From my experience working with individuals who are seeking support for their mental health in a faith-based context, faith and mental health seem to be very closely connected to each other.
It follows then that as someone makes strides in their approach to their mental health, they may also find themselves deconstructing their faith.
Faith deconstruction is sneaky. No one ever thinks it’s coming, and when it arrives the reaction feels something like, “Uh-oh, what happened? Where did this come from?”
Faith deconstruction is messy. Isn’t improving our mental health supposed to help us clean up our messes rather than make new ones? Not so! In counseling, life usually gets messier before it starts to get better.
Why? Well, let’s imagine your house is a mess, so you hire a professional organizer to come to your home and help you clean up. Rather than leave your current organizational system in place and simply add more cabinets, dressers, and bookshelves to organize your messy items, it’s usually necessary to pull everything out of the closets and possibly tear down your current organization system in order to make room to build something more efficient in its place.
A therapist is a professional organizer of your psyche. When someone arrives in my office, I’m not interested in simply tidying some unsightly messes only to leave faulty or dangerous ways of seeing oneself or the world in place. If we’re going to do the work right, we may need to upturn some drawers, dump some boxes, and generally make a big mess before we’re ready to start cleaning up again.
Is there a link between religion and mental illness?
Sometimes people ask if faith impacts our mental health – positively or negatively. I hear questions like:
What are the negative effects of religion on mental health?
What is the role of spirituality in mental health recovery?
Usually these questions take a cause and effect perspective – does religion have positive or negative impacts on our mental health? However from my experience, this isn’t even the right question to be asking. I think we should be flipping these questions around:
How does our psychological wellbeing impact our faith?
How does mental illness negatively impact spirituality?
How mental health affects spirituality
Here’s the thing: as we make changes in our psychological wellbeing, those changes have a domino effect on every corner of our lives: our relationships, our work ethic, our self discipline, and yes, our worldview.
Let’s imagine you seek out counseling services in order to release some shameful beliefs about yourself. Maybe you’ve made some unhealthy decisions and you believe those choices define who you are in a negative way. If you have also identified as a person of faith, you are likely to believe your faith reinforces these shameful ideas. Maybe a religious leader confirmed those concerns. Maybe you read something from scripture that led you to reinforce this belief. Maybe you simply have always been taught in faith contexts to see certain choices as shameful.
Imagine then that you learn to release some of this shame. Maybe these choices don’t have to define who you are. Maybe some of the decisions you made were actually the best options available to you at the time. If you’re able to make that shift in your internal world, what do you do with this faith that seems to have been reinforcing the shame you’ve been carrying for so long?
Enter: Faith Deconstruction. (dun dun dun…)
Where did my faith go?
In this initial phase of faith deconstruction, most people tend to react by assuming that their faith is now completely irrelevant. The thought process is: if I can’t trust the parts of my faith that taught me to feel ashamed, how can I ever trust any of the other parts of my faith?
At this point, many people do throw out the whole thing and leave the faith. Others grapple, teeter-tottering back and forth for awhile before arriving at a newer way of seeing things. For those who choose to stay on this teeter-totter, it’s incredibly challenging work.
Often friends, family, and the broader faith community are not accepting of this process. They may be bought in to the more shameful worldview the individual is attempting to leave behind, or they may misunderstand the individual’s growth as some type of unhealthy rebellion. This process can be incredibly isolating.
For those of you who have gone through this or may be going through this process right now, I admire your tenacity! You are definitely not alone.
There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for how to move through faith deconstruction. We all are on our own paths and it’s important to allow our journey to unfold in the way that is most helpful to us rather than needing it to look just like someone else’s journey.
My key suggestion is to find ways to not go it alone. If you don’t know where to turn locally, it’s okay to start with resources in the media. Here are a few items you may find helpful:
Websites and articles:
Wherever you may be in your journey, be gentle to yourself and I wish you well.
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. One of her primary specialties is working with those looking for support for their spiritual identity. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Faith Counseling Services.