Cultivating Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

Many people find meaning, comfort, and connection through religion or a spiritual practice. But it’s also not uncommon to have negative religious experiences that can complicate your relationship with spirituality. 

As kids, we all need to be encouraged and affirmed as we explore our identities and develop into our true selves. Unfortunately, many of us are subjected to guilt, shame, and pressure to conform with belief systems that aren’t authentically ours. Some children receive the message that if they think or act in ways that don’t match up with these belief systems, they’re bad people, unworthy of love within their families and communities. Some even experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of religious leaders, which is a profoundly traumatic betrayal that leaves a painful and enduring scar. 

As adults, many people who’ve had harmful experiences like these have zero desire to maintain a space in their lives for religion or spirituality, and understandably so. But others wish to rebuild a spiritual belief system based on their own authentic values. Many seek out a counselor who can not only help them process past religious experiences, but also repair their relationship with spirituality in the present — without exposing them to the dogmatic styles of thinking that have already caused them so much harm. 

If you’re interested in cultivating emotionally healthy spirituality in your life, this article will help you begin. I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. The episode is a conversation between myself and my colleague Jennifer C., a therapist and life coach on our team at Growing Self. One of Jennifer’s many specialties is helping clients explore big, existential inquiries — and arrive at their own answers through a process of meaningful self-discovery. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

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Why Is Religion Important?

Human beings have been developing spiritual and religious belief systems since the earliest days of our species. After food, water and shelter, connecting with a force that transcends our daily struggles seems to be a fundamental human drive. 

So what is the purpose of religion? Why are humans so drawn to spirituality? 

For many of us, religion is an important way of making meaning out of our experiences, particularly our most difficult experiences. Meaning making is a powerful psychological tool that can help us cope with grief or loss, persist after disappointments and setbacks, or overcome a devastating turn of events. Finding meaning helps you take control of your story, develop internal narratives that move you forward, and find hope when everything feels dark. 

Someone with a Christian belief system might find meaning in the death of a loved one, for example, if they believe that they have been reunited with God and that some day they’ll be together again. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you can understand how comforting a belief like this would be, and how it could help someone remain resilient in the face of grief and loss.  

People from other faith traditions may believe that, after death, their loved ones are reincarnated as a different being in this world. Or that they’ve joined a pantheon of ancestors who are now watching over them. The details of these belief systems vary — but they all offer a framework for creating meaning out of pain and suffering

Of course, religion is not the only path to finding meaning. Nor is it the only path to transforming a traumatic experience into growth and healing, or to living by a moral code. Many people who identify as atheists or agnostics have lives that are full of meaning, purpose, growth, and morality. But if you are a spiritually inclined person, and negative experiences with religion have robbed you of that side of yourself, that is a tremendous loss. You deserve to heal and to find emotionally healthy ways to engage with your spiritual side, if that is your desire. 

What Is Religious Trauma?

While religion or spirituality can be a very healthy pursuit, there are things that can happen to people in the name of religion that are damaging or even traumatic. 

For example, kids raised in a strict religious system often receive negative messages about themselves, especially when they’re doing what kids do best: exploring themselves and the world around them with open hearts and minds. They might be shamed by their families or communities for dressing a certain way, listening to non-religious music, not conforming with gender expectations, or for simply questioning the belief system. 

Experiences like these do a number on a child’s healthy development. Many kids internalize a sense of toxic shame that follows them into adulthood (especially if they’re gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming, and being raised in a tradition that casts these identities as sinful). 

It’s common for people raised in a strict, dogmatic practice to experience self-esteem issues, problems with unhealthy guilt, and struggles with perfectionism. They may have a hard time trusting themselves enough to feel confident in their own decision-making processes. These challenges are magnified if they can’t leave their religion without losing connections with their friends, family members or communities. Some religious sects ostracize those who stray to discourage others, a practice that is incredibly damaging and traumatic for everyone involved. 

This is all to say nothing of the acts of outright abuse that sometimes happen in religious communities, like the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church. Children who experience abuse at the hands of religious leaders suffer a profoundly traumatic betrayal that can create pain and difficulty trusting others for the rest of their lives. If you’ve experienced religious trauma of this magnitude, I hope you can connect with a good, trauma-informed therapist who can help you heal. You deserve it. 

It’s easy to understand why many people who have religious experiences like these lose their faith and feel no desire to recover it. But for others, exploring their spirituality on their own terms can be an important part of healing. If you’re interested in cultivating emotionally healthy spirituality after a negative or disempowering experience, here are some pointers. 

Cultivating Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

Creating a healthy spiritual practice begins with empowering yourself to explore.

This process can take many forms. You may wish to journal about your feelings about spirituality, or the values you want to live your life by. You might also find it helpful to learn about religious practices outside of the ones you were raised in, by reading, attending services, or talking with people who hold these beliefs. The goal is not finding the “right” religion or spiritual practice, but drawing freedom and inspiration from the many paths people take to create meaning, purpose, and direction in life.  

Creating rituals that allow you to connect with your authentic spirituality can also be healing. Maybe you feel the most spiritual when you’re spending time in nature, or when you’re meditating, or when you’re listening to a beautiful piece of music. Notice the experiences that put you in touch with your spiritual side and begin to intentionally incorporate them into your life. 

Changing your mindset can also be an important part of healing from negative experiences with religion. One of the most important mental habits you can cultivate is a tolerance for uncertainty. 

Many organized religions enforce a black-and-white thinking style that says people are all good or all bad, or that things are either right or they’re wrong, and that there’s only one correct way to live. If you received messages like these growing up, your subconscious mind may be seeking “the one true answer” to life’s big questions, when the healthiest thing you could do is embrace the idea that there is no one true answer. Life is complex, and you can look at every experience from multiple angles. Practicing this style of thinking allows you to explore new beliefs, while holding them lightly. 

Support for Healthy Spirituality

If you’ve had bad experiences with religion in the past, it can be helpful and healing to process those experiences with the help of a good counselor

It’s important that this process is led by YOU. We are harmed by experiences that take away our power and agency, and we’re healed by experiences that allow us to reclaim them. Make sure you choose a therapist who knows how to support you as you explore your own relationship with spirituality, without pushing any particular belief system on to you. 

I wish you all the luck on this journey. And if you’d like to work with an experienced therapist on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more information on building an emotionally healthy life, check out our “emotional wellness” collection of articles and podcasts. 

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Lisa Marie Bobby: Spirituality adds depth and purpose to life, but the belief systems we’re raised in don’t always feel right for us as adults, and not all religious experiences are good for us. So today, we’re talking about how you can cultivate healthy spirituality and a belief system that is in alignment with your true values. On today’s episode, we’re talking about your relationship with spirituality and religion. 

For many, spirituality can be a source of comfort, connection, and community. It can help us make sense of the world, find peace and acceptance after loss, and feel connected to something that’s bigger than us. But for some, religion is fraught and understandably so. Even thinking about spirituality can bring up painful memories and harmful messages that may be difficult to completely shake off, even if you really, really want to. 

It’s true that some people even have trauma from their experiences with religion, and the residue of that trauma can affect them for the rest of their lives and make it difficult to cultivate a healthy belief system. So every one of us has this neverending quest to make meaning of our experiences. A spiritual practice or religious belief system can be a huge part of how we do that. 

But if we’ve had painful or traumatic experiences with religion, it can be difficult to have a relationship with spirituality that feels healthy and authentic for you. Furthermore, another barrier is that many of us– I would say most of us– first learn about religion or belief systems as children when we are told what to believe, essentially. We’re handed a playbook around,”Here’s what we believe,” that sometimes, isn’t congruent for us as adults. 

There’s a lot here. If you are exploring your own spirituality or unpacking some bad experiences tied to religion, this episode of the podcast is for you. Even if you are a die-hard atheist or an agnostic, I think you’ll find a lot of useful information here. So we’re going to be talking about a lot; how you can develop your own intrinsic and authentic feeling belief system in a healthy way. 

Also, how you can recover from negative religious experiences, and decide for yourself if you’d like to engage with a spiritual practice going forward. So my guest today is someone who knows a lot about this topic. My colleague, Jennifer. Jennifer is a marriage and family therapist on our team here at Growing Self. 

She is also an ordained pastor who has a lot of experience in, kind of, the space in between more conventional psychotherapy, couples and family therapy, but also, spiritual counseling. And so, I thought that she was the perfect person to come and speak with us, because she’s helped so many people explore big life questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe?” And today, she’s here to share her wisdom and guidance with you. So thank you, Jennifer.

Jennifer C.: Thank you, Lisa, for having me today.

Lisa: Yeah, this is great. Such an important topic. I mean, even if I was just thinking about our little introduction– for many people, spirituality is just such an important part of life. And as I was preparing for the show, I was kind of doing a little bit more reflecting on that. And, I mean, for the history of humanity, really. 

I mean, indigenous cultures, shamanistic cultures. I mean, in every sort of stage and form of the human experience, there have been belief systems and practices that humans are trying to stay connected to the divine, somehow. And I know that we also understand now that having a healthy belief system can be, really, an important part of just overall wellness; like mental, emotional, relational wellness. 

This is a huge question, and I don’t know if this is a fair one to spring on you right off the bat for our conversation, but I mean, do you have any thoughts or opinions about why spirituality is– seems like it’s such an important thing for humans, in general?

Jennifer: That is a great question. I think–

Lisa: Go. 

Jennifer: I think it’s very important because, often as humans, we want to think that there is something bigger than ourselves, that there is a grander purpose or plan to why we’re here on Earth, and to feel like we connect to a higher being or nature, because spirituality can be so many different things connecting.

It gives us this purpose, and a life without purpose can often feel like we’re just floating along. So I just think it’s that human nature of wanting to connect with something grander than our– bigger than ourselves.

Lisa: That makes a lot of sense like. Without having that sense of connection or being able to make meaning or purpose. And I also just want to say clearly that people can and do find meaning in life and find purpose and find connection in other ways, which are completely valid and very appropriate. 

But again, there’s this human thing about, where we tend to seek that connection with some kind of divine, and thank you for talking about why that might be.

Jennifer: Well, yeah. So we just– and sometimes, we want to know where we come from. Like, is there stuff before? Is there stuff after? All that can be interconnected with that search for meaning.

Lisa: Definitely, yeah. And I’m feeling that I should probably say, before we go– to go further here that, for our listeners, so that they understand, I think, also the intention of our conversation today is to be very, very inclusive. And while we will be talking about spirituality, hopefully, we will be talking about it in all of its different forms, and certainly not advocating any form of belief system over the other. 

Also, making space for the absence of a belief system and how people can find that meaning and purpose in other ways or forms, again, that’s completely fine, too. Just so our listeners know. 

Because I think it’s important, I think some people– I mean, this is terrible. And again, it goes back into that other part of what we’re gonna be talking about today is– like, can sometimes feel like belief systems are pushed on them, or if they know that somebody is spiritual, or a person who practices a certain faith, there’s this almost anticipatory defensiveness about– I don’t know, because they may be feel judged, I guess, or pressured, or– 

Jennifer: I think that’s a great thought.

Lisa: Do you know what I’m talking about? 

Jennifer: Yes, I have that feeling of being judged, like, “Oh, I can’t talk to them about anything because they have this belief system and I believe something different. And so many people, when they hold a certain title or a certain form of belief, they don’t know how to move forward and– because they’ve been shamed. 

If we’re gonna go back to childhood trauma of some– of what spirituality or religion can bring to people is, they’ve been shamed, they’ve been guilted that if they don’t believe a certain way, or act a certain way, then there is going to be these huge repercussions to their lives. Or they also might have been shunned, depending on that religious background of what it may be. 

Many times, people have been hurt from that until– if someone’s carrying along the title that corresponds to the place that they remember from their childhood or from growing up or, even in their 20s or 30s. But it can also bring back those memories or make them feel that they’re going to be judged or looked at differently, or that there’s prejudice against them for feeling differently than others.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a really good point, that even– it can be fraught. I mean, even interacting with another person that, you sense, may be different for you in that regard, and understandably so. So one of the things that, I think, it would be helpful to talk about is to kind of set the stage for everything else. 

I mean, it seems to me that for many, if not most people, depending on the family you come from, but you are almost indoctrinated into a belief system or a faith system of one kind or another, starting as a very young child. 

I know in the Christian tradition, there is Sunday school, and certainly, many other faiths, traditions, like start with early education. And your parents are teaching you this, and you’re going to church, and then there’s all the stuff that is reinforced. 

Can you say a little bit more about what you’ve seen as being helpful for that system of raising kids in a faith? And also, what have you seen as a therapist that is unhelpful for people, as adults, who may grow and evolve in different ways, where that early teaching isn’t congruent for them? And what have you seen with that over your your career?

Jennifer: I’ll start, definitely, with helpful, and then we’ll move into some of the ramifications. But helpful, I find that a lot of people cling to what they’ve known from growing up, because it is a safe base. It’s something they can hold on to. It stores in it, different values or morals, or applications to that child growing up.

Something to help them understand the difference between right or wrong through stories, through the application of whatever their belief system may be. And people often hold on to it, because that’s what they know. 

A lot of times– and this is a very side note, but people often, within 5 to 10 miles of where they’ve grown up. It’s happening a little bit more now, but you often stay to what you’re rooted to and what you know. And so, that often happens with religion and spirituality, as well. But sometimes, the things that are done in the name of religion or spirituality can actually be very harmful. 

Because as you’re growing up, you’re taught a certain belief that you are to act this way, and if you don’t act this way, then this– like I said, this will be the ramification– when you do that, it leads to these feelings of shame and guilt, anger, because you don’t know how to express yourself. 

Because if you do something differently, then your parents are going to treat you differently, or tell you that you are sinful or wrong, or whatever word they might use in that context. And you bring that into adulthood, and if you haven’t dealt with that, you still have these feelings of shame or guilt, and you make it into addictions. 

I’ve seen that happen quite a few times, where people will drink quite a bit, or take drugs to try to get over those feelings and these emotions that continue to– those voices that continue to roll around in their heads from growing up, because, “If I did, and this is what’s going to happen.” And they’re stuck somewhere in between because they don’t necessarily believe the same things.

They might have a different understanding of what higher power might be, or what a spiritual life is, and what their connection to, whether it’s a greater power or a belief that there is no greater power, and then riding through those different emotions. But guilt and shame, those, and anger, are just a few, but those are very dominant, I see, with clients who have had trauma that they’ve experienced, or the things that have been done in the name of religion. 

I was even just thinking back to just like– because someone’s trust is put into religion, or the different spiritual centers that they might have attended, just help– sometimes, even the people within those systems have hurt some of my clients, as they’re going into adulthood, that they didn’t feel they were comfortable enough to tell their parents of what happened. 

Whether they were shamed, or whether they were hurt or abused, or any of those different things, but there’s a lot that can come out of–

Lisa: Absolutely. I mean, just to share, I’m not not a practicing Catholic, nor, honestly, was my childhood kind of monolithically Catholic. Like, we were “Catholic.” We went to church, and I did the early classes and all the things, but in reality, looking back, my mom was very much more excited about almost, New Age belief systems. 

I was exposed to all kinds of things growing up, but with that exposure to Catholicism, and also, just the knowledge of the horrible things that have been done in that particular faith, I think, largely due to this power hierarchy that you’re discussing– I mean, child abuse, and just the worst things. 

But I think that it’s– with some of the belief systems, I think, it can– not anything about the the belief systems themselves or the spiritual practice, but the social systems that get built around this. 

Very hierarchical, and there’s a lot of power structures. Also, often kind of patriarchal, male-dominated, but I think, too– and again, this is sort of my experience as an observer– it can also lead to this black-and-white, right-and-wrong, thinking style that gets applied to a lot of different situations. 

If you have a power structure, and also, “There’s a right way and a wrong way, and I’m going to tell you what that is,” like, it’s very easy to create feelings of shame, anxiety, fear, guilt, rejection, especially in children, who are so vulnerable. I mean, they’re still like developing their little sense of self and–

Jennifer: Right, because it doesn’t give them a lot of opportunity to explore the world or to understand their place within it. Because they’re be told, “This is how it is, and if you are to believe outside of this system, this box, then you’re wrong.” 

How hard is that for a child who’s coming into their own? Who sees themselves as different than where their parents are coming from. And this is coming out more and more in so many different aspects as– just beautiful about the changes I see. And that 2020s, I guess, you would say, I just thought, you’re finding more of a voice. 

I think it’s really important for our children to be able to say, “This is my preferred pronoun,” or “This is who I am,” or whatever it may be. It’s just really important to meet people where they’re at, and I think that sometimes, religion gets stuck, or– and these are the actions and the plans that we made, and this is how it is. And this– doing it for 200 years, or whatever. 

This is how it should go, and you will get hurt, not by the belief system, like you said, but by the structure that has been imposed by whatever, whether it’s religious leaders or whatever sect it may be.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah. No, I get that. That’s helpful and it’s interesting, I think. What’s coming up for me right now, like, I’m thinking about, with adolescents, in particular– so like, 11- to 18-year-olds, and still beyond, the work of adolescence, in many ways, is like trying on different identities and experimenting with, “Who am I?” 

“Maybe, one year, I’m going to be a jock on the basketball team, and another– then I make some new friends. Now, I’m growing out my hair and I’m dyeing it blue.” That’s what you’re supposed to do as an adolescent, is like, just try on almost different person-suits as you figure out your way. 

And I could see how, potentially, for an adolescent who’s growing up in a very kind of structured clear, like, “No, this is the only way to be,” belief system, it will kind of inhibit a lot of that development– that the developmental process?

Jennifer: Right. Well, I mean, as you speak about adolescence, I think about sexuality. I think about–

Lisa: Oh, yeah.

Jennifer: I mean, to their own. 

Lisa: I wasn’t even thinking about that. 

Jennifer: Because it reminds me of a young man I grew up with, and I grew up in Texas, in the Deep South, in the Bible Belt, and everything was very black-and-white. “You do this, or you do that.” And from a young age, he knew that he was gay, and how he was shunned, how he was treated by people around him always broke my heart.

I think, number one, we’re taught to love. We are to love others, above all else. And what does that matter in the long run, like, in the grand scheme of thing, if he’s attracted to men or to women? And just how he was treated– and I’m talking about 1990s here– but it has always stayed with me. 

Because, like I said, the things that have been done in the name of religion have– can hurt so many people. And I really think about adolescent time, when you’re coming into your own, you’re trying to figure out who it is you like, don’t like, who you want to be, what group you want to hang out with, what crowd, all those of things. They’re so hard as so much is going on within your body during that time. 

Then to be told that this is only right, and this is only wrong, but you feel differently. What a conundrum for a young person. And I have seen, as a result, kids not knowing what to do with all these emotions, cutting themselves, or harming themselves in different ways. 

I’m not saying it always goes to that extreme, but it is such a hard place to be. And especially, when they don’t feel there is an adult voice or other people around them, they can talk to that can understand them. 

Lisa: Yeah, fully– or I mean, suicide. Because when you– really, when you think about it, I mean, a kid in that situation only has two choice. Either, it can turn into shame and self-hatred about being– internalizing all that, or a complete rejection of the faith, the community.

Also, some of their relationships. Like, it is a terrible bind, because to choose themselves means, “I have to reject everything and everybody else that I love,” right? And like, 13. I mean, like, who can do that at that tender age? So it’s really so hard.

Jennifer: And they just want to be accepted at that age. They just want somebody to hold them, to be with them, whatever that means, it looks like, so yes.

Lisa: I mean, certainly, we’ve been talking about times and situations where that kind of early exposure or encouragement of– around a certain belief system can be have unintended consequences, I think, for kids and adolescents, in terms of their development, in terms of their self-esteem. 

But I’m also wondering if you could speak to a situation where maybe, someone did not have patently toxic or harmful experiences. Maybe they grew up in an environment, and they did the things, and went to the services, and everything was fine, and only until their, later life– I mean, I’m imagining somebody in their later 20s, or their 30s, began to feel, “Is that really what I believe or think?”

I mean, have you ever seen it, where somebody kind of trucks along and sort of takes what they were given, until maybe a point in later life, where they– I don’t know– feel the need to explore on their own, for themselves? And maybe they come back to that belief system that they were originally raised in, but maybe, sometimes not. 

I mean, have you– I’m sure you’ve worked with people who are in that crisis of like, “Who am I? What do I believe?” And maybe, do just go in a different direction?

Jennifer: Well, one of the unique jobs I have had in my life is, I worked as a young adults pastor. So I worked with a lot of 20-somethings and early 30-somethings, who were trying to figure it out on their own, away from their parental systems, trying to figure out. What does it look like to have faith? What does it look like to be spiritual? 

This search for who they are in the midst of this is so difficult, and some of them are like, “You know what? I like this reassurance that I’m not alone. I like that there’s somebody who is walking alongside me, and I am never alone in this world.” But there are others who are like, “That doesn’t make a lot of sense. I am taught in science,” or “I’m taught in these different forms, but no, how could that possibly be?” 

They have– they are starting to have a different belief system, or they’re like, “I really feel connected to myself and find calm and peace through meditation, or through Nietzsche, or other things. And maybe, I don’t believe in a higher power,  or whatever you want to call that being. But I believe that I can feel peace and calm.” And so they decide that that is their form of spirituality, and it is not what their parents told them, or how it was. 

I think, it’s part of the coming to your own and figuring it out, and maybe looking at different religions, what they teach. I have to say, when I was in grad school, it was the most eye-opening experience of my life. Like I said, coming from the Deep South and Bible Belt, I was taught to just look at one religion, and this is the one and only religion. 

But one, I got to discover Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, and the Quran, and the beauty, and so many other world religions. My eyes were completely opened to– there’s more than I was taught growing up. And it was just such a beautiful awakening for me to discover my own faith was; what that looks like. And I’ve seen that in a lot of my clients.

Just this understanding of, our parents did the best they could with what they knew, and remembering that, and that there are the other harmful sides, where– but I’m not talking about that at this point– but that, it’s okay to explore. It’s okay to figure out what is best for who you are, because your brain isn’t fully developed until your late 20s, anyways. You don’t fully know who you, or what you want. 

You develop that in that late 20s, early 30s, even 40s, for some. In the 50s and 60s for some of the clients that I have. We’re constantly evolving, and I think, it’s just important that you give yourself the opportunity to seek it out. And if something doesn’t feel like it correlates to who you are, then research. Find what that fit is? What makes you feel connected? Grounded is a word I often use. And I’m that connection piece. It is a journey. 

Lisa: That’s awesome. Yeah. Oh, definitely a journey. That actually kind of brings us to one of my other questions I’d had for you, which is, what are some of the strategies or advice that you could give for somebody who’s in that– or maybe, even just wanting to explore or sort of figure this out for themselves? 

I think, I just heard a really big and important one, which is giving yourself permission to explore. Read some different books, check out some different services– or not services– I mean, just expose your self to different ideas, different ways of thinking, and just give yourself time and space to almost like, just try on different ideas and see what feels right for you. Is that what I’m hearing?

Jennifer: That is exactly what I’m saying. And with this technology age, we have the opportunity to explore so much more at such an easy– in such an easy way, from, whether it was on some sort of social media or what have you. 

Just to get a broader understanding of what it is you believe, and finding other people who believe similar to you, because you’re not alone, and I think that’s important that we’re all in a search to try to understand who we are, where we come from, where we want to go. And it all looks different– everybody’s journeys.

Lisa: Well, and I think, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but when I think of people that I’ve known or have worked with that want to do this work, one of the biggest obstacles, I have sometimes found, is particularly for people who were raised in very kind of specific and almost dominant faith experiences have just developed this cognitive style of wanting to figure out what is true.

Like, there is a truth and it is knowable. And so then, the experimentation sort of turns into, “I need to find out what the actual truth is, because maybe, the truth that I was raised in isn’t “the truth,” there is a different truth.” 

I think, what I have kind of struggled with, in some ways, as a counselor, like– what I think has blown some people’s minds is that, “What if there is not a truth?” Like, “What if there are infinite things that are all simultaneously true all at the same time?” And that idea, they’re like, “What?” A bit can be a real obstacle, but I think, I just wanted to say that out loud. 

Because if you’re sort of swapping one belief system for then, another– this is true– it can create a lot of anxiety. And also, like– I don’t know– sort of make you feel like you have to have it figured out. And I don’t know that that is actually a reasonable expectation of spirituality. I don’t know. Maybe you feel differently, but–

Jennifer: I agree. I don’t think you ever really know, because I think, in our different chapters of our life, it looks different. And I think, we hold it differently. Whether we’re closer to trying to figure that out, or we push it aside, because there are other things that are more dominant in our life at that time. 

But the journey, and I think, it’s really important to go back. It’s a journey. It doesn’t always look the same. And earlier, you were talking about sort of the black-and-white thinking, and– but what I hear from you, from what you’re saying, Lisa, is that there’s a gray, and one of the things I teach my clients all the time is, as they’re trying to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong. 

I’m like, “What if there is no right or wrong? And what if there is somewhere in the middle?” Because what one person sees is right, another person might see is wrong. And you’re always constantly– if you’re always measuring yourself against other people or what other people think or believe, you’re constantly going to feel disappointed, 

Or a– words can be put in there are– or have you, and so, it’s just that acceptance of you, yourself, your journey, where you’re going, and that it’s not always going to look the same. Just– I talked the same about personality, and that personality changes over time, and looks differently in different chapters of our life, and where life has taken us. 

But it’s very true about our spiritual journey, too. As we learn more, as we grow, and have more wisdom, as life circumstances, how we’ve reacted to those are so many things that perpetuates our belief system, and where we come from. But is there right and wrong? I think there’s gray, and I don’t think it’s one way or the other. 

I think, everybody has to come to their own, of what that looks like for them, but it goes back to that permission– permission to explore and to figure out what is right for them, and not with just what they’ve been told is what they should thin. 

You can believe that, and that’s great, and that’s wonderful, but you also, can explore and figure out if there are other pieces that you believe need to be part of it, or that there’s different paths that you have in your life.

Lisa: No, definitely. And that phrase that’s coming to my mind right now is this idea of like, spiritual growth, and that it is a journey. We are always constantly evolving. And really, I mean, maybe if you do this exploration, and make a full circle, and kind of come back to your belief system that you inherited.

Even if you do that, at that point, it will be authentically yours as opposed to just feeling like you’re going through the motions. You will have really engaged with it, and like, “Yes, this is what I want to do, as an adult, who is now giving consent and making a choice to participate in it, a opposed to just what we do.” So, okay. I also want to make sure, though, that we talk about another just facet of this– to get your thoughts. 

Say we also have a listener with us today, who is really– has been traumatized by religion, by experiences with humans kind of in the name of religion, or exposed to things that felt very toxic from them, and would like to recover, because what we also didn’t talk about is also the fact that even as an adult, if you want to make changes, or sort of pull away– I mean, it is not uncommon at all for this ostracism, rejection of a community,  like, “Away with you,” right? 

Which can be very traumatizing, and also, I mean, show up in so many ways. So this is a big topic, and I do not expect you to cover this fully in the next few minutes, but do you have any words of advice or guidance about what– where someone would even begin to heal from this kind of trauma, because it’s a different kind of trauma, right?

Jennifer: Really, that’s because it brings about a lot of shame, and that you can’t talk with others. Because if you have family members who are still part of that religion, that sect, whatever it may be, there is that fear of the repercussions of what might happen. But I would have to say for them, I think it’s really important to find somebody they can talk to. It’s very helpful, whether that’s a counselor or a therapist or a life coach, even.

But starting to understand how it relates in their life, and how is it affecting you today. So just sort of understand the origin, a little bit, is a good place to start. But then, it’s changing that narrative within you like, “What are you doing? What can you do to not let it be a dominant voice in your in your life anymore?” That’s where some of the real work begins, and that’s where that– having that health care professional can be very beneficial. 

But it is where you start to explore what voice, what stories do you want dominant in your head. What is it that you want to be able to move forward? What is it that you need– not want– to be able to move forward in a healthy way? What is it that you need to have faith again? and starting to add those things into your life, starting to figure out what that is, because oftentimes, when we have been in such a traumatic experience, we don’t feel safe anymore. 

We don’t feel safe, maybe with those we love, with religion itself, with so many pieces of ourselves, because we can’t believe we were put in such a situation or what happening, or that it’s still affecting me today as an adult. But it goes back to making that peace with yourself, and then working through the trauma of what happened.

Lisa: Yeah, no, totally. To first of all, find a trustworthy partner to be able to do this important work. And then again, there’s a process. There is a journey of healing with a goal of– I mean, just what you’d– like, feeling safe, because that’s the thing about traumas; that people don’t feel safe in the world, or with others, and so, to find that sense of inner peace.

But I feel like we should also talk about about this in our conversation, too, is because there can be such a barrier, and also, the possibility of having more harm done by encountering some of the darkness that is present in our profession, right? I mean, the idea of therapy and personal growth work, it sort of has a halo around it, right now. Like people are like, “Yes, therapy.” 

What also happens not infrequently in practice, which is very damaging, and not okay, is for the the average consumer, or somebody who’s saying like, “Yes, I want to do this work,” will reach out to help for a therapist, and that therapist is maybe not– I mean, who knows what’s going on there– but it’s not uncommon at all, to connect with a professional counselor, who is strongly entrenched in a belief system, and who wants to do Christian counseling, or whatever. 

An unsuspecting person walking in the door is now sitting with a counselor, who is very eager to do Christian counseling, because that’s what they do. And I know that there is a beautiful space for faith-based counseling, it can be so helpful, but there needs to be consent. It needs to be somebody’s signing up to do that, and seeking out a Christian counselor, and having understanding on both sides.

This is why we’re here, because I think, what happens a lot in practice is that, that isn’t disclosed. And it can happen with Christian counseling– I have also had experiences with therapists who are briefly on our team here at growing self, Jennifer, not long– you know who.

A client would walk through the door and have anxiety, and this person would be very into New Age-y belief systems and be like, “You know what? Let’s do some hypnosis, and I’m going to regress you to a past life.” And like, “Oh, yes. You were shot by a Nazi firing squad in 1944, and so, that is really the source of your anxiety. And so, we need to talk about that.” 

I mean, like, very weird stuff. It can happen in so many ways, but there there is no regulation around what therapists actually do behind the closed door. And if they want to bring belief systems into it, that are meaningful to them, meaning the therapist, they can and they do in a way that is not helpful or productive to somebody who isn’t wanting that experience. 

I mean, it’s a real issue, and– sorry, I’m like– I’m officially on a rant now. But like, I have another person going through a terrible experience, a terrible loss. And she has experienced spiritual trauma in her life, and at this time, is really– need to feel safe. She needs to be in situations where there is not an overt kind of spiritual message or expectation. 

In going through this difficult life experience, when she did reach out for help, it was always going into a faith direction, with support groups, with counselors, and it feels like she can’t get help without having to be re-traumatized, essentially. 

I mean, and I know that that is not something that you do, and that many, I think, well-trained and ethical people who are counselors and also have a certain faith background, won’t do any of that. There’s a lot of ethics and boundaries that need to be there. But I mean, do you have any thoughts about why has that happened so commonly? Or like, what people can do about it? Like, is there a way to check it out ahead of time? I don’t know.

Jennifer: This is a– well, that is part of researching your therapist, or to really looking into their biography, where they come from, and doing that. But one of the things to really look for when they’re doing the assessment: how do they address it? How do they talk about your spiritual life? Like, do they ask you about it? 

Do they ask if you want anything included or not? And if they weren’t asking you those questions, you might be blindsided. So it’s just really important to have a really good assessment as you’re coming into therapy, but also, this goes back to permission. If a therapist starts to go in a direction that feels uncomfortable with you or your belief system: another therapist.

You don’t need to continue with them, and so many times– and this is why I see it happen a lot– they continue on with that therapist, and then the trauma becomes more and more and more. And they don’t even know how to get out of it because they’re put into a similar system or cycle that they were in before, even with family members. But now that is re-traumatized with a therapist. Give yourself permission to not stay with a therapist, if it’s not a right connection.

To look for– look at their biographies. One, look more into who they are, and give them those questions. Those first sessions or consultation, ask them very specific questions because it’s important. You went through a lot, and you have the rights to be respected, and for your beliefs to be respected, especially in a place that is supposed to be safe. 

The therapeutic alliance; our relationship is to be a safe place. And if it does not feel safe, it is not the right place for you. Please go seek someone else out. So that is my greatest advice for them. Just really listen to how they approach things, and if there are particular things that retrigger you, are traumatic for you, really make sure that you seek out someone who can respect that part of you and help you work through it, and not retrigger you more.

Lisa: I love that. That does have a very empowering message. And so, go going back to those ideas, so to summarize, be very careful about who you work with, do your homework, try to learn about their background, hopefully, going into it. And you should also not just jump in to working with anybody. You should have a consultation meeting, where your your job as a potential client is to say, “So tell me about you. Tell me how you work.” 

Asking questions to be clear around, “Here’s what I want, and here’s what I don’t want,” right? And also, I think you’re bringing up a great point is that, a true professional counselor will do assessments and will ask about many different life domains, family of origin, relational history, sexual history, also spiritual history, in order to kind of understand who you are, and what is important to you before jumping into stuff. 

If at any point in the process, you feel uncomfortable, you can say that, or you can just stop, and understand that there is also a power hierarchy in helping relationships that– particularly vulnerable people need support, and just the message that, “Yes, you get to be empowered and be in control of this process, and you don’t have to do anything with anybody that you don’t want to do.” 

So that’s really good. And just before I forget, I’ll mention, so on our website,, we have put together like a ton of just informational resources. Things like, “How to find a therapist? How to vet a therapist?” Helping people understand, like, “Here’s what evidence-based therapy practices look like, and here are some signs that you might be getting involved with a therapist or a couples counselor who might not be really well-equipped to assist you.” 

They’re all available, and it felt important for me to put that information out there because you and I know that not all therapy is the same, not all counselors are the same. And that it’s very important to make informed decisions. I know we’re out of time, and I don’t want to keep you, but this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Therapy Questions, Answered.

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