I'm a Buddhist but my therapist is a Christian

I like her but the God talk seems to come out of left field.

Published May 20, 2005 7:17PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My therapist is great, a true sage in a chaotic world where I am trying to find wisdom.

My therapy background is patchy and I have been seeking help in coming to terms with a supremely dysfunctional family. My first therapist, with whom I spent over a year, was helpful but very busy and didn't really have time for me. My second therapist was insightful but after eight months I eventually stopped making progress.

So this is therapist No. 3 over the course of eight years.

I searched for some time for this therapist as I am aware of the problems that can occur with trying to connect with just anyone. Truth be told, I turned down several other therapists who I did not feel were right.

What's the problem? you say.

My therapist is bringing religion into the session -- she's a Christian and I'm most definitely not -- and I'm not certain what I should do about it.

The obvious solution is to talk to her about it and I intend to do this at my next session.

But I feel that, at some level, my trust in her has been eroded by her recent suggestions that "everyone has an essence of God in them" and that "we do not heal ourselves, God heals us." Both of these comments are out of left field, as she has made no mention of her religion in previous sessions (I'm on session No. 7 or 8).

I explained in my first session that I am a secular Buddhist (and have brought it up several times since) and, although my mother was Christian and I have explored that possibility, I know that it is not for me.

So, I'm asking: Is it acceptable for my therapist to, in a manner, present Christianity as a solution to my mental suffering?

I don't want these recent comments to cause me to back away from my therapist but I do feel that some distance has been created by her comments.

OK, so there's a second part to my question: How do I reconnect with my therapist? I feel that she has the experience to help me and I don't feel like searching for another.

No Jesus Freak

Dear No Jesus Freak,

Some would say that her talk of God is inappropriate in a therapeutic setting. I, for whatever reason, am not among them. I favor following this where it may lead -- as you will see. I do think, however, that you ought to make clear to her how uncomfortable it makes you, as I assume you plan to do. In being honest and plainspoken to her about your concerns, you will probably reconnect with her. If not, then perhaps there is some deeper incompatibility.

But we all hear different things when the same words are spoken. Some of us are quicker to hear a metaphor than others. Myself, when she says God, I just hear a metaphor. But I am the kind of person who sees metaphors in everything. I tend to see the metaphor and miss the "actual." Anyway, what I hear her saying is that you ought to look outside your own self-will for healing, and seek to honor some element of perfection and divinity in yourself. I think those may be useful suggestions.

For instance, if because of the dysfunctional family you mentioned, you feel unworthy and flawed, if you feel that nothing you do is good enough, if you are continually trying to prove something to others to get their love, perhaps what she is suggesting, in her own language, is that you look for something in yourself to love, and acknowledge the manifold healing forces outside your own will. So if you like your therapist and want to continue working with her, I would try to interpret her use of the word "God" in as broad a manner as possible. I would also, in the Buddhist sense, try to exercise compassion -- toward her, toward yourself, toward your mother and toward your painful past.

Since I don't know what you're discussing, I can't be sure what she means. But I am well acquainted with the desire that arises in therapy to idealize the therapist; it is useful, actually, isn't it, to let down one's analytic defenses and trust another person, to let their opinions enter uncritically? And yet even your therapist is not going to see you perfectly as, one might say, only God (or a mother?) could.

So I would try to understand what she is telling you in the context of whatever problem you are discussing. If your family was dysfunctional, if you never got the kind of stable, understandable maternal care that you needed to develop happily and well, you may be still looking for a maternal figure who is perfect, who intuitively understands your inner workings, who can mother you as you were never mothered before. So part of therapy may mean recognizing that you're never going to get that; it might involve some mourning for that missed opportunity of childhood. And this may be a sign that when you recognize difference and imperfection in a mother figure, it shocks you and fills you with mistrust. Perhaps even your Buddhism is a symbol of difficulty: You may have chosen Buddhism so you can say to others that Christians can never understand you, so you can remain inscrutable to others as you felt inscrutable to your Christian mother. It may be that unconsciously you have made of your Buddhism a supreme test, in order to demonstrate, symbolically, the impossibility of anyone, particularly female mother figures, understanding you.

Could that be possible? Could you be defending yourself against the sad truth of your own failed parenting by constructing a "choice" of religion that is inscrutable to others, thereby perpetuating a condition rather than facing it? Is that too convoluted and far-fetched an idea? Am I reaching? It is your mother, you say, who was the Christian. You became a Buddhist. But now you have a Christian therapist. Perhaps that is why her Christianity bothers you: You are afraid she will fail you as your mother did. If so, your task in therapy will be to untangle your image of the therapist from your image of your mother. That will not be easy. In facing your differences with your therapist, you may find yourself experiencing the loss of mothering you felt as a child. There may be much burning emptiness there. Welcome to the emptiness. Welcome to old hungers never fed. Welcome to the pain of existence.

It sounds as though you have hit upon the crucial question, and that your therapist, wittingly or not, whatever language she is using, is leading you where you need to go.

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