me to come back and of course I refused. He had/has no business in that field.

    Another one told me my daughter would grow out of it (she was 26 at the time) and that I was being too hard on her and should try harder.

    If I had gotten proper help, I’m sure my life would be better. I believe their gaslighting (and others) leads to learned helplessness. We try so hard to get help only to be told it’s us, we are the problem.

    Please take care of yourselves, this constant chaos and stress is not only harmful to our minds, but for our bodies and contributes to diseases. I wish I had recognized that sooner and gotten away sooner.

    Merry Christmas to those who celebrate. Happy holidays or good day to those who do not.

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