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Spirituality and Psychotherapy: What’s God Got To Do With It?

As with all professions, there’s a diversity of spiritual belief among psychotherapists, ranging from the atheists to devout Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. There are those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and those who would say they’re agnostic, always questioning. Some outright label themselves as “Buddhist Psychologists” or “Christian Therapists.” Except in the latter case, it’s generally presumed that psychotherapy and spirituality are separate disciplines, and never the twain shall meet.

I have often wondered though, how a truly great therapist can be utterly godless. Surely it is helpful to have some construct in one’s mind that god, the universe, or some other greater sense of structure, belonging, and control might exist. Not only are we constantly exposed to the complex mysteries of the human brain, mind, heart, and soul, but we are also constantly exposed to the trauma, torture, disease, anger, loneliness, and sadness that brings people to our offices. All of these things are often inflicted by one human being upon another human being (child abuse, spousal abuse, introduction to addictive substances, etc.). There is a powerful depth of sadness present in the fabric and content of my work. It is especially present in issues of grief and loss, chronic illness, or terminal illness.

I always ask my clients about their spiritual background, beliefs, and practices. While I’m not qualified to be a spiritual counselor of any sort, this information gives me a context for a life, and helps to complete the description of a person. For some people, god is an explanation, a support, and a source of strength. For others, god is an excuse, or a punishing figure. Whether god is important to us personally, or in the moment, questions of god often lurk in the background. So for me, god may not be the main course, but s/he is surely present in many ways.

For example, if I have a client who lost her virginity as a result of rape, and she is a staunch Catholic, I know it’s likely that feelings of guilt and shame will be even more prominent for her. If someone had a punishing experience in parochial school and rejects organized religion, I know this is a deep wound, and the person’s sense of belonging and support has been taken away, along with their faith. When a client is suicidal, it is often faith in god, or a belief that god wouldn’t approve of suicide, that keeps the person from attempting suicide. Whether I believe in his or her form of god or not, I’ll take whatever help I can get!

In dealing with issues of chronic illness, and in particular PCOS, there’s often a lot of questioning: “Why me?” “Why did god do this to me?” “Isn’t god supposed to heal me, not make me sick?” These are important issues and needs to explore in therapy. Spirituality often relates to:

• feeling a sense of belonging;
• having faith that there is a reason, even if it’s unclear, for suffering;
• sense of powerlessness;
• ability to control;
• anger;
• need to assign blame;
• development of hopefulness;
• sources of shame, especially as related to sexuality; and
• need for explanations.

Of course it’s not just spirituality or god that provides the answers to these big questions. But in the therapist’s toolbox, addressing spirituality and how it presents in your life is part of the process of developing greater internal strength. God may be part of that. Allowing me to know you in this way is an important part of knowing how you think, what you believe in, where you feel strong, and where you feel weak, so that I can help you to repair the gaps. The ability to access my intuition and connection to a spiritual source helps me to context suffering, illness, trauma, and grief in a way that allows me to remain focused on what you need. It may also be a resource I can draw your attention back to when the going gets tough. In a nutshell, that’s what god’s got to do with it.

Gretchen Kubacky, Psy.D. is a Health Psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. She has completed the inCYST training. She specializes in counseling women and couples who are coping with infertility, PCOS, and related endocrine disorders and chronic illnesses.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. HOUSE or her practice, or obtain referrals in the Los Angeles area, please visit her website at www.drhousemd.com, or e-mail her at AskDrHouseMD@gmail.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @askdrhousemd.

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