Many enter the helping professions due to their empathy for others and a genuine desire to improve their lives. However, no field is exempt from narcissism and fields that grant a certain level of power and authority tend to also attract con artists that are hungry for validation, control, and access to vulnerable populations to manipulate and exploit. The narcissistic therapist has not been spoken about as often even though therapy abuse is far more common than we think and many stories of unethical therapists abound. We grant therapists access to our deepest traumas, fears, and emotions. Shouldn’t we vet them thoroughly before disclosing such personal aspects of our lives and investing in them financially? Here are the red flags you may be dealing with a narcissistic therapist, along with stories from the survivors who have encountered them:
They emotionally invalidate and shame you, even engaging in victim-blaming.
If you are looking for a therapist, it’s important to vet your therapist thoroughly. Don’t just double-check or only review their credentials – evaluate their character and knowledge too. Remember that some unethical therapists will skate by on credentials alone, asserting their authority without the trauma-informed knowledge or skill sets to back up their title. Instead, interview them as if you were interviewing a business client. At the end of the day, therapy is also a business. You are paying someone to help you, not re-traumatize you. As past division president of the American Counseling Association and counselor Dr. Kimberly Key writes, “A good therapist or counselor helps you find your strengths. They feed your resilience and they focus on your core strengths which will help you overcome difficulties. If a therapist or counselor is constantly picking at your wounds and leading you down a rabbit hole of eternal analysis to the point where you feel like you can’t function in life because you need an analytical fix, there is danger…the bottom line is to pay attention to your intuition. If something feels awry with your therapist or counselor, leave. Don’t let them bully or manipulate you. Therapists and counselors are human beings. Just like every profession, there are good ones, mediocre ones and horrible ones. Stay away from the horrible ones.”
Your therapist may not agree with you on everything, but emotional validation is often key to the healing journey. If you can’t feel safe sharing your emotions with a therapist without being blamed, shamed, and mocked, you will only be left re-traumatized. Unethical therapists will engage in victim-shaming and blaming when it comes to your adversity and they will also team up with your abuser in couples therapy. These therapists are either not trauma-informed and lack knowledge about the traits and tactics of narcissists and psychopaths, or they are narcissistic themselves and see themselves in your abuser – which is why they feel the “need” to ardently defend them.
“I went to my narcissistic therapist twice and she shamed and yelled at me for crying. She was just like my narcissistic mother. And I came to her when I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown.” — Stephanie
“I had a therapist tell me once that maybe I was ‘reaping what I had sown’ because perhaps I had done this to someone (i.e. emotionally abused them) in a past life. He went on to say that if I could accept the abuse as the lesson I was put on earth to learn, then it would be so liberating for me.” — Wendy
“I had a horrid counselor that sided with my “oh so perfect” perpetrator. When I was in tears about my cat’s unexpected death, she said “Geez! It’s just a cat,” siding and sympathizing with my perpetrator on what a ridiculous person he had to deal with being married to me. I was devastated.” — Kymberlie
“I had an emergency counseling session with a lovely lady and she had scheduled a follow-up. When I went back, unbeknownst to me, she had called in sick that day and I was put in a little room with another woman that I didn’t know. She proceeded to ask me all the same questions I had at my initial session which upset me because I had to rehash all of the trauma and I had been happy to talk with the first woman who seemed to be a good fit. I mentioned my discomfort and confusion and she ignored me, continuing to ask the same questions. Finally, after she was done, her assessment of me was, “The symptoms you have are very adolescent like what I usually see in teenagers, so maybe you better address that.”
Needless to say, I was quite let down by the whole experience and didn’t get the proper help for trauma and EMDR therapy for three to four years afterward. I should also mention that this psychiatrist only knew me for 30 minutes and spent no other time diagnosing or getting any more information. Yet she put me on the equivalent of what I would consider a horse tranquilizer amount of an older type of anti-depressant to the point I couldn’t even stand up without feeling like I was going to pass out. All is well now but I learned to really use some discernment when finding mental health help.” — Kate
They break boundaries and infiltrate your life in violating ways.
A good therapist knows how to enforce healthy personal and professional boundaries. When a therapist violates and oversteps your boundaries, becoming enmeshed with your life to further control, manipulate or micromanage you, this is unethical and destructive behavior. As a survivor, Becky, tells me, “I have been unfortunately emotionally and sexually abused by a narcissistic therapist. It completely destroyed my life and I still work extremely hard daily to rebuild my life all over again. It was absolutely devastating to go to someone for help when you are vulnerable, only for them to do you more harm and leave you more traumatized than what you were before seeing them.”
Good therapists know their clients have a right to attentive care and ethical treatment and seek to protect their privacy, their confidentiality, and their autonomy. They give their clients the agency to participate actively in their own treatment, and the ability and option to get a second opinion. Therapy with boundaries should always be oriented to your emotional and psychological needs and not to the emotional needs of the practitioner. Unethical therapists cross the boundaries of their clients. They disclose unnecessary personal information about themselves, coerce you into revealing information you’re not comfortable with sharing, insert themselves into the lives of their clients in unprofessional ways, violate emotional or physical boundaries, or financially exploit their clients. In the worst-case scenarios, they may even sexually abuse them.
According to attorney John Winer, partner at Winer, McKenna, Burritt & Tillis LLP, who specializes in therapist abuse cases, this breach of boundaries often occurs when one trespasses what is known as “the therapeutic container.” He writes, “The therapeutic container is a term that refers to the way that psychotherapy is supposed to be practiced, that is, except in cases of analysis, the therapist should be sitting a reasonable distance away from the patient; there should be no physical contact other than a handshake or an occasional non-sexual hug; sessions should last for set periods of time and should occur in the office; there should be no intentional contact with the patient outside of the therapy office. This allows therapy to be contained.” He goes on to say, “A therapist must also maintain his or her boundaries at all times. This means that the therapy must be focused at all times on the patient, the patient’s problems and not the therapist. The therapist should not reveal any intimate information about himself or herself to the patient, and the therapist should not engage in any type of business, sexual, social or personal relationship with the patient other than psychotherapy. When a therapist fails to act in the above manner, it is a considered a breach of boundaries.”
Survivor Story: Lois
“My former therapist, after eight years, started becoming incredibly abusive. She started by taking our relationship to a more personal level. She offered me clothes of hers to borrow for events I said I had coming up. She gave me backhanded compliments when I tried anything on. Things like, “I knew that would look great on you. It’s too big for me now, since I lost so much weight, but I knew it would be perfect on you.” But everything changed once I got engaged. She became controlling and possessive. I’d share my wedding planning details with her and I never showed her one thing that she approved of or said anything nice about. She would make comments like: “Your dress neckline is way too low. It looks like lingerie.” “I hope you’re not wearing your hair like that. The bow at the base of your neck from the headband needs to be woven into your hair.” “You need to be wearing pearls. You’re a bride. Don’t worry, I have some you can borrow. They’ll be your something borrowed.”
She also attended my wedding in November and her atrocious behavior there is what made me know for sure I cannot go back to her ever again. My husband and I did a “first look” so we saw each other before she even got there and took photos. When she found out he and I had already seen each other, she went crazy. “That’s not how it’s done! You ruined it now!” she shouted. This was our wedding and what we wanted. Fast forward to the reception, at a restaurant. She arrived and gave me a filthy look because she was not seated at my table with my family and my husband’s family.
Later, a song came on that was the song my husband and I danced to in the kitchen the first time we made dinner together. We didn’t have a DJ. The fact that this song came on was totally random. When we heard it, my husband grabbed me and started dancing with me and singing it softly to me, and I was so overwhelmed with love and happiness, I started crying. It was a really tender moment. Then comes my therapist, watching me like a hawk and seeing me crying, pushing in between me and him and grabbing my face. “Breathe, breathe, it’s okay, I am here now. I am here,” she said. I was livid. I just pulled away from her and kept saying I was fine. I didn’t want to scream at my own reception and cause a scene. Before the ceremony started, my brother was waiting outside the room for everyone to leave. Our dad died, and he wanted a moment alone with me before the ceremony. He was walking me down the aisle and he wanted to give me something of my dad’s to carry and just take a minute with his baby sister before she got married.
My therapist went out and told him to go and leave me be and that I needed five minutes to myself. I heard from several people that night that she went around and told them, “Look around. See this whole wedding? This is only happening because of me. I am the reason she was able to get even get married. If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have any of this.” I got married last year. I have not spoken to my former therapist since and I have not been back to see her. And I won’t. I don’t know if she’s in love with me, or considers me her child, but I can tell you 100% certainty that I never in a million years thought she’d act that way to me. If I had any clue, I would’ve stopped seeing her professionally long ago and would’ve never invited her to my wedding.”
They engage in bullying behaviors when advising you or join forces with your abuser if you’re in couples therapy.
An unethical therapist not only fails to recognize the patterns of abuse, they may deliberately steamroll through the evidence to blame you while siding with your abuser, especially in couples therapy. They will ignore the research that links narcissistic and psychopathic traits to certain manipulation tactics such as jealousy induction, gaslighting, and love bombing. They will instead shift the blame onto the victim’s reactions to the abuse rather than identifying the abuse itself and working with the victim to create a safety plan.
“I had two narcissistic therapists. They live in the same city and state where I lived with my now ex-fiancé abuser. They were aware of his physical abuse, psychological abuse, cheating, and neglect of his child. One of the therapists “diagnosed me” with Borderline Personality Disorder when I met her once, while I was falling apart due to the miscarriage I had with his child – and he couldn’t have cared less. She is a marriage and family therapist, a friend of his and should have her license revoked. The second therapist sent a written letter to the court for our hearing over my requested restraining order, stating that he was safe and responsible, and I was unstable and a liar. I had also only met this therapist twice, and both therapists believed his manipulation and lies. There are so many screwed up people working in psychology. Victim shamers who glorify abusers. Such a shame.” — Abbey
“I saw my narcissistic therapist for 2 years. My children’s dad had a court order at the time. These two narcissists would gang up on me – the therapist believed all my narcissistic ex-partner said to him and in one session, I got up to walk out and the therapist was making a “cuckoo” sign around his head like she’s nuts! Meanwhile, I don’t use drugs, I am a productive citizen and my kid’s dad joins in on a session to try to get back home after he had a DUI. As soon as the court order was dropped, he stopped therapy sessions. I never went back, I was so hurt and betrayed. I had seen him first for so long and in one month they basically abused me together and laughed at me.” — Sharon
“I am a therapist myself, and a few years ago when with my narcissist, he found us a marriage therapist. This guy was a new therapist and totally untrained in spotting narcissistic or emotional abuse. He overidentified with my abuser, joined in on the gaslighting, and made the feeling that I was losing my mind even worse. He suggested EMDR for me rather than identifying the narcissist’s symptoms.
When I pointed out the stonewalling, isolating me from my friends, and lack of empathy, he turned it all around on me. He’d make comments like, “You’ll understand this better if you ever do work with couples someday,” and was constantly dismissing and one-upping my clinical expertise. I had 20+ years of being an LCSW compared to his 3 years. I am convinced that it made my situation much worse and that he at minimum had narcissistic features, if not NPD himself. When I mentor and train therapists now, I make sure they know all about narcissistic abuse because it’s the most common form of abuse I see, yet our clinical training barely covers it.” — Paula
“I had one, yes. She turned on me and wrote a letter for the court for my ex to gain custody. She lied in the letter. Luckily, the court didn’t accept it as evidence because she didn’t come in person to be cross-examined. She was another flying monkey for my ex.”— Giclee
“My narcissistic mother’s therapist wrote me a letter saying I’d regret having gone no contact once she was gone. I reported her to the state licensing board.” — Jane
“The therapist on base in the United States Air Force gave me a false diagnosis and praised my narcissist. They screwed up trying to protect their “active duty serviceman.” My terrible position was made worse, by this one officer especially. An officer on call came to “help” me when I went to the unit control center for extreme anxiety and depression about six years ago. This was all from the narcissistic abuse cycle. I went in for the goal of getting some short-term help because I thought I was driving my husband crazy. The captain came in over an hour after being called to base.
The entire time she sat there, she made the conversation about her, her rank, her education, her having to make a trip to base for me. I checked out of the conversation. She took notice and went on to punish me by taking out an abuse case against me, which stated I was abusing my narcissist. I had gone in for help and it was all used against me because this lady did not want to do her job. This case risked my job, my home, and my life. I was already extremely depressed and to go in and have everything thrown back in my face was excruciating. I did get off the hook, but my narcissist had to help by writing a statement to clear me. And we all know he did it to appear as the white horse.” — Kate
“My narcissistic foster mom is a hypnotherapist. I became part of her family when I was 5. She counsels people in her bed and breakfast style home. She has tried to treat me with hypnotherapy before but I cannot relax around that woman, nor is it ethical to treat your own child. She talked to my therapists growing up and had me falsely diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and claimed I had multiple personalities so I wouldn’t trust myself growing up. Now I am 34 and learning about myself all over again after I went no contact at age 32. I’ve healed and grown a lot but still a long way to go. I have a lovely therapist now who only talks to me.” — Molly
“When I went into the foster care system at the age of 17, I was assigned a counselor. My mother was also assigned a counselor. My stepfather, an abuser, was on his way out of the picture and certainly would not have gone to counseling. I was very well trained to be polite and agreeable in those days. And, in spite of my life experience, I desperately needed to believe that other people were not evil, malicious or even just manipulative. So I had some rose-colored glasses that I put on once in a while when I didn’t want to look too closely at a potentially bad situation. Looking back, I think I was just fascinating to those two counselors. They pulled out all the stops – the Keirsey sorter, hypnosis, etc. They began asking me more pointed questions about my mother and our relationship. Her relationship with her dad (my grandad who is a saint).
I finally started opening up, giving details, talking about my mom (warts and all). Then I get to my next visit with my mom and she is furious. When we got in the car she cut loose and said, “Your grandad is the best man on this planet! Why would you tell anyone that he abused me? He has never abused anyone! You are a liar. I think you made up the story about your dad (stepdad) and on and on.” I eventually asked her to take me back to the foster home. As it turns out – her counselor was my counselor’s husband! I never said my grandad was abusive – they did. He IS a great man.
In one fell swoop, my unethical counselors derailed my court case against my abusive stepfather – he only got 6 months in jail. And that was only because he was stupid enough to get caught stalking me. My relationship with my mom deteriorated even further, leading her to sabotage me in court. And then, because the impropriety became a known thing, the state decided to release me from counseling. I needed that. I just needed it from an ethical counselor. This was all over twenty years ago. So yes, I survived. I even learned how to thrive. But those two counselors have left me very skeptical of the mental health profession.” — Lacyanne
They attempt to push forth their beliefs and opinions as the “ultimate” authority, attempting to monopolize knowledge on a subject and isolating you from other resources.
Narcissists are very much like cult leaders, and narcissistic therapists are no different. Not only will they assert their power and authority over you to exploit you, they will isolate you from outside information and resources that could help you. They will monopolize being able to be the only ones who can speak out on certain subjects (even on subjects where others hold more experience, achievements and expertise) and position themselves as the ultimate voice on all matters of mental health and relationships. Therapists who have a history of emotionally invalidating victims can even go so far as to bully and degrade other authority figures and experts who specialize in a subject they themselves are not well-versed in, attempting to position themselves as the expert on topics they actually lack knowledge in. They could misuse their credentials to spread misinformation that has been disproven by research but caters to their own agendas, or you may suddenly see them changing lanes and jumping on a certain topic when it becomes trending so they can financially profit, even if they had no interest in speaking on those topics prior and may have actively harmed survivors.
“One of my brothers was married to a narcissistic therapist. He and I were very close and then she sent me a nasty letter full of projections. She had come to me with problems they were having, then went to him and lied, saying that I was bad-mouthing him. Ultimately she was threatened by how close we were. She alienated him from anyone who made her feel threatened. She lied and twisted things, playing the victim, making everyone responsible for keeping her happy. She’s very beautiful and charming but devoid of empathy and extremely underhanded and manipulative. I hear they are divorced now and he refers to her as vindictive. I hear she has a blog about “therapy the right way,” which is typical. She only knows one way to be and to do and it is always “the right way.” The rest of us mere mortals can’t seem to get it right without following her lead.” – Kat
They are cruel, callous, contemptuous, bullying you and others.
You wouldn’t imagine that a therapist could ever be cruel to their clients. They have an obligation to nurture and protect, after all. Yet many narcissistic therapists, while initially charming, will begin to devalue you in horrendous ways, especially when you challenge them. They will prey on the insecurities and traumas you’ve disclosed to them and weaponize them against you – much like a narcissistic partner would in a relationship. They will maintain a therapeutic relationship with you not because they genuinely believe you need extra help but because they want to benefit from your financial resources. Denial, hypercriticism and gaslighting like this are all common tactics used by narcissistic abusers, and narcissistic therapists are no exception.
“I worked with a therapist for 12 months who displayed all the hallmarks of a narcissistic personality. She had a grandiose sense of self (in her capacity as a therapist) and was haughty and defensive when she perceived her grandiose self-image was challenged. I discharged her services due to her lack of working knowledge, experience in, and embodied understanding of complex trauma. In our final session, I brought two letters, one informing her I was terminating therapy, respectfully explaining the reasons for my decision. Upon reading the letter, she became emotionally dysregulated and proceeded to pathologize me, telling me all that was wrong with me, and blaming me for the therapy failing.
Her dysregulation culminated in her swearing at me when I asked her about her qualifications. Her response to me was, “Now you’re just being a b*tch.” Soon after, she ordered me to leave halfway through a 50-minute session. In the following days, she did not bother to follow up to see how I was or to offer any restorative action. Being deeply disturbed by her actions, and particularly for her lack of follow up, I submitted a complaint with an organization that supports survivors of childhood trauma, as she is on their referral list of recommended therapists.
In her response to my complaint, my therapist denied her actions and claimed I had been abusive to her. In the notes about the complaint process I later accessed, she said the letters I’d given her were abusive, which they weren’t. She also lied about me through omission as well as explicitly. Her clinical notes were extremely pathologizing, making me out to be highly dysfunctional as she implied I was personality disordered. I have worked with five therapists, and none of their clinical notes agree with her ‘assessment’ of me.” —Beccie
The Big Picture
When you are looking for a therapist, you are looking for the best match – a person who is going to provide the most effective services for you to heal – not just someone with credentials. Be selective and be cautious. Rest assured, there are good therapists out there who are well-versed in manipulation tactics and the effects of trauma. You just have to find an empathic, ethical one who meets your needs.