Spirituality and Psychotherapy: How Therapy Can Support Life Transitions

A hand reaches up toward a cloudy sky.The spiritual dimension can surface most unexpectedly. The change process seems to invite it.

People come to therapy because they perceive, at some level, that something about their inner lives needs to change. This sense of impending change can be frightening and confusing. It may involve specific changes one is aware of, such as a difficult choice about staying in a relationship or leaving it; it may involve changes beneath the level of awareness, such as a change of self image that makes it possible to heal from grief, or return emotionally from a war zone, and begin a new phase of life.

Therapy is a type of conversation that helps people figure out what change will mean to them: it can help people bring their vague distress into focus, and express it in the form of a problem. Perhaps a lingering depression is about shaming thoughts, or perhaps it is about neglecting to make time for music. The role of therapy is to help find words for the problem in the midst of the chaos, and to help recognize possible solutions. However, the change process does not always feel like an unstated problem awaiting a solution; sometimes, in the midst of our work, the spiritual dimension is more urgent.

Change becomes a spiritual experience when it is experienced, not only as the work of weighing options or revising thoughts and lifestyles, but as a sacred moment at the edge of personal transformation. At such times, people may wonder, Who am I now? Scary as they may be, moments of transformation do not lend themselves to problem solving strategies, and insisting on using them can feel devaluing.

Instead, a different sort of response is called for, one that responds appropriately to the spiritual dimension of the person’s struggle. Moments of transformation often require people to suspend some trusted assumptions about their lives, without knowing what will replace them. From there, a person must wait for the process of growth to unfold. Perhaps it is a moment when a person realizes they are now living in a foreign land, literally or metaphorically; or perhaps it is the awareness that they are now the older generation, or a pregnancy is detected, or a medical diagnosis is given, or the reality dawns that a relationship is over.

Such moments can take on a numinous quality, a sense of the sacred, and become a landmark that will be forever remembered. This happens whether the people involved are religious or not; everyone has a spiritual life, in this broad sense, and everyone has moments that become more than just the unfolding of a story, but an invitation to a spiritual journey.

Sacred moments have much to teach, even when they are difficult moments. Our role in the healing professions, then, may be to help the person discern when something is a problem, and when it is a challenge to which we must first bear witness, before we interrupt something valuable. Life transitions, the moments at the edge of something new, are spiritually significant. Becoming awake to this significance may require spiritual support. On the other hand, the threshold can be a lonely place to get stuck, and a therapeutic response can be very comforting. The spiritual and the therapeutic relationships can happen together, but they should not be confused.

© Copyright 2010 by Lynn Schlossberger LPC, therapist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • AF

    AF

    April 17th, 2010 at 12:34 AM

    spirituality has helped a lot of people including me in connecting with their inner selves.it is like a window to the side of us that we do not quite know as much.

  • Ashleigh

    Ashleigh

    April 17th, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    I have always felt that the more spiritually evolved a person is the better his life is bound to be. Having a belief in a power greater than you are gives you the faith and the knowledge that He is in control and can give you all that you need to make it through every situation thrown your way. I know that my faith and my beliefs make me stronger and I hope that it does the same for others.

  • Lewis T.

    Lewis T.

    April 18th, 2010 at 8:09 PM

    i strongly believe that spirituality and psychotherapy are deeply inter-connected because both require mental attention and both are treading on the same topics of calm and peace and a getaway from problems.

  • Sandra

    Sandra

    April 19th, 2010 at 3:14 AM

    I think that it is wonderful that so many therapists are now helping to promote a spirituality among their clients as a way to promote healing for them. Having a belief in something is a very powerful thing, and knowing that no matter what happens you will always have your faith is a strength like nothing else can give. Thanks to those who are actively promoting this message- I think that there are going to be a lot of good people who will benefit as a result of this type of work, both the givers and the receivers.

  • Gary

    Gary

    June 18th, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    I think you are blurring the lines between religion and healthcare. I wonder if therapists would be as supportive of religious personnel doing “therapy” and getting paid for it as much as therapists seem to indulge in religious practices and psychotherapy. Therapists are not, and should not be religious practitioners peddling faith as a licensed helthcare service. I think this is dangerous, unethical and should be illegal.

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    July 28th, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    Actually, Gary, I’m making a distinction between religion and spirituality. Religious belief is personal and does not belong in the therapeutic setting. Spirituality, however, is the domain of the quest for a meaningful life, a universal human experience that does not belong only to religious practitioners. It is those concerns that I am addressing here. My training is in the contemplative tradition. I too would advise caution about entering into any sphere of counseling practice without appropriate training.

    Supporting the client in exploring what is sacred to them in the midst of daily life, or what decisions are compatible with their sense of self, does not imply adherence to any particular theological viewpoint. None is offered; professional ethics requires that boundary be respected. I share your concern.

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