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Jun 21, 2016

The Essential Self – Spiritual Wellness

According to Myers and Sweeney (2005), the wellness perspective considers Spiritual Wellness to be the central component of wellbeing, also called the "essential self." Spirituality is a universal process of development that is also very personal which involves the beliefs, practices, and the experiences in which an individual engages.  Regardless of how a person defines their religious status,  the Wellness perspective suggests that everyone experiences spirituality in some form.

There are many ways that counselors can assist clients in the Spiritual aspect of Wellness. Today, I will discuss a few important ways that counselors can help clients develop Spiritual Wellness. First, I discuss how counselors can help clients through the translative and transformative processes. Next, I will explain how psychological flexibility is an important factor in helping clients develop functional and realistic beliefs while avoiding the trap of "spiritual bypass." Following, I discuss how individuals may gain a deeper faith in their Spirituality by discussing their doubts and taking personal responsibility for their beliefs. Lastly, I will offer a few insights about how counselors can improve their own personal and professional knowledge of Spiritual Wellness.

Develping the Translative and Transformative Processes

Spirituality performs two important functions. The first is known as the "translative process," involves the content of knowledge regarding beliefs, doctrine, and customs through which a person establishes a worldview paradigm. Through this paradigm, individuals interpret events, and find meaning and order in life. The second function involves the process of "transformation," in which an individual overcomes ego, becomes more compassionate towards self and others, and develops wisdom throughout their lifetime. The former could be described as the self expanding outward as the individual gains knowledge of the world, whereas the latter could be described as growing deeper into knowledge, wisdom, and love for the self (Myers and Sweeney, 2005).     

Counselors can help clients improve their spiritual wellness by helping clients accomplish the translative and transformative tasks. A counselor can help the client define their beliefs, explore and establish meaningful spiritual practices, and discuss the client's past experiences with spirituality.  Counselors also help clients align their goals and behaviors with their spiritual values. 

     For instance, if a client's spiritual values include charity, the counselor may ask the client to describe what charity means to him.  In this discussion, the client is able to elaborate on how he defines charity, which is a part of the translative process of Spiritual Wellness. The counselor may inquire about the client's personal experience with charity, which allows the client to discuss their relationship with this value in greater depth. This supports the client's transformative development, as it takes the client through an introspective process to reveal personal thoughts and feelings regarding this value. Finally, the counselor may ask the client to describe what practices regarding the value of charity he would like to develop, improve, or maintain. 

Spiritual Bypass

An important issue that counselors need to be aware of is that of the "spiritual bypass,"  which Myers and Sweeney, (2005), describe as an "unhealthy use of spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences." Spiritual bypass may result in one or more of the following: avoiding processing emotional pain, numbing out, deflecting personal responsibility, refusing to acknowledge personal failures, attempting to forgive others without dealing with personal hurt and expressing emotional pain, or spiritual narcissism and obsession. On its face, spiritual bypass seems to be a pious expression of forgiveness, acceptance of God's will, and/or the devout following of one's religious doctrine. However, the spiritual bypass is an illusion that allows the individual to avoid processing psychological issues and the responsibility for developing in other areas of life (Myers and Sweeney, 2005).

For example, my (fictional) friend, let's call her Annie, has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. I noticed that Annie seems to avoid the important psychological work of grief because she refuses to acknowledge and accept her feelings such as anger or sadness. Annie says that she believes expressing her negative emotions is a form of weakness that would dishonor God. Annie thinks, "since it was God's will for me to get sick, I must accept it."  Unfortunately, Annie experienced emotional isolation from loved ones, depression, and anxiety because she was trying to avoid expressing her sadness and anger. 

Counselors can help clients who have developed issues regarding spiritual bypass by exploring the consequences of their beliefs, in order to draw out the core issues that underlie these habits. Counselors can gently challenge clients to explain contradictions in what they say they believe, their behaviors, and the consequences that come about. Annie believes that she must be "strong" to honor God, so she attempts to repress her emotions, yet it is evident that she has become depressed and anxious. As a counselor, I might ask Annie to explain her definition of "being strong," what her accepted doctrine teaches her about expressing emotion and grief, and have her describe the effects of her beliefs in her life. My hope is to help Annie develop more psychological flexibility in regards to her beliefs. As she deepens her understanding of her values, Annie may find more space for self-compassion, reflection, and emotional expression. 

What changes would you like to make?

Counselors can help clients develop a deeper sense of personal responsibility for their spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences. Many people adopt the religious practices that are taught to them as a child and have had little opportunity to define spirituality for themselves. When asked to define their beliefs, clients are encouraged to begin exploring their doubts, questions, and assumptions. This process may serve to help clients expand their knowledge and deepen their faith as they also come to greater understanding of themselves. This invites clients to accept whatever they choose, and to make changes about their spiritual identity as they see fit. 

How can counselors prevent imposing their values? 

  • It is essential that counselors thoroughly understand their own values and develop their own spirituality in order to be able to spot where their values are coming up in sessions while guiding clients through the process of spiritual development.  Engaging in personally meaningful practices, beliefs, and experiences may help counselors develop their own awareness.
  • Counselors should become familiar with the Spiritual Wellness theory in order to understand the function of spirituality.
  • Counselors should familiarize with the applicable laws and ethical guidelines that discuss imposing values on clients and spiritual practices. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics states: 

    A.4.b.  "Personal Values: Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature."

  • It is always a good idea to consult with other professionals regarding any concerns that counselors have in dealing with client's spiritual development. In addition, it is useful to utilize an Ethical Decision Making model in the event of an ethical concern regarding counselors imposing religious or spiritual values with clients. 


American Counseling Association (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Myers, J. E., & Sweeney, T. J. (Eds.). (2005). Counseling for Wellness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association (197-205). 

Hanna Rodriguez is a counselor in training at McNeese State University, and is completing her internship at the McNeese Kay Dore Gambling Treatment Program in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is interested in viewing mental health from a wellness perspective. Read more about Hanna at:

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