Sometimes people ask if I work with people from a particular spiritual perspective. How do spirituality and therapy go together? What religion or beliefs do I have? Am I a Christian, an Atheist, a Buddhist? I’ll respond to this question at the end of this post. Hopefully you will be willing to wait a few minutes for that.
Does religion or spirituality matter? It might.
When I think about why my religion or spiritual beliefs and practices can matter to people, there are a number of things that come to mind. People come to counseling for support. They want a therapist who will be supportive of them. They certainly don’t want someone who is going to tell them that their beliefs are wrong. But there’s more to it than just this. People may want someone who they have something deep and important in common with. They want someone who will understand. Or, it’s possible that people feel that the difficulties they are facing are spiritual, and they want a spiritual solution. Finally, people might just think that if someone doesn’t share their beliefs, they won’t understand, or they can’t possibly have anything helpful to offer. Each of these can be an important reason why people would ask a question like the one above. Let’s look at these issues.
Here is an issue that I feel pretty strongly about—if someone comes to me for therapy, I have no business trying to change any of their beliefs to match my own. That’s a bottom line for me. And that sounds simple, but there’s another part to this. All of us have a lot of beliefs. We have beliefs about the world, about God, about other people, about politics, about relationships and more. Lots of beliefs….and all of us have some that work better for us than others. So sometimes people come in with a problem that they want help for and they have some beliefs about it that seem like they aren’t helping. (These may be spiritual beliefs or other beliefs.) Those beliefs might come up in our conversation. But that’s because they’re relevant to your problem, not because I might disagree with them. (Any two people are going to have different beliefs about something.) And you always get to decide what you want to discuss and what you don’t. It’s my job to be helpful, with you getting to decide what helpful means to you.
So, do religious beliefs sometimes come up in counseling? Yes. Does it matter what my opinion might be about them? It shouldn’t. You have a right to be supported, and that’s always my goal.
Something in Common
People might feel that if someone doesn’t share their beliefs, they won’t understand their situation. That’s quite possible in some cases. If you have a spiritual problem and you are looking for spiritual guidance, well, I’m not a minister nor a spiritual counselor, so I’m not the person who is going to be most helpful to you.
But one thing that’s very important to ask here is this—is the problem you’re facing really, fundamentally, a spiritual or moral one? Some problems are, but some aren’t. Having a broken arm, cancer or diabetes isn’t a spiritual problem, it’s a physical one. Many psychological problems can have spiritual or moral causes, but many are simply physical (i.e., they are a problem with brain function). If you’ve been relentlessly beaten as a child or ever sexually abused, then there may be spiritual issues involved in some way (the issue of forgiveness could be an example), but the fact that you start shaking when you drive by a certain place or see a picture of it is not—it’s a physical reaction to being traumatized (read about PTSD or childhood trauma here). That’s the part I specialize in.
Treating trauma isn’t fundamentally a matter of spirituality. It’s a matter of helping the brain begin to heal. (Read about trauma treatment.) Like a medical doctor, I’m there to address a certain kind of injury. I’m not there to interfere with your spiritual or religious beliefs. And let’s remember, we all have a lot in common. We’re all people, and we all know struggle and suffering.
Spirituality and Therapy
All that being said, spirituality is important to many people who come to therapy. How will I relate to you as a spiritual person? One word: with respect. I respect everyone’s right to their beliefs. Of course, there will be some beliefs of various kinds that will change during therapy–our beliefs always change a bit as we go through life and learn its lessons. But your beliefs belong to you. Everyone has a way of finding meaning in life, and whatever that is, it’s your resource. Strengthening resources is important in trauma therapy (really, in any therapy). So you don’t have to worry about bringing your spirituality and beliefs into the room. I’ll try to support you in your journey as best I can.
So What am I?
I’m a therapist, a professional who works primarily with trauma/PTSD, addiction and anxiety. I generally don’t disclose many other details about myself—whether it’s politics, religion or other matters. The main reason is this—I don’t want you to think that the only reason I can help you is that I’m like you in some way, or that I can’t help you if I’m different. Neither of those are true, in my experience. I have clients with a lot of different religious beliefs and spiritual practices, many of them different from my own. It all works just fine.
And if you’re working with me on trauma, or PTSD, or something else, and some spiritual issues come up, that’s fine. I’ll support you as a therapist–which means I support you to solve your problems using whatever method you think will be helpful. Your spirituality is an important resource for you, and I always encourage people to use their resources. If you feel you need support on truly spiritual matters, you might be able to get what you need from your minister or a trusted friend. If not, we can look for a religious or spiritual counselor who might help you.