Tag Archives: Spiritual

CBT and Spirituality

Evening Snow Absarokee

We have a friend who is the pastor of a church in Absarokee, Montana. My impression is that she frequently talks about theories of counseling and psychotherapy . . . even though I’m sure she hasn’t planned to integrate psychological theory into her sermons. The fact that I hear psychological theories as she talks theology is just another way in which the lens of the listener frames what is heard, seen, and experienced.

Today she was preaching about feelings of inferiority. She made the case, as Adler would, that inferiority feelings are natural and normal. Then she shifted to God’s acceptance or grace. Surprisingly (to me) her focus on acceptance reminded me of Albert Ellis’s REBT and his concept of universal self-acceptance. Although my friend was speaking about God’s acceptance of all humans, regardless of our warts and behaviors, I found myself thinking of times when I’ve heard parents express deep acceptance of their children and of when clients have strived to experience greater self-acceptance.

All this brought me to a place where I started thinking about how Ellis and his REBT model might actually have a spiritual dimension. “That was pleasantly unexpected” I thought to myself . . . which prompted me to write this Sunday evening spirituality post.

The following is an excerpt (preview) from the cognitive behavior chapter of the forthcoming 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. Please let me know what you think.

CBT and Spirituality

Like all therapists, cognitive behavior therapists work with religious or spiritual clients. Given that cognitively oriented therapists routinely identify and challenge (either through disputation or collaborative empiricism) client beliefs, there’s a risk that clients’ deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs might also be challenged. Additionally, practiced as a radical modernist scientific paradigm, CBT has been critiqued for overlooking transcendence, grace, and evil (Stewart-Sicking, 2015).

Looking at the situation logically (which cognitive theorists would appreciate), CBT practitioners have three options:

  1. Ignore client religion and spirituality.
  2. Freely challenge religious beliefs, whenever they cause emotional distress.
  3. Integrate religious/spiritual knowledge into practice in a way that supports nuanced discussions of religion and spirituality. Unhelpful or irrational thoughts might be questioned, as needed, but not central religious values (Johnson, 2013).

Historically, cognitive therapists have followed these first two options, mostly ignoring religion, or questioning its rational foundations (Andersson & Asmundson, 2006; Nielsen & Ellis, 1994). However, in the past decade or two, interest in integrating religion/spirituality into counseling and psychotherapy has increased (Stewart-Sicking, 2015).

It can help to think about client religion/spirituality as a multicultural/diversity issue. If so, the general guide is for therapists to (a) seek awareness of their own spiritual and religious attitudes and how they might affect counseling process and specific clients, (b) obtain relevant knowledge about religion/spirituality, (c) learn religion/spirituality specific skills, and (d) advocate for individuals who are oppressed on the basis of religion/spirituality as needed and as appropriate. Each of these cultural competence components can be stimulating for individual practitioners.

For practitioners interested in religion/spirituality integration with cognitive approaches, the following two areas can provide focus for further training and development.

Gain and Apply Scriptural Knowledge with Clients

Gaining knowledge regarding how to use specific religious scriptures to dispute irrational or maladaptive cognitions may seem daunting. However, from an REBT perspective, Nielsen (2001) wrote:

Since clients usually upset themselves through their awfulizing, demanding, frustration intolerance, and human rating, REBTers need only search Scriptures that decatastrophize life, suggest forbearance in the face of uncontrollable people and situations, tolerance of life’s frustrations, and that affirm basic human equality. The prominent religious writings of most major world religions emphasize such rational values. (p. 38)

Using scriptural knowledge would be most appropriate when working with clients who have similar religious beliefs. Nielsen (2001) is advocating general knowledge, but general knowledge could prove problematic. For example, if a Jewish therapist quoted the Koran to a Muslim client, the discussion might quickly shift away from being therapeutic. On the other hand, having general knowledge, if used sensitively, could represent appreciation of religious diversity and enhance the working alliance.

Use Spiritual Principles of Acceptance for Managing Disturbing Cognitions.

Contemporary CBT approaches (covered in Chapter 14) offer an alternative way of viewing and handling so-called irrational or maladaptive cognitions. These approaches include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). ACT, DBT, and MBCT integrate religious/spiritual philosophy (e.g., Buddhism, contemplative Christian, etc.) and generally view cognitions as disturbing, but not necessarily pathological. Acceptance of all cognitions is advocated; encouraging clients to dispute or restructure their thoughts, memories, and experiences can increase suffering (Hayes, 2016).



Person-Centered Spirituality

Rogerian Spirituality

Most of the distinct figures who developed major theories of psychotherapy also had distinct views about religion and spirituality. As you may recall, Freud was antagonistic toward religion. One of the interesting parts of exploring how each theoretical orientation deals with spirituality has involved learning a bit more about the religious and spiritual perspectives of people like Freud, Adler, and others.

In chapter 5 of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice, the focus is on Carl Rogers. Other than knowing that he was raised in a conservative Christian family, I didn’t know much about Rogers and his personal spirituality. Here’s a sampling of what I discovered.

Person-Centered Spirituality

On his journey to developing person-centered theory and therapy, Carl Rogers renounced traditional Christianity. Given that all religions, including Christianity, can be viewed as directly imposing judgmental conditions of worth, Rogers’s renouncing Christianity as antithetical to his beliefs is not surprising. In particular, Rogers may have been especially reactive to religious dogma because of his childhood experiences in an extremely conservative Christian family. Thorne (1990) proposed that Rogers broke from Christianity, at least in part, over the doctrine of original sin.

Although he died an agnostic, toward the end of his life, Rogers began speaking about transcendental or mystical experiences (Thorne, 1992). These spiritual statements were mostly made in the context of interpersonal mutuality and human connection, derived from person-centered or I-Thou experiences. Within the person-centered world, his statements about spirituality have been viewed as controversial (Fruehwirth, 2013). In an interview with Elizabeth Sheerer, one of Rogers’s early colleagues at the University of Chicago Counseling Center, Sheerer was asked about why Rogers never formally addressed spirituality. Her response included:

That’s Carl. This was an area of difficulty for Carl. We learned early in the game not to talk about religion with Carl … it was uncomfortable for him …. But, of course, his work is so profoundly influenced by his background in Christianity. I don’t think he could have developed without that background. (Barrineau, 1990, pp. 423–424)

There have been contemporary efforts to build a bridge between spirituality and PCT. On example is Fruehwirth’s (2013) work connecting PCT and Christian contemplation. He proposed that if wordless contemplation can be regarded as “the heart of the Christian spiritual tradition” (p. 370), then parallels can be drawn to wordless contemplation and the PCT experience. Similarly, a case can be made connecting the acceptance doctrine of Christian, Buddhist, and other religious viewpoints with the PCT process.

Overall, it seems reasonable that, for some therapists and clients, the deep interpersonal acceptance inherent in the PCT experience might have religious, spiritual, or mystical components. Spiritual-based acceptance is probably the main place where an integration of PCT and religion/spirituality can occur. In contrast, wherever and whenever judgment flows from religious doctrine, religion and PCT are incompatible.


Existential Spirituality

Bikes Snow 2

An impromtu word search of the existential theory chapter for the 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice revealed 17 appearances of the word “spirituality.” That’s nice. Seventeen is a prime number. Seventeen is also one of my favorite spiritual numbers. Back in 2nd grade in Sunday school in a synagogue in Portland, my teacher asked us to guess a number from 1 to 20. The winner had the honor of taking a special Bible story book home for the week. My guess was a perfect 17. I got the book for the week. Obviously, the number 17 is a spiritual force in my life.

More important is the sublime integration of spirituality into existential theory. Or not. It seems to go one way or another. Either existential theorists are deeply spiritual/religious or they’re atheist/agnostic. There is no middle ground. Or maybe there is? [More on this conundrum below]

What follows are several short excerpts from the Existential Theory chapter. These excerpts culminate with the short section on Existential Spirituality.

Soren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) lived nearly his entire life in Copenhagen. Kierkegaard was devoutly religious. He was shaken when he discovered, at age 22, that his father had not only cursed God, but also seduced his mother prior to marriage. Subsequently, Kierkegaard’s writings focused primarily on religious faith and the meaning of Christianity. Eventually he concluded that religious faith was irrational and attainable only via a subjective experiential “leap of faith.” For Kierkegaard, virtuous traits such as responsibility, honesty, and commitment are subjective choices—often in response to a subjective religious conversion. Kierkegaard did not describe himself as an existentialist, but his work is a precursor to the existential philosophical movement, which formally began some 70 years following his death.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In contrast to Kierkegaard who began from a position of religious faith, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) had negative feelings about Christianity. It was he who, in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, wrote, “God is dead.” Although he may have been referring to societal emptiness, he also claimed that religion used fear and resentment to pressure individuals into moral behavior. Instead of following a religion, he believed, individuals should channel their passions into creative, joyful activities. Irvin Yalom offers a fascinating view of Nietzsche’s psychological suffering in a historical fiction piece titled When Nietzsche Wept. In this novel, Yalom (1992) weaves existential principles into a fictional therapeutic encounter between Breuer, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche represent an interesting paradox or dialectic in existential thinking. A dialectic is a process where learning is stimulated from the integration of opposites. On the one hand, some existentialists embrace deep religious faith, whereas others are staunchly atheistic. Still others claim an agnostic middle ground. These differences in fundamental beliefs represent a wide sweep of human intellectual diversity and provide for fascinating philosophical exploration. You will glimpse existential dialectics intermittently in this chapter.

Four Existential Ways of Being

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

These dimensions of existence are ubiquitous and simultaneous. Some people focus more on one dimension than others or shift from one to another depending on particular intentions or situations. For example, while on a hike up the Stillwater gorge in Montana, it’s easy to experience being-with-nature as water powerfully cascades around you. However, depending on other factors, this experience can take people inward toward eigenwelt, toward an uberwelt spiritual experience, or stimulate a deep mitwelt (albeit a nonverbal one). In most cases, the direction your being-ness moves within a given situation is likely a combination of several factors, such as: awareness, anxiety, previous experiences, intention, and/or your spiritual predisposition.

The Daimonic

According to Rollo May, “The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person” (1969, p. 123). Historically, Daimon possession was used to explain psychotic episodes and is popularly referred to as demonic possession. However, May repeatedly emphasized that daimonic and demonic are not the same concept: “I never use the word demonic, except to say that this is not what I mean” (May, 1982, p. 11).

The daimonic is an elemental force, energy, or urge residing within all persons that functions as the source of constructive and destructive impulses. May wrote, “The daimonic is the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate and increase itself .… [The reverse side] of the same affirmation is what empowers our creativity” (May, 1969, p. 123).

Similar to C. G. Jung, May considered harnessing and integrating the daimonic as a central psychotherapy task. He viewed psychotherapy as an activity that plumbs the depths of an individual’s most basic impulses … the purpose of which is to acknowledge, embrace, and integrate every bit of being and energy into the whole person. May commented specifically about the danger of leaving the daimonic unintegrated:

If the daimonic urge is integrated into the personality (which is, to my mind, the purpose of psychotherapy) it results in creativity, that is, it is constructive. If the daimonic is not integrated, it can take over the total personality, as it does in violent rage or collective paranoia in time of war or compulsive sex or oppressive behavior. Destructive activity is then the result. (May, 1982, p. 11)

The goal is to integrate natural daimonic urges and energies in ways that maximize constructive and creative behavior.

Existential Spirituality

A spiritual-oriented client was engaging in guided imagery with an existential therapist. The client “discovered” a locked door in the basement of his “self.”

“What’s behind the door?” the therapist asked.

“It’s darkness,” he said. With shivers of fear, he added, “There’s dread. It’s the dread of being unacceptable. . . of being unacceptable to God. Even worse, it’s my dread of being unforgiveable.”

“Shall we go in?” asked the therapist.

Silence followed.

The therapist noticed his client’s reluctance and said, “Let’s wait a moment and breathe. I’m wondering if you can even get in the door. I’m wondering if you want to get in. There’s no rush. We know where the door is. We can wait. Or we can create a key and try to get in. Or we can leave the door shut. But first let’s wait here and breathe before deciding anything.”

For two minutes, client and therapist sat breathing together. The paralyzing fear diminished and the client said, “I have a key. Let’s look inside.”

“Yes. Let’s look inside.”

The key opened the lock. The door creaked open. In the dreaded darkness, there was light. A dialogue with the dread and unforgiveable ensued and the client found a broad sense of love and acceptance. There were tears of relief. His spiritual load was lightened. His basement demons were exorcised.

In this chapter we’ve discussed the deep and profound quality of existential psychotherapy. Schneider (2010) called it the “Rediscovery of Awe.” Frankl and Wong referred to it as the pursuit of meaning. In existential therapy, meaning and awe are individualized, as is spirituality. There’s great potential in combining the existential and the spiritual in psychotherapy, but clients should be forewarned and informed: combining the spiritual and existential isn’t about formulaic or surface explanations; it requires a commitment to go deep and explore doubts, uncertainties, and core vulnerabilities.

Here’s a link to the new Theories 3rd edition cover: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119279127/ref=dp_ob_title_bk




Adlerian Spirituality

John and Jon on M

In these uncertain times, I know you’ve been wondering about the future. You’re probably asking, “Who will prevail in the 2018 midterm elections?” “Will the evil New England Patriots win the Super Bowl again?” and “When will the coveted 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice finally be available?”

Predicting the future is complicated. My psychic powers tell me that the answers to those first two questions remain uncertain and are dependent upon various intervening events such as Hillary’s emails, the battle between fake and real news, economic inflation (as well as inflation of various footballs), and the health and well-being of several very old quarterbacks. However, based on the fact that Saturn has entered my 4th House and is dropping a psychological anchor, I can say with confidence that the 3rd edition of our theories textbook is coming soon . . . probably in April, 2018.

In the run-up (as the Brits like to say) to the publication of T3 (Theories, 3rd edition), I’ll be intermittently posting a few exciting T3 previews.

One new feature is a short section on how each primary counseling and psychotherapy theory intersects with spirituality. We’re including this feature because of the core role that spirituality plays for many clients (and many counselors and psychotherapists). In addition, spirituality is often a key component of multicultural sensitivity.

Way back in June of last year, I posted the spirituality section for psychoanalytic theory (chapter 3). You can read that here: https://wordpress.com/post/johnsommersflanagan.com/2571

Today’s post includes a look at spirituality from the Adlerian perspective (chapter 3). Keep in mind that these spirituality sections are very short samplings, designed only to help readers understand how spirituality can be viewed from specific theoretical perspectives. If you’re interested in additional (and deeper) information, we recommend you track down the citations from each chapter.

Here’s the spirituality taste or peek or snippet from the Adlerian chapter.

Adlerian Theory and Spirituality

Over the years, Adlerian theory has been open to client spirituality and has attracted practitioners and writers with strong religious convictions (Cashwell & Watts, 2010; Johnson, 2013; Sweeney, 2009). This is probably because of Adler’s emphasis on social equality and justice, but also because, as Carlson and colleagues (2006) wrote:

The cardinal tenet of Adlerian theory is social interest, something Adler equated with the mandate to “Love one’s neighbor as oneself” and the Golden Rule. (pp. 33–34)

Although the Golden Rule is a Christian concept, Adlerian writers and practitioners are consistently open to other religious and spiritual perspectives. In particular, Johansen (2010) provided guidelines for integrating individual psychology (IP) concepts into Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Overall, as described in the theoretical principles section of this chapter, Adlerians view spirituality as a life task that can contribute encouragement and meaning into clients’ lives (Bluvshtein, Belangee, & Haugen, 2015).

Consistent with what is known about Adler, the specifics of client spirituality and religious belief is of minimal importance. Recall that the Adlerian position is that all behavior is purposeful. Consequently, what’s important is for what purpose religion is used, and not the particulars of a client’s theology. A couple Adlerian questions about spirituality might include: “Does the client use religion (or spirituality) to promote separation and violence? Or is religion (spirituality) used to bring people together as a working and compassionate community?

Given Adler’s valuing of social interest and interdependence, the latter of these alternatives is clearly the Adlerian way.