Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 27, 2011

Integrating Spirituality and Counseling in the College Counseling Setting PT 2


I was eager to see how and where spirituality and religion would come up with clients.   Developmentally, I knew many of the students I would be working with were away from home for the first time.  I knew this would be a time when they would be deciding for themselves what they believed and what values they would adopt, etc. Their parents weren’t there to tell them to get up and go to church on Sunday, or to stay away from alcohol, and so on. I was interested in learning about how college students would address the topic of spirituality in counseling sessions. I wanted clients to know that I was open to discussing this area of their lives. I wondered who should bring such matters up. If I did, would the client feel they had to talk about spirituality, or that I expected something specific from them? If I didn’t, would the client shy away from the topic because they were unsure they should bring up such matters in therapy?


I made it a personal goal to try to ask about spiritual beliefs during the intake session. I approached it as another piece of information so that I could get a better idea of the background and worldview of the client to help us work together better. It was one of many things I would ask about. I let clients know that we could talk about that area of their lives as little or as much as they wanted.   I wanted to know if religious/spiritual beliefs were a source of stress or support, or neither. I often said, “This is just another thing that helps me understand you better as a whole person.” I did not put any more emphasis on it than I did with any other topic I inquired about during the intake. Clients seemed comfortable with this line of questioning, and with my explanation of why I asked. 


There were plenty of times when I didn’t get to the topic during our first session. Sometimes, it would come up later, either because they brought it up, or because I did. With one client, she brought up the topic of beliefs during one of our final sessions. the subject came up in relation to a difference of beliefs between the client and her fiancé. Once she stated her beliefs, I realized how important they were to her, and wondered if therapy would have proceeded differently if we had openly discussed the role spirituality played in her life sooner. This strengthened my commitment to asking about it during the intake session.


The problem of different beliefs came up during my work with several premarital couples, and provided a natural opportunity for clients to express their thoughts about religion and spirituality.  In one case, the young woman was raised Catholic. She knew her mother would be distraught if her future grandchild was not baptized in a Catholic church. She explained to me that, in the Catholic belief system, babies could not go to heaven without this infant baptism.  Her fiancé was raised in a Protestant denomination that believed in baptism after an age of consent when the person could clearly indicate a salvation experience and commitment to serving God. His parents would be upset if the baby was baptized as an infant in the Catholic church. While these two were not particularly religious, they were concerned about how the religious beliefs of their parents would impact their relationships with them and their decisions about their future children. With another couple, during one of our final sessions, the young lady, who was living with her boyfriend, proclaimed that she believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all.  She believed her partner, who was an atheist, would one day come to believe that, too. He was very honest about the fact that he doubted that would happen. 


Another topic that seemed to be a logical opening to address spiritual beliefs was when clients talked about the death, or impending death, of someone close to them. I would ask them what they believed about the afterlife. This question lead to one freshman going into a tirade about the Catholic church. She had been raised Catholic, but now thought it was “a bunch of crap.” She ranted about how disgusting it was that priests were molesting young boys. She still got her ashes for Ash Wednesday, though, and participated in other holy day observances.  I pointed out that it was “interesting” that she still did these things, considering how she felt about the church. She began to share some more positive experiences she’d had while taking part in church services. I introduced the idea that she may have been in the process of trying to figure out a personal spirituality separate from the religion she was raised with.


The most striking thing about this session was that it followed one involving a young woman who had recently converted to Catholicism. She found that it gave her new hope, a belief system she could embrace wholeheartedly, and a supportive network of friends and mentors through getting involved with the on-campus Catholic ministry. . She began following this path after a time of loss and personal depression and it really seemed to have made a big difference in her ability to find peace and healing. During both sessions, I was able to be completely present with the reality of the client. Both of them were being very honest and expressing genuine emotion, and I could appreciate the authenticity and process, without getting caught up in the content one way or the other.


Another young woman who was distressed over a relationship, and who had experienced problems with self injury and suicidal thinking got involved in helping to begin a new church on campus. She also called on people she knew who shared her faith, such as her pastor and friends, to pray for her. She told me about the sense of strength and hope she felt and said that she believed it was because people were praying. I stressed that she had been involved in that process by choosing to do something she thought would be helpful. “You chose to call those people and ask them to pray,” I said. “That’s something you did to help yourself.” This young woman had been very up front with me about being a Christian, and I let her know that I was a Christian, as well. When I met clients who explicitly stated this, I felt it was important to let them know that I shared that belief system.  


The issue of personal disclosure related to spirituality was a tricky one for me in general, though. I did not wear crosses or display any items in my office that would immediately announce my belief system. I did not want to make clients uncomfortable, and did not feel the need to “advertise.” I didn’t want to act as if I was ashamed of my beliefs either, though. One day, I wore a bracelet with praying hands on it to work. My Mom had given it to me, and I thought it was pretty. I started not to wear it, and then decided I would, since clasped hands could mean anything from prayer to simply sitting in contemplative silence. Among other reasons, it was special to me because it was a gift from my mother, which was reason enough to wear it, I thought.


During the opening minutes of an intake session, one client asked me about my experience working with various cultures. I’d been on a short-term missions trip toMexico. I had to make a quick decision as to whether I was going to say “trip” or “missions trip.” I decided on the later because I didn’t want to misrepresent the experience.  She then asked me bluntly if I was a Christian. I was taken aback at her directness, and was trying hard to find a way to say “yes,” while still communicating my openness to addressing various beliefs and worldviews. Sensing my hesitation, she said, “You mentioned taking a missions trip, so I figured you were. I’m glad about that because my beliefs are really important to me, too.” She was very involved with both the spirituality and the religion of her belief system. Though we were of somewhat different faiths,   she was comfortable talking with a counselor who was also spiritual. That was the last thing she ever asked me about my own beliefs.


Depending on the situation, I chose to disclose specifics of my own spirituality.  I could relate to having difficulty finding a local church to be part of and, sometimes, simply stated as much to clients who mentioned they were having this experience. One young woman talked about connecting with God, whoever God was, by hiking and being in touch with nature. Again, I was comfortable briefly agreeing that I often felt closest to God when outdoors.  When one client who had been raised in a very fundamentalist religion discussed her struggles trying to separate religion from her own spirituality and the cynicism she felt about organized religion, I briefly related my own feelings and reactions to going to a very conservativeBibleCollegeand how the level of imposed religion impacted me spiritually. She was struggling quite a bit with this concern. I felt it important to let her know that I really did have some idea about the negative thoughts and feelings she had, while still wanting to somehow figure out how to have a personal meaningful relationship with God. I did not want her to think she was the only person who experienced such struggles. This involved the most personal disclosure I ever made about my own beliefs during counseling.


An attitude that really helped me when discussing various topics with clients, including spirituality, was to adopt a position of curiosity.  This helped me avoid assumptions. I think it also helped clients clearly articulate their beliefs when answering my questions. One client had recently discovered Buddhism. He had been raised Christian and was  in the process of  deciding which aspects of Christian beliefs he wanted to hold on to, and  which aspects of Buddhism he wanted to bring into  his belief system and practices. I found this very interesting and genuinely wanted to learn more about how he was doing this.  Spirituality was a major topic of discussion during our sessions. It was one of only a few things that he could feel any enthusiasm for, so I was pleased that he was so willing to discuss this area of his life. He was not very open, in general, and often seemed ill at ease with the counseling process.


I believe being open to, and even initiating, the topic of spirituality gave me a much richer understanding of many clients. It often helped me to discover vital areas of strength or support, as well as areas of personal uniqueness. I often was inspired by their willingness to struggle with the more difficult aspects of spiritual matters, moral decisions, and “unfinished business” related to being raised in a particular church or denomination. I was appreciative of their intellectual struggles and existential concerns. Empathy allowed me to listen to, and even learn from, those I served without having to get caught upin whether I agreed or disagreed with them. I hope that my degree of comfort with the subject of religion and spiritual matters helped clients to feel comfortable themselves.


These are just a few examples of situations where spirituality was addressed during my work with clients. I would urge my colleagues working with university students not to shy away from the topic of spirituality.  I believe college counselors, in particular, are in a position to help clients gain clarity about such matters as a process of personal differentiation. University students are in the unique developmental stage of “launching.” This time, like no other, provides them with opportunities to truly decide who they are as whole persons, including who they are as spiritual beings.


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