This will be perhaps one of the most controversial articles I’ll ever write. But the question “How much does your client’s religious belief systemreligion and therapy hinder their recovery from their emotional stress or strain?” may be central to our understanding of what we can expect from our interventions in psychotherapy and hypnotherapy.

Perception

How we perceive the world within our English culture may be broadly common to most of us but when an individual has strong religious beliefs, how do we accommodate that variable? How do we facilitate a client’s recovery from, say, depression or anxiety, while respecting that they hold religious beliefs which may be hindering that very recovery? Even religious beliefs that a client has been raised with but that now are no longer practiced…..how profoundly does this early training affect them? Do you think to question your client’s religious orientation?

Let me give an example. I have met many a troubled practising Christian who has added layers of guilt and remorse on top of their failings. Perhaps they have started with a slight depression, and then feeling ungrateful because they have family to rely upon and most of all God to guide them, pull themselves together and put on a brave face. My way of explaining depression is that it is a repressed expression….so for every emotion we forbid ourselves to feel, the more likely we are to express our hopelessness and futility in a depression. These sanctions of our feelings and emotions of course, can be heavily influenced by our religious practice.

So let’s take the same person, feeling ungrateful, refusing to acknowledge her anger or fear, ignores her forbidden feelings and soldiers on, her faith intact. Slowly the repression starts to stifle her self-expression. The feelings become more unacceptable, and as they become unacceptable, she suffers not only depression, but now anxiety too. What if someone knew that she was feeling so wretched? Whatsmore she judges, she is a christian and shouldn’t be feeling that way. The anxiety rises, probably without any conscious reason she can find, until it reaches fever pitch.

God & The Devil

Now she starts to feel angry with God. Why should she be so unhappy and frightened if he is looking after her? How can he love her if he lets her suffer like this? How ungrateful is she that she can think like this about her all present and all loving God? You see, now the belief system, far from supporting her, has started to sabotage her relationship with her God. None of her feelings of rage and resentment are acceptable to her. She can trot out again and again the platitudes that she knows from her Christian faith: ‘God is with you.’ ‘You don’t need to worry.’ ‘You need to accept God’s love.’ And so on. And yet none of it makes any sense to her. In her reality God has abandoned her and her faith is on the line.

She now feels drawn by the devil as she sees that, as she turns her back on God, guiltily and without wanting to, the devil is taking hold of her and she feels dirty and tarnished by unacceptable feelings of resentment, hatred and sadness. Her now negative relationship with her God is causing her intense suffering.

The Role of the Therapist

As a therapist our job is to somehow try and unpick what kind of number this client is doing on herself, while still enabling her to maintain her faith. Any threat to her fragile faith may be the cause of further depression and anxiety.

As a non denominational therapist, perhaps you feel frustrated with this type of client? Perhaps secretly you want to tell them they’ve got it all wrong and they’re their own worst enemy? Perhaps this attitude oozes out of your therapy without you realising?

As a therapist with a religious background yourself, perhaps you find yourself caught up in the client’s reality? Perhaps you find it hard to challenge her beliefs because you may have to challenge your own to do it? Perhaps in either case, you are feeling helpless and at a loss as to how to counsel and treat your client?

These wouldn’t be unfamiliar feelings for anyone as a therapist to understand. I personally have found the less a person has really pondered their own relationship with God the bigger the problem. And conversely the more a person has reflected on what God personally means to them the better their recovery from mental health issues.

Religious Programming & Challenging Beliefs

And this is where early religious programming drummed into us can bypass our ability to work with the conscious mind when it comes to deeply held religious beliefs. And yet, you’ll find many Christians are hugely suspicious of Hypnotherapy. So how do you reach them?

Well, firstly, if you’re not already qualified as a counsellor or psychotherapist, the chances that they’ll find you are quite slim. But if you are one of those multiskilled therapists, you’ll realise that you are likely to meet this kind of client more often.

Listening carefully and picking up on their beliefs without any religious reference will help. For example, a client says to me “I can’t stop crying. Everytime I see anyone, I just can’t stop crying”. Let me give you a typical exchange:

Therapist: “You can’t stop crying”
Client: “No. I just feel so stupid.”
T: What makes you feel stupid?
C: That I cry for no good reason. They’re not doing anything to make me cry.
T: So what other feelings or thoughts are running through your head when you cry?
C: I just feel I’m going to let everyone down.religious belief and hypnotherapy
T: How will you do that?
C: Because I’m just not good enough.
T: Good enough for what?
C: I’m just useless. It’s the same feeling as when my mum went into hospital when I was 4.
T: Tell me about that time.
C: (Client recounts that time.)
T: So that’s left you feeling not good enough?
C: Yes!
T: How true is that? How can you be not good enough? What could you have done differently?
C: I could have been more helpful to my mum.
T: When you were 4?
C: Ah. Yes. I suppose so.
T: Did you know how to do that then?
C: No. Probably not. I was a child.
T: So that feeling of not being good enough and of letting people down may have been something that came from that time?
C: Yes. It could have been.
T: So is there any reason why you should continue to not feel good enough?
C: I feel I’m letting God down.
T: Tell me how?
C: Because I shouldn’t be ungrateful for what I have.
T: What does ungrateful mean to you?
C: It means I have all this and still I’m not happy.
T: I wonder if you are confusing what ungrateful means? Perhaps what you’re calling ungrateful, is actually just you feeling sad or unhappy and everyone is entitled to that now and again. Aren’t they?
C: Yes. But I’m a Christian. I shouldn’t be unhappy.
T: Does God say anywhere in the bible you shouldn’t be unhappy?
C: No.
T: So if God’s not telling you you shouldn’t be unhappy, perhaps you don’t need to punish yourself for feeling sad about something that’s perfectly understandable for you to feel sad about?
C: I never really looked at it that way before. I just assumed God wanted me to be happy all the time.
T: Perhaps all He wants is for you to be human? And human beings have the capacity for all types of feelings?

You can see that this discussion can go on in this way. But notice one thing. I’m challenging her beliefs. But I’m not challenging her faith. In fact, I’m hoping to deepen her faith once she realises that all the conditions she imagines she has to live through, are ones that she is imposing on herself. God’s been there all along in her belief system. It’s her access to Him because of her own blockages that has been impaired.

I’m also carefully following her lead. I only offer a perspective once I’ve led her down the thread of her own subconscious. I could challenge her beliefs much earlier, but I would be just like one of her fellow Christian friends telling her she’ll be ok, that she should pray. If no one’s prepared to listen to the belief system that’s supporting her depression, then platitudes of challenges are just like the sticking plaster on the proverbial gaping wound.

Conclusion

So when working with clients with strong religious belief systems, please remember you do not need to challenge the validity of a religion, but you do need to challenge the validity of the interpretation that clients have placed on their religion. These two aspects are very different indeed.

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