Spiritual Struggles

Spirituality and Therapy

Struggles with spirituality or religion often cause significant emotional and psychological distress. I’ve worked with many clients who feel profoundly troubled by questions of spirit. However you define these questions, whether in a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, pagan, atheist, agnostic, or any way, something about human nature wants to ask about the nature of soul, spirit, God, or other realities that we know very little about but find ourselves deeply curious to discover.

While certain individuals don’t seem so oriented to spiritual concerns, at least until trauma, illness, or the prospect of death comes up in their lives, others were either born wondering about these concerns or were brought up in families or religious communities that put spiritual questions at the forefront of consciousness.

So why and how do spiritual concerns become struggles that can cause a person to suffer emotionally? This is a complex question, but let’s consider a few of the reasons. We live in a culture dominated by the success of the natural sciences and an awareness of the historical origins of religions. Both of these tend to make us uncertain about the “old time religion” that we may have grown up with. What seemed like clear and certain knowledge of who God is and how to know God, for example, may crumble when a person starts studying the world through the lens of natural science.

Suddenly questions come up, such as whether what we call God might be the result of certain structures in the human brain that create an image of an ultimate reality. Or we start seeing that the holy scriptures of our religion contain contradictory information if read in a very literal way, and this shakes our faith. We don’t know what to believe anymore. Or the spiritual leaders we had trusted end up betraying our trust in some way, and we are left in a crisis of faith. Or it dawns on us that something we took for granted, for example a moral teaching on sexuality, has actually caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

Pushed further, a person of faith may begin to doubt that the God they trusted is really so trustworthy after all. I remember when I was studying theology in graduate school in my 20s, we had a professor who taught a course on theology after the holocaust. How are we to make sense of God, or are we, in a world where horrors beyond our imagining take place? This is an intensified form of what used to be called “the problem of evil.”

These days, especially in a town like Portland, many people explore spirituality outside of the major world religions. Westernized forms of various eastern traditions, such as meditation and yoga practices attract many seekers. Yet my clients sometimes struggle in these communities too. They may constantly seek for the true path that they hope will relieve them of life-long emotional struggles, and the constant seeking itself becomes a problem. Or they may beat themselves up for falling short of some imagined, perfectionistic standard of true meditation, for instance.

The many gurus that have sprouted up sometimes cause a lot of harm to their devotees as well. We would all like to idealize someone, a powerful figure who promises to deliver us from our problems. And it may work for awhile, but often the guru or teacher later is exposed as a mere human being, and is sometimes even abusive in the realms of money, power, or sex, and followers end up disillusioned and despairing.

More “pop” versions of New Age spirituality tend to commercialize the spirit. Every new method has a trademark, and turns into a profit-making system. They may promise to help you transcend the anxieties and struggles of living in the world. They may fantasize about escaping the limitations that we all suffer. Illness becomes something you should be able to visualize your way out of, and when you can’t cure yourself, you feel doubly guilty for somehow not being conscious enough, and you end up in a depression.

I studied philosophy and religion before I got interested in clinical psychology, and so I’m quite familiar with all of these questions and searchings, both from an intellectual standpoint, and from my own personal experience wondering and seeking answers to the questions that we all find ourselves asking about the nature of things.

I favor an open attitude to these questions. Wondering and questioning, in my view, are far more interesting than pretending absolute knowledge, or thinking we can pin God or Reality or the Cosmos down in a formula of doctrines. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that by nature we desire to know, but that this desire begins in wonder, and every question we answer leads to further questions! By shifting our focus from attaining certainty to lingering in our wondering and curiosity, we enter a far richer landscape, and one where we don’t get so caught in impossible dilemmas that can quite literally drive us mad.

True faith opens us to an infinite horizon that will never cease to stimulate our wondering nature and lead to further and further questioning. For me, living in this space is the essence of spiritual transformation.


Neglect and Therapy

When we talk about the hurts that bring people to therapy, it’s easy to downplay the hurt that comes from childhood neglect. It’s much more obvious to point to dramatic trauma as the source of a person’s emotional suffering. If you were abused emotionally, physically, or sexually when you were young, then we have a clear sense of what caused the harm that continues to trouble you as an adult.

But neglect doesn’t seem so dramatic from the outside, unless you’ve experienced it yourself and know from your own experience how bad it felt. Each child needs consistent, loving attention over many years of developing in order to enjoy a healthy sense of self and a healthy emotional life. If your parents and other adults or siblings and peers ignored you, abandoned you emotionally, loved you only if you fit their idea of who you should be, or cut you off from human connection in some way, then you know that being neglected hurts deeply.

You may have felt isolated much of the time, as though no one was there to see who you were, to value what you said, felt, and thought, to give you physical affection, or even to let you know that you existed and mattered to them. Sometimes children of neglect had parents who were narcissistically self-absorbed. Such parents prefer to focus only on themselves, their work, their relationships, their obsessions, and children become an afterthought. Other parents become absorbed in addictions, mental health problems, or physical health problems.

On the other hand, maybe you got some basic attention in your childhood, but it was very conditional. If you didn’t measure up to some standard, then you risked losing the love of your parents. You had to believe, or act, or be a certain way, or you might get tossed out of the circle of the family. In this case, part of you got attention, but other parts of you got neglected or rejected as bad. This can create a feeling of being divided inside—like parts of you got lost along the way, left behind, all alone.

What therapy does in these cases is to create an atmosphere of trust and openness where all of you is welcomed, seen, nourished, and encouraged to develop in ways that enhance your life. Instead of feeling left behind and isolated, your therapist gets to know the you that suffered neglect. I’ve seen in my practice how a person can then heal and grow and feel truly known for who they are. This can have dramatic effects throughout the client’s life as the therapy moves along.



To be alive is to be vulnerable to hurt, and so trauma comes in many forms, at all stages of life. The world is full and rich, but it’s not entirely safe, and people who have suffered serious trauma know this very well. Some forms of serious and damaging trauma include: sexual abuse at any age, chronic neglect when you were a kid, getting beat up by parents, strangers, or significant others, living through a parent’s mental illness when you were little, warfare and violence, and even more subtle but very damaging experiences like being shamed by parents, religious leaders, teachers, etc.

We now understand that the human psyche responds to trauma in a self-protecting way. It’s rather ingenious, actually. Your spontaneous, open, un-defended self sees the trauma coming, and goes into hiding. In a sense, your true self “goes away,” and various false selves take over, so that you can survive what is happening to you.

On the one hand, this going away saves you from even worse hurt. On the other hand, at a certain point, it simply doesn’t work anymore. It limits you. You may find yourself sad, spaced out, disconnected from yourself and others, and longing for that true self you lost because of your trauma. You may wonder, who was I, before those things happened to me? Can I ever get in touch with the person I was? Will I ever feel truly alive again?

It’s definitely possible to reconnect with yourself, even after serious trauma and long years of separation from your true self. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not necessarily quick and easy, and that’s why a solid relationship with a therapist over a period of consistent therapy is so important.

You probably won’t feel too keen on revealing your true self at first. Your natural expectation is that you’ll just get hurt again. It’s hard to trust, and you may even fight against a healing therapy relationship. A sensitive therapist will realize this, and give you all the time you need to venture back into life. That therapist will notice when to encourage you to come out of hiding, and when to leave you alone and let you find your way in your own timing.

The way out of the effects of trauma is challenging, but possible, and you’re not alone. I would love to talk with you about your experience and hopes for therapy.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 7

therapy relationship

“For psychotherapy to be effective a close rapport is needed, so close that the doctor cannot shut his eyes to the heights and depths of human suffering. The rapport consists, after all, in a constant comparison and mutual comprehension, in the dialectical confrontation of two opposing psychic realities. If for some reason these mutual impressions do not impinge on each other, the psychotherapeutic process remains ineffective, and no change is produced. Unless both doctor and patient become a problem to each other, no solution is found.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 167.

These sentences remind me of times earlier in my life where I sought out the help of a psychotherapist, but found myself across from a clinician who did not intend to see me or my suffering. What an alienating experience. Fortunately, soon I found someone who made room for me and what I was going through and allowed my experience to impact her. I’m always shocked to hear from clients about negative therapy experiences they’ve had in the past. Really, they said what to you?! It takes emotional energy and focus on the part of the therapist to let the client’s suffering in. It’s not an option to remain separate, unaffected. As Jung says, therapy brings together two psyches and creates a vessel in which profound changes can begin to take place. Such a relief to be heard….

How to Choose a Therapist

Now that I’ve entitled this blog entry, “How to Choose a Therapist,” I should tell you that no one, including me, can really tell you the right way to choose a therapist. Just like therapeutic work itself, choosing a therapist is both an art and a science. You will need to use your intuition–calling on your deepest instincts as best you are able. You will also need to use some basic knowledge–keeping in mind the essentials to good therapy.

The bottom line is that you should respect your intuition about who is a good fit for you. But it’s also important to know the basics about what to look for, what to expect, what to want, and what not to want.

On the intuitive side of the decision, consider these thoughts:

Different therapists have different styles of working with clients. There is no one right style, but there may be ways of doing therapy that work especially well for you. It’s important to find someone who is a good enough match for you, your temperament, and your particular needs. The therapist should feel to you like an intuitive “good enough fit,” after you’ve had at least one introductory session, and perhaps a few sessions. A good fit does not necessarily mean easy and fun all the time, especially since therapy by its nature ends up dealing with a client’s difficulties. Working through difficulties can be challenging–another reason to find the right therapist.

Coming to therapy involves focusing a special kind of attention on your life and your self. Most people report not having many places (if any) where this kind of attention feels possible. The attention involves a certain kind of care towards, and tending of psychological processes. Some therapists will feel to you like a more natural fit for the job of attending you through these processes. And whatever the initial problem or symptom you brought to therapy, the more complex reality that you’re bringing to therapy is you and your way of being in the world. Things are rarely cut and dry, because we are all quite complex human beings with lots going on at any one time. That’s why therapy (in my view) is as much or more an art than it is a science.

Now for the basic knowledge side of the decision.

First, look for someone with at least these qualifications: a legitimate graduate degree in the field of psychology, counseling, social work, psychiatry, etc. You should also look for someone who is active in the field, who seeks consultation with senior colleagues, who follows the basic ethics of being a therapist, and who has undergone a significant therapy process as a client, as part of training to do this work. This last qualification has a strong basis in the history of modern psychotherapy. Personal therapy has been an important part of training therapists for over a century. Your therapist should also have a personal philosophy and approach to doing therapy and be able to talk to you about it in ways that make sense to you.

In terms of how your therapist should relate to you and the work you are doing together, it is important for a therapist to maintain a real, respectful, and authentic human connection with you, at the same time as maintaining a professional boundary, competence in the field, and commitment to keeping open, curious, careful attention on you, your emotional life, your relationships, dreams, struggles, symptoms, and development as an individual.

When you get to the point of wanting to make some calls, you can explore your options in various ways. You can ask for names of therapists from friends (though you may not want to share a therapist with your best friend or partner), or doctors, or other healing professionals. You can browse the web and read what various therapists have to say on their websites. Sometimes a client finds the right fit quickly. Other times it is good to meet two or more therapists for an initial consultation and then choose one to return to and see for a few sessions. Some therapists charge for a first consultation and some do not. You can ask, and you can also ask what the fee would be for ongoing sessions. Some take insurance, and some do not. Some will reduce the fee if there is a real financial need for a lower fee, and some will not.

These thoughts are not meant to be a complete guide to choosing a therapist, but I hope that they give some readers a good start.

The “Field” of Depth Psychotherapy

There are many ways to practice depth psychotherapy these days. One meeting point that I see between various theories is a focus on the therapeutic relationship itself. What happens in the therapy hour has a way of generating therapeutic change. That means it’s important to pay attention to what happens in the “field”–that is, the space of the relationship that exists between client and therapist, and encompasses them both in the therapeutic hour. Many contemporary depth psychotherapists recognize that what happens there is the most important therapeutic factor in getting a person’s life and development unstuck and moving.

Depth psychologies often refer to the space of the therapeutic relationship as a field–something like a field in contemporary physics. This is a space where different elements of the two individual psyches in the relationship interact on many levels. When things are going well, there is a feeling to this space of being held safely, known, and welcomed. When challenges come up, it’s safe enough to work them through in ways that create helpful changes that ripple through the client’s life and relationships.

An alchemical image of the relational field

An alchemical image of the relational field

It’s not the therapist’s interpretations and interventions (however insightful they may be, and however attached he or she may be to them) that matter most. To say that depth psychotherapy is insight-oriented therapy isn’t quite right, in this view. When a therapist makes an interpretation that meets and helps the client make sense of a felt experience that’s hard to put into words, often the therapeutic factor derives from the feeling of being understood, of being known and held by the space of this relationship, with this therapist. Insights happen, but the curative factor is not the strictly cognitive event of understanding one’s own unconscious process.

It’s more a matter of feeling known than of knowing rationally.

This is a key distinguishing factor of depth psychotherapy and analysis from other therapies. We see that therapy creates a relational field in which both conscious and unconscious processes of psychological development come into play, get unstuck, and move forward. The field of the therapy hour eventually extends outwards into the client’s life in the world as the effects of therapy manifest themselves.