When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

We all hear stories of political differences breaking families and friendships, setting neighbor against neighbor. Romantic partners recoil upon discovery their partner excuses inhumane and unconscionable policies advocated by elected officials.

Oh, my, who is this person?enters their mind if not their speech.

But what happens to the relationship between a therapist and his patient when religion or politics slips under the door?

We don’t ask about party affiliation when someone requests an appointment. Nor do patients tend to inquire who a potential counselor is voting for, though I fielded occasional questions about my creed before a possible client booked a session.

Therefore a few did not.

Revelations about the client’s convictions are, like his history, something unveiled during the treatment’s course. Counselors try to separate political and religious ideas (indeed, values in general) from their effort to help improve their patient’s life.

Health care practitioners do not treat only those who share our world view or the prospect of a life beyond.

A majority of written records of Christian patients filled-up my locked metal file cabinets. Productive therapeutic relationships with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics made up my practice, as well.

One who wishes to understand a new person intends to learn about his overall background, including the role faith plays, if any. I found religion to be an essential boon to some, the steadying foundation upon which they mounted their life.

I came to recognize a number, however, whose sense of inadequacy appeared tied to church teaching.

Sometimes they had so-called “devout” parents who condemned, abused, or neglected them from an early age. Others described a painful lack of support experienced in their adult faith community. Some felt judged because their reliance upon God alone proved insufficient to surmount their psychological injuries.

In these cases, I asked questions to prompt reflection on the complications of the views and people they were struggling with, as well as their benefits. If they resisted, I worked around the problem and dealt with what was permitted. My approach with the non-religious was similar.

What does this (belief, or behavior, action, or inaction) cost you?

Part of the counselor’s dilemma is this: certain viewpoints and values, scriptural or political, can be like the most important load-bearing walls within a home. To remove or fracture such supports will cause the whole building to buckle if not collapse.

Strong opinions about politics share characteristics with dogmatic religious ones. Unshakable gut reactions often drive those certainties. Reasoning about them is not the job of a helping professional and is fruitless in any case.

While a devoted person might offer a rationale for his choice of church or candidate, Jonathan Haidt’s research underlines the extent to which emotions, not logical thought, precede these convictions. Reason tends to follow long-imbedded, instinctual affiliations, not create them.

The therapeutic process of unwinding self-injurious attachments of this kind is usually more than psychotherapy can or should take on.

Healers must be wary of their own limitations and biases. A danger exists when formidable gaps take up the space between the personal ideals and principles held by their patient and themselves.

Those differences transform the doctor’s singular focus of aiding a fellow human’s quest for a better life. He now risks harming the sufferer by inadvertent indifference, failing empathy, or judgmental statements. Body language and facial expressions, as well, may intrude on the benevolence needed to help.

The individuals we take in our charge depend on our goodwill. No one desires to gaze at narrowed eyes seemingly edged with daggers. Past history has already filled their cup of accumulated unkindness above the “full” mark.

In addition to suicide, the most extreme tendencies our clients bring to us are problems of lawbreaking and a threat to the safety of the community. If we meet a spousal abuser seated in our office, it matters little whether the person claims his denomination or politics justifies his brutality.

A therapist’s responsibilities include protection of life if the patient poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others, regardless.

I am sure there are people I could not engage in a joint healing project because of my feelings about their beliefs, especially in the current pandemic-infused election leadup. A white supremacist would be just one such example for most counselors.

Perhaps outpatient therapists are fortunate because antisocial extremists tend not to seek our service. By the time they reach the stage of showing force or worse, few unburden their souls to strangers. A therapist is neither a magician nor a divine being. More than ever, he must acknowledge his limits to himself. His job inside those boundaries is difficult enough.

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The top image is “The Bramante Staircase,” Vatican Museums, as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next comes The Horseshoe Falls, Niagra,” by William England. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

9 thoughts on “When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

  1. After a traumatic event in the rectory of the Catholic Church where I was employed as a teenager, I stopped attending mass but mentally suffered with thoughts of burning in hell for all eternity, constantly praying to God asking for forgiveness, desperation throughout my adult life until I sought therapy after something triggered me. My counselor was Jewish and rose to the occasion with the intricacies of a religion he knew nothing about and he helped me. The load bearing wall I was carrying did come crashing down upon me and now I see God as something so distant and most likely not real, that I am almost agnostic. Sometimes I do identify as agnostic, but there is still a mustard seed within me that wonders if I will burn in hell for all eternity for my lack of faith. I guess only time will tell and if so, how unfair God really is.

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    • I proof read and proof read all my little comments here on this blog, but my eyes glaze over my typos and I do not notice them until after they are published. Grrr! 😠

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    • Sounds like you had a talented therapist and much persistence of your own, Nancy. Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher, condemned those religions that instill terror in children from an early age, thereby securing their faith lest they suffer hell’s punishment. If he were around, he would more likely accuse those who terrorized the little Nancy than you.

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  2. I’ve never considered how challenging it could be for health care practitioners like yourself to navigate the religious and political beliefs of patients. To me, our society and culture, of which religion and politics are but a part, are integral to who we are as individuals. I imagined that practitioners would be trained in treating the entire person in all its complexities.

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    • There are undoubtedly limits to our training, Rosaliene. Therapists must always contend with those aspects of the human experience, and those people, who are tied to one kind of ideology or another, even with the complications that go with those ties. There are issues and people we can work with, those we can work around, and those where we encounter the limit to our skills, experience, and training.
      As our profession and many other professions become more specialized, counselors may discover more, not fewer, diagnostic categories and kinds of issues where we have to make referrals.
      I occasionally consulted clergymen to assist if the situation called for it. Thanks for your wise comment, Rosaliene.

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  3. Please don’t think I am making light of a very serious issue. My bridge partner, with whom I spent several years enjoyably playing the game, and who was a Trump supporter, decided I was the “enemy” and broke off our partnership. I was happy concentrating on the cards and letting the rest. . . take a rest. It really hurt. Working your way through difficult issues is your genius Gerry and I’m glad you are writing about it.

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  4. Thanks, Joan. I’d add that in order to work through the issues, one needs a cooperative partner. You know this from the experience you describe, unfortunately.

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