Can I discuss my faith in counselling?
In my work as a counsellor I have been surprised to find that issues around faith, religion and spirituality often arise at some point during counselling, even for people who don’t follow a particular religion or spiritual way of life.
I think this is partly because when people come for counselling they are often at a key turning point in their life which is causing them to reassess who they are, their fundamental beliefs and the way they view the world.
Here are some examples of how spiritual issues can arise in counselling:
- A young man whose father has recently died is struggling with questions about what happens to us after death and questioning his Christian faith.
- A young woman from a Muslim family has fallen in love with a male friend at college and is finding it hard to reconcile her desires with her faith and her family’s wishes for her to marry a Muslim.
- A man who is suffering from depression believes that God is punishing him for things he has done in the past.
- A woman who has recently been made redundant feels as though she has lost all sense of purpose and has begun to question what life is all about.
Research by Chris Jenkins in 2006 showed that some clients received a negative reaction from their counsellor when they mentioned their faith in counselling. The counsellors tended to see their beliefs as unhealthy and damaging. This led to clients feeling they had to leave the spiritual part of themselves outside the counselling room, which had a negative impact on their well being and on the authenticity of the counselling relationship.
Of course there are examples of religious beliefs limiting a person’s development or damaging a person’s well-being. Former members of cults talk about how harmful and oppressive the experience was. Sometimes aspects of a religion can be misunderstood and applied by people in power in a way that is controlling and damaging to others.
On the other hand, many people find their religious or spiritual beliefs to be an enormous source of comfort, hope and purpose in life. Far from being unhealthy, spiritual beliefs can improve well being. There is research evidence that people with spiritual beliefs are up to 40% less likely to become depressed and if they do get depressed they are likely to recover faster. Many find that belonging to a faith community is a wonderful way to build meaningful friendships and find mutual support.
So if you are a person of faith looking for a counsellor, what should you consider? Firstly, decide whether it is important to you to see a counsellor from your own faith background.
There are also specific approaches to counselling available which are based closely on different religions. For example:
- Different types of Christian counselling are available, some may use the Bible as a tool for understanding and addressing the client’s issues.
- A Muslim approach to counselling has been developed at the Markfield Institute in Leicestershire, which incorporates the values of Islam.
- Buddhists may find that may find that behavioural/CBT counselling has links to their spiritual practice of “mindfulness”. Zen therapy and core process therapy also have their roots in Buddhism,
Alternatively choose a counsellor who is open to discussing spiritual issues. At your first meeting with the counsellor tell them about your faith and see how they respond. If they seem open and willing to allow you the space to talk about your faith, they may be the right counsellor for you.
If you are committed to a particular religion or have strong spiritual beliefs this is likely to be a central part of who you are as a person and will inform the way you view life. It is important that we feel able to speak freely about our spiritual beliefs in counselling so that every aspect of who we are is brought into the counselling process.
Further reading - See chapter by Chris Jenkins “When clients’ spirituality is denied in therapy” in the forthcoming book Exploring Therapy, Spirituality and Healing, edited by William West.
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