The work of pastoral counseling shares elements of reconciling people to themselves, others, and God; imparting skill-sets for living effectively, and blessing them with good will and compassionate understanding. In the context of the Human Nature Compass, this therapeutic healing stimulates spiritual growth in counselees, in rhythm with cognitive clarification, emotional modulation, and physical relaxation.
Thinking is a cognitive event that occurs in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Persons can think thoughts with or without emotion or movement. In 1902 Auguste Rodin created a sculpture titled, “The Thinker.” By reading the body language, you can tell that the man is pensively meditating about some inner struggle.
This is how counselees look when they are inwardly absorbed, trying to sort out what to tell you. They’re not sure what is relevant to the current problem and what isn’t. That is why Freud developed the psychoanalytic dictum, “Say everything that comes into your mind, without censoring anything.” Beyond struggling to know what to disclose, counselees usually want to keep up a good front to convince us that they are, after all, good and capable human beings, despite their needs and vulnerabilities.
The pastoral counselor’s mind is also at work, in the form of providing new knowledge, suggesting interpretations for the counselee’s consideration, offering perspective on a problem, and developing periodic summaries that state what has been covered and what lies ahead.
Additionally, your counselee is thinking between sessions about how to apply new insights toward the solving of current problems. How well counselees can analytically reflect on their therapeutic experience defines the quality of their participation, and may well be the single most influential factor for a positive outcome in counseling.
Feelings reflect arousal of the limbic system deep inside the brain. Feelings possess psychological, physiological, and even spiritual dimensions. Part of effective counseling is helping people recognize when they are having a feeling, and learn to label it accurately.
Some perennial emotions that may need sorting out include the range between feeling joyful and sad, hopeful and despairing, elated and depressed, loving and angry, excited and numb, secure and anxious, confident and guilty, trusting and jealous, appreciative and resentful, serene and frustrated, interested and bored, intrigued and repulsed, ecstatic and agonized, proud and ashamed, reassured and terrified, or caring and indifferent.
E-motions represent physiological energy that is “in motion.” Emotions express the energy of personality and are always changing, like the flow of water in a river. It is when some inner conflict has dammed up the flow of feelings like a beaver dam that persons become mired in anxiety or depression. This accounts for the unconscious pressure that floods out in cathartic expression when the beaver dam is therapeutically removed.
In order to develop a healthy personality and fulfilling relationships, all counselees need practice not only in identifying their feelings, but also in thinking about them constructively, and expressing them diplomatically to others and to God.
The field of physiological psychology reveals that there are two different nervous systems in every person. The first is the central nervous system (CNS), which allows a person to stand up and walk, drink a glass of water, or open and close a door. The central nervous system connects skeleton with muscle, and is innervated through the sensorimotor band across the top of the cerebral cortex.
The second nervous system, though less conspicuous, is by far the most important one in counseling. This is the autonomic or “automatic” nervous system (ANS) where respiration, circulation, digestion, elimination, and systemic regulation occur, as well as the daily maintenance of every cell in the body. The ANS can be influenced in dramatic ways. For instance, a professor walks into her class and announces that she’s giving a surprise pop quiz that will account for one-fifth of the semester grade. Within microseconds, blood pressure shoots up, pulses quicken, hands clench, and a few students practically stop breathing.
It works the same in counseling, only you can use the ANS for beneficial results. With a few well-chosen words, or even a purposeful shift in your body language, you can easily influence your counselee’s attitude and bodily state. This week when a counselee starts manifesting anxiety, try relaxing your own body by letting your voice have resonance and breathing from your diaphragm, slowly and easily. Remember to let your hands melt into your lap. Watch how, before long, your counselee begins to relax, since you are giving such strong environmental signals that everything is okay. What is happening is that the direct communication of your “at-ease” body language becomes an unconscious suggestion that your counselee’s ANS translates into a physiological relaxation response.
This “stay and play” mode of the autonomic nervous system is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode that the slightest hint of threat can trigger. So especially when you are offering a novel interpretation of a counselee’s behavior for consideration, or when you are exploring an emotionally-charged past memory, you’ll want to do so in a warm and relaxing way.
When working with non-religious counselees, or counselees who adhere to the teaching of various world religions, human spirituality can be thought of as the realm of values, meaning, and ultimate concern that promotes serenity and truth.
Adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the New Age movement, and agnosticism reveal significant differentiation in their perception of spirituality. Nevertheless, a common theme often echoes Christ’s teaching to love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.
Or, if the person doesn’t believe in a theistic conception of God, surrendering to a Higher Power is valuable in order to find meaning beyond the autonomous self. And if a Higher Power is excluded from religious belief, then there is usually a quest for truth in terms of freedom from illusions and commitment to social justice.
Whatever the spiritual orientation of the counselee, the pastoral counselor can personally draw upon the unique message of Christian faith and doctrine that God is a loving Trinity, providing a platform for therapeutic helping that spiritually interfaces with Christ as mediator between God and persons, the Holy Spirit as Advocate or “One called alongside to help,” and God the Father Almighty, who together form the ontological foundation of human nature and hold the key to its fulfillment. For an in-depth exploration of this theme, I refer you to: