Do Therapists Talk About God?

A reader asks what I can write about ‘conditioning.’ He writes, ‘I go to a psychiatrist here in my country. Children are conditioned to think in a certain way by their parents and authority figures like teachers, priests etc. I live in a very Catholic country. I can’t help but feel sometimes it’s the conditioning during my psychiatrist’s past that makes her want to condition me too the way she was conditioned. Like she wants me to believe in the God, or she wants there to be no conflict between me and my cousin who used to harass me. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’

My reply:

Your psychiatrist or psychotherapist should not be telling you what to believe or not believe in, with respect to a God. That’s a subject for philosophy, not psychology in particular.

When clients bring the issue up with me, I ask them to explore the impact their beliefs are having on them. This can be psychologically relevant. For example, a client tells me, ‘I used to believe in God, but now I’m having questions.’ I ask them to explore the impact this is having on their daily life, their emotional states and their actions. I might encourage them to explore the pros and cons of believing in a God. Or, I might ask them to identify what they have control over in life, regardless of whether there’s a God.

Sometimes I find that people are angry, not at anyone in particular, for some specific wrongdoing, but just angry in general. When I ask them who or what they’re angry at, they’ll sometimes reply, ‘With God.’ Usually, they’re angry that ‘God allowed such-and-such’ to happen. Then I’ll explain that God is a faith-based concept, and remind them that belief in God simply requires faith. ‘You’re using logic to try and figure out what a faith-based entity is doing; but aren’t logic and reason beside the point, in the realm of faith?’

That’s usually about as far as I’ll go with a client on the issue of God, in the context of psychotherapy or psychology. What’s relevant is how they cope with real life and their own real selves, thoughts, emotions and actions.

As for ‘conditioning,’ the term refers to learned behavior. Learned behaviors refer to actions (or ideas) that we’re trained to do (or think). Just because we’re trained to do or think something doesn’t mean we have to continue doing or thinking it. The intervening variable is always free will, which refers to your choice to think.

At any given moment, on any given topic, you’re always free to think. You could even live under a dictatorship, and while your capacity to take action would be drastically undercut, you’d still be free to think within the context of your own mind.

Many psychiatrists and therapists look at what we’re trained to think or do in childhood as all-determining from there on out. This always struck me as silly and self-refuting. The very fact that you’re (willingly, I hope) sitting in a therapist’s or psychiatrist’s office to address your present thinking or acting—with an eye towards possibly changing it—seems sufficient proof, right there, that you’re not doomed to act on the programming you experienced in your childhood / upbringing.

Your psychiatrist should not be telling you what to think about anything, including your cousin who used to harass you. A mental health professional is supposed to foster and encourage self-esteem. The way to do this is by thinking for yourself. A psychiatrist or therapist can help you, but only by helping you think for yourself. This is largely done by asking questions.

Examples, applied to your personal example:

What did your cousin do to you? What do you think of it? Why do you consider this harassment? What impact did it have on you?

What attitudes did your cousin encourage about you—or about other things—and to what extent did you buy into, or agree, with them? To what extent do you now reject them, and why?

These are just some examples of how a therapist can be a sounding board, not merely a passive or reflective one, but one who encourages in you, where possible, a confidence in your own ability to think.

I don’t know your psychiatrist’s intentions or methods, for certain. It’s possible you’re reading intentions into your psychiatrist which were not intended, or aren’t there. It’s best to simply ask her about them.

If you’re pretty sure she’s in disagreement with what I’m writing here, and she’s trying to instill in you certain religious or other questionable viewpoints, then you’re probably better off on your own, or with a different professional.

In short, so long as you exercise the option to think, you’re never conditioned—or doomed—to anything, not in the realm of the psychological or intellectual.


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