Telling Others What You Hear

I started graduate school last fall in a program that prepares scholars to teach in pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and pastoral psychotherapy. I’m not in the clinical track, though it’s set up in order to deepen students’ clinical skills. I knew when I started school that I was also continuing in my work as a supervisor in ACPE. I knew I was meeting committee (in November of 2017) and again (in November of 2018). I knew of some of the feedback throughout my supervisory education process and that it’d be with me still when I started school. I knew because of these specific “events” that I’d re-enter individual therapy.

My committee in November gave me 2 recommendations that I wanted to take into therapy. I was also in the midst of an important departure from ending 16 years of congregational ministry, which meant a significant role loss; that was something I wanted to use therapy to reflect upon. I would add individual therapy to my list of venues of growth.

I started in January, and it felt familiar to me, and good. Don’t worry. I will not expose my experiences in therapy on this blog! But I will say one specific thing. Consider sharing what you get from your venues of growth with people who will help you grow, heal, deepen, and live.

If you keep what you learn to yourself or if you keep it within that venue, it won’t go far. It won’t spread. And it will be limited in how it reemerges in your ears. You won’t see it or hear it in the words and faces of others. In other words, you’ll forget about it. You’ll lose touch with it. You’ll restrict your possibilities to use what you get.

I’m using therapy as a venue of growth, but I’m adding it to supervisory education, spiritual direction, collegial conversation, and so on. Your venue may not be therapy for your venue to be therapeutic.

I used to tell people during pastoral care conversations at church that they should consider what to share with small group members or relatives. Those were the people who would come alongside my conversation partners, who would help them live toward what they discovered in worship, in prayer, and in spiritual conversations.

If you could do it all yourself, then the counsel would fall flat. But you can’t do it all by yourself. You never could. So when your pastor tells you something meaningful, share that with your cousin who texts you a million times a week. She can bring it up, ask you how it’s going using what your pastor said. You get the idea?

I started. I occasionally tell very close people what happens in my therapy. It’s a way of sharing my experience. It’s a way for me to keep using, speaking about, and practicing self-discovery on the way toward living. If it wasn’t helpful, I wouldn’t be in therapy. And if it is helpful, I need to keep it going. Sharing what I hear with others, helps me keep it going. What will help you keep your growth going?

“I Gotta Guy”

I used to hear a phrase people would use when they would need something done and they’d know the person for it. It may have been in a movie. “I gotta guy” was the phrase.

It was and is a way to point to who’s around you, who’s available to you, who’s a resource to step in when you need someone. I don’t think I’ve heard it used in an especially gendered way. It’s less about a guy and more about help.

Everybody needs help. Whether you use language about guys or girls–and I’d suggest using those kinds of words less and less. Whatever words you use, though, how do you acknowledge your needs, your limits, and your resources?

Do you have a guy? Do you have a team? Do you have access to people who are helpful? Helpful is a key word because you can have people around you or available to you and they not help.

Take a moment and thank God for who’s around you and who’s helping you. Take another moment and survey critically whether you need new people, different people near.

There’s only courage and power in adding to the number of people around you who are helping you. Do you have a pastor? Do you have a spiritual director? Do you have a therapist? Do you have a friend?

These people can be helpful. Family can be helpful but they have a different job, right? Family is more than helpful! But when it comes to having help, who’s among that circle for you? Who’s there for you?


Counseling & Psychotherapy of Religious Clients

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

I decided to summarize a few books as a discipline for “keeping” some of the material I’m reading. I just finished Vicky Genia’s Counseling and Psychotherapy of Religious Clients. I will say that I love the kind of material in this book. I find great value personally and professionally in the work of counselors and therapists who are familiar with the beautiful country of a person’s soul. Genia’s book brought together her theory of how faith develops from a psychological perspective. I’m still thinking through specific applications for pastoral care and for spiritual care. There are a handful that I may put in a different post.

Genia is writing for counselors and spiritual caregivers. And her hope in writing the book is to offer a developmental approach to faith development. She is a psychologist, not a theologian. She would likely consider her specialty the therapeutic work she does with people who have religious convictions and whose religious values or the lack thereof impact their lives. But her book is on the psychological dimensions of faith formation.

For her, faith develops in a never-completed lifelong process with an end we can only approximate. Faith or religious development may not be smooth or linear, though it does progress—like childhood into adulthood—through distinct phases. She is writing from a primarily psychoanalytic point of view, though she critiques the Freudian version of it. Part of what her viewpoint means is that she centers her work on the role and value of parents, particularly, but not exclusively, the mother. If you read the book, you sense the parents pronounced role in nourishing what will largely be an unconscious (or perhaps less conscious) process of faith development.

The book opens with a brief review of the predominant theoretical responses to religion and spirituality. Genia notes the Freudian reaction to religion as an elongated adolescent desire to be protected and cared for by a (divine) parent. She also points to the derivative behaviorist and cognitive-behavioral findings of religion as related to the irrational thoughts which come from people’s backgrounds and upbringing, making religion a part of that background. While Genia quickly summarizes humanistic psychology’s view of religion as 1) among the many things people find important and 2) dealing with some of the same themes and concerns which cause people to seek therapy, she says that humanistic psychology doesn’t generally embrace religion. She paints a picture, which is a very historical one, that the major theories in psychology are unsympathetic to religion.

Genia is clear in her kind treatment of the import and role of religion and religious expression in healthy living. She admits to and thinks through her own religious experience in the book to some degree. She’s coming at the subject as a person of faith. After having identified “the spiritual enterprise” as complex and deeply personal, she says that “This book is largely a result of my own efforts to straddle the boundary between psychology and religion.” Another way of saying that, is that she is not searching to affirm the words of Freud. But she does discuss good qualities of a person’s upbringing and how those qualities relate to religious health. She discusses the contrary too.

When talking specifically about health, she says (p. 11-12), “Admittedly, some religious communities are healthier than others. In some cases emotional disturbance can be exacerbated by harsh or deranged religious indoctrination. Nevertheless, emotionally unstable people are often drawn to destructive religious communities where they can reenact their emotional traumas.” The distortions, strife, and abuse in a person’s background severely impact religious development and expression. They impact a person’s choice of a faith community which is the context of faith development for most people. Genia then enters into the primary content of the book which is to provide developmental stages of faith.

In Stage one (Egocentric Faith) she defines egocentrism as a normal experience where a child is developing the capacity to engage in stable relationships, learning to associate and deal with positive and negative affects within the parent/child relationship, and beginning to develop an integrated sense of self. Infants and young children judge the world through the parent-child dyad; will see parents as good and trustworthy in order to feel secure; and will deny a parent’s wrongdoing in order to manage overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Because children don’t distinguish wishes from actions, when children hate their parents (for abuse or mistreatment), children can develop dissociative or delusional disorders, coping by creating illusory worlds, on one hand, or can “cultivate an exaggerated sense of self-importance,” on the other hand. In either case, Genia says that all children who have suffered maintain an “entitlement to a responsive other.” She relates this to the religiously egocentric in her writing, saying that abused children will reenact traumatic relationships in their relationship to God. “People who relate to others and to God as need-satisfying objects do not do so out of deliberate selfishness or insensitivity, but because of severe deprivations and mistreatment in infancy and early childhood…The plight of egocentric adults should spark our deepest compassion and understanding” (p. 24).

In terms of guidance for those who work with people in this stage, empathic bonding is temporarily reparative. Genia says that such bonding taken too long may foster over-idealization and dependency and reinforce splitting. Because persons in this stage don’t trust and because they expect mistreatment—they themselves have experienced deep betrayal—they have “little in his or her psychological repertoire from which to conceptualize a benevolent or loving deity.” In a therapeutic relationship, Genia says that calm acceptance of a person communicates that feelings aren’t fundamentally bad and that encouraging the person to examine feelings is reparative.

The second stage is a hardened stage in my view. Dogmatic Faith is the stage where religious obligations are observed out of a strong, firm, and unwavering view that compliance earns love and acceptance. This stage could take root in authoritarian parenting or in a context of overprotective parenting. People in this stage may be compulsive, emotionally constricted, and secure in such things. Individuals in this stage are wary of revealing feelings about anger or sexuality. In effect, they hide. Their “excessive need for approval compels them to inhibit any feeling or behavior that they think will result in rejection or criticism” (p. 54). In terms of faith development, they uncritically accept the parent’s religious view and conceptions and then begin to project a sadistic superego (i.e., the self-critical conscience within) onto God while experiencing God as critical and impossible to please. Experience of the parent impacts the experience of God. Religious affiliation brings a sense of security, affirmation. Genia offers several subgroups or subtypes for this stage of faith. They include the legalist, the martyr, the crusader, the intellectual, the recluse. She gives good explanation for each type in the book.

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

The third stage is what she calls transitional faith, and it results from significant inner conflict as a person seeks an integrated philosophy of life and personal identity. It happens during adolescence, though, as with other stages, characteristics of the stage can be re-experienced by adults. As for faith development, like in adolescence, the person feels a thrust toward independence as well as a desire to maintain bonds and relationships with “people who matter.”

Faith matures in the “storms of doubt” and leads to critical reflection on previous stages and previously held values. In this stage, people try on different ideologies, choose different religions, and experiment with new practices and affiliations. They lose previous selves in a sense, are susceptible to depression. They “become disembedded from the world view that they previously took for granted, they may feel anxious and confused,” and Genia suggests support, assistance with grief, and encouragement for them on this spiritual path. Also, it aides these persons to read spiritual histories or biographies of leaders who’ve encountered transitions.

The fourth stage is reconstructed faith. A person comes from the transitional phase of development and meets the self-accusations of the superego. The psychic ideal (or spiritual whatever have you) is working against a shame-provoking voice. In this stage, persons push toward the positive ideals and resist temptations. They adhere to certain behaviors and religious codes because they feel right and resonant with new inner convictions. God is experienced as an ally, as supportive, as trusted. People in this stage commit to chosen ideals, rely on personal conscience as opposed to others from a peer group or a church. Faith reconstruction involves releasing what feels like outmoded beliefs in comparison to the newly shaped identity. Spiritual experience that helps the person hear the voice within prove meaningful in this stage. One concern of this stage is that people within it don’t tend to associate with people of different views. They may lose the ability to foster such relationships during this phase. They may not, then, grow in particular ways because of their disinclination.

Transcendent faith is the highest stage in Genia’s paradigm. An endpoint of maturation, there is a focus on both what we believe and how we believe. There is a “celebration of selfhood” in this stage as well as an accompanying celebration of the diversity of others with different philosophical and theological values. This final stage includes a pervasive acknowledgement that “By weakening the human spirit and sacralizing self-contempt, a sin-focused religiosity has devastating effects on the person’s psychological and spiritual development” (pg 114). Indeed, this is a theme throughout Genia’s book. The parental experiences which have framed the spiritually unhealthy people she writes about are negative experiences, and her treatment, while not focusing on the parent’s sins, does focus on the impact of them.