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Spirituality and Therapy: Bridging the Gap

Patient silent prayer on hospital bed.

In generations past, issues of faith and spirituality were often deferred to clergy and chaplains.  It could easily be argued that psychology, as a discipline, has maintained a reputation for reducing issues of faith and belief to mere symptoms of other issues, thereby discrediting the significance and importance of the subject matter itself. However, things are changing.  Ironically, as Len Sperry from Florida Atlantic University recognizes, “[Today], more individuals in various cultural contexts are increasingly seeking out psychotherapists and other practitioners, rather than ministers or spiritual guides, to deal with these concerns or foster their spiritual growth and development.” (Sperry, 2014)  This calls for a new breed of psychotherapist.  One who is not only skilled in matters of psychological, emotional, relational, and cognitive health, but also one who understands the various theoretical approaches to religious studies and the ethical implications of such for their clients.

The subject of spirituality has recently experienced a resurgence of supporters within the discipline of psychotherapy.  Mindfulness  techniques have become essential pillars used in such third generation behavioral therapies as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).  Integrative health models will often include spiritual health alongside emotional, mental, social, and physical health.  But what exactly does spiritual health mean?  What place does religion, belief, faith, and spiritual practice have within a therapeutic setting?  And what role can a therapist serve regarding such issues?
 
Spirituality is such a deeply personal and subjective concept that many mental health clinicians pay little to no attention to it in therapy (except perhaps briefly asking one or two questions while completing a “psychosocial assessment”).  And it’s not their fault. Chances are, such clinicians have had little to no formal education or training on issues of religion, existentialism, or spirituality as a whole.

As a marriage and family therapist by training, I am reminded every session about how my personal experiences, biases, and values affect the therapeutic relationship and overall well-being of my clients.  When I am looking for a therapist to refer colleagues, family members, or friends, I look for the following three qualities:
 

  • A licensed professional with an appropriate level of education/training to treat the particular issues bringing the client into session.

 

  • Someone who authentically recognizes the limits of personal biases (we all have them).

 

  • Someone who empathically collaborates with their clients from a place of acceptance and compassion.

 
When working on issues of faith in a therapeutic setting, the same applies.  If you are interested in working through issues of faith or spirituality with a therapist, I also recommend the following suggestions: Take your time to find someone you feel comfortable with, and who simultaneously challenges you to grow. Be clear about what you are looking for in therapy.  Perhaps it’s wanting to learn how spirituality paired with therapeutic techniques can bolster resiliency.  Perhaps you are experiencing feelings of shame and perfectionistic tendencies which can be counterproductive to living the life you want to live.  Or perhaps you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis of faith and you need the support from a nonjudgemental, yet knowledgeable, third party.  Whatever your needs, find a therapist who you feel understands your journey and is comfortable exploring such sensitive issues with confidence.
*Please be sure to check in on the next article in this three-part series, where we explore the qualities which help define spiritual health, and five benefits of integrating spirituality with psychotherapy.

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Written by Daniel Colver, M.A., LMFT

Daniel Colver is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families, and is completing his Doctor of Behavior Health (DBH – Clinical Track) degree from Arizona State University. His research and clinical interests include individual/couple/family therapy, systems theory, behavioral health innovation, religious studies, and existentialism. Daniel lives in beautiful Utah with his lovely wife, daughter, two dogs, and his motorcycle.

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