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Directional Faith | Spiritual Direction vs. Counseling

Spiritual Direction vs. Counseling

Woman opening up to spiritual director
Spiritual Direction and Counseling can work hand-in-hand.

Comparing Spiritual Direction & Counseling

If you are familiar with therapy or counseling, or if you have even seen it portrayed (badly) on TV, then spiritual direction will look and feel much the same. The difference is in the focus. While counseling focuses on your mental health and your relationship with others, spiritual direction focuses on your spiritual health and your relationship with God.

Below, I’ve outlined some of the differences and similarities between the two.

Differences Between Spiritual Direction and Counseling

Mental health counseling given by a therapist is focused on mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, addictions, PTSD, and other disorders. The treatment can last months or years for some, and for others it becomes a lifelong journey. Even with insurance, the bills from this can pile up.

Spiritual direction, on the other hand, is focused on your spiritual health. How strong is your prayer life? How close are you to God? Are you struggling with the same sins and frustrations time and again? Are you growing spiritually? Spiritual directors focus on helping you navigate those challenges.

The difference is obvious, then. One focuses on mental health while the other focuses on spiritual health. So why do some see them as interchangeable? Because of their similar settings and approaches.

Similarities Between Spiritual Direction and Counseling

In both spiritual direction and counseling, you are likely to find yourself in one of two environments. The first is in an individual session with your spiritual director or therapist. The second is in a group setting with peers facing similar issues.

Spiritual direction group laughing and talking

In these sessions, you sit down with your spiritual director or therapist and share what has been happening in your life. You may describe how daily events have impacted you, and you often share the major events that recently occurred.

Another similarity is the frequency. You may meet weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly to develop a routine for growth, either spiritually or mentally. (Generally, counseling is weekly or bi-weekly, at least to begin with, but spiritual direction tends to be monthly.) The consistency of your visits with them is what allows growth to occur. There is a certain amount of accountability when you see your spiritual director or therapist regularly.

The sessions are even the same length – generally 45 minutes to 1 hour. The similarities continue to pile up.

This is likely because of the influence they have had on one another. Modern mental health practices took their root from positive mentor-mentee relationships, which may have included faith-based relationships. It evolved from there into the format we know today. As spiritual direction is making a comeback, it is learning from the experience of mental health professionals and applying those techniques in direction practices. The only difference is the focus.

To save money, though, should you pursue spiritual direction instead of counseling? No.

Spiritual direction is not an appropriate replacement for counseling, but that does not mean that it has to be one or the other.

Seeking Spiritual Direction Alongside Counseling

Many mental health professionals today have incorporated spirituality into their practice. They are no longer afraid to speak about faith-based topics as they once were. It is no longer considered “taboo.”

But at the same time, they may not be trained in theology and spiritual practices. That was not the primary focus of their education. So while they may include spirituality into their treatment for patients that want it, they may not offer the same depth of spirituality that a spiritual director can.

As someone who is intimately familiar with mental health issues, I believe that a good spiritual director can actually improve the counseling experience. One of the primary tools learned for almost any mental health issue is to use some form of coping skill, and a strong faith and prayer life can provide several options for people to choose from.

Struggling to overcome anxiety? Calming yourself through prayer may be an effective coping skill. Battling depression? Focusing on God’s love for you may help overcome the darkness. Low self-esteem holding you back? Learning to love yourself as God loves you can go a long way.

As a spiritual director, I am open to working hand-in-hand with mental health professionals to help you get the care you need.

Man showing how spiritual direction and mental health counseling can work together
Spiritual Direction and Mental Health go hand-in-hand.

Spiritual Direction After Counseling

At some point, you may decide to stop seeing your therapist or counselor. For some, mental health issues are only a season of life and not a lifelong battle. In those instances, continuing your growth through spiritual direction may be an effective to take the next step in your journey.

If you are already familiar with the format of sharing your life stories with a professional, switching to spiritual direction will be an easy transition. It will allow you to continue to have a safe place to open your heart to someone without any fear of judgment or repercussions.

Another benefit is that you can take the experience that you just faced and use it as a starting point for a new life in faith. With your “demons” behind you, you can begin to move forward to a stronger relationship with God.

I urge you to be open and honest about your mental health issues because they will help us find a new path for you together. And if at some point you begin to struggle, I will always be open and honest about where my specialties end, and when you should possibly seek out professional counseling once again.

What’s Next?

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