Often people come into therapy on the recommendation of a religious leader or spiritual director. In my practice I often work with people who identify as Christian (My Master’s degree in Counseling comes from a seminary), and many others who are SBNR (Spiritual but not religious).
Therapy often starts by addressing the sense of guilt and failure people have for “needing” therapy. People of faith are especially prone to feeling disappointed, angry, or ashamed that they couldn’t figure out a way for their faith to heal them. On top of “I feel this way/am having this problem” there is a belief that “If I were a better Christian, I wouldn’t feel this way/have this problem.”
I would argue that individual therapy is essential to a life of faith, because Your Theology is Your Psychology. In other words, your beliefs about God have their roots in your early relational experiences, and have been added to over time by other influences. The Christian faith is a religion based on relationship (God to God, God to humanity, humanity to itself), which means that one’s own relational schema (the unconscious beliefs about relationships and your place in them) is a super important, if not the most important, aspect of faith. Psychotherapy gives us a chance to recognize and articulate what these “roots” of faith have been in our own lives.
As humans, our earliest relational experiences happen when we are babies, looking up at the faces of our caregivers, and being held by them (or, sometimes, not held enough). We take in our mothers’ and fathers’ faces as they gaze at us, and we know what their expressions— be they pride, love, fear, or disgust— mean before we ever know the words for those feelings. I often tell people that when it comes to relationship, we learn 90% of what we know in the first two years of life, then we learn to speak. This means that our deepest beliefs about relationship are the things we never actually articulate. Generally, we are unaware of them in our daily lives.
See the problem? What we believe most deeply, we believe underneath the level of language. So when we start to learn language about God, the words don’t always touch our unconscious, visceral experience. We might read in the Bible or hear from a pulpit that God is Love, God is just and God is merciful, but if we don’t have enough early, now-unconscious experiences of kindness, mercy, and grace, then we don’t have a framework for God to be those things.
In therapy, we begin to put words to what we believe but don’t realize we believe. I had a colleague once who, in his work at a Christian counseling center, would ask therapy clients to describe God. People would respond with the usual Judeo-Christian answers: God is Just, Kind, Strong, Tender, Loving. Then he’d ask them, “What does God’s face look like when God looks at you?” The disparity would be huge— people envisioned God’s disapproving face, judgmental face, God’s barely-concealed irritation underneath a phony smile.
Words lie, faces do not. Our words— for God, and for our selves— cover our true, moment-to-moment, face-to-face experience. We can so easily bury our actual experience of God underneath many words— depending on our tradition, they might be words of scripture, or prayer, or songs or liturgy. Sometimes our language makes it impossible to know our real experience. Sometimes we have to picture a face, and recognize how our mental image of God’s face may reflect other faces from our early lives.
While many people have truly beautiful and transformative conversion experiences, religion/spirituality is never a way out of our own psyche; Rather, there is an interplay between our theology and our psychology. Our psychological and emotional structures, largely created in our early lives, shape our ideas of God/Spirit. And the reverse is true too: Developing a relationship with a God who is Love can profoundly heal old relational wounds (So this article might also be titled, Your Psychology is Your Theology). Therapy can facilitate both this healing process, and the understanding of our own relational story.
When people call me looking for a “Christian Therapist,” I usually explain that I am a traditional therapist, meaning, I don’t give any spiritual guidance or advice, I don’t practice prayer inside therapy sessions. Rather, I offer what psychotherapy has always offered; A chance to identify places of relational or emotional pain, a place to feel what is too confusing or scary to feel alone, and a regular time to consider what experiences created your (unconscious) view of others and of God. The ultimate goal of therapy— whether for atheists, Christians, SBNR’s, Buddhists, whoever— is to soften the hardened, scared, defensive places enough to let in the love of others—- including (perhaps) the love of God.