What Spiritual Directors need to know about Psychology

What Spiritual Directors need to know about Psychology November 18, 2013

Spiritual direction is not psychological counseling but it helps for spiritual directors to know something about behavior, cognition and emotions—the basic focus of psychology. In technical terms, psychology is the scientific study of the human person:  our brain, senses, nerves, our development, memory, motivation, consciousness, intelligence, personality, attitudes, influence, family systems and treatments necessary for pathology.

Psychotherapy is the helping relationship between a socially sanctioned professional and a person who wants to make a change in thinking, emotions and behavior. There are more than 400 types of therapies used by these professionals to help us in the process of change.

Clinical psychologists, licensed counselors and psychiatrists are part of the health care delivery system in this country. As such, their services are usually covered by health insurance.  While therapists are charged with the responsibility of understanding a client’s relationship to themselves and to their spirituality (which can include talking about God), there have been cases of psychologists losing licenses when they conduct spiritual practices—including prayer—and call it psychotherapy (especially when billing insurance for the appointment). As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to find a therapist who will talk at length with a person about spirituality. This is also why spiritual direction is so important—and why we probably never will or never should be covered by insurance!

The most common question spiritual directors have about psychology is “How do I know if my directee needs therapy in addition to spiritual direction?” Dr. Rich Muszynski, a psychologist who teaches at the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction, says:

There are three different ways people utilize psychotherapy.

  1. Symptom relief, from problems like depression, anxiety, hallucinations, eating disorders, flashbacks from traumatic events, excessive drinking or drug abuse.
  2. Maintaining mental health once symptom relief has been achieved. This includes understanding the underlying cause of the pain or pattern.
  3. Once symptoms are readily managed and client has received a new understanding of self, therapy can be used to help the client find their fullest potential and to grow in ways that enhance their experience of life.


So, if your directee appears to need significant symptom relief—if depression, anxiety, hallucinations (visions or other spiritual-type experiences), eating patterns, trauma triggers, alcohol or drugs are getting in the way of their daily life—they need psychological help in addition to spiritual direction.

Some red flags to watch out for include disorientation, a sudden onset of problematic behavior, lack of control over the behavior, inappropriate emotions, high level of distraction, muscle weakness, memory loss and vertigo. These could indicate a biochemical problem.

The second most common question spiritual directors have about psychology is “How can I tell the difference between a meaningful spiritual experience that is paranormal versus hallucinations or delusions?”

Dr. Muszynski says to make that determination, we need to be on the lookout for indicators other than the story about the spiritual experience.

A delusion is a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. (Thinking you can fly, for example.)

A hallucination is a sensory perception that has the compelling sense of reality but occurs without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ.

When someone describes a paranormal experience, notice whether their speech and behavior otherwise appears normal. If they are disorganized, catatonic or appear unemotional (“flat affect”), then it may be a psychotic process. If their life is otherwise normal and the experience they are sharing is consistent with their values and beliefs, it is probably NOT a psychotic process at work.

For example, if a person is talking very fast and with great animation and telling you that they are God and you know this person to be from the Christian tradition (where humans are decidedly not seen as God), then you would be wise to be skeptical of the person’s “religious experience.” However, if a devout Catholic has an experience in which they see The Blessed Virgin and she tells them to pray more often, there would be no cause for alarm.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

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  • Crews Giles

    Good article, and the only one of its kind I have stumbled across.

    My own organization’s discipline is to allow only five or six sessions with any person dealing with an emotional issue, after which a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or physician must be made.

    As a consequence of this directive, our seminary training in pastoral theology includes substantial psychology work, and at least a passing familiarity with the DSM. The point being that we know when a referral is necessary and to whom a directee ought to be referred.

    If a referral is made, any continuing spiritual direction must, then, be limited to only that (although collaborative work with a physician, or mental health professional, can be accomplished). I have found this system works well, and suspect it is the result of legal experiences.

    The equating of visions or spiritual experiences to hallucinations is problematic wording, as the article does mid-way (although somewhat clarified later). They are not the same.

    Very much like dreaming, those who have visions, know they are visions, will be aware that it is privately received and privately perceived, and in control of all faculties- including the ability to dismiss and/or disregard the vision as it occurs.

    While visions are rarely the content of spiritual direction, they may come up. There are those for whom such visions are relatively common part of their spiritual life.

    Some hallmarks, from my experience, include:
    * The visions are gentle– not distracting and not invasive.
    * The person is at ease with the content, but may find parts of it difficult to explain, interpret, or understand– and yet leaving no anxiety.
    * The person will typically (but not always) recount a *sense* of what is seen and/or said, rather than be able to provide extraneous detail or a verbatim.
    * The content is reasonable, is in keeping with their belief system, and NEVER includes an imperative (although a choice or decision may, understandably, be anticipated as a result).

    If one finds a directee who is prone to such benevolent (or at least benign) visions as a natural part of their spiritual life, there are several texts which may be of use for them– In my tradition, *The Ladder of Perfection* (a.k.a., *The Scale*), and *The Cloud of Unknowing* are respected religious material which can be recommended.

    And that leads me to my last suggestion: If you find yourself counseling a person who has a pattern of such visions, refer them (for a session, at least) to a trusted director who is experienced in these matters.