At times during the past decade in my spiritual psychotherapy practice, I’ve advised a skeptical patient to have faith in the process. This is usually in response to a question about how and when he/she will know whether or not the therapy is working.
When I think of my response, it really is a paradox, considering that many if not most people who come to me for help have lost faith – in themselves, in their parents long ago and sometimes in the God of their understanding.
To deal with this paradox, what I generally do is first acknowledge the person’s doubts (and in reality fears – “I’m spending all this money, how will I know it’s going to pay off?”) and suggest that together we give it a try and see what happens. I’ve come to understand that it’s never a good idea to try to talk someone into having faith in any form if they do not.
If faith can be defined as “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea or thing…” it is not surprising that having faith is more difficult than it appears to be.
The reason is that having faith requires:
- An ability to put one’s trust in another person (in the form of the therapist or priest)
- The humility to ask for help (admitting a certain amount of helplessness)
- A belief that the person or divinity can actually help
- The presence of a positive attitude towards the outcome
- An awareness of the importance of not letting shame and pride interfere with the work – I hear the shame and pride sometimes in the form of a rhetorical question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” To which I reply, “That’s why you’re here and that’s why you’re paying me.”
- The confidence to be vulnerable with one’s self and another human being.
For many people, that’s a long and difficult list of requirements.
My approach in light of the difficulties inherent in having faith for many people is to work with what I’ve got. I will say to a client who seems to have little faith, “well, you’re here aren’t you”. That implies you must have some hope and I might be able to help you. We may explore the idea of shame and pride – those partners in crime that keep people from seeking the help they clearly need. This exploration can mean investigating the idea of stigma and the cultural and familial values that discourage sharing one’s private business with others. We may also examine the fear of being vulnerable, often in terms of how parents responded to the child when they were vulnerable in the past.
In addition, if the patient is willing, we explore the spiritual/religious experiences they have had. Is there a notion of God or a Higher Power? Has the person been disappointed by God? What spiritual/religious values (if any) was the person raised with? Does the person still resonate with those family values or are they seeking something different?
By creating a safe environment, ideally, all of this exploration helps the patient share their most vulnerable self. It creates a healthy dependence on the therapist so that the patient can internalize the therapist’s positive regard, consistency, and empathy. It helps the patient develop a tolerance for disappointment and the ability to be honest with self and others. It can repair wounds from the past and create openness to spiritual faith in the future.
In good hands, a patient can find the faith that was lost and ultimately heal.
© Copyright 2010 by Kalila Borghini, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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