Harrassment and stalking by clients: therapist risk factors you need to know

Many of you will have watched Baby Reindeer on Netflix and know that the intense stalking portrayed began with an act of kindness.

This act of kindness was followed by constant accommodations made for behaviours that fell outside of normal social boundaries. Instead of implementing a boundary, instead of saying no the behaviours were permitted.

Every time this accommodating behaviour was excused due to empathy for the emotional state and desperate state of affairs of the harassing woman.

Very quickly, the lead character in Baby Reindeer feels like he is trapped and has no choices.

I see this same pattern with therapists.

Over-empathising with the client’s situation together with an aversion to conflict results in ineffective management or no management of small and increasing boundary breaches from your client.

Therapists who work in the schema therapy model may be more at risk due to the role of the therapist in providing limited reparenting and the suggestion in the model that out of session contact is useful for healing unmet needs. Some therapists reject the schema therapy model because of this foundational element of the model, because it falls outside of the boundary that they feel comfortable with.

Clients who are intent on getting more and more from you, chip away at your boundaries testing to see where the line is.

It is possible that they will use the concepts of limited reparenting against you when you try to implement boundaries “you have to meet my need” and “I can only get my need met if you do x for me” “if you cared about me, you would x”.

They can also exploit the therapist’s duty of care responsibilities around self-harm to manipulate the therapist for more time and access outside of sessions.

Some therapists have a higher risk of experiencing harrassment and stalking due to their schema led responses.

If you have enmeshment schema, self-sacrifice schema and/ or subjugation schemas that you surrender to, these schemas can make you vulnerable to allowing clients to breach your boundary and manipulate you.

It may be that you don’t even realise in the beginning that they are breaching your boundary, or manipulating you emotionally, because you are used to that feeling. It feels normal for you.

You don’t see the danger.

And, you may not even think you have these schemas, because again, this feels normal to you. You may think of yourself as a good, caring and non-selfish person who puts others first.

Instead of implementing the kind of boundary that a therapist who doesn’t have these schemas would, you give more and more. As each breach happens, you ignore that voice inside you that knows this is too much. You ignore the side of you that feels angry or frustrated at how emotionally manipulated you feel and that it is never enough. The client may even use threats of complaints and blame you for your participation in this unhealthy therapeutic alliance.

This makes it hard for you to seek support from others who could help you.

At worst, eventually, you will feel trapped.

Be kind to yourself and take action to protect yourself

Like me, you have been raised in a system/s that encouraged the development of these schemas. In these systems, your natural kindness, good nature, and empathy for others may have been co-opted by the systems surrounding you (family, church, school, sporting communities). These kinds of systems don’t encourage healthy boundaries and assertion.

I am fortunate to never have experienced harassment and stalking as a therapist and I attribute that to following the guidelines of the psychology code of ethics and the workplaces I was employed in. As a younger woman, it was a different story in my personal life. I would find myself in tricky situations with people I’d met socially because I didn’t have this “rule book” and its strict guidelines to protect me and help me know what was healthy and what was a boundary manipulation.

Key warning signs

If you find:

  • you are feeling manipulated by clients and not discussing breaches and setting limits with clients
  • you struggle to implement boundaries about contact between session or behaviours in session because you feel guilty
  • you find yourself wiping your instincts and feelings away with “it’s not that bad” or “I don’t want to hurt their feelings” or “it’s understandable because…”
  • you are continuing to work with people instead of charging them because you fear retaliation
  • you continue to provide contact and care to clients after you have discharged them because you worry about what will happen if you don’t (e.g. they will harm themselves, they will report me to the regulatory body)

it is likely that you are in surrender to your schemas. Responding this way, places you at a higher risk of being harassed and in the worst-case scenario, stalked by a client.

Your schema-related responses can make things worse.

These patterns can also lead you to respond to harassment and stalking situations in a way that worsens the situation rather than reduces it.

For example, someone who harrasses and/or stalks believes that it is reasonable to force another person to listen to what they have to say, pay them attention or do what they want them to do. If you have schemas that make it difficult to impossible for you to disagree with that, you are likely to respond by listening and hearing that person out rather than ignoring or blocking all means of communication.

Importantly, you are entitled to be able to implement boundaries that work for you and support your well-being. Even if you are never harassed and stalked by a client, having under-developed boundaries or skills to implement your boundaries deprives you of feeling strong, confident and empowered and will likely impact your emotional well-being over time.

If any of this resonates with you, please seek professional supervision or support from a peer who can help you implement these boundaries with confidence.

If you work with the schema therapy model, be very clear about the limited reparenting role and avoid offering contact outside of session to clients.

Seek supervision, practical, and legal support.

If you are working with a supervisor who struggles with boundaries with their clients or has reinforced the idea of excessive self-sacrifice and keeping clients happy to avoid complaints, please seek an alternative supervisor for guidance.

It’s important to know that not all stalking begins with people not holding a boundary. However, holding a boundary in your response to initial stalking behaviours is important when we consider that stalkers seek to manipulate your boundaries to gain access to you.

If you are experiencing harassment and stalking, it’s important to access and implement practical and legal avenues to support your well-being and safety.

Never excuse or minimise harassment and stalking behaviours from clients or any other human.

These behaviours can escalate and result in real risk to your safety and well-being.

For more information about stalking please see:

Stalking | victimsofcrime.vic.gov.au

Stalking and monitoring | 1800RESPECT

Types of Stalking | Stalking Risk Profile

Types of stalker | Action Against Stalking | Scotland

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