Psychotherapy and Spiritual Growth – An Issue of Language and the Tower of Babal

INTRODUCTION: THE NEED FOR A SHARED LANGUAGE

The increased focus and attention on spirituality in our culture is quickly finding its way into the psychotherapy setting. Clients are increasingly interested in their spirituality. It is not uncommon today for therapists to be questioned in the first phone contact with a prospective client as to whether they are qualified or experienced in working with spiritual issues. These clients frequently report that they are not interested in intensive therapy per se; they just want to work on their spirituality.

The words religion and spirituality often create dis-ease and anxiety for those trained as secular counselors and psychotherapists. Many therapists are turning down these “spiritually” focused clients because they work under the illusion and mistaken belief that psychotherapy and spirituality are inherently two very different disciplines.

This is unfortunate since psychotherapy is spiritual formation. Since psychotherapy and spiritual formation use very similar goals and methodologies, secular therapists are frequently the best trained spiritual directors and teachers in our Western culture. In other words, therapists should not be put off by clients interested in spiritual growth.

THE TOWER OF BABEL: THE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE AND THE LANGUAGE OF SPIRITUALITY

The splitting of psychotherapy and spirituality into two apparently different separate disciplines was simply an illusion created when science and religion parted company hundreds of years ago. Science created a language to study the physical world and religion claimed exclusive use of theological language to study God. Both agreed not to intrude into each others realm.

At the time, this was a very helpful distinction in that it allowed scientists to study the physical world without directly threatening the theology and beliefs of the Christian church. Of course it wasn’t long before scientific discoveries in astronomy, evolution, biology, and physics seriously threatened and challenged many of the ancient theological views of the Church.

Even today many conservative scientists and theologians continue the struggle to keep science and spirituality apart. Fortunately, modern quantum physics research is in the process of rejoining the physical world of the scientist and the spiritual world of the mystic into one common unified view of reality.

It is the belief of this author that the disciplines of psychotherapy and spiritual direction need to develop a common language bridge that will allow psychotherapists to accurately and seamlessly reinterpret analytic language and clinical therapeutic process in spiritual terms, and vice versa. Only when such a unified language exists, will psychotherapists learn to be comfortable with spirituality, and spiritual directors less intimidated by psychology.

This article will briefly explore some of the goals and methods used by each of the disciplines, highlight their similarity; and demonstrate how psychotherapy is, in fact, spiritual formation.

IN THE BEGINNING: THE SURVIVAL SKILLS OF CHILDHOOD

In childhood, when we encounter criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, rejection, abandonment, indifference, invisibility, a sense of not feeling heard, or not being understood in the things that matter to us, we experience fear and sadness. There is an anxious sense of danger. We know that somehow we are being attacked and wounded by those who are supposed to love us and care for us.

Two of the primary survival instincts of a human being experiencing danger are isolation and fragmentation. When our world feels dangerous, isolation is the only safe option. We develop a survival skill of spending more and more time alone.

We also learn to fragment or partition off the painful feelings and traumatic memories, and drive them deep into the shadows of our unconscious. This survival skill protects us from feelings that are often much too painful for us to deal with as a child. To feel safe around the dangerous caretakers in our life, we learn to behave in ways that appear to please them. We construct a false “self”. We build a fragile identity of beliefs and behaviors based on who we think we are supposed to be. Day by day, outside of our awareness, our authentic self slowly disappears.

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