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Holding the Hyphen in "Psycho-Spiritual"

In my counseling program, we are constantly asked to reflect on our “theoretical orientation” as therapists. In other words, will our therapy be psychodynamic like Freud, have a humanistic approach like Rogers, or be more behavioral and solution focused. As if picking a worldview is so easy. In almost, every writing assignment, I try on a different theory, hoping to find “the perfect one." I end up just finding another theory I like. My theoretical closet is now a crowded collection of mix-and-match outfits. So instead of directly answering the question, I keep hiding behind words like “eclectic” or “integrative.” But there is one theoretical accessory I never leave the house without: psycho-spirituality.

I’ve long had one foot in the world of psychology and the other in spirituality.

As a high schooler, I discovered an interest in “ministry.” Between calculus and volleyball practices, I was reading my Bible and planning reflections for our peer-lead prayer group. When I went to college, I continued honing these skills by leading retreats or small groups. But I also guided folks in living out their faith through service projects. I can still smell the strangely comforting combination of hot casseroles and bleach spray from the soup kitchen I visited every Thursday. I wish I could still taste the flaky, fried “sopapillas” of the community center I worked for in a poor village in Chile. I gave sermons, wrote articles about ways to engage faith and social justice, and wrestled internally with whether this could be my career. All I knew was I loved providing a space for insight to occur and watching growth take place.

About the same time I grew interested in ministry, I also took up an interest in psychology. My fascination only grew as I dove into classes as a psychology major in college. I loved all of the theories about human behavior and how the topics felt so relevant and useful for living. I felt like the things I learned in books lined up with the stories I encountered around me (in other words, I was psycho-analyzing all my friends and family). I did a research project on learning styles, interned at a family counseling clinic, and memorized all the parts of the brain. I knew I had to obtain a Masters to really begin to practice in the field, but the more time I spent there, the more it excited me. All I knew was I couldn’t wait to provide a space for insight to occur and watch growth take place.

I flip-flopped between these two worlds for a long time, trying to decide which path to choose. Until I found a phrase that helped define what I was already doing. Feeling like the space between psychology and spirituality was too great to cross, a hyphen landed between them like a bridge. Psycho-spiritual. I could do both.

I’m sure there are strict definitions and techniques for this theory, but to me it simply means the two worlds aren’t so different. It works like this for me:

Both worlds are rooted in the idea of a depth of life that is beyond our grasp. Psychology says there is an unconscious part of our mind that affects our behavior and emotions. Religion says our spiritualities gives us access to transcendent moments and a spiritual realm.

Both worlds view humanity as an upward progression. Psychology outlines this in theories of predictable development, with goals like “self-actualization” and “differentiation of self.” Religion talks about faith life in metaphors of journey, with goals of enlightenment and holiness.

And both worlds move towards a core self: the progression through the depths we contain is for the purpose of revealing our truest identity. Psychology calls it your ego. Religion calls it your soul. Catherine of Sienna calls it a “conscious uncovering” and I couldn’t agree more.

I find my generation struggling in the tension between these two worlds just as I did. We are turned off by the dogma and the pain found in religion; some of us wrestle with it and some of us leave it behind. But we also notice that we feel just as alive from picking up a self-help book or listening to a rap musical about a past president. We still crave the goals offered by religions, but we feel more comfortable with challenging messages from a Ted Talk and prayer as intentions set in the yoga studio.

I believe all of these moments of “feeling awake,” whatever their source, are glimpses into the depths in ourselves. To me, living intentionally, is peeling back the layers that get in the way of that state of living. Psychology helps us peel back the patterns that disrupt our relationships or self-image. Spirituality helps us peel back our disruptive beliefs or images of the Divine. Both help us peel back the layers of false self, anxiety, shame. The more layers we peel back, the more naked we become. And in that raw place, we experience authenticity. Freedom. Truth.

Whatever language helps you get to that place is what you should use. I draw from spiritual and psychological resources because that’s what works for me. To people who struggle between two worlds, I hope I can offer a hyphen. Or if nothing else, at least a deep inhale of breath before the next step on the journey.

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