The Plausible Deniability of Harm

This weekend, for the first time, it has felt okay for me to talk openly about some of my harmful experience of therapy. I tweeted about an incident which took place two years post-termination, in which my former therapist messaged me out of the blue, told me he had split up with his wife and asked whether I wanted to “catch up”. I chose to disclose this incident in particular, I suppose, for two reasons. Firstly, because it is probably the least subtle of his abusive behaviours, and therefore the one I felt was least likely to be excused, or dismissed as not as bad as I think (which is sadly something that victims of abuse do have to consider when deciding whether it is safe to speak out), and secondly because it happened two years after termination, I felt less vulnerable at the time it occurred, so it did not, in itself, have a traumatic impact on me (more validating actually, due to just how illustrative it was of things that had previously occurred, but had been much more difficult to explain to others). I chose this example primarily to keep myself safe.

Most of the therapists responding to my tweet, really wanted to engage with the topic and learn more about how harm occurs. Other people who have been harmed in therapy joined the thread, and it truly feels that a positive conversation has been happening. I had quite a few people tell me I should report my former therapist, some suggesting that I owe it to the profession or to any future clients.  I explained this was not an option for me, and furthermore, I strongly believe that the onus is not on the victims of abuse to protect the public. I may have reported him given the opportunity, however the complaints systems themselves can be harmful and retraumatising, and I do not believe any victim of iatrogenesis should be pressured to do so, or blamed if they don’t.

A small number of comments from therapists were not altogether validating. One suggested that perhaps his emails had been hacked (a response which feels like “maybe you are wrong about it”) and another saying that in not reporting, I am playing a role in enabling him to do it again (feeling like “you are partially to blame for future abuse”). These are very common responses that people who are abused face when disclosing. The illuminating recent #IWasBlamed hashtag shed some light on this phenomenon.

Now, I don’t actually mind that therapists responded this way. In fact, I already know that there is a culture of denial regarding harm in counselling and psychotherapy. It is structural and it comes from the very top. For me, it is to be expected that some of this shadow will seep into online conversations about harm in therapy. In fact, I would venture a guess that far more therapists thought these things than actually said them, when they read the thread. For me, it is only when we hear our thoughts and attitudes out loud that we are most likely to recognise and reflect on them. What I really hope to do in speaking out is to raise these questions now, so that we are thinking about them honestly, because when a client who has been harmed walks into our therapy room, it is far better that we have a greater awareness about our unconscious biases, attitudes, and even our propensity to want to deny. Because if these parts of ourselves emerge for the first time with clients, we have the potential to do further harm.

I ran a workshop last year for therapists as a part of Nick Langley’s residential week, The Comfy Chair, in which therapists had the opportunity to reflect on their attitudes, feelings, bodily sensations when hearing about harm in therapy, and were also invited to put themselves in the position of somebody returning to therapy after a harmful experience, and consider what their particular feelings and needs might be. It was a fantastic exercise, full of rich discussion and learning. We are facing our professional and individual shadows here. We all have the potential to do harm, and the profession demonstrably does do harm, not just to individual clients but systemically too. It takes courage and honesty to face up to our shadow.

Earlier I said there is a culture of the denial of harm in the profession. I just want to touch on that a bit. Counselling and Psychotherapy in the UK is deeply political, and one of the key reasons I oppose political manoeuvres such as SCoPEd, is that the potential for harm to clients, therapists, or the profession, resulting from the project has been completely overlooked. For example, no declaration of conflicts of interests were made in the research, and no assessment was made about how enshrining elitist trainings would impact on diversity and equality in the profession, and the detrimental effect decreasing diversity in the workforce might have on the diverse client population. Especially important considering that clients from marginalised groups report experiencing significantly higher levels of harm in therapy than the general population.

So, I believe SCoPEd is a structural example of the plausible deniability of harm in the upper echelons of counselling and psychotherapy. I also have a more personal one, again, relating to my own experiences:

When I submitted a resolution to scrap SCoPEd, I experienced bullying on the BACP’s own Facebook group, with upwards of 40 therapists piling on to pathologise me for submitting the resolution, claiming that my opposition to SCoPEd was the result of unresolved childhood issues. Nothing was done at the time by BACP when I asked for the thread to be deleted so I submitted an official complaint to them. A key finding of the BACP complaint was that I was not bullied. I contested this point, citing the Government’s own definition of bullying, from their workplace bullying and harassment guidelines: “Bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.”.  BACP’s official response to this (and this is what I recognise as the plausible deniability of harm) was as follows:

“With regards to our definition of bullying, we have already stated that BACP does not have its own definition however we would use the commonly understood meaning of seeking to harm or intimidate others. The government link you sent refers to bullying and harassment in the workplace which differs slightly from the current topic.”

So, as we can see, because the incident took place in the BACP’s forum (which I would argue is an extension of the workplace when we are engaging online in the forum of a professional body) allows the BACP here to deny that the behaviour was bullying, and therefore absolve themselves. The focus on intention rather than impact concerns me from an organisation concerned with counselling.

When a culture of denying harm exists at the very top of a profession, it seems to me that it is likely to filter down into trainings, into supervision and into the attitudes and responses of therapists, at least to some extent (I want to say again that there is also a wonderful amount of reflection in the profession, and some truly fantastic trainings) But this trickle is how the shadow forms. The shadow belongs to the whole profession, and in my opinion, it is up to all of us to examine it together.

2 thoughts on “The Plausible Deniability of Harm”

  1. I love the way you write, Erin. And your considered approach to a subject. What you say in this article makes complete sense to me. At age 50, for the first time in my life really, I’m feeling politically motivated, which seems to be coming from a place of increased confidence in myself and a real recognition of the abuse of power within so many aspects of life. I also recognise the difficulty and bravery of speaking out and wish you well.

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    1. Hi Martin, thanks so much for the kind comments. If you see interested in further exploring the political in therapy, and you haven’t already come across them, I recommend checking out PCSR (Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility).

      Like

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