Spirituality and Psychotherapy: An Interview with Elizabeth Maynard

Volunteer extraordinaire Sophia Sorensen interviews University of St. Thomas professor Elizabeth Maynard about the need for psychotherapists to become more comfortable addressing spirituality with their clients.

Do you believe in God?

Is your spiritual orientation or faith important to you?

A 2010 Gallup poll found 80% of Americans believe in a god, and 12% believe in a universal spirit, results consistent with many other recent research studies. From this general finding, it is a natural conclusion that in a counseling context, counselors are most often sitting with a client that is guided by faith.

“When we’re thinking about clients and their meaning-making systems,” says Elizabeth Maynard, “ignoring this, means missing out what may be most important to them.” Elizabeth, an Associate Professor and Chair of Clinical Mental Health Programs at the University of St. Thomas, sees this as a foundational counselor competence issue.

Historically, there has been a tension between the mental health field and religion. “In the course of training, religion and spirituality have often been addressed in a cursory manner, such as one topic in a class on diversity,” says Elizabeth, however, this has proven woefully inadequate to equip counselors for profound therapeutic conversations. This lack of competence may lead to counselor bias, including an inability to fully appreciate a client’s views, or, at the extreme, a stigmatization of clients with strong religious views. Resulting treatment plans may also be devoid of values which are central to a client’s life.

Elizabeth, who is also a researcher in the psychology of religion, feels strongly that “counselors and psychotherapists need to learn how to respectfully incorporate religious and spiritual themes within the counselling process.” While clients may identify as religious, spiritual, or both, the gap in counselor’s training, lack of understanding or education about diverse faiths, and their personal comfort (or discomfort) with their own religious and spiritual views, all filter into a practice.

“For clients, it’s important to feel understood and accepted by bringing religious and spiritual components into the counseling experiences,” says Elizabeth. “If a counselor approaches it in a respectful manner, accompanied by a degree of demonstrable competence, a kind of ‘shorthand’ communication can evolve, which is very helpful.”

Awareness about the importance of spiritualty to a client may emerge as early as the intake meeting, if the client feels comfortable making an overt statement about their personal faith. Elizabeth delineates between explicit or implicit expressions of such themes. “It may be communicated in substantially different ways; a client may present themselves as a ‘Minister’, or it may require listening to the subtleties in client’s language or matching their ideas against my own world view.”

In her private practice, Elizabeth feels that many of her clients research her background and seek her out precisely because of her ability to integrate these themes within the therapeutic process. “These themes do not need to be taboo or disparate for counselors,” she says, and what she offers is a path towards broadening the sacred space that is available for both client and counselor.

Elizabeth’s workshop is a substantive first step for counseling professionals seeking to gain greater understanding of, and comfort with, expanding their scope of practice. The afternoon will include an abundance of information, including a deeper elaboration of the implicit and explicit integration paradigm, and practical tools for assessment, spiritual life maps and spiritual genograms. In addition, she will address key ethical considerations related to this expansion of psychotherapy practice.

You are invited to join Elizabeth Maynard for her workshop “Integrating Religious and Spiritual Themes in Counseling and Psychotherapy” this Saturday, December 6 at 1 pm at the Jung Center. Registration for this workshop can be completed online at www.junghouston.org or by the Jung Center at 713-524-8253.