When Your Therapist Doesn’t Share Your Faith

A few potential clients asked me this the first time we spoke on the phone:

Are you Christian?

Since I’m not, the call soon ended.

I never tried to talk them out of their decision. Not that I could have.

The choice of practitioner involves numerous factors, but one shouldn’t dismiss the importance of religion. For many, it represents a major pillar of their lives and a source of sustenance.

Nor should the helping professional disregard it in a new client who never asked about whether he believed in a higher power.

A counselor must respect your creed. The doctrine you hold offers guidance in morality. Therefore, you possess the right to expect the practitioner to be principled, even if not identical to yourself in his every value and code of conduct.

From this retired clinician’s standpoint, a professional who adheres to a different faith requires two levels of acceptance of his new patient:

First, she needs to remember the beliefs and motivations of the human race are dependent on a large component of instinct and emotion. Because we lack scientific proof of God’s existence, religious differences begin from a base of uncertainty.

No wonder there are thousands of Christian denominations alone, all basing justification for their understanding of proper Christianity on the same book.

No one in the mental health profession encounters a robot-like slice of humanity without a core of emotion. If such people existed anywhere, they would consult computer programmers for all their sadness and anxiety.

Second, the practice of treatment with words includes the ability to accept homo sapien frailty. No healer has every answer.

He must recognize his own limitations, his patient’s foibles and model for the client a generous, empathic embrace of the human condition despite the condition of humanity.

Some of those in search of psychological help believe shared faith ensures security. Unfortunately, supposed identical beliefs may enhance a false sense of safety and enlarge the opportunity for the authority figure to harm one who comes for his aid.

A therapist always starts by playing catch-up. He attempts to accumulate information about this woman or man with speed. The client’s belief system adds to his understanding.

I treated adherents to multiple forms of many religions and of no religion. To understand Christians, I read historical volumes and enlarged my familiarity with the New Testament. I also began to educate myself about Buddhism when I worked with my first adherent to this Eastern way of living.

In cases involving sexual abuse, I occasionally consulted ministers or priests who were not among my clientele. Misfortunes challenging to the patient’s faith led me to encounter questions impossible to respond to from a position of religious authority. Among these was how a supposedly all-good and all-powerful Deity permitted such suffering.

When one woman wondered how to manage her rage toward God. I encouraged her to meet with a sympathetic priest. He offered her a transformational change in viewpoint:

If you choose to speak to the Lord about your anger, that too is a form of prayer.

Her faith remained intact.

On occasion, the helping professional walks an invisible line between supporting the client and undermining her credo. He takes care not to rob the sufferer of the spiritual reliance upon which she depends.

Too often, a patient encounters co-religionists who shun her because of her alleged moral failure or absence of prompt forgiveness of devastating injuries.

The same challenge occurs if she is told her emotional pain demonstrates a lack of commitment to the Almighty’s requirements. So-called righteous individuals have been known to blame unhappiness on insufficient prayer or shaky fidelity to dogma.

The counselor needs to negotiate this tightrope-like pathway regardless of his own doctrinal attitudes or their absence. The personal bias of an atheist social worker is not necessarily less or more than the prejudice held by a therapist who belongs to the patient’s community of faith.

Religion can connect the individual to something beyond himself. Our secular and isolated world of individualism leaves many without a sense of higher values. I needn’t explain the problems of too great a focus on the self, material success, or the tribe.

While religious differences present unique challenges, other variables also impact the doctor-patient relationship. These include age, race, nationality, gender, background, politics, personality, sexual identity, therapeutic orientation, and more.

Experienced and talented counselors work to create the human connection needed for healing. When such souls are suited to their vocation, they welcome the enlargement of their own humanity by encountering and assisting people unlike them.

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All three of the images are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is The Battle between the Gods and the Giants, 1608, by Joachim Antonisz Wtewael. Next comes Sunset, 1930, by Paul Klee. Finally, Bodhisattva, from 8th century, Japan.