What role does spirituality and our worldviews have in counseling?
I recently had a great conversation with a young man who is contemplating about going into the counseling field. He asked a really simple question which was “what do they actually teach you in graduate school?“ Besides all of the clinical skills and knowledge about the psychology field, a good portion of this knowledge has to do with the philosophies and core beliefs about people. In the psychology world, this is often referred to as theoretical orientations.
I used to think that knowing psychological theories were so abstract that it was merely academic and not very practical. Now that I’ve been counseling for a number of years, I have come to realize that this is not the case. Knowing your theories is crucial to the work because it allows the psychologist to more thoroughly understand the human experience and provide some structure around life that can sometimes feel random and chaotic. When a professional is able to highlight certain themes and explain possible reasons as to why someone is experiencing their current challenges, that insight is actually an intervention that can help people feel more in control and thus less overwhelmed.
I want to propose that if any mental health professional claims that he or she is completely neutral, objective, and philosophy-free, they are lying to both you and him or herself. Some therapists would like to think that they are completely objective and can give you advice that is value-free but to have beliefs and feelings about different topics is to be human. It is like saying that you are a non-denominational Christian which is in fact a kind of denomination! The psychologist and everything that he or she represents is the healing agent and tool in counseling. Therapists are people and therefore come with their own set of beliefs and understandings of why things are the way they are. As you can guess, what psychologists believe about health, sickness, and relationships will impact the way they guide the therapy.
That being said, I believe people are spiritual beings. They may not all ascribe to the same beliefs but there is something deeper within people beyond what the 5 senses can inform. The real question is whether or not an individual is ready to have that conversation. I honestly believe that if counselors never ask clients about their spiritual backgrounds or beliefs, then those counselors are doing the clients a great disservice. In fact, for some clients their spiritual beliefs really define who they are as people. To never be asked about spirituality, it could be missing a huge part of their identity. The meaning that people create about themselves and the world is largely determined by their beliefs and worldview.
For example, a psychologist who describes him or herself with a Humanistic psychology theoretical orientation would believe that people are inherently good and desire to grow. Human suffering is a result of needs being unmet due to barriers from the environment and other people that keep their good from coming out. At the core, people want to continually grow and can essentially heal themselves. The goal of life is to be “self actualized“ which means to fully know oneself and live out their passions (apart from God). The role of the therapist is to provide unconditional, positive acceptance to the client so that the client will figure out how to change organically from within oneself. There is a strong emphasis on the self.
In contrast, a psychologist with a Christian worldview may believe that God created people to be relational and healthy. People were made by intelligent design and a purpose in mind. Human suffering is the results of pride, selfishness, and the misuse of things that were inherently good. Healing occurs when people are aware of their dysfunctions, experiences genuine care, utilizes their strengths, partner with healthy relationships, renews unhelpful thinking, and re-aligns with their true identity (among other things). Psychology is simply healing from God using tools with a different set of language.
As you can see, the mental health professionals’ worldview will determine the kind of questions they ask and interventions they will use. I believe the intentions of most counselors are good with a strong desire to help people. The question then becomes “Do you agree with their end goal of health for you as a individual?” I would say that many therapists utilize a variety of psychological theories to provide the best care. Keep in mind that I’ve provided a small sample of only two of the many psychological theories out there!
As a consumer of counseling, it is important to know your therapist’s worldview. Feel free to ask about their understanding of health, pathology, and even purpose for living. Some therapists may feel uncomfortable with such level of self-disclosure but I believe that it is important as a client to know some of these things because therapists will be guiding your treatment based on their core beliefs and worldview. For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.