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Psychotherapy and Spirituality

by Mel Waldman

In his article in Tikkun entitled “Psychotherapy and the Politics of Meaning,” Dr. Tony Campolo (2008) argues against the use of psychotherapy to “cure the angst and depression” that afflict people and concludes that only a politics of meaning “based on generosity and love” that entails a commitment to G-d and society can “cure the sicknesses of the soul.”

I will examine his statements and interpretations and will present another perspective in which psychotherapy plays a significant role in empowering people to make positive changes in their lives. And contrary to Dr. Campolo’s perspective, there is a positive correlation between psychotherapy and spirituality.

Dr. Campolo argues the following:

  1. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis provide limited or no help.
  2. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can lead to a narcissistic rather than an altruistic lifestyle.
  3. People are cured by commitment to G-d and society rather than through self-actualization.
  4. “The individualization and self-actualization that are often the goals of psychoanalysis can lead to self-indulgent hedonism.” This is also true of most other forms of psychotherapy.
  5. Self-actualization can be a destructive process “that can result in living out destructive behavior.”

Let us consider Professor Campolo’s points one by one. First, he states that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis may provide limited help such as greater understanding, or no help. But, he adds, something more is needed to cure “the sicknesses of the soul.” I believe that Dr. Campolo is referring to and arguing against the earliest models of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

In Freudian analysis and various early forms of psychotherapy, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists believed that patients would be cured with greater self-understanding. However, psychoanalysis is an evolutionary treatment that has evolved in diverse ways since the early stages of Freudian psychoanalysis. And similarly, various models of psychotherapy have developed over the course of time.

Contrary to Dr. Campolo’s beliefs and conceptualizations, my own in-depth analysis has brought me closer to G-d and has inspired me to passionately embrace a lifestyle of helping others and seeking positive social change. Empowered by the therapeutic process, I have made positive behavioral changes in my life, achieving life goals that I thought were unattainable.

I suggest that Dr. Campolo has a limited understanding of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He cites Hans Eysenck’s study in 1952 “as well as subsequent research” as evidence against the effectiveness of psychotherapy. According to the author, these studies “showed that those who seek relief from depression through psychoanalysis are less likely to find deliverance than those who receive no help at all.”

Aside from Eysenck’s study, I don’t know which studies he is talking about. There have been many flawed studies over the past six decades. Now, there is a huge body of research that examines the effectiveness of psychotherapy and that empirically tests the hypotheses of psychoanalysis. Some studies provide evidence for the effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and confirm some of the hypotheses of psychoanalysis. Others indicate the opposite. This article will not scrutinize these findings.

But as a rule of thumb, when analyzing these studies, one must look at the number of patients included in the study, the kind of therapy they received, the diagnosis and presenting symptoms, the nature of the results used to measure the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of treatment, and the nature of the control conditions in which patients did not receive any therapy at all.

For example, a study with a small number of patients may not be reliable or valid. That is, if you repeat the same experiment, you may not be able to get the same results. The study is considered unreliable. If the study is invalid, it is not really measuring the effectiveness of treatment. It is measuring something else.

As noted above, there are different kinds of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic treatments. Furthermore, some treatments are more effective than others. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often cited as providing evidence-based treatments. Yet even CBT includes various therapies that are similar but different.

Second, Dr. Campolo states that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can lead to a narcissistic rather than an altruistic lifestyle. He points out that “so much of psychoanalysis is self-centered. Therapists far too often cater to the egoisim of the client.”

Once again, Dr. Campolo demonstrates a limited understanding of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Many of the patients I have treated have come to therapy with narcissistic personality disorders or narcissistic tendencies that prevented them from functioning optimally and caring for others. During the dynamic process of therapy, they developed greater self-awareness and understanding and also learned coping techniques that facilitated significant behavioral changes.

But they needed to satisfy their deficit needs such as physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem needs as described by Abraham Maslow before letting go of their narcissism and truly caring for others. I observed that most patients who were committed to therapy and remained in treatment for several years developed increased caring and concern for others and eventually, an altruistic lifestyle.

Third, Dr. Campolo states that people are cured by commitment to G-d and society rather than through self-actualization. Once again, Dr. Campolo separates psychotherapy from spirituality. In addition, he does not understand the meaning of self-actualization. He argues that therapists “make the object of the therapy sessions some sort of self-actualization in which the individual is encouraged to live out his or her repressed yearnings. The emphasis is on individualization.”

His interpretation of self-actualization is invalid. Maslow (1954) states that “what a man can be, he must be.” Moreover, “this forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need pertains to what a person’s full potential is and realizing that potential. Maslow (1954) describes this desire as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

Maslow (1954) also describes self-actualization as “a person’s need to be and do that which the person was ‘born to do’” and “the full realization of one’s potential.” He also called the self-actualization need growth motivation or being needs (B-Needs). In contrast, the physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem needs were called deficit motivation or deficit needs (D-Needs). Once the deficit needs are satisfied and mastered, the self-actualization need is activated.

According to Maslow (1954), self-actualized persons are interested in solving problems. They do not focus on themselves. They focus for some greater good. They are concerned with “the good of mankind in general.” They are also highly ethical and “have definite moral standards.” In addition, they accept themselves and others.

My spiritual experiences emerging from analysis are not isolated or unusual events. If one closely examines the theories and writings of various analysts such as Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, who incorporated spirituality into their theories and treatment, one will discover proof of the synthesis of psychoanalysis and spirituality.

Adler wrote about the concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, which is translated as social interest or social feeling. He was committed to social reform and believed in spirituality and a sense of community. He noted the importance of a “sense of belonging with others, a connection with nature and the cosmos as a whole.”

Jung wrote about spirituality, mysticism, and the integration of self, in which the Shadow, the dark unconscious, is integrated with the conscious self. His spiritual concepts have been applied by Christian theologians to Christianity. Certainly, there is much evidence to support the relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality.

Despite his objections to psychotherapy, Campolo (2008) cites Erich Fromm, the analyst who emphasized the importance of loving others in his book The Art of Loving. Campolo reiterates Fromm’s message that “it is in loving and working for the well-being of others that we find deliverance from that sense of separateness that has rendered so many of us emotionally empty and devoid of any feeling of meaning.”

Further evidence for the intrinsic relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality is provided in the December 2003 (Vol. 34, No. 11) issue of the Monitor on Psychology, the magazine of the American Psychological Association (APA), where the topic of spirituality and mental health is explored in a series of articles. For some psychologists, religion and spirituality are being incorporated into the practice of psychotherapy. While some of these clinicians are first becoming aware of the possible impact of spirituality and religion on their patients’ lives, others have gone further in their practice and have used “spirituality as a therapeutic strategy.”

The Spirituality and Psychology Research Team (SPiRiT) at Bowling Green State University has conducted research since the late 1970s on spirituality and religion. Through this psychological research, the effectiveness of spiritual and religious therapeutic techniques incorporated into psychotherapy can be assessed.

Another promising development in psychological research with implications for the practice of psychotherapy is the collaboration between psychologists and monks. In the article on Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology, it is noted that “studying the minds of trained Buddhist monks could lead to progress in the fields of visual imagery, depression treatment and emotional control.”

In my clinical practice at a community health center in the Bronx, I am exploring and developing spiritual interventions with my patients in both individual and group therapy. These generous individuals have shared their spiritual coping strategies and have revealed the role of religion, faith, and G-d in their lives.

At another community health center in the Bronx, Dr. Richard Frenkel, a former colleague and a renowned psychiatrist who was psychoanalytically trained, is teaching his patients mirror therapy. Patients look at a hand mirror for a few minutes and recite a religious or spiritual prayer of their choice, often achieving a meditative state of tranquility.

Dr. Campolo argues that people are cured by commitment to G-d and society rather than through self-actualization. I agree that some people may be cured by these commitments. However, many people need psychotherapy in order to become empowered, satisfy their deficit needs, and become self-actualized. By means of the therapeutic process, these individuals can develop the capacity for altruism. Religious individuals may develop a greater commitment to G-d. Furthermore, as mentioned above, spirituality can be incorporated into the therapeutic process.

Fourth, Dr. Campolo argues that “the individualization and self-actualization that are often the goals of psychoanalysis can lead to self-indulgent hedonism.” He states that this is also true of most other forms of psychotherapy.

Although it is true that “the individualization and self-actualization that are often the goals of psychoanalysis can lead to self-indulgent hedonism” (Campolo, 2008), these processes, on the contrary, can lead to spiritual growth and an emergent connection with the transcendent. Only the misuse of psychoanalysis and other therapies by therapists or patients can lead to “self-indulgent hedonism.”

And certainly self-actualization is not a psychological metamorphosis “in which the individual is encouraged to live out his or her repressed yearnings” (Campolo, 2008). According to Abraham Maslow, as noted above, self-actualization is a need of being in which the individual strives to fulfill his or her potentialities. Once the deficit needs — physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs — are satisfied, self-actualization can be achieved.

Maslow’s theory is not perfect. Some individuals can become self-actualized without satisfying the deficit needs. But most people, I believe, cannot. And I would add the need for spirituality and transcendence to his hierarchy of needs. Perhaps some people can be and become spiritual without satisfying deficit needs or the need for self-actualization. Yet many individuals need to satisfy their basic physical and psychological needs before opening up to spirituality.

The patients who have come to me over the past few decades have been spiritually starved. But they did not know they were and did not care until they developed positive self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. With even a few sparks of psychological well-being, they discovered the joy of giving in a magnificent universe in which we are all connected.

Fifth, Dr. Campolo argues that self-actualization can be a destructive process. He states that “when therapists promote being freed from the impulse restraints that were imbued through early socialization, they may be opening a Pandora’s Box that can result in living out destructive behavior. Instead of overcoming our inhibitions as some psychoanalysts suggest, the cure for the sicknesses of our souls is likely to be found in living out a politics of meaning. Analysis can create paralysis, but commitments to creating G-d’s Kingdom here on earth may be just the therapy that our troubled generation needs.”

Once again, Dr. Campolo confuses self-actualization with acting out repressed impulses. I agree that acting out repressed impulses can result in destructive behavior. On the other hand, self-actualization can lead to a greater spirituality and altruism.

In conclusion, psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy continue to evolve and increasingly incorporate spirituality into the therapeutic process of self-exploration. Despite the historical misuse and misinterpretation of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, the elimination of these therapeutic practices would be detrimental to the individual and to society as a whole. Furthermore, their union with spirituality is creating a beautiful environment in which social interest and altruism can thrive. Finally, psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy continue to play a significant role in empowering people to make positive changes in their lives.


Copyright © 2010 by Mel Waldman

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