Depending on which poll you read, about 93% of Americans consider themselves to be religious and/or spiritual. Again, depending on what you read, nearly 75% believe spiritually and/or religion to be integral to their worldview, sense of self, and part of their daily life. Since I am not going to base my livelihood on a Gallop poll, and I bet you won’t either, just think about how often individuals look to their spiritual and/or religious belief system when dealing with life’s problems. Whether a strength during times of crisis or a central element of an individual’s being, one thing is for certain – not addressing spiritual and/or religious issues may mean disregarding an essential part of a client’s functioning.
Nevertheless many counselors consistently reveal apprehension when addressing issues of spirituality with clients. Additionally, very few mental health practitioners report receiving formal training in working with spiritual and religious issues even though evidence suggests that doing so can improve counseling outcomes. Of course this isn’t everyone and certainly not every counseling program, but I believe there are many of us out there - especially new counselors - who find themselves struggling to incorporate these issues into their work. Over the course of the next few blogs I would like to talk about integrating spirituality and/or religion into counseling, specifically tools that counselors can use.
Before I dive into the tools that I have found helpful, I want to pause and clarify what exactly I’m talking about when I use the terms spirituality and religion. “Spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus meaning breath, courage, vigor, or life. There are thousands of definitions out there but I like “The courage to look within and trust” and “The search for harmony and wholeness in the universe”. I suggest - regardless of your belief system – that you find some sort of description of spirituality that suits you. Most will probably involve some reference to the spirit or higher moral qualities. Religion tends to be defined as more of a social construct, narrower than spirituality, and typically refers to an outward expression of interpersonal beliefs and behaviors. Again, there are many definitions of religion and I encourage you to find one which fits.
The next step involves understanding what spirituality and/or religion mean to you. Of particular importance is to look inside yourself. When working within the spiritual realm, it is essential to having a working and thorough knowledge of your own spiritual/religious development, biases, and beliefs. To facilitate this, I have found creating a spiritual autobiography or timeline helpful.
A spiritual autobiography can include your earliest childhood memories of religion, God, or the sacred; basic beliefs of various spiritual systems or major world religions; and experience with or ideas about agnosticism and atheism. It can also include your family background and any other pertinent information. The focus is the impact of your spiritual and/or religious beliefs or experiences and how you moved through your life cycle stages. Turning points, present place on one’s religious/spiritual journey, confusing or frightening moments and any other recollections can be very helpful in defining where you are (and have been) in your journey. A spiritual timeline can also be beneficial and serves as more of a narrative or description of how you developed values, ideals, meanings, sacredness, intuition, practices, rituals, etc. This includes individual events and people who have impacted your life.
I hope these are useful as I have found them valuable in understanding and defining my belief system. I welcome any comments on the definition of spirituality and/or religion or what you have done to better understand your spiritual and/or religious self.
Stephanie Dailey is a counselor, adjunct faculty and doctoral candidate at Argosy University-Washington, D.C.