Psychologists' experience of spiritual and religious material in counseling through the lens of their own spiritual/religious/nonreligious identity

Danielle Magaldi Dopman, Fordham University


This grounded theory study was an exploration of how psychologists experience the discussion of spiritual/religious material in counseling, taking into consideration their own spiritual, religious, agnostic, or atheist backgrounds. The purpose of this study was to gain a more comprehensive understanding of psychologists' own spiritual/religious/nonreligious backgrounds, and how their own identity backgrounds may influence the way the work with spiritual/religious material in counseling. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a diverse group of 16 psychologists who reflected on their own spiritual/religious/nonreligious backgrounds and their client cases. Open, axial, and selective coding from the data analysis yielded a total of 49 open codes, 20 axial code, and 10 selective codes. From these codes researchers identified one central emergent grounded theory. The central grounded theory describes how psychologists' own spiritual/religious/nonreligious identity development is complex, dynamic, conflicted, and often unsupported by psychological training programs. When working with clients around spiritual/religious material, psychologists are often activated by that material, based on their own conflicted relationships with their spiritual/religious/nonreligious identity backgrounds. Psychologists attempt to be "unbiased guides" but express biases and assumptions. They have limited academic training in this area, with few or no opportunities that foster increased self awareness in this area. Clients do discuss spiritual/religious material in counseling, but this occurs after an internal debate as to whether or not their psychologist will support them in the discussion. Clients are likely to discuss their spiritual/religious identities in terms of conflicts and coping. Psychologists are more apt to support positive interpretations of God and religion. Psychologists' theoretical orientation influenced how they would work with spirituality and religion. Psychodynamic psychologists utilized a more relationship-based approach with exploration as the primary goal. Cognitive behavioral psychologists worked with religious cognitions, and attempted to increase options and broaden interpretations as their goal. The therapeutic relationship was altered by the discussion of spiritual/religious material, regardless of theoretical orientation. Often it was deepened and bonded, but it was sometimes strained by the pain and conflict associated with it. Finally, for some dyads, the presence of the transcendent could be noted as an important influence in the therapy.

Subject Area

Religion|School counseling|Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Magaldi Dopman, Danielle, "Psychologists' experience of spiritual and religious material in counseling through the lens of their own spiritual/religious/nonreligious identity" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3361358.