In therapy and other mental health sessions, we delve into a client’s most private, innermost thoughts: the feelings and experiences that make them human. But despite the intimacy of therapy, there are some aspects of clients’ lives that can prove uncomfortable for clinicians — including spirituality.
In Solution-Oriented Spirituality: Connection, Wholeness, and Possibility for Therapist and Client, Bill O’Hanlon seeks to move us past our reticence in this area. O’Hanlon focuses on how to integrate spirituality into therapy, outlining how clinicians can promote positive change without imposing their beliefs.
The short book — only 160 pages — seems especially useful for clinicians who want to address spirituality but are afraid to offend, or who have a spiritual or religious client but are unsure how to integrate their faith into the work. As someone in the mental health field myself, I found a number of fresh interventions in O’Hanlon’s work.
But first: Why should any mental health practitioner bother going into the risky territory of spirituality with a client? As O’Hanlon writes, “I have always had the sense that there is not only more to people, but resources beyond the individual and beyond humans that can help people move out of being stuck.” In his view, to leave out spirituality is to waste an invaluable resource, one that draws on individual strengths and can help create meaning and purpose in some people’s lives.
Research has shown that having religious or spiritual beliefs is correlated with prevention or improvement of mental, behavioral, and emotional symptoms. Plus, O’Hanlon points out that the word “psychotherapy” itself literally means “soul healing” — something to keep in mind if you tend to avoid spiritual discussions as a clinician.
It’s also important to be clear on what spirituality is, and how it is different from religion. O’Hanlon sums it up this way: “Spirituality is a sense that there is something bigger going on in life. … Religion, on the other hand, involves specific beliefs and practices.” He does not contend that religion should necessarily be brought into therapy: Although religion may be a beneficial practice for one client, it can also be a source of trauma for another. Instead he argues that a more spiritual approach can touch those with indeterminate beliefs as well as those with very specific ones. He outlines three components of spirituality: connection to something beyond the self; compassion and a feeling of being with instead of against others; and contribution or service to important issues in the world.
“When people seek therapy,” O’Hanlon writes, “they are often feeling isolated, disconnected, and disempowered, at least in some area of their lives.” Spirituality, he posits, is a way of assuaging this feeling of separation.
The book discusses the many different ways to seek and find connection — and here, O’Hanlon is wonderfully comprehensive, giving therapists and clients a variety of areas where they can investigate, and hopefully fill, a lack. He writes of connection (1) to the deeper self, through activities such as meditation, journaling, or solitude; (2) to the body, through dancing, sex, athletics, or using the senses; (3) to another being, through intimate relationships; (4) to the community, through one’s neighbors, social and support groups, or the workplace; (5) to nature; (6) to art, by appreciating it or creating it; and (7) to a higher power, through prayer or meditating.
Some of the above does not sound particularly spiritual, and that may be a good thing. To ask a client questions like “What book would you say has most touched your soul?” or “What group do you feel most a part of?” may be less off-putting than directly mentioning spirituality.
In addition, O’Hanlon writes, “Helping clients restore or find meaningful stories or interpretations of their lives can give them bigger connections and purpose.” Some of the ways to accomplish this are to think about how suffering in the past actually led to better things, how pain can lead to wisdom, and how negative energy can be channeled into helping others get through something.
As someone who works in the mental health field, I recently implemented an intervention from Solution-Oriented Spirituality along these lines: I had my client write a letter to her current self from her future self, giving advice and wisdom on how to overcome her current problems. I found it to be a helpful technique for connecting with hope.
The next component of spirituality, according to O’Hanlon, is having more compassion for oneself and others. He writes that, unfortunately, “we learn from our families, our gender training, and our peers that certain aspects of our personal experience and our nature are unacceptable or shameful.” To unlearn some of that shame, O’Hanlon suggests that therapists give “permission to” clients, so to speak: permission to have certain experiences and feelings. He also writes that clinicians can give “permission not to,” or reassurance that it is not necessary to be perfect or to please others. He gives steps toward developing self-compassion, as well as compassion and forgiveness toward others.
The last component of spirituality in the book is contribution, and O’Hanlon suggests that therapists ask clients about a cause they wish to support.
I liked that O’Hanlon never imposes his own beliefs on the reader, and instead acknowledges that certain types of spiritual beliefs help certain people, and not necessarily everyone. Again, some of the questions O’Hanlon offers to help assess clients do not even sound spiritual: We can get at the spiritual through many types of conversations — about books, nature, and so on.
However, one shortcoming of the book is that there is not a ton of scientific evidence woven throughout the main text. While there is a bibliography, O’Hanlon only briefly cites research in the beginning of the book: His interventions and questions are of his own creation. Experimental or causal research in the area is also currently limited. And for clinicians who work with children and adolescents, the book does not offer much, as it is geared toward helping adult clients.
Despite my critiques, O’Hanlon still achieves his aim of easing clinicians and clients into discussions related to spirituality. This is a book that I will not base my entire work with clients on, but will certainly use from time to time.
Solution-Oriented Spirituality: Connection, Wholeness, and Possibility for Therapist and Client
W. W. Norton & Company, January 2015
Paperback, 160 pages