Is Therapy the Answer? Reconciling Faith and Feminism

A few days ago I was talking to an LDS friend, Sarah, for the first time in a couple of years. She’s currently getting her doctorate in religion, and we were discussing the ways we (attempt to) reconcile our faith with our feminism.

When I asked her for advice on dealing with the women’s issues that we both struggle with, she immediately answered “Therapy.”

Sarah first went to LDS family services – not a good experience. Then she found a non-LDS therapist who herself was a person of faith. After years of expressing her frustrations and anger about the Church to her more orthodox LDS husband, and often hurting his feelings in the process, Sarah has found it so liberating and helpful to have a third party to act as a sounding board. The husband, who at first was not very supportive of her going to a therapist, now goes with her and loves it.

Sarah mentioned other things that have helped her cope with her issues, but the advice about therapy really stuck with me. I myself have toyed with the idea of seeking out a therapist before, but like Sarah’s, my husband isn’t too hot on the idea and thinks that I can probably just work through things myself.

But the idea still intrigues me… I know I often don’t handle my pain in the healthiest of ways. I sometimes unfairly get angry with my husband, since he represents the Church to me, and often defends it. And I sometimes am so frustrated after church that I find myself criticizing speakers, teachers, or leaders in ways that are not very kind.

I don’t want to be that person. Ultimately, I want to learn to be more generous and less angry towards institutions and people who I think are treating women unfairly, while at the same time working proactively towards change.

Perhaps therapy could help me with these goals. Have any of you had any experiences with therapy? Were they positive or negative? Since there is often a stigma against therapy, did you experience feelings of self-consciousness or shame as you contemplated seeking third party help?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) says:

    That is an interesting post.

  2. Kaimi says:

    Boy, you guys put everything to blog-poll, don’t you? 😛

    Okay, now the serious part. Yes, there’s a stigma associated with counseling (that is, I think, a less threatening word than therapy). I don’t talk with a lot of people regularly about it.

    That said: Do it. (This means you, too, MMc.)


    Because everyone forms bad mental habits sometimes; everyone accumulates emotional baggage sometimes; everyone miscommunicates sometimes. A good counselor can help with some of those problems. (Not to mention any deeper concerns.)

    But even though a counselor _can_ help with deeper concerns, you don’t need to have deeper concerns to be able to be helped by counseling. There’s a sort of script that we hear a lot, that suggests that counseling is only for crisis situations. “John and Jane were almost divorced, and then they went to counseling” or “He cheated on her, and then they went to counseling” or “She’s an alcoholic, and so they’re in counseling” or whatever else.

    And hey, counseling is often very helpful for people in crisis situations. That said, though, it doesn’t have to be crisis-based. Even if you’re not currently dealing with insert-the-crisis-here (marital crisis, infidelity, addiction, post-tramatic reactions to abuse, all of the parade-of-horribles kinds of things that are usually associated with the sentence “Brother Smith is in counseling because of ___”), counseling can still be a very helpful way to strengthen communication between marriage partners, to work through emotional pain or difficulty, to learn to avoid bad habits, and so on. Ideally, it can serve as a sort of physical or check-up, so that you _don’t_ have to go to the emergency room later. Preventative medicine, and all that.

    That said, note:

    1. You get out of it what you put in. If you can’t find a counselor you can trust, and are guarded and closed, well, your benefit will probably be limited. That’s like going to the doctor and refusing to tell her that you have a sore throat. She can only do so much.

    2. There are good therapists, and not-so-good therapists. You can find both types, and you can find both types both inside and outside of LDSFS. A therapist (particularly LDSFS) may be overbearing and preachy. Or, a therapist (particularly non-member) may have a hard time understanding Mormon issues, or think Mormonism is just weird. You want to avoid both extremes, obviously. Finally, some people just don’t work well together, persoanlity wise. For counseling to be most effective, you should find someone who works well with you. Someone who understands faith issues, but is not overbearing.

    You can always seek recommendations from trusted family and friends. But ultimately, the only way you’ll know if a particular counselor fits you well, is by visiting that person, and thus seeing who’s a good fit for you.

    3. And also, ultimately, a counselor doesn’t solve your problems. A good couselor can provide perspective for helping you see problems, and can provide you with helpful tools — ways to deal with anger, ways to communicate better, and so forth. And she can be a sounding board for questions, and provide support. But the counselor doesn’t “fix” things. It’s up to you to learn and grow, in your own role as an individual and as a member of a family, and a counselor won’t do that for you or anyone else. (I say this because I’ve known more than one person who expected the counselor to magically “fix” things, and that’s a bad expectation to have.)

    Best of luck, Caroline. You’ll do fine. If (either of) you have any questions, or want to talk about it further, feel free to drop me an e-mail.

  3. Caroline says:

    I’m all about starting conversations. 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughtful input. Your comments are making me consider it more seriously than I ever have before.

    One of my best friends has a horribe abusive father, and she had a good experience with therapy a couple of years ago. She suggested i might want to talk to someone sometime, but I’ve kind of shoved it off to the back burner. Until I talked to Sarah…

  4. Kiskilili says:

    This is a question I’ve asked myself too many times to count. I feel intensely, deeply betrayed by God in a way that I know affects the rest of my interactions. But there are precious few people who understand the situation in the slightest degree. It’s easy for my Mormon friends to see why feminism is stupid, and it’s easy for my non-Mormon friends to see why Mormonism is stupid.

    At this point, an LDS therapist is probably just not an option for me. But I don’t know that a non-LDS therapist is either. As angry and irreligious as I currently am, I’m very convinced of God’s existence and of the validity of religious experience; I don’t want to be patronized by someone who thinks religion is the opium of the masses that deluded souls need to be weaned off of. I’d rather not be pathologized for either my feminist convictions on the one hand or my religious experience on the other.

    For a long time my strategy was to pretend the Church didn’t exist. Ultimately, that may be the only solution for me, at least in this life.

  5. Tigersue says:

    My husband is a professional therapist, so my first thought is that you need to really find out what bothers you the most and will counseling help you with that? For example if you are trying to reconcil your feelings because you see the church is unfair it could fuel that fire, but if you want to deal with the “emotions” of anger, frustration, and jugementalism”, it might help. As stated counseling can only help if you work hard with it. Couseling is a guide to improving life, not a cure all.

    On the other hand there are stats out that show that a marriage in trouble can be benefited if only one part goes to counseling.

    I guess what I am saying is you need to identify why you want a counselor and what your objectives are in the process. A good counselor can help you with that and it doesn’t mean there are not good LDS counselors out there. (Yes I am a bit biased).

    No I am not a fan of LDSS myself. My husband tried to get hired by them for years, he worked for them part time in there domestic violence division, but they would not hire him full time because they only hire SW. They require 50% of their time to be handling adoptions. SW for the most part do not get a great deal of training in therapy so counseling really suffers in the long run. (JMHO).

    Okay enough of a thread jack.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Kiskilili: You can’t really assume that every non-LDS therapist will try to convince you (or even believes) that religion is an “opium of the masses”. Most will respect a client’s upbringing and beliefs.

    Caroline and husband: I say don’t be afraid to consider it if you feel so much tension because of the issues. It can be nice to have an outsider who is a professional give another perspective on things. And there are probably more people out there who have had therapy that you realize.

  7. Caroline says:

    I know what you mean. In the past I’ve often felt betrayed by God. But in the last couple of years I’ve simply decided to believe that God is good, just, etc., and that it’s humans who are screwing everything up. Thinking like that has helped me a lot since the deepest despair I’ve ever felt has been a result of believing that God is fundamentally unjust.

    I’ve had your concerns as well about going to a counselor who could not respect religious experience. That’s why I think I would like either a person of faith from a different religion, or an LDS person who is non-orthodox.

    Thanks for your input. I do think the church is fundamentally unfair in some ways, but I’m looking for more positive ways to deal with the negative feelings that arise because of my perception of unfairness. I think a counselor probably could help with that.

    By the way, what does SW stand for?

    Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I think it will be helpful to see what coping strategies a professional can suggest. BTW, I don’t think that Kiskilli was assuming that *every* non-LDS therapist would be anti-religion…

  8. bigbrownhouse says:

    SW = Social Workers

  9. Lynnette says:

    This is partly due to the fact that I’ve had good luck in finding therapists I can work with (and I know people who’ve had more difficulties in that area), but my experience with therapy has been quite positive. I’ve been in it mostly for depression-related stuff, but of course religious issues have come up, and while there are sometimes things that are hard to explain to non-LDS therapists, I’ve also at times appreciated an outside perspective. And I’ve found that even if they’re not overly familiar with the specifics of Mormonism, it’s still helpful to talk through my often highly-conflicted emotions regarding the Church.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the stigma thing hasn’t been much of an issue for me; I’m fairly open about the fact that I’m in therapy, and most people seem to find that fairly unremarkable. (Of course, this could merely reflect the fact that their impression of me is of someone who really ought to be getting professional help. ;))

    Good luck with looking into this.

  10. Kiskilili says:

    “Kiskilili: You can’t really assume that every non-LDS therapist will try to convince you (or even believes) that religion is an “opium of the masses”. Most will respect a client’s upbringing and beliefs.”

    Good point–very true. I didn’t mean to imply that I think all non-LDS therapists are militantly anti-religious–I’m sort of tongue-in-cheek characterizing one extreme end of the spectrum so it’s clear why I would want to avoid it, not because I think it’s the norm. (I have read survey data indicating that social scientists in general are the least likely to be religious, though, which is interesting.)

  11. Seraphine says:

    I was in therapy for a number of years, and I found it to be quite positive. I didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about my faith/feminism issues–mostly because my bipolar disorder was much more severe at the time, and I needed the therapy to be more focused on this than anything else.

    That being said, I learned skills in therapy that have been broadly applicable. For example, I found that my years in therapy have helped me to better cope with intense, negative emotions. Since it seems like you see that as one of your issues (you say that “I know I don’t often handle my pain in the healthiest of ways…”), I can definitely see therapy as being beneficial. At the very least, it will give you a place to discuss your pain where it can be validated.

    And I echo what Kaimi said–he made a lot of really great points.

  12. Caroline says:

    Seraphine, thank you for commenting on your own experiences with counseling. I’m finding it so interesting to read all of these positive experiences with it.

    My husband was a little sad/disturbed to learn that I’m considering counseling, so we had a nice long talk last night about where I am and how we’re each coping with the stresses of our marriage. It was a good conversation. We’ve come to the conclusion that he just doesn’t need/want to have as many deep conversations as I do. So I think I still would like to pursue talking to a third party.

  13. AmyB says:

    I’ve been in therapy- partly for depression and partly for self-exploration. I forget that there’s still stigma attached to therapy for many people- in my neck of the woods it seems pretty par for the course.

    I talked with my therapist about some of my religious issues. On the one hand it helped to speak to an objective third party. On the other hand, Mormonism can take a lot of explaining to someone unfamiliar with it. In addition, I think my mother felt a slightly threatened when I mentioned to her that I was seeing a therapist. She probably worried that I was talking about her in therapy (which, frankly, I was).

    If I had the resources, I would see a Jungian Analyst. The idea of deep exploration of the self through dreams, symbols, archetypes and all that stuff would be just my thing. I believe it’s not uncommon for people to transcendent and powerful transformative experiences with Jungian therapists. Another form I’d like to try sometime in my life is Gestalt Therapy.

    There are many models of therapy and therapists with varying styles and personalities. If you do go, remember that you can shop around for the right fit.

  14. jana says:

    I certainly think therapy is a good thing and should be sought as needed. But I feel sad to think that therapy is the only way for smart/educated women to navigate their Mormon experience.

  15. AmyB says:

    Jana, for me therapy has been only a very minor part in navigating my mormon experience. Very much of it has been through finding a community of women who have similar struggles and learning from them, sharing their pain and their joys. Blogging has been very therapeutic for me in that realm.

    So I don’t think therapy is the only way, but it can certainly be a good helper along the path.

  16. Anonymous says:

    “But I feel sad to think that therapy is the only way for smart/educated women to navigate their Mormon experience.”

    I feel sad to think that women here think they are having a Mormon experience when they will not even fully embrace their chosen faith

  17. AmyB says:

    I feel sad to think that women here think they are having a Mormon experience when they will not even fully embrace their chosen faith

    I must admit to confusion about this statement. I didn’t get the memo that stated one is only Mormon if one has no questions and no struggles with the faith. The Mormon faith was started by someone who questioned and struggled. I’d say we have a great tradition from the founding of the LDS faith of being able to wonder and question, and discover truth for ourselves. To say that only those who fully embrace every last bit of Mormonism can say they have a Mormon experience draws a very small and exclusionary circle in which probably few people fit.

    It takes all types to make a church, and that is part of the beauty of it. Being judged for not perfectly fitting the mold is hard on a lot of people, including me. We need orthodox and heterodox thinkers to keep the organization vibrant and alive.

    Another benefit of therapy/counseling is that it is a safe space to discuss one’s issues. Church is not so safe.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “I didn’t get the memo that stated one is only Mormon if one has no questions and no struggles with the faith. “

    Questions and struggles were never even mentioned. They are to be expected. Now I am the one confused.

  19. AmyB says:

    Okay, anonymous, perhaps we can get on the same page. (And would you mind sharing your name?)

    Can you clarify what you mean when you say women only think they are having a mormon experience if they don’t “fully embrace the faith?” I read that as meaning having questions and struggles, but it seems I misread you. So what are you really saying?

  20. Caroline says:

    I read anonymous’s comment in the same vein you did, Amy. It gave me pause because like you I think I very much am having a Mormon experience, though I don’t embrace every aspect of the faith. It certainly isn’t going to mirror every one else’s Mormon experience, but it is my own and just as legitimate as anyone else’s, I would argue.

  21. Mary Ellen says:

    I saw an LDS counselor for a while, but didn’t feel like I made much progress with him–and toward the end I felt like he was a little too invested in keeping me on the straight and narrow path.

    After that, I found a woman therapist who was fantastic. She taught me a lot of useful tools and coping strategies.

    She wasn’t LDS, but had been an Evangelical Christian growing up and there were a lot of similarities. Explaining Mormonism’s quirks to her forced me to think in new ways about aspects of Mormon culture.

    Seeing a counselor helped me sort out some of my beliefs and helped me through some rough patches.

    With people I could trust, I was open about the fact I saw a counselor. But I didn’t share that with everyone–especially those I knew to be hostile to the idea of therapy.

    My best suggestion: be picky about the counselor you choose to see and discuss what you’d like to address/achieve together. Otherwise, it can end up being a travelogue of what happened between sessions.

  22. Caroline says:

    Mary Ellen,
    Thanks for your advice. I’ll be sure to discuss what I want from her on that initial visit.

    By the way, I’ve had two people recommend a counselor: A. A. You know her from the panel at Sunstone. Do you think she would be good?

  23. Mary Ellen says:

    I’ve heard good things about the work A.A. has done with people using narrative therapy. I’d say it’s worth checking out.

    In the interest of full disclosure, A.A. is my cousin. I might be a wee bit biased on that account. 🙂

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