Warning Signs Of An Abusive Counselor

By: Gabrielle Seunagal

Updated October 17, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

Counseling is a form of mental healthcare which individuals may partake in for various reasons. Some individuals may be experiencing mental health concerns or going through a stressful or traumatic period in their life and would like  professional assistance or guidance to overcome it. No matter why one turns to a counselor, individuals in this profession are generally trusted as reputable support for those in need.

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Think You May Have An Abusive Counselor?

Don’t Wait - Get Support From A Licensed Therapist Online Today

Source: rawpixel.com

Unfortunately, there may be instances in which counselors take advantage of those individuals who turn to them for support. These counselors are known as abusive counselors, and they do a major disservice to the entire field of therapy, counseling, and other forms of professional mental health treatment. Abusive counselors may re-victimize individuals who may be already fragile or vulnerable. Counselors who elect to abuse the power they have been given as a mental health professional and source of guidance can potentially do incredible damage and majorly set individuals back in their road to recovery and healing.

Abusive Counseling: What To Look Out For

Abusive counselors are most likely not going to expose themselves as abusive outright. However, there are potential warning signs which individuals can be aware of in the unfortunate event that they happen to cross paths or seek support from a counselor who turns out to be abusive.

Shame, Blame, Degradation Or Humiliation

One of the leading warning signs that people should be aware of is when a counselor shames, blames, degrades, or humiliates the patients who turn to them for help. As a mental health specialist, a counselor typically has a code of conduct to abide by that these behaviors would go against. A counselor is essentially chosen as a source of support for an individual experiencing mental health concerns or interpersonal challenges. Individuals seeking support from a counselor may be in a vulnerable state. When a counselor emotionally abuses their patient, it can exacerbate their concerns or create new issues.

Generally, these abusive behaviors may build up over time and become more apparent as time goes on with the counselor. It may help individuals seeking counseling to determine how they feel when their counselor is working with them. Do you feel safe? Do you feel your counselor is someone you can trust and confide in, even when discussing uncomfortable topics? Do you feel heard? If something doesn’t feel right, then it may not be right.

Talking About Other Clients

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Revealing personal information about other clients is typically another red flag of an abusive counselor. Counselors usually have confidentiality agreements they need to follow, making it appropriate and illegal for a counselor to discuss other clients’ issues with you or anyone else.

Speaking about clients with others breaches the trust which exists between counselors and their patients. If a counselor is revealing other clients’ personal information to you, they may also be revealing your personal information to other individuals as well. This can be dangerous for a plethora of reasons. Any counselor who engages in this ill-conduct could be reported immediately to the professional board of their state. As licensed mental health professionals, counselors have a duty to act accordingly and protect the confidentiality of their clients.

Sexual Attention Or Advances

If a counselor makes romantic advances or gives sexual attention to their patients, that is also against their code of conduct, especially if these advances are unwarranted and not consensual.  The ACA Code of Ethics prohibits sexual or romantic counselor/client relationships or interactions. Sexual harassment from a counselor tends to be slow and progressive, as the abusive counselor “grooms” or manipulates their patient into being complicit in the behavior. The patient may be confused or unaware of the harassing behavior as they trust their counselor. There is usually a very special dynamic of trust, vulnerability, and professionalism between counselors and clients. For clients to have the best opportunity to heal, improve, and achieve the desired results from counseling, the professional dynamic should remain intact. Other behaviors that would be considered sexual harassment from an abusive therapist include:

  • Overly inquisitive about client’s sexual history or fantasies
  • Discusses their sexual history or fantasies
  • Touches client inappropriately or sits inappropriately close to the client
  • Suggests inappropriate touching or cuddling to heal traumas
  • Suggests engagement in sexual activity, massage, or inappropriate touching to help heal, teach, or empower the patient.

A Lack Of Empathy

Individuals typically seek out counseling to help manage mental health concerns, traumas, or interpersonal challenges. Counseling is a field that may require a great deal of care and empathy or the ability to understand and share feelings. A good counselor usually should have the capacity to understand what their patient is experiencing to understand and offer them the best treatment to heal fully. When clients are working with a counselor, they should feel they can trust their counselor and confide in them.

If this feeling is lacking, that will most likely constitute many relationships dynamic and treatment issues. If you find yourself working with a counselor who you believe lacks empathy, it may be time to find another counselor. Empathy is an important trait for those who have chosen to practice in the field of mental healthcare.

Adverse Impacts After Sessions

Most individuals seek counseling to overcome obstacles or mental health concerns. If an individual is experiencing adverse impacts, such as extremely anxious thoughts or feelings after their sessions with their counselor, there may be a reason for that. If these thoughts or feelings are related to the experience they have with their counselor, they may be experiencing a level of abuse... The abuse may not be readily apparent on the surface; however, counselors are extensively trained on improving the lives of the people who turn to them for help. If you feel negative or things worsen right after a counseling session, that may be a red flag.

However, counseling is not always easy, and sometimes uncomfortable emotions and memories are brought up. Be sure to differentiate these from your therapist and determine the underlying cause – do you feel upset because of a tough topic discussed, or is it something else?

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When a counselor is truly working with you professionally, you will most likely notice improvements in your mental health and overall well-being over time with your best interest at heart. This may take time, but counseling’s goal is ultimately to help you improve the quality of your life and overcome the challenges that may be holding you back or causing you mental health concerns. Taking note of what happens after your sessions with a counselor may help you understand and identify your feelings.

What Makes Abusive Counselors Abuse Patients?

First and foremost, it’s important to note that the vast majority of counselors are not abusive. Countless people have gone into counseling and have made invaluable improvements in the quality of their lives due to their counselor's care and treatment plan. However, there still exists a minority of counselors who may be considered abusive. Possibly one of the best ways for individuals to be protected and prepared may be to know the warning signs so they can take the proper steps to protect themselves.

Power Plays

Abusive counselors may gain an inflated sense of self and power as they progress in their position. There may be an inherent power imbalance that exists between counselors and clients. Counselors are typically trusted with the personal information, details, and possible traumas of their clients.

Counselors who opt to abuse this power may be dealing with situations in their personal lives in which they may feel powerless. Therefore, instead of seeking their counseling and knowledge, they may opt to abuse their power to gain a sense of control in their lives. In many cases, abusive counselors reported and found guilty of ill conduct will lose their license to practice. A therapist abusing their power and harming clients is considered a severe offense and usually not taken lightly.

Sociopathy/Psychopathy

It may take a certain type of person to go into the field of counseling and re-victimize the people who have already been through traumas or challenges. This behavior may be considered a classic warning sign of a sociopath or psychopath. Individuals who suffer from sociopathy or psychopathy lack empathy, remorse, or regard for the thoughts and feelings of other people.

Many sociopaths and psychopaths may do things to manipulate others to their advantage. People who live with these mental health conditions may lack guilt for the emotional damage they cause to vulnerable individuals.

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A Final Word On Abusive Counseling

Abusive counselors may negatively affect clients they see emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse from a counselor, you should seek help right away. You can get support from the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are available online or by calling 800.799.SAFE (7233).

If you choose to seek counseling, it may be helpful to know the warning signs of an abusive counselor to protect yourself. However, it’s also important to know that most counselors follow the Code of Ethics, are professional in their level of care, and may genuinely care about working with and treating the patients they work with.

There are many great counselors out there who will have your best interest at heart and may help you improve the quality of your life and overcome any challenges you may be facing.

How Online Therapy Can Help

If you feel as though you could benefit from working with a counselor, online therapy may be able to help. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can match you with a professional counselor that best suits your needs. Their ultimate priority is to help those in need overcome any challenges or mental health concerns they may be facing. It’s important to know, asking for help is okay. No matter who you are or what your story is, you are not alone.

Online therapy can be an incredibly useful tool that studies have found to be as effective in treating various mental health conditions as face-to-face therapy. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Zurich found that online therapy is even more effective than in-person therapy in the medium and long-term as clients continue to experience improvement long into treatment and even several months post-treatment. Specifically, three months post-treatment, 57% of online clients continue to experience a decline in their depression symptoms compared to just 42% of conventional in-person therapy clients.

BetterHelp is highly convenient and accessible. The online platform can be used anytime and anywhere you have an internet connection. It’s a fully customizable experience – filling out a quick questionnaire will pair you with suitable therapists whom you can chat with to determine if they’re a good fit for you. After that, you can decide which mode works best for you for sessions – video chatting, instant messaging, phone calls, or live voice recordings are all used.

Continue reading below to see reviews of licensed therapists from people who had previous poor experiences with therapy but gave BetterHelp a chance.

“I have found great healing from the support and guidance Cecilia has provided. Her kindness, patience, acceptance, intuition, nurturing spirit, and ability to listen well have been great catalysts in my desire for deep growth and change. I have had bad experiences in the past with therapy and was very nervous to start. I am so grateful BetterHelp paired me with her. She has completely changed my view of how therapy should look. I have a long way to go but am much less intimidated by the process now. If you have any fear towards the difficult process of growth and healing, I recommend her!”

“Daniel is wonderful. I have tried in-person therapy before and have never been successful. Daniel gets to know who he is talking to and how to best help them with what they are going through. He has a sense of humor that I appreciate because that is how I communicate. My review here doesn’t do him justice. I am thankful to have him as my counselor.”


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