You and I both know what I’m talking about here. We can either recognize it within ourselves or we can see it pretty clearly when we’re working with clients. It’s when people put their reactions/feelings/problems onto another person without a) reflecting on their own role in the situation, and b) reflecting on the notion that how the other person showed up is highly likely reflective of them (and not you). It’s not helpful to engage in this behavior. And it’s also not very spiritual. Here’s why.
Let’s start by defining spirituality. In one of my last posts, I wrote about how spirituality is difficult to study, so I’m not going to rehash that here. One of the issues with it being difficult to study is that it’s also difficult to define. And it is! It’s difficult to do both. With that said, let’s choose one of my favorite definitions and I’ll break down why taking things personally is not a spiritual practice.
One of my favorite definitions is from de Jager Meezenbroek et al. (2012). They basically say that spirituality can be defined as:
- connection with oneself, which is “expressed by such aspects as authenticity, inner harmony/inner peace, consciousness, self-knowledge, and experiencing meaning in life” (p. 143);
- connection with others and nature, which is “related to compassion, caring, gratitude, and wonder” (p. 143); and
- connection with the transcendent, which is defined as “connectedness with something or someone beyond the human level, such as the universe, transcendent reality, a higher power, or God. Aspects related… are awe, sacredness, adoration or the transcendent, and transcendental experiences” (p. 143).
Easy as pie, right? Well, not really, but let’s just go with this definition for right now.
SO, let’s assume that a client coming in is discussing all the ways in which they’ve felt wronged. It’s a theme for them, but this session they’re really focusing on one exchange they’ve had with a boss. The client is angry because the boss is always demanding time outside of work hours and the client wants to spend time with their family. The client is also angry because they’re not getting paid extra to do this work. Your client finishes by saying, “My boss is such an idiot. Just because he doesn’t have a life, he thinks that none of his employees do, either!”
We’ve got a working definition of spirituality, as well as an example, so let’s get to it.
Connection with Oneself
If you re-read through the very small vignette, do you see any self-reflection or self-awareness? Aside from the client voicing anger, there is nothing to indicate that the client knows why they’re experiencing anger. Our role becomes, then, to help the client connect with what’s going on internally during those moments. This is SUCH an important first step. In doing so, the client is acquiring more self-knowledge and consciousness; two aspects of connection with oneself.
Connection with Others and Nature
Again, re-read through the very small vignette and you’ll note that, instead of having any empathy or compassion for their boss, the client mostly has anger and a little bit of judgment (as evidenced by, “My boss is such an idiot!”). Now, this can be a much harder aspect of spirituality to develop, but it’s also crucial. If we can help out client connect to some empathy and help our client develop some compassion for their own boss, then we’re developing their spirituality. Please note that developing compassion for another isn’t giving them free reign to treat you any which way. Additionally, we can help our client find some gratitude for the things their boss might do. Gratitude can work wonders in beginning to see the ‘good’ in things.
Connection with the Transcendent
This might sound pretty cheesy, but one simple way to do this is help your client connect with something that’s larger than them. This needs to be defined by your client, not by you. What is it that they buy into (i.e. religion, the universe, a higher power) and what is it that leaves them feeling awe and adoration? If you can get them to answer these questions, then you can help them connect the trivial minutia of what they’re doing (i.e. getting reprimanded by their boss) to a bigger, more personal picture. This is harder to do (and I would say works best if it comes after the first two), but it’s absolutely possible.
Good luck with everything and happy counseling!
Tara Vossenkemper is an Assistant Professor and counselor educator with Central Methodist University, along with the founder and a practicing counselor with The Counseling Hub, LLC (located in Columbia, Mo). Tara specializes in working with relationships (using Gottman Method Couples Therapy), anxiety, existential issues, and spirituality. You can read more about Tara and The Counseling Hub at www.thecounselinghub.com.