Spirituality in Therapy (or “M.Div.?”)

hope, freedom and spiritualityWhenever I give my business card out, people are quick to point out the “M.Div.” after my name. It is usually followed by, “You went to seminary?” Often followed by, “Do you only work with Christians?” And, then, “Do you only work from a religious perspective?”

So the answers to the questions are “yes”, “no” and “no”.

“M.Div.”, by the way, stands for “Master’s of Divinity”. And trust me, there is no such thing as “mastering the divine”. The more I learn, the more questions I have and the more I realize I don’t know.

Before going any further, I do have to start off by saying that I did grow up in the church and I self-identify as someone who has a relationship with God. My spirituality is a very big part of who I am as a person, how I choose to live and greatly informs my life and work with respect to the nature of relationships, problems and being human. It helps me to understand myself, myself in relation to others, myself in relation to the human collective, and that I am a work in progress.

Notice that I am using the word “spirituality”. By this I mean having a sense of connection and/or relationship with something that is bigger than myself. Relationships can be life-nourishing or they can be life-diminishing. In other words, you relate somehow to a greater being, energy or power. Not having a relationship is also a relationship of sorts, in the same way that not communicating is communication. (Surprise!)

I had two main reasons for attending seminary. First, when I began my undergrad in Psychology (go U of T!), there was no discussion of how spirituality could be addressed within a therapeutic context. I had noticed there was almost nothing being discussed about how spirituality impacts (both positively and negatively) many areas of a person’s life. Some find it comforting, others painful and others still who want to have nothing to do with it or are simply indifferent. The dominant conversation came from a Christian perspective and focused on how to quote scripture, praying in sessions and, to a large degree, using the therapeutic context as a means to proselytize (a fancy word that means to encourage someone to convert to a particular religion). Even today, the question of whether therapy is an appropriate place to discuss spirituality is passionately debated. The conversation can get quite heated and often ends with some reference to Hitler. (I am always fascinated by this phenomenon, by the way. There’s even a name for it – Godwin’s Law.)

The silence regarding spirituality in the mainstream literature, I believe, got translated into “you can’t talk about your faith/spirituality in therapy”. However, not discussing someone’s spirituality in therapy doesn’t make sense to me if it is important to my client and if they want to make it a part of the conversation. Spirituality is strongly linked to ideas of meaning, values, purpose, and direction – the very stuff of therapy. How can you not discuss something that someone thinks of as a serious component of their well-being (or their not well-being)? If spirituality is an important part of your life, you should be able to talk about it in therapy. In this sense, discussing spirituality in therapy becomes a discussion just like any other discussion and not a tool used by the therapist for the purpose of therapeutic change.

…many of life’s most basic questions (who we are, our purpose, why we are here, etc. ) are directly connected to spirituality….

During my years at seminary, it was really important to me to figure out how to discuss spirituality in ways that are respectful, nonjudgmental, from a position of curiosity, and detached from my own beliefs. For those who are spiritual, many of life’s most basic questions (who we are, our purpose, why we are here, etc. ) are directly connected to spirituality and, for many, these same questions have a profound, existential, and spiritual meaning that shouldn’t be ignored. And, I wanted to be able to have these conversations regardless of how people self identify in terms of religion, spirituality or faith.

I remember the first time I asked a client, “Is spirituality or faith an important part of your life?” The client looked at me in shock and asked, “I can talk about that here? I didn’t think I could.”

Being sensitive to the role that religion and spirituality play in a person’s life potentially opens the door to more and different solutions as well as possibilities that may have not been previously considered. It can also bring a very beautiful aspect of the human experience into therapy.

My second reason to choose to attend seminary came as a result of hearing from others about their negative experiences with therapists who claimed to work from a spiritual perspective. More recently, I often get clients who have come out the other end of therapy with a previous therapist having been harmed rather than helped when their spirituality came up.

The complaints I often heard, and continue to hear, are:

1. “I felt judged.”
2. “Our sessions turned into a debate. The therapist was trying to convince me that what I believed was wrong.”
3. “He only quoted scripture at me and we didn’t really get anywhere.”
4. “She told me I had made the wrong decision. I should have done it her way.”
5. “I came out of sessions feeling like I was bad or there was something wrong with me.”
6. “He turned everything into a spiritual issue.”

So, if you are hoping to discuss something from the perspective of your faith or spirituality, here are some things you might want to look for in order to spot a therapist who knows what they are doing:

1. They ask more questions than make statements. Questions are geared towards understanding your particular perspective and the quality of the questions will tell you whether they are listening to you.
2. They will not assume what you mean if you use jargon that is particular to your beliefs. To me, “I’m a Christian” says nothing more than there might be some belief in there about God and Christ; “Muslim” means some type of beliefs around Allah and the Prophet Mohammed; “a higher power” could mean Gaya or collective consciousness…or something else altogether. They will look for clarity and will not assume their understanding of what you said is what you actually meant. So, again, they will ask lots of questions.
3. They will not tell you what the “right” thing to do is. They will explore your options with you and discuss the potential consequences of the choices you feel might be possible. Then you will make your choice because it is yours to make.
4. They will not say, “I told you so.”
5. They will support you in your choices and allow you to own your choices even when they are worried about the choice you eventually make and the impact it may have on you.
6. They will help you generate the solutions you feel may help to resolve the questions or struggles that you have. In this way, the solutions sit comfortably within your beliefs, make sense to you and resonate with who you are.
7. You feel free to say, “I want to pray about that this week”, “I want to meditate on that before next session”, “I would like to discuss this with my priest”, “This is not a spiritual/faith issue”, or “That sounded like you were judging me.”
8. They are sensitive to not only religion, faith and spirituality but also to age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, power and privilege issues, and race.

So, yes, I have an M.Div., but it might not mean what you think it means.