Spirituality and Counseling

Spirituality, from the Latin spiritus, refers to a sense of, or belief in, something bigger than, beyond, or outside oneself. Individual spirituality is often seen as a connection among oneself, others, and that which is beyond oneself and others. In addition, some scholars have referred to spirituality as a holistic connection with the divine or the breath that animates life. Some see spirituality in terms of people’s attempts to understand the ultimate nature of things in the universe; in this way, spirituality shares commonalities with some philosophies. Finally, others relate spirituality to psychological health; that is, the person on a spiritual path is also seeking psychological balance and well-being.

Spirituality is often combined and/or confused with religion. There is a lack of consensus among professionals regarding the similarities and differences where spirituality and religion are concerned, which has resulted in a frequent merging of the two constructs. There are, however, some agreed-upon ways to articulate the differences between spirituality and religion. For example, spirituality has been seen as encompassing religion; that is, religion is a form of spirituality. In addition, spirituality is typically seen as a construct that resides within an individual and connotes a personal relationship with a higher power. In contrast, religion is a social institution, with rules and hierarchies for salvation. As a result of this difference, religions tend to proscribe a path to enlightenment or nirvana, while the spiritual person would suggest that there are many ways to achieve the desired goals regarding psychological and spiritual well-being.

Manifestations of Personal Spirituality

There is no one “right” way to be spiritual. To that end, spirituality can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Some examples of personal manifestations of spirituality include prayer, meditation, yoga, physical exercise, laughter, breathing exercises, worship, rituals, fasting, imagery creation, Bible/Qur’an/Talmud study, pastoral counseling, and quoting sacred texts. It is important to note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive.

Spirituality in the Counseling Process

Like many things in a counseling relationship, the spirituality of the counselor and client can significantly impact the therapeutic process. The spiritual beliefs of both the therapist and the client should be viewed as important characteristics that may affect counseling.

For clients, their spirituality should be considered as important to the therapeutic process as any other salient variable, especially clients for whom spirituality is central to their identity or cultural self-description. For some clients, spirituality provides a lens or worldview with which they see and interact with others in their environment. For highly spiritual clients, then, counselors should be sure to attend to the client’s spiritual orientation, as it is likely to facilitate the client’s exploration of the problem(s) that brought him or her to counseling. In addition, counseling professionals will obtain a more complete understanding of their clients by attending to the client’s spirituality. Of course, some clients might not feel comfortable talking about spirituality with their counselor because they might assume that spirituality is a taboo topic in counseling.

For counselors, there are two conditions in which spirituality affects the counseling process. First, the counselor can facilitate the client’s disclosure by welcoming, and perhaps even inquiring about, the client’s spirituality in session. In this way, the counselor must provide a safe environment for the client to discuss his or her personal spirituality. Honoring the client’s spirituality can be as effective as being empathic and sensitive to the client’s other aspects of identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and socioeconomic status.

Second, the personal spirituality of the counselor can also assist in the development and strengthening of the counseling relationship. For example, many counselors endorse having spiritual beliefs that serve as guiding principles for their lives. This view of self and others can be facilitative with regard to the counselor’s understanding and conceptualization of the client’s behavior, history, and worldview. The counselor who understands the role of spirituality in his or her own life, even if that means no spirituality, will be better prepared to attend to the client’s personal spirituality as it might emerge in the counseling process.

Effectively discussing spirituality between the counselor and client has the potential to establish a sound working alliance, especially where there is some shared perceptions regarding spirituality. Through the counselor’s welcoming of spirituality into the treatment room, the client may feel more comfortable in disclosing those aspects of him- or herself, especially as they relate to the presenting problem(s). At the minimum, counselors should attend to the client’s spirituality if and when the client raises that issue as part of the counseling process. To ignore a client’s sense of spirituality is to deny what could be a vital, if not central, aspect of the client’s identity. In sum, clients will be better served by counseling professionals who attend to spirituality in their clients and who have sought to understand what role, if any, spirituality plays in their own lives.

Spirituality in the Lives of People of Color

It is important to attend to spiritual concerns in all clients; however, with clients of color it may be even more critical to understand the role that spirituality plays in their lives. Continuous experiences with social intolerance (i.e., prejudice, racism, discrimination, and oppression) have been primary forces causing a deepened level of spirituality for many people of color. These forces, both powerful and harmful, often have negative psychological impacts; some examples include heightened levels of anxiety, frustration, depression, and identity confusion. As a result, people of color seek refuge from this intolerance through spirituality; this is done to comfortably connect their internal selves with the surrounding world and a self-defined higher power or higher being. Through personal spirituality, people of color find ways of transcending difficult social situations and recognizing the positive aspects of unfortunate circumstances. Hence, spirituality plays an integral part in the lives of people of color by empowering them with renewed hope and strength to endure despite daily personal and social struggles.

Spirituality as a Coping Mechanism

Spiritual practices and beliefs are relevant across all racial and cultural groups, providing coping mechanisms for a variety of stressors. The use of spiritual techniques may help people view difficult or challenging situations in a more positive light by identifying personal meaning in the face of adversity. This could, in turn, lead to acceptance and possibly appreciation of negative experiences. Belief in a higher power may also serve as a powerful resource for clients in terms of feeling supported in the face of struggles. In sum, embracing spirituality can be a powerful tool for building personal strength and enhancing resiliency for the challenges of daily living.


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