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Spirituality in Therapy

Spirituality has a very broad meaning to therapy clients. It may mean active participation in one of the 5 major world religions in a formal and organized way, or they may no longer be practicing but still hold beliefs informed by these. Spirituality may also be practices that come together to culminate as a personalize belief system, such as spending time in nature, meditation, personal prayer, music, and candles, among others. Some clients may feel estranged from the concept of spirituality due to negative experiences that have left lasting effects on a client, such as ostracization and abuse. And others simply not have any spiritual inclinations, one way or another. In whatever shape or form our clients' spirituality may present itself, therapists need to make space in therapy for these facets of their clients.

As therapists, we are trained to ask in our assessments about family, work/school, life goals, and challenges. Yet, while gender, sexuality, and culture are identities we frequently inquire about when meeting a new client, spirituality is frequently forgotten. There may be many reasons for this, including fear of discomfort and feeling unprepared to hold what might arise. Discomfort could surface as spirituality is often seen as not having a place in public society as the practice is inherently intimately personal. It's this very reason why spirituality ought to be invited into the therapy room.

By not asking about spirituality, clients may not know they can bring these parts and experiences into the therapeutic space, causing a therapist to miss rich and important therapeutic material. Clients could omit practices that are soothing to them, or values and ethics that inform their decision-making and view of themselves, others, and the world. They could forego processing what socio-political issues they are struggling with and how these impact their relationships with friends, family, spiritual community, and even themselves. Even clients who may not be spiritual might find themselves reverting to spiritual lenses from their family of origin during important life events, such as loss, transitions, and crises.

As individuals, therapists may have reservations about inviting spirituality into the therapeutic space, including a fear that they may not have knowledge about the client’s specific spiritual tradition. The therapist may also not be spiritual themself, or practice a different religion from their client. These are important questions for a therapist to consider. However, the answer may lie in the understanding that spirituality within the therapeutic space is not pastoral care (although, there are wonderful therapists who solely dedicate themselves to this work!). The therapist does not need to be an expert. All they need to bring into the room is compassion, genuine curiosity and interest, and an open mind. Therapists are not required to disclose their own spiritual beliefs or even lack thereof. Just like we make room for other identities, like gender and race, we can also make room for spiritual identities.

Aside from making room, a therapist can appreciate a client’s spirituality as a window into their values, morals, and ethical beliefs. This understanding can inform a therapist’s treatment of the client, and help move the client towards a direction in life that is more integrated and syntonic with their belief system. It's a fundamental truth that we are more at peace when our actions are aligned with our values.

Similarly, as a therapist does work with clients around narratives and meaning-making, the client’s spiritual identity can be interweaved in these, helping clients identify their resiliency and making sense of past and present challenges. Moreover, spiritual communities can be of great importance to many clients, increasing their sense of belonging and connection.

As a therapist, I find that being open to exploring my client’s spirituality enables me to better accompany them with what they may be struggling with. There is a richness in exploring their spirituality that frequently helps to assist in the acceptance of what seems insurmountable, strengthen their connections to their chosen communities, and help them hold on to hope.

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