As a clinician, even if your work is decidedly secular, your personal spiritual and religious orientations can still have a significant impact on the work you do. The beliefs you hold can impact everything from the language you use to the way you formulate your cases and select intervention models.
They likely play at least some part, however small, in the trainings you choose to attend, the professional communities with which you engage and the approaches you use with your clients.
While we all aim to maintain some level of objectivity in sessions, our clinical work is undeniably affected in one way or another by our personal belief systems.
So what can be done to ensure that our spiritual and religious biases do not become clinically problematic?
According to Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D, and Shelley Scammell, Psy.D, authors of the book “Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice,” building awareness of how our personal beliefs can lead to outcome-limiting assumptions in the work we do is one way to mitigate the potential for harm.
“The more awareness you have, the more conscious you can be in making decisions about how to effectively deal with each client, and about any reactions you may have toward the material clients present. You’ll also be a able to draw upon your spiritual and religious background for strengths that can assist you in being an effective therapist,” write Vieten and Scammell.
As clinicians, it’s imperative that we maintain awareness of how our own spiritual and religious backgrounds impact the work we do. How do our beliefs influence our perceptions and assumptions about human behavior and human psychology as a whole?
A great way to start exploring this question is by looking back on your personal history of religion and spirituality. Did you grow up in a spiritual or religious household? What kinds of customs were involved in expressing these beliefs? Which experiences made the biggest impression on you?
You can also take the time to explore your current perspectives on spirituality and religion by asking yourself what you hold sacred. Which spiritual or religious practices do you partake in now, if any? Has your spirituality been associated with positive feelings like pleasure, fulfillment and connection or has it been affiliated with more difficult experiences like pain, anxiety, guilt or alienation?
It may also be helpful to better understand the specific ways in which your spiritual and religious beliefs can affect your clinical work. The following four ways have been adapted from the work “Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice.”
- Your spiritual and religious beliefs affect some of your core assumptions about life.
In addition to some of the more obvious issues that tend to be correlated with spiritual or religious beliefs— such abortion, death penalty, and so on — our spiritual beliefs have also been proven to influence the way we view things like free will, level of control over life’s circumstances, and forgiveness.
“If you believe in a benevolent God, for instance, it changes your perspective on and therefore your response to life’s greatest challenges. Similarly, the meaning you make of the experiences your clients encounter will be affected by your worldview,” write Vieten and Scammell.
- Your spiritual and religious beliefs may lead you to avoid things that are important in the therapy room.
Certain issues may feel uncomfortable to you because of your spiritual or religious beliefs. Without awareness around what these issues are, your urge to avoid them may cause you to miss the chance to explore clinically relevant material. Alternately, if a client shares an aspect of her own religion or spirituality that conflicts with your beliefs or makes you uncomfortable, you may neglect to go deeper when further exploration could be clinically beneficial.
“If your religious or spiritual beliefs are in direct conflict with actions your client takes, such as gambling or going to a strip club, you may unintentionally avoid addressing those topics,” write Vieten and Scammell.
- Your core assumptions based on personal spiritual and religious beliefs may inadvertently communicate a lack of acknowledgment, validation or understanding with a client.
If you’re not mindful of your personal beliefs, you may mention something about life that is true to you based on your core assumptions, that may not be true for your client.
For instance, perhaps you believe that people are essentially good and that the world is generally a safe place. Your client, however, may be a part of a spiritual tradition that does not hold those same assumptions. This difference may make it difficult for you to understand their experiences and perspectives around feeling unsafe and insecure in the world.
- You may unintentionally offend a client.
Without being aware first of our own core spiritual and religious beliefs and assumptions, it can be all too easy to accidentally impose them on others, including your clients. You may have sacred spiritual or religious items in your office, for instance, that make clients uncomfortable.
Or you may say things like, “I’ll keep you in my prayers,” or “Let go and let God,” which may be offensive to atheistic or polytheistic clients.
If you’re a clinician, you have a responsibility to take the time to explore your religious and spiritual background in depth in order to better understand how it may affect the work you do with clients. Once you have built this awareness, you’ll boost your competency working with a diverse client base.
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