Guest writer for Wake Up World
We’d all like to believe that someone we entrust with helping us heal when we’re vulnerable can safely protect our tender hearts, confused minds, and beautiful bodies. Yet sadly, some of the most traumatized and unapologetically ruthless people hang up a shingle and call themselves a spiritual teacher, therapist, shaman, psychedelic guide, lightworker, or life coach. The red flags can be easy to spot, once you know what you’re looking for, but as my wise sage daughter said, “If you’re wearing rose colored glasses, red flags just look like flags.”
As cult recovery specialists like Steven Hassan, Janja Lalich, and Rachel Bernstein teach us, “undue influence” and “coercive control” can show up anywhere, not just in cults, but in cultic romantic relationships, abusive family systems, and sadly, even in therapeutic settings where people abuse their power over someone vulnerable.
There are a lot of people functioning as “therapists” out there under the guise of energy healing, spiritual counseling, or life coaching, trying to tell trauma survivors how to live their lives and promising healing, but many of them cannot be trusted. I wrote several chapters about this topic in my book Sacred Medicine. But here are a few flags to look out for.
- You wind up in a “dual relationship” with your “therapist.”
Good therapists know that it’s dicey boundary territory and can be harmful to the client if the therapist engages in relationships beyond the professional therapeutic container with vulnerable clients. But unethical healers will recruit clients they can coercively control from within a friend group, crossing boundaries from the very beginning. Or they’ll befriend the client so they can vampirically suck the client dry energetically, turning the client into narcissistic prey. Or they’ll invite clients to become employees. Or they’ll hit on their client romantically or get their jollies off being close to them outside sessions. Or they’ll invite the client into their “family.” Or they’ll take advantage of the client for free labor. Or they’ll exploit the client financially and ask them to invest in their business or pay their overhead as a way to support “the mission.”
- Your “therapist” points out all your shadows without letting you figure out your blind spots at your own safe timing.
The unethical healer knows better than you do what’s wrong with you and will “one up” you with their intuitive insights, shadow-busting, and arrogant, grandiose certainty that they can see through your bullshit better than you can. A good therapist may be able to spot your blind spots too, but they’ll create the safe conditions to allow you to shine the light of your own heart on those shadowy places. Then they’ll meet you there with unconditional positive regard and embodied presence when you’re ready to explore those scary realms.
- Your “therapist” doesn’t have a license.
Real therapists and health care workers are required to have an active license to practice their healing arts in the state where they practice. But anyone can hang up a shingle on the internet, without a license, and promote themselves as a coach, healer, psychedelic guide, or spiritual counselor, across state lines and without any need to demonstrate to a board that they’re safe, effective, adequately trained, or held to account for unethical behavior. Licensing boards mean there’s oversight, ethics education, and a way for clients to report bad behavior. Without a license, your “therapist” could have injured countless people without any way for those clients to hold the healer accountable for even the most overtly unethical, abusive or boundary-violating behaviors. At least if your therapist or health care provider has a license, you can report them to the licensing board and the board is required to investigate. I know there are good healers who trained outside of academia, but it’s very hard to know who those are when there’s no regulatory board to register complaints and make those complaints transparent to the public.
- Your “therapist” is telling you what to do.
Any good therapist helps the client find their own way to solutions, guiding them towards their own inner wisdom but without being directive or unduly influencing the decision. Those who abuse their influence might tell you to leave your husband, confront your mother, abandon your children, skip doctor’s visits, practice spirituality the way they prescribe, believe what they believe, give your money to causes they want you to support, or avoid getting vaccinated- and that is an unethical abuse of power.
- Your “therapist” is profiting handsomely off your vulnerability.
It’s fine to pay someone a fair exchange of time for money. But when you’re under the sway of undue influence, you might get dangled along with the promise of healing, but healing seems ever beyond your reach. You have to do the next session, the next program, you’re “almost there,” but not quite. Your pain will be relieved, but only after you do this seminar or that healing retreat. You only need this special transmission or that special supplement. All the while, they’re raking in your money, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars you’ll never get back.
- Your “therapist” fosters dependency.
A good healer’s job is to help you love yourself, bonding the hurt inner children inside of you to the wise adult Self in the client. Sometimes, in the transition, the therapist might act as a go-between, a proxy Self the client can feel safe enough to bond to until that inner bond is solidified. But the ultimate goal is always to help the client get ready to leave therapy one day. An unethical therapist does the opposite, fostering dependency rather than freedom for the client.
- Your “therapist” love bombs you, then cuts you down.
A good therapist helps you build healthy self-esteem if you suffer from a “not enough” wound and if you suffer from the false empowerment of grandiosity because of developmental trauma, they might gently, compassionately, and non-judgmentally help you see the inflation and grandiosity as a way of bringing you to your right size in a trauma-informed way. But an unethical therapist destabilizes you by love-bombing you one minute and then insulting or criticizing you the next, “all for your own good.”
- Every session ends with the “hook” that lures you into the next session.
Just when you think you might be “healed enough” and ready to terminate therapy, or just when you’re wondering if this isn’t the right therapist for you, an unethical healer grabs you by your insecurity and tosses a hook of doubt into you, pointing out what’s lacking or what’s just around the bend, just to make sure you book the next session.
- Any challenge is seen as a threat by your “therapist.”
A good therapist knows they will bear the brunt of a lot of your Mommy/ Daddy projections, and the client might “act out” on the road to recovery. A good therapist is also willing to listen f you feel you’re being mistreated, taken advantage of, or having your boundaries violated. If you challenge a good therapist and they see the error of their ways, they will do their best to apologize, humbly hold themselves accountable, seek supervision for themselves from their own wise therapists, and try to make amends to the client. But an unethical therapist sees any challenge to their authority as a narcissistic wound and gets defensive, abusive, blames the client, or threatens to abandon the client if the client stands up for themselves, challenges the authority of the therapist, calls out mistreatment, says no, or decides to terminate therapy.
- All failures of treatment are the fault of the client.
Ethical healers know that we can’t help everyone and are quick to refer out if they feel in over their head, out of their league, outside their scope of practice or area of expertise, or are dealing with a client who obviously needs more specialized care. Unethical healers, on the other hand, see themselves as perfect, infallible, and grandiose, with a direct link to God, and therefore, if the client isn’t getting better, it’s because the client is doing something wrong. All treatment failures or bad outcomes are blamed on the client, and the healer never holds themselves accountable for what might be abusive, boundary violating, incompetent, exploitative, or unethical ways of being.
If you recognize even one of these red flags in any of your therapeutic relationships, consider seeking out a second opinion from someone meticulously referred for you by someone ethical and trustworthy. Then notice what happens when you do so. Any good healer or therapist will support you in seeking out second opinions or getting support wherever you might get help without berating you for questioning whether this is the right treatment for you, attempting to coerce you back into treatment, or criticizing you for going elsewhere.
*If any of you are trying to be ethical clinicians and are interested in learning more about how to support people coming out from under the thumb of spiritual abuse, coercive control, domestic abuse, or the wounding of an unethical healer like I’ve described here, I’m about to take Steven Hassan’s course for clinicians, Understanding Cults: A Foundational Course For Clinicians. You can register here if you’re interested.
Originally published at lissarankin.com and reproduced here with permission.
Recommended articles by Lissa Rankin:
- How To Honor Your Desires Without Grasping, Denying or Bypassing
- Pleasure as a Spiritual Path
- The Unmistakable Link Between Unhealed Trauma and Physical Illness
- Satisfying Our Emotional Needs Without Being Codependent
- Relationships on the Spiritual Path
- How to Make Your Body Ripe for Miracles
- Are You “Spiritual But Not Religious?”
- 10 Fun Ways to Reduce Your Cortisol Levels
- 6 Stories To Make You Believe In The Power Of The Mind To Heal You
- 7 Tips For Finding Your Tribe
About the author:
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician on a grass roots mission to heal healthcare, while empowering you to heal yourself. She is the founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and healthcare providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of the books Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself (2013), The Fear Cure (2014), and The Anatomy of a Calling (2015).
Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and created the online community HealHealthCareNow.com. She is also the author of several other books, a speaker, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.