Building Bridges of Growth through a Pastoral Counseling Perspective
Running head: Building Bridges of growth in Pastoral Counseling
Building Bridges of Growth through a Pastoral Counseling Perspective
A Pastoral Reflection Paper
Presented to the Faculty of Loyola College
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree of Master of Science
Chapter 1: Building Bridges of Growth through Pastoral Counseling
“Painful experiences are bridges of growth”, (source unknown), has been a powerful metaphor for me in my life both personally and professionally. Bridges are a part of my life and started becoming significant to me when I was a little girl. On a wall, close to my bed, hung a picture of two small children that were crossing a dangerous footbridge over an angry, roiling creek. Hovering above the children was a guardian angel that provided comfort in the scene and seemed to convey a very powerful message that while life is sometimes frightening and troubled, we are never really alone. I fell asleep every night with this very powerful image in my mind.
Much later in my life, I began to have recurrent dreams of angry bridges. I was the traveler trying to survive many different scenarios on disastrous bridges: a bridge fell apart; another bridge was engulfed in rising water; and one bridge ended into nothingness and I couldn’t stop the car that I was driving. The disturbing dreams continued for 10 years, but finally gave way to a beautiful dream of flying that seemed to convey a message of hope. These dreams of flying became significant as they paralleled an illness that I was experiencing at the time. I had started feeling extremely fatigued and lethargic after the birth of my fourth child and was diagnosed with Thyroid disease and Lupus. The fear was genuine, not like the fear represented in the picture above my childhood bed, or the fear being represented in my recurrent nightmare, but the like the fear that stops your body in its tracks. What ensued from this dance with fear was a major reconstruction of my life.
I entered counseling, learned yoga, revisited my faith and embraced a rebirth of spirituality. In essence, I gave birth to my true self and embarked on a journey of transformation that healed my life. The metaphor of the bridge provided a kaleidoscope of significant meaning in the ability to transform my negative experiences into potential for meaning in my life. More importantly, the metaphor of crossing a bridge with clients is how I see my work as a pastoral counselor.
It was with a change in perspective and while embracing my true self that brought about the greatest healing in my life. Problems and difficulties were not repressed or ignored but informed, and they instructed me about the most important aspects of my human journey. My true healing came about through a process of integrating even the negative experiences in my life. What I learned through these experiences is that while I could not change what was happening to me, I could change the way that I saw my life. Changing my perspective ultimately informed my attitude and that impacted my physical, emotional, and psychological health. “What alone remains is “the last of human freedoms”—the ability to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances” (Frankl, 1984, p. 9).
personal bridges. My deepest and most personal psychological work took place in those six months between the initial diagnosis and follow-up doctors’ appointments. I was confused about how something so stark could happen to me while I was so young. I was overwhelmed with a wide range of emotions, but truly longed for a deeper understanding of the ultimate meaning of what life was really all about. I began the search for the cure to my physical problem in the local library where I stumbled upon Bernie Siegel’s (1986) book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles , that curiously seemed to address my emotional struggles. Siegel described a spiritual, emotional, and psychological component to physical health; and that when we restore our emotional and spiritual lives and have hope in the potential to heal, then our physical health restores.
While reading Siegel’s book and many other self-help books, I was amazed at how out of sync my life had become and I quickly understood, on a deep level, the need to re-arrange what was happening. I wanted to understand what the world, God, and my body were trying to tell me. I taught myself to calm down and relax in a fast-paced, very competitive world that consisted of a social hierarchy, private schools, premier athletic teams, and the proverbial “keeping up with the Jones’s”. It seemed that the diagnosis of a physical disease became the means by which I began to build my bridge of growth into deeper spirituality and understanding the importance of finding meaning in my life.
There were four very important changes I made in my life at this time that consisted of Transpersonal Psychotherapy, Hatha Yoga, God and meditation, and blue jean overalls. I participated in weekly Transpersonal Psychotherapy, a type of counseling where I focused on accessing my own internal wisdom by clearing old, repressed emotional wounds. In addition, I also participated in Hatha Yoga, a 6,000 year old Hindu form of mental/physical movement meditation that focuses purification through breath work. I practiced breathing brilliant white light, God energy, into my body along with the recitation of the mantra, “relax, God is within”, all of which seemed to go against the grain of my Catholicism. However, I began to visit my own faith at a much deeper level than I had experienced before, and it was similar to what Fowler (1995) described in his book, Stages of Faith—conjunctive faith. This is a stage in faith development when symbols, myths, and rituals have a more direct meaning to the message they are trying to convey. But, perhaps the most important change that I made during this time in my life was the adoption of blue jean overalls that I fastened with a paper clip that seemed to announce my new rebellion. The blue jeans seemed to represent a shedding of old skin and a crossing of a bridge into a new beginning. Six months after my initial diagnosis, the test for Lupus revealed negative results.
bridges and counseling. Bridges can be seen in a variety of ways. Bridges are a way for the traveler to reach the other side. Bridges provide safety from what lies beneath. Bridges also provide a way of movement from what lies in the past to what has yet to come in the future. The most important function of a bridge is to provide passage from one point to another, often traversing the otherwise impassable.
Counseling is similar to a bridge. Counseling provides ways to reach goals, counseling provides new understanding and insight into problems, and counseling offers new possibilities for the future. Clients come to counseling for a variety of reasons, but often they are at an impasse in their lives. Just as the traveler reaches an impasse in his journey and may need the help of a bridge, a client may also reach a block in the road of life and might need the help of counseling. Counseling provides the support to move one along on the journey of life like a bridge provides the way for a traveler on his journey.
Building Bridges and the Process of Counseling
Building a simple footbridge or building a complex multi-system cable suspension bridge for the traveler, parallels the work to be done in counseling with the client. Counseling spans the simple to the complex, depending upon goals and types of problems to be addressed. Building bridges in the pastoral counseling relationship with the client can be an easy, short-term process or it can be a long-term, more in-depth process. Whatever the length, or degree of difficulty, problems are viewed as potential for healing and growth.
With problems as potential for healing and growth in counseling, the client reframes his existence and lives with new meaning in his life. "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him” (Frankl, 1984, p.166). Building bridges in the pastoral counseling relationship provides the ability to see this new potential for deriving meaning from all of life experiences.
The Three-Stage Model of Counseling and Building the Bridg e
The three-stage model of counseling proposed by Hill (2004), in Helping Skills involves exploration, insight, and action. A three-stage model of building a bridge might include surveying the landscape, building the bridge, and exploring new horizons. Both building a bridge and pastoral counseling are more complex than a simple three-stage model might describe, however this three-stage model serves as a form in which to bring a clearer focus to the metaphor “building bridges of growth through pastoral counseling.”
exploration. In the case of building a bridge, setting a strong foundation is very important as it provides the strength and the infrastructure that will support the weight and longevity of the bridge. Without a strong foundation, everything built, is subject to collapse. This is similar to the importance of building a strong therapeutic relationship in counseling. The therapeutic relationship is the foundation of successful counseling (Hill, 2004). Even in the case of a bridge collapse or relapse in therapy, a strong foundation set in place provides for opportunity to rebuild.
A beam bridge is the simplest type of bridge constructed where support is based on a simple beam being supported by a pier at each end. Beam bridges are relatively inexpensive to construct but there are risks associated with the beam bridge such as sagging, buckling, and collapse. A beam bridge in counseling might be seen as a temporary fix to provide some immediate support. Over time, however, one might find that the simple counseling intervention might not work for long and the client might need to return for further support.
The truss bridge is similar to a beam bridge, but with an extra support built in to carry extra weight. The extra beam running diagonally in each square built in the bridge strengthens trusses’ bridges. Trusses’ bridges are built when a simple beam bridge is not strong enough to carry the extra weight. So, it is also found in counseling, some clients require a stronger and lengthier intervention that can withstand the pressures of what life is presenting.
A suspension bridge is much more complex and involves suspending a big part of the bridge from cables that hang down from a greater support of significant pilings. This bridge provides for large vessels to pass underneath freely. This bridge is also built to handle some degree of flexibility in movement due to wind and weather. A suspension bridge as a metaphor for counseling reminds me of how important it is to permit the passage of feelings and emotions that are sometimes hidden beneath the surface. It is also a reminder of how important it is to remain flexible in accommodating natural elements of life. Sometimes goals in counseling must be still in order to allow for unexpected challenges in life such as an illness, a trauma, or a death.
An arch bridge provides support in the case of spanning the distance of a rock gorge. Arch bridges are the oldest type of bridge and the shape of the structure provides the bridge with its amazing strength. The arch bridge does not need support or cables or even mortar in the case of stone arch bridges. Some arch bridges present a series of continued arches that reminds me of how life continues to present us with problems or possibilities to grow. The arch bridge provides continued support over a long span and reminds me that counseling is really a lifelong process. Whether this learning takes place in the counseling room, or whether the learning continues individually, is irrelevant. With continued growth, as represented by the arch bridge, we build strength that can last through the ages.
insight. “Daring as it is to investigate the unknown, even more so is it to question the known” (Kaspar, as cited in Hill, p. 213). The insight stage in counseling and the process of actually constructing the bridge are seen to be similar entities. Bridge construction involves a combination of engineering principles, the process of fitting pieces together using certain materials for particular sections, supporting sections of the bridge with jacks, gluing, bolting, fastening, and sealing are all ways to construct the bridge. In counseling, a similar process takes place as the counselor assists a client in coming to new understandings of herself, her world, and her problems. The counseling process is engineered to the specifications and needs of the client. The client and the counselor work together to fit pieces of the puzzle of life together. It is the time to discover recurrent themes and patterns in a client’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings (Hill, 2004). Specific psychotherapeutic interventions are used to raise awareness. A client finds deeper meaning in her life by connecting her past with the future. It is a time to learn to suspend expectations and remain open to possibilities that lie on the horizon.
In my own personal experience of this insight stage, I learned about the continual process of birth, death, and resurrection. I learned about how my faith and the life of Jesus spoke metaphorically to this continual re-birthing process in life. Each human problem is a mini-death. Death is not meant to be the end, but a way to clearer understanding of what it is to be human. With better understanding and higher consciousness, new awareness shouts, “I’m differently alive!” We cannot go back to a form of living before, but we must embrace a new life going forward.
One example in my own life demonstrates how insight brings new meaning as it provides light into new possibilities. I reflect back to the recurrent nightmares about bridges that always involved a disaster. My dreams revealed to me how “out of sync” my life had become. The bridges represented a disconnect between the life that I was living and the life that I was meant to lead. To have continued down the path would have meant my demise. The more I kept living my old way, the more out of control I became.
The dreams shifted from disaster to a dream of flying at about the same time that I was dealing with the medical diagnosis and my own existential crisis. It seemed curious that the dreams of bridges and disasters would take flight to a glorious dream filled with hope during a time of chaos. Flying provided relief; it became a way of conquering my fears, and it gave me a sense of what it feels like to have hope when faced with despair. My dreams seemed to demonstrate the importance of this very powerful concept of having hope when it seems that your world is falling apart.
Through this painful, but insightful time in my life, I learned the importance of remaining optimistic in the face of despair. Transformation of mind and soul impacts the body. One part might lead, but the others must follow. The mind, body, and soul, all operating in unison operate at an optimum level. When I healed my mind and nurtured my soul, my body was renewed. The insight was profound and instructed the process of integration of self as opposed to dissecting self. I was captivated by this process and enrolled in the Pastoral Counseling Program ready to learn and enter into a ministry of helping others on their journey. “There is no such thing as pain without a gift for you in its hand” (Bach, 1977, p. 71). The following is a poem that encapsulates the process.
The Bridge Builder
An old man trav’ling a lone highway
came at the evening cold and gray
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The swollen stream had not fear for him.
But he turned when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
Old man, said a fellow pilgrim near,
You are wasting your strength in building here.
Your journey will end with the ending day.
You never again will pas this way.
You’ve crossed the chasm deep and wide,
Why build you this bridge at evening tide?”
The guilder lifted his old grey head.
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth whose feet must pass this way,
This chasm that has been as naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim.
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him.”
Anonymous as cited in (Crowley, p. 192)
Viaduc de Millau Bridge
The largest most complex bridge in the world
action: Crossing the Bridge. Once a strong foundation is set, and the appropriate bridge is built, it becomes time for the traveler to cross the bridge. The view is very different from the top of the bridge and on the other side of the bridge. The first journey of crossing is the most difficult, but filled with wonder. In counseling, taking action is about moving beyond insight into the attainment of goals. It is about crossing the bridge and consolidating new ideas from insight and putting these ideas into action in real life. The counselor makes the first journey with the client. The image is seen in the earlier picture of the two small children on the treacherous footbridge over an angry looking stream. The process of crossing the bridge from insight into action is a gradual process. However, when goals are met, the important process of termination begins and the client begins to integrate the new possibilities for her future.
Building effective bridges in pastoral counseling is more than applying interventions to release tension and stress for the client. It is about helping clients learn how to build their own bridges when problems arise in the future. It is about helping clients learn how to transform the negative experiences of their lives into opportunities to gain strength and to learn. “Never fear shadows. They simply mean there’s light shining somewhere nearby” (Ruth Renkel, n.d.).
Chapter 2: Hope as the Spiritual Bridge in Counseling
The Buddhist hopes for enlightenment; the Christian hopes for salvation; the Hindu hopes in karma. The list goes on, but the theme is the same; people hope. Hope can also be viewed from many different perspectives, such as the psychological, theological, medical, and the personal. Hope can be as simple as a child hoping for a special doll at Christmas, or it can be more profound as hoping for a cure or miracle in the face of a terminal illness. Countless stories of patients with life-threatening diseases miraculously recover in the face of hope. Human hoping spans the scope from superficiality to the profundity of human existence. We hope because we are human.
Hope is at the heart of my spirituality and has meaning to me personally. Hope is rooted in my faith development, matured through my life experiences, and continues to grow and influence the existential perspective of my counselor training. The roots of the development of my word hope can be found in my religious and spiritual development early in my life. Then my own painful experiences brought authenticity to the development of how having hope is not about wishing for some “thing” in particular, but is more about remaining open to possibilities when faced with despair. This concept helped to bridge a gap by turning my painful experiences into bridges of new growth. Hope is further pronounced in the development of who I am as a pastoral counselor. Counseling clients reveal how both having hope as a counselor, and evoking hope from my clients, aids in the existential process of building and crossing the painful bridges in life.
Religious and Spiritual Development with the Word Hope
When I was a child, I was told that the only true religion was the Catholic Religion. From the time that I was a small girl I could never understand, in the eyes of God, how someone born in India who practiced Buddhism, could be any different from a child who was born in America that practiced Catholicism. I thought that if God created all the people in the world, he was also responsible for creating all of the religions in the world, and how could he not love that which he created. It also seemed impossible that the God my religion taught me to believe in would be the same God that would limit his love to just those practicing Catholicism. I asked the question when I was a small child and I still ask the same question today. How could one religion be right and another religion is wrong?
With this in mind, my Catholic faith was responsible for planting the seeds of discontent when it came to the notion of one “true” religion. These seeds of discontent developed my determination to find a new way of seeing the world, which would become open, non-judgmental, and holistic. Being open and non-judgmental has enabled me to embrace human differences as part of God’s plan, as opposed to excluding any one particular type of ethnic, cultural, or religious affiliation. In addition, this discontent helped develop my desire to pursue a pastoral counseling degree that promotes an ecumenical and non-judgmental attitude towards the great variety of my clients that I see in counseling. Finally, the discontent turned into a deeper awareness of the universal concepts, such as hope that brings God into everything, everyone, and every counseling room.
Some people might call me a “cut out Catholic” because it seems that I cut out the parts that I don’t like. I am okay with that; I leave judgment for God. My Catholic Faith is responsible for who I have become today. My questions, that might initially express discontent, have actually brought me closer to my Catholic Faith and God. My faith provided the many rich experiences through which I came to know God on an experiential level. The mystical experiences found during the Mass in the Eucharist and other sacraments brought God into a reality where I could actually feel the presence of God in my heart and soul. I believe the mystical experiences that brought God into a sensory awareness, in my faith, were most responsible for the development of my adult spirituality today. And while I still do not embrace some of the doctrine of the Catholic Faith, I have lived a lifetime of these rich experiences through the rituals, myths, and social experiences that brought the reality of God’s presence into my life which feels more important than doctrine. Catholicism is my home.
Hope, the Counselor, and the Counseling Relationship
Being able to utilize hope in the pastoral counseling relationship acts as a universal religion in my work with clients. It acts as a bridge that allows spirituality to be part of the counseling process that is not specific to any one client’s religious belief system. All religious belief systems are important to the process of bringing one’s spirituality into the counseling room. However, the relationship with God is made manifest, by way of hope, without specifying to one particular religion, but rather by embracing spirituality and working with the concepts and meaning of what it is to have hope in the face of problems and despair.
Up close and personal with hope. Hope was always a part of my life, but the deeper meanings associated with a more mature meaning of hope grew and changed as I experienced life in more challenging ways. I began to see things differently and over time hoping for something in particular became hoping in general. I began to see the effects of hope as a way of prayer and opened to the challenges of what life presented as opportunities to experience life more completely.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that brought this to fruition was my own personal experiences of being diagnosed with Lupus. I was in a state of despair as I came face to face with my own mortality. I started recalling the important philosophies I discovered throughout my life such as the wisdom in the book, Illusions, by Richard Bach (1977) that I had read in my late teens. The story is about an airplane pilot who is a wanderer and a mystic. He flies passengers all over the cornfields in the mid-west. What he teaches, metaphorically, is that a people do not need airplanes to soar and dark clouds have meaning once a person can rise above them. He also describes how messiahs can be found in unlikely places such as hay fields, a traffic-light, mid-western towns, and most of all, deep within ourselves. The pain that we experience in life can be what brings about new consciousness, new insight, and hope. It is about seeing life through a different lens, the power of transformation, and hope. Siegel (1986) describes in his book, Love Medicine, and Miracles, that there is a spiritual, emotional, and psychological component to physical health; and when we restore our emotional and spiritual lives and have hope in the potential to heal, then our physical health restores. Finding these two novels was the beginning of the realization that negative experiences were not necessarily the end of the world, and having hope was much broader in actual meaning than it was specific to “wishing” for a particular outcome.
Hope, Despair, and Transformation
Despair is the opposite of hope and what someone feels when they are hopeless. Despair arrives in the absence of hope. Despair is a state of emptiness or meaninglessness that surrounds the hoping for something wished, especially when hopes and wishes are unmet. Hope could then be vicariously responsible for much of the pain and suffering involved in our society and culture today. The idea is, most people might be better off not having hope. Hope may lead to disappointment.
Hope leads us to grasp at phantoms. When, as invariably happens, their attainment fails to satisfy us, hope persuades us that the disappointment is merely temporary, being due to our incomplete possession of these objects, persons, or situations we define as necessary for our bliss. (Omer, 1997, p. 226)
Chodron (1977) also found this similar perspective and in her book, When Things Fall Apart , was careful to explain that hope can sometimes lead to false expectations thus setting someone up for despair. When someone hopes for something it keeps them attached to the outcome and sets them up for disappointment when life does not present them with what they think they want.
This type of hoping is related to the concept of what de Mello (1991) talked about in The Way to Love , as attachment. Attachment is nothing more than false hope. “Almost every negative emotion you experience is the direct outcome of an attachment. (deMello, p. 22). When someone hopes for some “thing” in particular that person becomes attached. Attachment to a particular object, belief, or emotion sets a person up for disappointment when what that person is attached to cannot become their own. According to de Mello, people need to rid themselves from their attachments and then they will become truly content and happy. “Hardly anyone has been told the following truth: In order to be genuinely happy there is one and only one thing you need to do: get deprogrammed, get rid of those attachments” (deMello, p. 23).
Hope is not about being attached to an expectation of some particular thing. Hope contains an element of expectation, but expectation is not the core of true hope, that would be wishing. Hope is more about remaining optimistic and open to many possibilities that remain hidden in despair.
Once we become ready to let go of our dreams of what life “should” be, we can get down to the business of meeting each moment as it comes. Then the gateway to joy opens up. Hope always places paradise in some postponed future; if we want to live our lives fully, we must learn to break free of hope, to “despair," and to find ourselves where we are. (Omer, 1997, p. 232)
There is a need to let go of false hopes and attachments to certain expectations , and it is important to know the difference between wishing and hoping. Despair then, is more a result of wishing for “things” and remaining attached to specific outcomes, as opposed to a state of being optimistic in the face of all of what life has to offer, both good and bad.
It seems that the hope/despair dilemma presents the proverbial glass half empty or glass half full, each bringing different meanings of hope. Neither hope nor despair is good or bad, but both are necessary to experience human life in its fullest form. The experience of true hope is about holding the tension of opposites. In the book, Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom (1997) stated:
Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it should not. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted. A tension of opposites is like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle. (p. 40)
Holding the tension of opposites seems to be a part of many world religions. Hindus and Buddhists would claim that opposition is a fundamental rule for existence. It is also reflected in Judaism:
There is no type of existence in which opposites do not co-exist. In a sense, existence may also be defined as the coming together of opposites. All life moves in cycles from darkness into light, from contraction into expansion, brokenness into wholeness. (Frankel, 2005, p. 19)
The tension of opposites is seen in Christian philosophy in the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-4, that addresses the duality in the world. It states:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; (RSV)
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; (RSV)
All of us seem to experience this same tension underlying our human experience: the tension between good and evil; right and wrong; pain and pleasure; day and night; hot and cold; wealth and poverty; freedom and oppression; and male and female. The list describing our dualistic experience goes on endlessly and is recognized in many traditions (Eklof, 2002). Wicks (1998) discussed the importance of feeling both joy and pain fully to be alive in his book, Living a Gentle, Passionate Life. “When we experience pain, doubt and fear, we must not run from it. We must feel it and then let it flow away from us when possible” (p. 67).
The Counseling Bridge Under Construction
Building bridges with clients in pastoral counseling is about the process of moving the client from the immobilizing state of despair into their spiritual and psychological equilibrium of holding the tension of opposites. This process is about the change that takes place when a client looks for opportunities in potential of growth within their problems. Encouraging clients to become fully engaged in the pastoral counseling process is accomplished by: first getting clients to accept their problems as they are; and second, to begin to detach from their expectations and be open to new possibilities that are trying to be born in their life. Helping a client to reframe their existence and develop new ways of seeing their problems is similar to the process of building a bridge that spans an otherwise impassable gap.
Hope is the Bridge. Hope is what it means to be present with the client in the face of their troubles. Clients come distraught, weak, upset, and burdened with problems and life difficulties. I am still, I listen, I have hope and the process begins. Clients identify where they want to go and the transformational process of bridging the gap from problems into potential beginnings. I walk with my clients as they discover new ways to see their problems. We journey from despair and cross the bridge with hope into new possibilities for growth. Similar to the serenity prayer, we change the things we can and let go of the rest.
Chapter 3: Bridging the Growth into Theory and Practice
Up Close and Personal
The beginning of life and the end of life hold the key to life. We should live our lives in reverse. We should start with death and live life knowing this life is temporary (Siegel, 1986). As a child, I knew there was much more to life than what I experienced with my senses in terms of what I knew about my existence, others, and God. And, my experience with God was more profound than what could be articulated by my faith. I felt God deeply in my heart and experienced his presence in relationship, as love and light. I always knew that I would serve God, in some way, but this knowledge remained hidden for most of my life. I did not find my way to serving God by means of religious life, but rather by living the more traditional way of mother, wife, friend, and now Pastoral Counselor.
As one professor very simply put it, “everything is important” (Mucha, Clinical IV, April, 2008). I feel that my life experiences have instructed my theoretical approach to counseling in a variety of ways. My early childhood years of Catholic education and profound spiritual awareness of God were the beginning of my experiences about what it is to be fully human. Giving birth and raising four amazing children further pronounced the development of my theoretical approach as I witnessed the miraculous process of how everyday disappointments could be transformed into new opportunities for development and growth. Perhaps the most profound development of my existential/humanistic approach to counseling was my own struggle with a medical diagnosis. This process seemed to create an upsurge of consciousness and eloquently transformed my own spiritual awakening that it was time to live my life according to God’s call. This call to awareness bridged the gap of my past into my future. My painful experience transformed into a bridge of growth, and what ensued was a very holy experience where my life, combined with my educational experiences, formed a holistic humanistic/existential theoretical approach to counseling. Finally, being involved in the coursework at Loyola continuously challenged me to reflect on my own life and to find its meaning to me. All of these life experiences instructed the development of who I am today and, more importantly, the budding humanistic/existential counselor I am becoming.
My Views and Choices
humanistic/existential theoretical approach to counseling. It seems that the terms humanistic and existential are often thrown into the same category. Existentialism derives from a European philosophical perspective that focuses on the nature of the human being comprised of all of its parts.
Existential psychotherapy is a powerful approach to therapy, which takes seriously the human condition. It is an optimistic approach in that it embraces human potential, while remaining a realistic approach through its recognition of human limitation. Falling in the tradition of the depth psychotherapies, existential therapy has much in common with psychodynamic, humanistic, experiential, and relational approaches to psychotherapy ( http://www.existential-therapy... ).
On the other hand, humanistic psychotherapy focuses more on the positive aspects of the human being—primarily with person-centered approaches of Rogers and Maslow. It comes from the movement that distinguishes itself from behaviorism and psychoanalysis by an emphasis on the whole person, human creativity, self-fulfillment, human freedom and dignity, human sociability and the encounter, and the meaningfulness of personal existence and transcendent experiences (Hunter, 1990, p 549). There is more overlap than distinctions between existential and humanistic thought, although existential seems to embrace the sometimes-darker side of what it is to be human. Humanistic tends to focus more on the positive aspects of human nature. I embrace their combined philosophies. The existential piece that I align with is the notion that we have the “freedom to choose” (Frankl, 2006) our perspective in life and the basic assumption that life is sometimes painful. Most of my clients come to counseling in some type of pain. The humanistic piece that I aspire to is the commitment to growth that is offered which focuses on the potential for future possibilities and I aspire to its thorough emphasis on the therapeutic relationship.
Both of these philosophies focus on the human condition and the potential for growth that lies within each one of us. Other perspectives that focus on drives, thoughts, biology fall short when taking in the perspective of the spiritual aspects of a human being that are responsible for change and healing. Existential and humanistic perspectives provide a bridge, so to speak, between religion (spirituality) and psychology that allows for the comprehensive understanding of the whole person.
When trying to assimilate one particular type of theoretical approach while I developed as a counselor, I continually was concerned about aligning myself with what might be proven unworthy by new research or current criticism. What is in today might be out tomorrow. I struggled with embracing one particular theoretical approach that seemingly pigeonholes the creativity and beauty of possibility in spirituality and in the presence of God. It seems to me that other therapies seem to provide only a piece of the overall, holistic picture of what the pastoral counseling process is all about. For example, it would feel incomplete in the counseling process not to use Rogerian principles in establishing unconditional positive regard in the development of the therapeutic relationship. It seems simplistic to reduce client problems to current thoughts, feelings, and emotions without consideration of how behaviors might have been set up for clients in the past. It would also be unfortunate to disregard Gestalt therapy for releasing repressed emotions in doing grief work. All of these theoretical approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses.
In building bridges through pastoral counseling, specific theoretical approaches are chosen based on the stage of counseling or client’s needs. Sometimes it is important to delve into the past and sometimes it is important to stay in the present. Sometimes it is important to spend time correcting faulty thinking patterns and sometimes it is important to support, encourage, and see the world through the clients eyes. The process of pastoral counseling includes building the whole bridge comprised of all of its many different parts.
That being said, however, it is important to state the majority of my beliefs fall into the category of humanistic/existential beliefs and philosophies. I believe that painful experiences can be bridges of growth, and that clients are free to choose how they view their life. I believe that clients are more than their personalities and learned behaviors but that they have a soul and a will that influences their choices and their lives as well. I believe that the ultimate goal of therapy is to help clients search for their own meaning and purpose, to help them recognize how they might not be living an authentic life, and to help clients discover their potential as human beings. It is to help them fully experience their human existence. The ultimate questions of life, death, anxiety, and freedom are what matter most.
I often think of the people that conquer their mental health challenges in spite of their prognosis. In the movie, A Beautiful Mind , (2002) John Nash represented the real life story of a brilliant mathematician that overcame the debilitating effects of schizophrenia to win the Nobel Prize. I also think about Victor Frankyl in the Nazi prison camp and how the freedom to choose his attitude brought him through the most horrific human tragedy, the holocaust. Each of these is an example of how a person beat the odds stacked against him, yet survived and healed. I think about the spiritual component of the human psyche that breaks through biological limits and has the ability to transform people’s lives.
For these reasons, the existential/humanistic approach to counseling is the theory that I have chosen to represent who I am as a pastoral counselor. I believe in helping clients find the spark that empowers them to transcend obstacles that seem impossible. I believe in helping clients accept what their biology limits are in terms of their mental health issues, but more importantly, I believe in evoking the belief that they can transcend their difficulties. When clients do not have the ability to change their physical limits, it is important to help them discover other important aspects of their human psyche and give them hope.
psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapies. Since the existential theory is more of a philosophy than a technique, I borrow techniques from psychodynamic psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral approaches. The psychodynamic approach seeks to help clients understand why they are in their current predicament and cognitive-behavioral strategies help correct faulty thinking that influences dysfunctional behaviors. In the process of counseling and building bridges with my clients, I find that it requires more than one step or process and more than one type of approach. It is the holistic collaboration of employing different techniques at different times that proves most effective.
psychodynamic. The basic assumption of psychodynamic theory is human behavior, and the role of the unconscious. Psychodynamic theory emphasizes the unconscious mind and focuses on the past to promote change in personality or behavior. The theory expounds the concepts and role of conscious and unconscious to support the understanding of problems related to personality and behavior. The goals of therapy are to bring the unconscious into the conscious and to strengthen the ego (awareness) so behavior is more reality based and less instinctual. The goal is not to just understand, but to also experience the memories and feelings associated with self-understanding.
Successful clients emerge with an understanding of their symptoms from issues in the past and how these issues affect current behavior in their environment and in their current relationships. Clients must be willing to “work through” this in-depth process of exploration into their past. The past is where the dysfunction originates, the idea being that our problems of today originate from some unresolved conflict from our past. The resolution takes place as the client lives through his past negative experiences again. However, this time the therapist guides the process of successful completion of previous unresolved conflicts and problems.
Classic psychotherapy is typically long in duration and often cost prohibitive for most people. However, psychodynamic strategies can often unlock the door to hidden causes and motives for dysfunctional behavior. I equate psychodynamic therapy to getting to the root of the cause of the problem. To address this need, I have been working with short-term focused dynamic psychotherapy, under supervision which is shorter in duration and very focused. I discuss a case demonstrating the effectiveness of this type of intervention in chapter four.
cognitive-behavioral strategies. The basic assumption underlying the approach to cognitive-behavior therapy is that a reorganization of one’s self-statements will result in a corresponding reorganization of one’s behavior. It focuses on behavior in the here and now. It is believed that a person’s thoughts are responsible for emotions thereby influencing a dysfunctional response or behavior. In CBT Clients learn to change their faulty belief patterns into more positive ones. The goals of therapy are to help clients separate the their self from their behavior, to teach them to accept themselves even with their imperfections, and to get clients to look at their faulty belief systems that come from faulty thinking. The goal is to replace the thinking that results in unwanted feelings and behaviors, with thoughts that lead to more desirable thoughts and feelings that ultimately change behaviors.
I incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy into my work as a therapist when someone presents with anxiety or depression or when immediate attention is needed. Because the therapy is structured and proven to be successful with anxiety and depression, I use this therapy specifically for those reasons to stop the flow of negativity associated with these debilitating conditions. It is an immediate intervention. When the depression is settled, and the anxiety is calmed, more extensive analysis can be employed.
Even though I utilize psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral strategies, I use these as forms of treatment within an existential/humanistic approach. Existential/humanistic approaches provide a flexible enough framework to allow for intervention strategies from other approaches.
Back to the bridge
I return to the picture of the child on the bridge with the angel hovering above. This picture represents the presence of God working in my counseling room. As a counselor fully equipped with a strong theoretical knowledge base, but using an existential/humanistic perspective, I am not limited by specific interventions; I am open to many possibilities that might be generated by the sacred work of the client and God. It is being open to other possibilities that make crossing the bridge with the client a holistic, sacred and powerful journey.
If you look closely at the picture you can see that one child is helping the other cross the bridge. Though both are children, only one is afraid. I see myself as the child who has her arm around the other giving courage and strength to make the journey across the dangerous bridge I might call life. I am aware of the sacred power of the guardian angel hovering above and I feel her mystical presence while aiding another person in the process of building their new beginnings.
Chapter 4: The final Bridge
openness. It was always part of my natural tendency to be open and non-judgmental of people. This goes back to the premise I had when I was a little girl that God loved all that he created, and my rejected notion of prejudice that I sometimes found in my own religion. Being an open and nonjudgmental person has woven its way throughout my life by informing many choices, the most pertinent of which, was to become a pastoral counselor where I would fully be able to embrace the unconditional acceptance of another human being. I consider openness a significant strength in how I see my clients, I approach cultural, ethnic and religious diversity with this openness and also curiosity, honoring each person with humble appreciation for what each person’s perspective brings to the full spectrum of human nature.
ordinariness “When ordinariness becomes the spiritual foundation of self-esteem, one of the fruits is the freedom to be in relationship with others in a healthy, loving, and helpful way” (Wicks, 1992, p 27). Being ordinary was something that I have always been. What changed is that I used to see it as negative, now I view being ordinary as a significant strength when working with clients. When I am just myself, my clients can be just themselves and that is the best person they can be. Also, being ordinary helps client’s defenses melt away, their true essence of self shows up, and the core problem can be dealt with in more open and direct ways.
In searching for the single most important factor in counseling, researchers have consistently found that the therapeutic relationship is a robust predictor of the outcome of therapy (Hill 2004). The therapeutic relationship is about being connected to our clients. It provides the foundation for everything else in counseling. Specifically, attending and listening to clients is one of the most important factors in the development of the therapeutic relationship (Hill, 2006). I believe that one of the greatest human needs is first to be understood and then to understand. The importance of being understood also became evident to me in my personal work in therapy with an amazingly compassionate person who listened to my story with empathy. She attended and I felt honored for who I was. The strong therapeutic relationship provided almost enough healing power that I didn’t need anything else. Research supports and my personal experiences have taught me that the therapeutic relationship is most important.
My experience with being open, humble, and developing a strong therapeutic relationship is demonstrated in a case with B. B was a freshman in college suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks that were impeding academic performance in the first few months of college. Dropping out of college was highly probable. B had a history of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, suicide attempt and was on antidepressant, and anti-anxiety medication. Most of B’s anxiety and depression were the result of impaired social relationships throughout her life and the difficulty in forming new relationships in college were triggering her repressed negative emotions.
The very first goal in counseling was to form a relationship that exemplified honoring the client for who she was as a person. I was present for the client, listened to her stories about how kids pushed her down and threw food at her because she was fat, and demonstrated empathy sometimes shedding my own tears for her pain. I disclosed similar stories of my own experiences in middle and high school. These initial sessions seemed to provide for the development of a strong therapeutic relationship and connection that provided a sense of comfort which set the foundation for counseling.
I met with the client for 16 sessions in which I utilized the therapeutic relationship as a model of acceptance as a foundation for building more advanced strategies to aid in B’s overall bridge of growth. While the therapeutic relationship set the stage for change, cognitive behavioral strategies corrected faulty belief patterns responsible for her anxiety and panic attacks. When the client was finally able to emotionally regulate, she became more capable of focusing on her academics. She was soon able to get a job on campus working in the coffee shop. This seemed to light a spark, setting fire to her motivation to reach her own goals of owning her own coffee shop.
This process with the client was not about instilling false hope within the client, whereby she might become attached to a false outcome. It was more about the process of evoking or drawing for the hope that was already with the client and then expounding on that hope to bring about further change.
B improved and recently showed up in counseling to give me an update on how she was doing. She had lost ten pounds and had her hair styled. She wore a green shirt instead of the usual black she wore most every other session. She was almost through her fourth semester and has maintained above a 2.7 grade point average. She attributes much of her success to our counseling and stated the following. “You were the first person that genuinely showed me that there was nothing really wrong with me. You really liked me and that made me feel like I was okay.” The therapeutic relationship was a model of what a relationship could be, for the client, and it provided a safe place where change took place.
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Some of the thesis has been eliminated to protect the confidentiality of clients who’s stories were shared as a part of giving meaning to this thesis. For more information please feel free to contact the author, Debbie Kidwell, www.debbiekidwelltherapy.com.