Religion and Psychotherapy

During one recent session with a new client, he wondered aloud if I would respect his fairly conservative religious beliefs or seek to impose my (presumably) more liberal values. A day or so later, one of my long-time readers sent me an email asking how I deal with issues of faith in psychotherapy. It felt to me as if the time had come to address an issue I’d long wanted to write about. When I focused on what I wanted to say, it aligned with some other thoughts I’d been having about my friend Peggy Payne’s 1988 novel Revelation, recently re-issued as an eBook on the Kindle platform.

For the record, I consider myself agnostic, feel no need to persuade people to my point of view and have no quarrel with those who hold strong religious beliefs, as long as they don’t seek to impose them on me. In principle, my approach is to respect my client’s spiritual needs as something largely separate from their psychological and emotional needs.

On the other hand, I find that people’s relation to God, though unique and different from their relations to other people, is a relationship nonetheless and often problematic in ways that can be understood on an emotional and psychological level. For example, whether a Christian’s view of God stems from the Old or New Testaments often says quite a lot about the severity of their superego. A look at the ways someone suffers under the sense that God disapproves of or is angry with him or her can link to underlying self-hatred. That doesn’t mean the person’s relationship with God is fictional or merely an illusion. Rather, just as our projections of internal aspects of ourselves often distort our views of the people we know, it may also color our perceptions of God.

The God of one client, a devout man whose father had physically abused and neglected him, embodied paternal qualities this man had longed for in his own dad. He felt that God took a deeply personal interest in him and at pivotal moments in his life had sent direct messages to help clarify his confusion — as he was struggling with doubts about his choice of career, for example, and when trying to decide whether to marry the woman who eventually became his wife. My client’s conviction that God cared deeply about him was colored by the pain of his childhood but again, that didn’t make it a delusion.

I might also address a client’s religious beliefs when I see them being used in defensive ways. Highly devout men and women who strive to be extremely good Christians, who believe they ought to feel only love and compassion for other people, often struggle with unconscious hostility that might come out in other ways — in depression, say, or passive-aggressive behavior. Sometimes people adopt the role of an extremely good and superior adherent of their faith as a narcissistic defense against shame.

In short, I look for the psychological element in my clients’ belief systems. Rather than addressing or challenging those beliefs, I make use of the psychological aspects of those beliefs and how they function within someone’s character to help me better understand my client.

Looking at the psychological, emotional aspect of a belief system is also the way I approach the books written by a member of my writer’s group, Peggy Payne. In her most recent novel, for example — Cobalt Blue, scheduled for release in Spring 2013 — the heroine Andie Brown has a kundalini awakening in the opening scene, and the plot details the way this mystical experience wreaks havoc in her life. Before Peggy began to read this novel in our class, I had only the vaguest notion of what the word kundalini meant. Nothing in my own personal experience helps me connect to the spiritual event Peggy is describing, though within the book’s world, her vivid writing convinces me that it is “real.” Mostly, though, I approach Peggy’s novels from a psychological angle. I focus on the emotional conflicts and the part they play in spiritual crisis.

In Cobalt Blue, Andie relies on excessive repression and denial, remaining trapped in an Oedipal romance with her parents. I can see how her fears and defenses have led her to the current crisis in her life; the kundalini “wrong rising” doesn’t come about randomly but exactly because she’s in crisis but doesn’t realize it. Swain Hammond in Peggy’s novel Revelation has also come to a crisis point but doesn’t realize it. The opening paragraph shows him running a red light at an intersection he crosses daily and nearly crashing into a Jeep passing in front of him. Swain thinks:

“I should have demolished the one in the Jeep, kept going and plowed right through him, or at least yelled something. One good ‘fuck you.’ Once in my life I’d like to do that. The one time I ever do, it’ll turn out to be somebody from the congregation. Or someone who sees the Clergy parking sticker from the hospital and writes an outraged letter to the newspaper.”

Swain is a Protestant minister and he’s angry. He feels trapped in his life, mostly because he’s introverted and intellectual, ill-suited in many ways to his chosen career, and still struggling with unresolved feelings about his parents that make him deeply ambivalent about his beloved wife’s pregnancy. Shortly after the near-accident on page one, while examining a spot of early Spring color in his back yard, he hears the voice of God.

“It’s then, as he stops yards away from the plant — not at all a lady’s slipper — that he hears God for the first time. The sound comes up and over the hill. He stands frozen and feels it coming. One quick cut. Like a hugely amplified PA system, blocks away, switched on for a moment by mistake. ‘… Know that truth is …'”

Like Andie’s kundalini moment, Swain’s encounter with the divine comes at a crucial psychological moment and sets off a spiritual crisis. Like Andie, Swain’s mystical experience wreaks havoc in his life. Like Andie, his efforts to come to terms with his mystical experience lead him to confront and resolve the emotional issues that brought him to crisis.

Is there such a thing as kundalini? Does God really exist? When I read Peggy’s novels, these questions don’t matter to me because she makes the psychology of her characters so real and accessible on a human level that I can enter her fictional world with complete conviction. She’s a wonderful writer, her prose is exquisite, and I don’t know a writer better able to access emotions as they arise on the purely physical level. I highly recommend her books. Buy Revelation now on Kindle (on sale for only 99 cents!) and keep your eyes open for Cobalt Blue when it comes out next Spring.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Congratulations on your book!!! And, thank you for writing it. It is excellent, enlightening, helpful, and extremely needed. Someone mentioned it was thoughtfully and sensitively written, so true.

    I found it ironic that you had posted this morning on Religion and Psychotherapy, because I woke up this morning thinking about God and Defense Mechanisms and Shame, probably because I have spent the last 3 or so days reading and re-reading your book! I am intrigued and amazed at how shame profoundly “shapes” our lives. I can’t remember now how you’ve worded on your blog the different kinds of shame, like toxic shame as opposed to other type(s). I’ve heard the terms false guilt and true guilt from different sources, you may use those, too. It seems like the false guilt comes from the toxic shame of people putting their shame on us or when we didn’t get needs met as a baby/child, and the true guilt comes from things we did that crossed either a standard of our own or one from an authority figure. Either way, it seems like the defense mechanisms are the same, like with Adam and Eve hiding in the garden trying to distance themselves from what they had done. That’s something I’ve been wondering about the last few days. Are the defense mechanisms the same for toxic shame and other shame?

    Both kinds of shame are universal. Whether a person is religious or not, shame is there, kind of like gravity. We may not believe it, but it exists and is powerful.

    Have you read Dr. David Powlison’s essays on that topic or his book, Seeing with New Eyes? From what I can tell from his writing, he and I carry out and view differently the passages in the Bible regarding obedience, but, shame is universal, so we have that in common. He shows from the Bible how to disarm the defense mechanisms that come from shame due to true guilt, but also somewhat how to deal with the toxic shame. It seems like the defense mechanisms are pretty much the same for both. He uses a lot of scripture, and it amazes me how much the Bible talks about shame as well as defense mechanisms (even though the Bible doesn’t use the term “defense mechanisms”). These things have been going on for 6,000 years, and the principles in dealing with them are ancient as well. It just amazes me. It’s like gravity. It existed well before Newton and affected everyone in time before him, but Newton noticed it and defined it. Shame, as you know, existed before Jung and Freud and Powlison, and they’ve done a lot to notice things and coin terms—but God in His Word the Bible defined it and gave principles to overcome (disarm) it, and Powlison has compiled some of those in his book in chapters 4-14 with corresponding scripture. Shame shapes our lives, but grace can, too. Not just the grace that can wipe away the true guilt, but it was by grace that God gave the words in those verses where He has shown us principles in disarming the false guilt. Thanks.


    1. Gayle, thanks for drawing that book to my attention. I will definitely add it to my list of background reading. And I agree with you, that no matter what the type of shame, the same defenses tend to be used against it.

  2. I am a practicing Buddhist who spends a fair amount of time pondering the interplay of psychology and spirituality/religion. I wonder what role my past has had in leading me to choose Buddhism.

    My meditation practice has helped me tremendously in my ability to begin to let go of my idea that there is some “perfect version” of myself that I am supposed to be. I feel love, hate, compassion, hostility, and a host of other things on a daily basis. It’s not because I’m horrible (as I often secretly believe), it’s because I’m human! Or at least this is the Buddhist take on things.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. You’re welcome. And that is exactly the way I think. Those feelings are normal and everybody has them.

  3. Thanks to this illuminating post. I’ve been a practicing catholic all of my life, but I have a very complicated relationship with the church. At times, i felt rejected by the church (not by Jesus/God) because, as I suffer from depression, I’m very ambitious and career minded and not very maternal, I choose not to have children and I used contaception in my relationships, none of which led to a marriage. Also, I’m very rigid in my moral beliefs, and even lost a job over them, but I agree only with 90% of the moral positions of the Catholic Church. For instance, I think same-sex relationships and contraception are totally ok.
    Before reading your post, I never tought of the way my relationship with Jesus and the Church mirrors my relationship with my parents: since childhood, I’ve been feeling that my mother wanted a very different daughter, while I feel accepted by my father.
    Thaks for giving me this opportunity for reflection. Your book is great, I’m doing the exercises and will write a review on Amazon.

    1. Thanks, Valentina. I see that you’ve registered for the discussion forum and I look forward to your comments.

  4. Personally I believe religion can be, for some people, a defense mechanism against the pain of realizing that your father (mother in matriarchal societies) was not good enough. In my opinion, it’s denial of the toxic shame. You could even say wishful thinking because you are fabricating a perfect dad in the sky that has always been with you and cared for you since the beginning.
    However, this does not necessarily mean that such deity does not exist. I am also agnostic.

    1. You and I see eye-to-eye. It can be a denial of all the ways your childhood has damaged you: Not true, because God’s love has healed you!

      1. I’ve had thoughts along those lines – and a clergywoman I know says that she thinks we have such huge gaps between what we would hope for from our parents, and indeed our partners, and what they as flawed humans can deliver, because we have some imprinted soul-level memory of the “perfect” relationship with the Father/Mother force that created us all, and we don’t understand anything channelled through humans will by definition be weakened and damaged as they are.

        And there’s a great line in the book The Exorcist about how, it’s not that the average person has trouble believing in and loving God, it’s that we think we’re fundamentally unworthy of God’s love, and cannot believe that we are deserving of that level of unconditional love from an all-seeing all-good Being, and so do convuluted logic games, including creating evil in God’s name, to pretend It (God) doesn’t exist or drag It down to our level.

      2. I’ve met this type of “instant converts” or “born again”many times. In my experience, after a while, they either turn against the religion or church or group that “failed” to meet the unrealistic expectation to erase their issues and make them “perfect” and “happy” forever, or get into total denial “I have no issues because Jesus has healed me” while they still suffer a lot and make others suffer. Sometimes I tried to point out that even Saint Paul still suffered of something he described as a “thorn in his flesh” after his conversion (2 Cor 2, 17) and was honest about it, with himself and others. But it’s always been useless: they don’t accepth there are no such things as “instant healing” or “instant saintity”. I know I have serious psychological issues and I have to accept them as the Cross anybody, in a form or another, must carry in their life, trying to get better and do what they can for themselves and those around them.

  5. Dear Dr. Burgo,
    I often contemplate the roles of psychology, religion and spirituality in my life. Actually, these three topics take up the majority of my mind whatever I may be doing. I often try to integrate the topics because to me, they seem very related. They all also seem to me, very personal. Any person I have come to know in more than just a superficial way, whatever their beliefs, seem to have at least one or two experiences in their lives that they feel are a mystery and if only for a moment, they feel something beyond themselves. Life does not always seem beautiful to me, but the journey of this life has taken me places where I have been able to see, or feel, or touch something which makes me wonder if life really is beautiful. These glimpses in what I would call the divine are brief, but they hold me up in times of despair. They almost always seem to come where I am in a place of complete exhaustion Buddhists call it “Ye Tang Se” (I think). Totally and completely exhausted. A time of surrender, I suppose when the defenses are down and a space opens up for a new idea or experience. Almost like a little awakening. Last year at almost this exact day, I was in a small cave, in the Himalayas, sitting across from an Indian monk (Swami), meditating. It was wild and I felt bliss but I do not totally understand why. I’ve also been sitting across from a therapist and had moments of new understanding which also felt blissful. Are these really two different things? I also call myself agnostic but I do believe there is more to life than what we see and I am fascinated constantly by the mystery of things. All of this may be just a big psychological defense against the fear of death. What do I know?

    But, to me Psychotherapy and spirituality are very connected (Jung wrote about this right?) . On the other hand, religion is a collective, man made entity and all of the religions are attempts of man to try to make sense of the entirely new mystical ideas of the original founders like Christ or Buddha or Mohammed or Krishna and unfortunately, because of the corruption of power, the original goodness gets somewhat lost. To me, religion is a defense (although like you said, that doesn’t make it bad). But as I said above, psychotherapy and spirit (to me anyway) are very connected.

    I could go on and on and on- this topic fascinates me, but I will stop. Now.

    1. You and I both draw a distinction between organized religion and spirituality. When hiking in the Rocky Mountains, I’ve had experiences like the ones you describe; I feel part of something larger than myself in an almost ecstatic way, but it doesn’t inspire ideas of a Christian God, or the God of any other religion.

  6. I would disagree with you on the dis-integration of spiritual, psychological and emotional needs. I would say that they are highly in-integrated. Clearly some people have trouble with projection and transference, and certainly one can find a correlation between an individual’s malevolent or benevolent parent, and a malevolent or benevolent ‘big other’ (I’m Lacanising here) including notions of God. Fowler did some interesting work on categorizing psychologies of religious engagement. For example, a fundamentalist, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist, all engage with their beliefs literally, and this class of people need from their religion a set of black and white rules by which to live otherwise reality seems too anxious for them. The classifications pass through a series of different engagements with religion, until the upper level in which, the practitioners have transcended the constraints of religion, and find an individual integrity with their religion, so much so, that either to affirm or renounce their belief is in itself dogmatic. M.Scott Peck makes much of this in ‘The Road Less Travelled’.

  7. I was abused in the name of God for years as a child. I’d wish that therapists had some basic ACADEMIC knowledge of theology. It would have helped me if my therapist knew that a much more liberal sort of Christian theology existed than the conservative Christian religion I grew up with. Then I wouldn’t have to give up my religious faith when distancing myself from the God of my past.

  8. I’m a freelance writer who writes on psychology topics, specifically sex and love addiction as well as personality disorder diagnoses and treatments. As you might imagine, the subject of defense mechanisms comes up quite a bit in my writing. It was in researching defense mechanisms that I came across an article of yours discussing shame. Since shame is thought to be quite foundational to the sex and love addictions, and since shame is so clearly an underlying source for the intense behavioral dynamics of both borderline and narcissistic personalities, I was deeply intrigued.

    I’ve been thinking today about the pervasiveness of shame in Western culture, and its long history of being used as a tool for manipulation by corporations and institutions of religion in order to control the masses into consuming, either products or ideologies. It’s particularly telling to me that all three of the major monotheisms have at their base a creation story about this very thing—shame. The first humans were created and placed in a perfect garden, we’re told, allowed to have anything, “conquer” everything, name everything—except one thing. A thing which was refused them without, as far as anyone knows, an explanation other than to test their purity perhaps. When they fail the test, and take the object, they are shamed. Cast out. Made to suffer generation after generation of pain in childbirth and shameful feelings about their own nakedness.

    It’s a thousands-year-old story telling much of the world: you are not okay. You are not worthy. You are despicable and corrupted and you should feel shame.

    Shame is a powerful method of control and punishment, but insofar as I can tell, only one which is used by disordered parents or caregivers.

    Interesting musings; clearly much more to think about (particularly from an evolutionary perspective). Thank you, Dr. Burgo, for the inspiration and insight.

  9. Via a request from one of your fans, I was asked to contribute my thoughts in regard to Religion and Psychotherapy. I am convinced that the confluence between the two will emerge from the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. While there is no God in Buddhism, if one reads the original teachings of the Buddha, what we call religion becomes self-evident on the road to psychological health. Well defined by the Buddha, the journey must include ethics and morality, not because of any exteneral threat but because we cannot embody love without them.

  10. “Sometimes people adopt the role of an extremely good and superior adherent of their faith as a narcissistic defense against shame.”

    Yep, but it’s so hard to witness when they start questioning their faith, as I’ve seen a person go back and forth between adherence to faith and other types of narcissism. In a way, it goes back and forth between rigidity and pompousness. Sadly, they do not know what to do with their shame. The person I speak of is a wonderful, kind-hearted person, trapped in this trap.

    Oddly, I think the fall-out from faith hiding the shame is happening because of counseling. I think the person will still have their faith, but will come out of it without all the shame, becoming the wonderful, kind-hearted person they are inside.

  11. A great book I read that explains how people see God is, “How to Know God”, by Deepak Chopra. I think it gives a lot of insight on why folks are fearful (old testament) and all the other aspects mentioned in the article.

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