When I was in graduate school, getting therapy seemed like a no-brainer. At that time, the state “bribed” prelicensed therapists by counting each hour of therapy as 3 hours towards the 3,000 hours needed to apply to take exams. So… without any particular crisis in place… I went on the search for therapy…
As I explored my needs, I thought it would be helpful to have a professional therapist who understood my faith in a higher power and wouldn't think I was “weird.” I didn't want religious therapy... I just wanted someone who would accept me and not judge me. Back then- looking for a therapist was all about the yellow pages. I called dozens of therapists with almost no phone calls back. And the one faith based therapist who returned my call wasn't actually a licensed therapist. Not a huge deal… except that they tried to argue with me about why this wasn't necessary (hey dude- I am getting hours for this for MY license- I know I need a licensed person!)
I ended up finding a great therapist- but try as I might… I didn't feel comfortable going into areas of spiritual angst. This therapist was wonderful, caring, compassionate… but not someone who I felt I could “go there” with.
All the while, I was working within non-profits and public agencies where faith was off the table. I couldn't admit my faith to my clients even if they asked about it… I had to be very careful about how I eased their fears and conveyed support, compassion, and a lack of judgment. And… when doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where faith was wrapped into the maladaptive thought process... I had to be very careful with how I worked through breaking down the material.
None of this extreme care was taken because I was trying to convert clients, or interject faith where it was inappropriate; I was making culturally competent, psychologically sound interventions, and using stories, words, and phrases that would best work within the client's cultural context. All of this tiptoeing around was frustrating sometimes. It felt inauthentic a lot of the time. And it just felt downright funky at others.
Years later, after having my son… I was journaling and praying when I felt God tell me that my next step was to open up a private practice… and that it should offer faith-based counseling. Yes. I said God. While some people have revelations and moments of clarity using meditation- it has most often happened to me within the context of prayer.
Insert panic here! I had been in this work long enough to see how divisive the topic of integrating faith was within the therapy community. While I had a lot of fears... the biggest fear I had was that other therapists were going to make incorrect assumptions about me, reject me, or think I was an unethical therapist. It was truly terrifying…
What did I do? I started doing a LOT of research. I researched different organizations that were integrating spirituality into therapy, integrating faith, and read a LOT of ethical codes. I interviewed several therapists who integrated faith, as well as pastors. And I found some really interesting stuff! Most notably was that some of the ethical codes felt like they conflicted not only with my own personal beliefs, but that they also weren't in line with my professional ethical codes. Despite a lot of recommendations to align with certain faith-based organizations- I declined because it didn't feel right for me.
I instead chose to align with a code of ethics and organization that was much less well known, but that aligned with who I was as a faith based therapist- it was all about the client and aligning with their faith, their needs, etc.
Also, after seeing all the different ways faith could be integrated into therapy, I got clear about what that would look like for ME. I chose to be who I always was: a client-centered therapist- who happens to have some shared cultural context and understanding that could make it easier for us to dive down deep and make change.
I was aware of the assumptions people can make when one mentions integrating faith or talks about “Christian” counseling- so I made sure to spend some time to clarifying on my website with articles like What if I am a Christian? What if I am not a Christian? I made sure to indicate on my website that this was a safe space for LGBTQ individuals. In fact, I had clients who specifically chose me as a therapist because all of this was on my website. One client struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation felt safer that I wasn't going to try to convince them of their sexual orientation due to my faith background. I also made sure to clarify that I was open to integrating any faith practice into the therapy process.
And colleagues? Most colleagues who knew me well were not judgmental at all. Strangers on the internet, and on listserves did make some not so nice comments and generalizations. However, our stories as therapists are more about our clients. And the clients felt safe coming to work with me. They felt safe talking about prayer. They felt safe talking about their faith relationship and what they were struggling with...
And guess what? What someone struggles within one area, is often what they struggle with in other areas. Getting to know the areas of strength and areas of frustration in faith gave me a full assessment and allowed me to provide more impactful interventions and get a clearer picture of the broader patterns and processes happening in my client's lives.
This is my story of opening up a private practice that integrated spirituality ethically and from a client-centered perspective. I truly hope it helps inspire you to look deeper into the needs of this world and develop a practice that reaches your community in the most impactful way possible.
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