Grasping Religious & Spiritual Traditions Sensitively- Without Being An Expert In That Tradition

Article written by Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC

Acknowledge Your Limits

Your Role & The Role of Assessment

Therapy is an application of psychological science. It is not a worldview and, therefore, can only at best explore, not answer, questions about religion, spirituality, faith, and purpose. In other words, it cannot tell you what to believe. Undeniably, in the exploration process many come to find various answers. Therefore, when working with any one person, and specifically someone who adheres to a specific tradition or beliefs, it is crucial to acknowledge your limits as a therapist.

Identify your limits by:

Incisive questions lead to better assessment which provides the opportunity for better treatment. Clients who don’t believe in God may find it very important to talk about this and how difficult it is for them in their world where they may be a minority group. 

Tolerate Your Own Uncertainty and Lack of Expertise

You certainly don't have to be an expert in religious beliefs. In fact, it would be rare if you were, as most clinicians focus their careers on clinical work. Only a minority of clinicians will have some secondary or additional spiritual or religious training.

Openness To Learning

Curiosity and openness is crucial for a growth mindset and in much of therapy (especially for those of us who are CBT clinicians). It’s not only clients who must grow in their openness to learn. Therapists are hopefully growing and learning regularly.

Consider Learning Through:

7 Competency Keys

Vieten et al. (2016) posit in their research some excellent considerations for competency in religious and spiritual beliefs. Here’s a brief overview from Vieten (2020):

  1. Being able to conduct effective and empathic psychotherapy with clients from diverse religious and spiritual traditions.
  2. Routinely asking about clients’ spiritual and religious beliefs and practices as part of taking a client’s history and assessing their resources and strengths.
  3. Knowing ways that some religious and spiritual experiences mimic psychiatric symptoms, and being able to discriminate between the two.
  4. Knowing the difference between spirituality and religion, and being able to address both domains in psychotherapy.
  5. Being aware of therapists' own biases based on their religious and spiritual background and beliefs.
  6. Treating religious and spiritual background as just as important as racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background in terms of diversity.
  7. Knowing how to work in concert with spiritual directors or clergy members in clients’ treatment when appropriate.

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