Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Addressing religion and spirituality in counseling with bullying survivors

By Elizabeth R. O’Brien and Amanda L. Giordano June 5, 2017

The alarming prevalence of bullying in the United States warrants continued education and dialogue among counselors regarding effective ways to serve clients who are survivors of bullying. One aspect in need of more inquiry is the ethical and effective integration of religion/spirituality in clinical work with clients who have experienced bullying.

Bullying, defined as unprovoked abuse in the form of physical, verbal, relational or cyber acts of aggression, can intersect with religion/spirituality in several ways:

a) The experience of bullying can affect clients’ own religion/spirituality.

b) Clients can experience bullying by religious groups or group members.

c) Clients can experience bullying as a result of their membership in marginalized religious/spiritual groups.

In this article, we briefly discuss counseling considerations for each scenario.



Bullying’s impact on survivors’ religious/spiritual beliefs 

Consider the case of “Sara,” a 16-year-old Caucasian high school student. Sara does not fit within the thin ideal that is so prevalent among American high school females. Because of her insecurity regarding her physical appearance, Sara wears dark, loose clothing and tries to hide behind her long hair. Sara’s appearance, coupled with her low socioeconomic status, makes her the target of bullying from her classmates. Her classmates call her degrading names (verbal bullying), and many of her female peers refuse to engage with her at all (relational bullying). The cumulative effect of these daily taunts and exclusion leads Sara to counseling.

Sara’s experience of verbal and relational bullying constitutes a traumatic event. Peer groups are extremely valued and influential during adolescence. Through exclusion by her peers and being a target of their verbal assaults, Sara has cultivated a sense of hypervigilance and feelings of perpetual danger. Additionally, Sara has internalized shame regarding her body image and low socioeconomic status.

During the initial counseling intake, Sara reveals that these experiences of trauma and shame have caused her to question aspects of her religious/spiritual beliefs. Sara identifies as a Christian and reports that she has prayed for relief from bullying. She feels as though her prayers have gone unanswered. She also is questioning her worth to God and ruminating on the thought that perhaps he does not love her.

Sara’s case highlights several counseling considerations. It is clear that her experience with traumatic bullying at school intersects with her religious/spiritual identity. Specifically, Sara has attempted to respond to the bullying by using a religious coping skill (prayer), but she continues to struggle with painful emotions and negative thoughts. Furthermore, she is pondering existential questions concerning the nature of God and her inherent worth but has been unable to find adequate answers.

Therefore, it is important for the counselor to fully assess Sara’s religious/spiritual identity. A thorough assessment in the form of unstructured dialogue regarding Sara’s religious/spiritual history, or the use of standardized spiritual assessment instruments, can help the counselor understand Sara’s Christian identity and worldview.

Through the exploration of Sara’s religious/spiritual identity, the counselor discovers that Sara is uncertain about the concept of prayer and how it applies to her current situation. Sara expresses a desire to learn more about various types of prayer and gain insight into the purpose of the practice. The counselor and Sara agree that she specifically is searching for spiritual direction within the Christian faith tradition regarding the practice of prayer. The counselor provides a menu of options for how Sara might meet this goal. These options include self-study (i.e., reading Christian books and listening to sermons/messages on prayer), meeting with a Christian religious leader or engaging in experiential learning through the practice of various types of prayer (ritual, conversational, centering, contemplative, etc.).

After exploring each option, Sara decides that she would most like to meet with a Christian pastor for an interactive conversation about prayer. The counselor is able to refer Sara to a Christian pastor in the community and helps her set up a meeting. Along with prayer, Sara and
her counselor explore other ways in which Sara can use religious/spiritual coping strategies — such as finding support in her faith community — in response to bullying.

Sara’s experience of bullying has also affected her religious/spiritual worldview by calling into question her perceived value to God. The counselor enters into Sara’s frame of reference to unpack the meaning of her victimization as it relates to her relationship with God. The counselor is careful to utilize the skill of bracketing to avoid imposing her own beliefs onto Sara. Bracketing consists of intentionally compartmentalizing the counselor’s personal values to impartially enter into the client’s worldview.

Through their dialogue, the counselor reflects one of Sara’s core beliefs — that inaction is evidence of dislike. Continued exploration reveals that this belief emerged from Sara’s childhood experiences with her mother. Living below the poverty line, Sara often did not have the same possessions and opportunities as other children her age. She concluded that her mother’s lack of material provision reflected a lack of love and care. Sara then generalized this core belief to her relationship with God: His perceived inaction to stop the bullying constituted evidence of his dislike toward her.

The counselor and Sara examine evidence for and against this belief until Sara develops insight into the limitations of such a dichotomous view. Over time, Sara adopts a more adaptive and nuanced perspective of the meaning of others’ perceived inaction, which helps resolve her spiritual struggle. Throughout this discussion, the counselor is careful to keep in mind models of spiritual development, such as James Fowler’s stages of faith development, to work within Sara’s appropriate developmental level.

These represent only a few examples of how the experience of bullying can affect a survivor’s personal religious/spiritual belief system. Counselors should be skilled and competent in assessing client religion/spirituality, referring or consulting with religious/spiritual leaders, bracketing personal beliefs and considering models of religious/spiritual development in their conceptualization of the bullying survivor.

Bullying by religious/spiritual groups or group members

Next consider “Jacob,” a 31-year-old Black male who identifies as gay. He is employed as an accountant for a trucking and transport company that is characterized by strong Christian values. Working for this company for the past three years, Jacob has continuously dodged questions about his personal life because he fears his co-workers’ reactions to finding out he is a gay man.

A few weeks ago, one of Jacob’s co-workers found a picture on social media, posted without Jacob’s knowledge, that showed Jacob and his partner kissing at a friend’s cookout. Jacob was quickly outed, and his co-workers’ attitudes have become difficult for him to manage. Although some co-workers’ attitudes toward him have not changed, others have become hostile (verbal bullying/aggression). And still other co-workers with whom Jacob had no prior relationship have since approached him to discuss their perceptions of the deviance of his behavior (emotional bullying). Because of recent comments from his boss, Jacob also has learned that his advancement potential in the company has been compromised. These instances are very disturbing to Jacob and trigger his own struggle with how his sexual orientation intersects with his religious faith — a topic he has been avoiding since adolescence.

Jacob’s experiences illustrate how clients might feel that they need to deny or hide aspects of their cultural identity in order to belong to the larger group. This experience becomes even more complicated when individuals are struggling with strongly held values that they perceive to be in direct opposition to each other. To elucidate Jacob’s situation, he grew up in a very religious, Christian household. He learned at an early age that members of his family and faith community believe homosexuality to be in opposition to biblical principles. Jacob continues to value religion and spirituality, but he has struggled to reconcile his affectual orientation and the principles of his religion. These seemingly opposing identities (religious and gay) create internal conflict for Jacob.

Jacob’s counseling journey begins by exploring his experiences with his family of origin and the messages he received regarding religion and sexual identity. His experiences of bullying at work have reignited Jacob’s long-held fears that he will be rejected by those he loves. Specifically, he fears that both his biological family and church family will disown him if he is truthful and open about his life as a gay man. In addition, Jacob’s multiple minority statuses (Black and gay) compound his fear regarding potential discrimination.

Through dialogue and reflection, Jacob and his counselor uncover Jacob’s core beliefs about himself, the world and others, including the notion that God’s love, like his family’s, is conditional and must be earned through correct behavior. Jacob’s counselor is trained in Bowenian family systems theory and works with him to create a genogram to begin assessing the nature of relationships between Jacob and those he identifies as family.

In addition, the counselor prompts Jacob to identify the messages he received from individuals in his faith community, family members and religious texts regarding sexual orientation. This begins Jacob’s process of critically examining the relationship between his religious identity and his sexual orientation. The counselor takes a nonevaluative, neutral stance to allow Jacob to wrestle with his prioritization of multiple aspects of his identity and how he can experience more personal integration. Additionally, the counselor helps Jacob consider how he would navigate situations in which his personal beliefs regarding religion and sexual orientation differ from the beliefs of those in his family of origin.

Through counseling, Jacob gains insight into how his current work situation is triggering emotional experiences of rejection from his adolescence, a time when he was not equipped to deal with those experiences. Jacob’s counselor empowers him to see that he has built the resources and skills over time to negotiate his current situation both at work and in his family. Through this collaborative effort, Jacob is emboldened to contact the human resources department at his work. His experiences of bullying are met with concern, and an intervention plan is created to help manage the situation.

Despite the action taken by the human resources department, Jacob discloses to his counselor that he is in a place of unforgiveness toward the individuals who bullied him at work. He describes feeling withdrawn and cold toward these co-workers, where he once felt they had a collegial relationship. His counselor is careful in addressing these emotions because they likely are the coping mechanisms that helped Jacob feel emotionally safe in the past.

Jacob’s counselor explains that experiencing unforgiveness is a natural part of the forgiveness process. His counselor also is very clear with Jacob that the process of forgiveness is about releasing the hold that negative emotions have on him; it does not mean that Jacob is denying that what happened to him was wrong. As Jacob works on his journey toward forgiveness, he relies heavily on prayer and Scripture. These have always been reliable sources of religious coping for Jacob and help him feel connected to both his religious past and his spiritual present.

Bullying related to one’s religious/spiritual identity

A final way in which bullying can intersect with religious/spiritual issues is being bullied because of one’s membership in a religious/spiritual group. Consider the case of “Malik,” a 22-year old Middle Eastern college student. Malik is a practicing Muslim who is a member of his university’s Muslim Students Association and regularly attends worship at a community mosque. Recently, as a result of growing suspicion of Muslims in America, Malik has experienced both physical bullying and cyberbullying. In one instance, while walking home from campus, he was physically assaulted by a group of male students. They called him a “terrorist” while punching and kicking him. Additionally, he has received threatening messages on social media telling him to leave the country. These experiences led Malik to seek services from his college counseling center.

Malik’s religious/spiritual identity is an important part of his cultural makeup. His worldview is shaped by his understanding of Islam and his desire to adhere to the tenets of the faith. As a member of a marginalized religious group in America, Malik experiences oppression in both covert and overt ways, including the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Muslims as antagonists on TV and in film, poor customer service at stores and restaurants, and being perceived as suspicious or dangerous by others. Additionally, he now is a survivor of various forms of bullying.

Malik reports to his counselor that he feels conflicted regarding his faith. On one hand, he is devoted to Islam, but on the other, he is ashamed of his religion because of the oppression he experiences. He reports feeling guilty for having negative thoughts about his faith and is struggling with feelings of hopelessness.

The counselor listens to Malik’s account with empathy and sensitivity. As a non-Muslim, the counselor also broaches the subject of this cultural difference. He asks Malik what it is like working with a counselor who does not practice Islam. Malik seems to appreciate this question. He acknowledges being nervous that the counselor will secretly be afraid of him as others have been. Broaching the differences between their religious/spiritual cultural identities and the potential impact of those differences on the counseling process helps provide a corrective emotional experience for Malik, who encounters acceptance and understanding from his counselor.

Within the context of this strong therapeutic alliance, the counselor enters into Malik’s worldview and validates his experience of feeling conflicted about his faith. By exploring his thoughts and feelings associated with his religious identity, Malik discovers that he is not ashamed of being Muslim (individual issue). Rather, he longs to be treated with respect and dignity by those who are not Muslim (systemic issue). This insight leads Malik and his counselor into a conversation about systemic oppression and advocacy.

The counselor describes Malik’s experiences with physical bullying and cyberbullying as barriers to his welfare and personal development on campus. As an advocate, the counselor discloses his responsibility to help remove these types of barriers and challenge injustice against oppressed groups. The counselor presents a variety of advocacy options, and Malik decides that he would like the counselor to act with him as he advocates for himself and other Muslims on campus. Malik and his counselor develop an advocacy plan that includes raising awareness regarding Islamophobia on campus, joining with other religious groups to develop a system of support (such as a buddy system to avoid walking alone at night) and alerting campus police to potential threats against Muslim students. The counselor works to empower Malik to develop the skills necessary to complete his advocacy plan.

As evidenced in this scenario, when addressing religion/spirituality among bullying survivors, counselors need a solid understanding of major world religions and the experiences of marginalized religious/spiritual group members in America. Additionally, counselors should have proficiency in the skill of broaching, defined as ongoing, genuine invitations for clients to explore their cultural identities in session. Furthermore, counselors should be able to recognize advocacy needs and be familiar with advocacy competencies and domains at the micro, meso and macro levels.

Resources for continued growth  

Given the many ways in which bullying and religion/spirituality can intersect, it is clear that counselors must be equipped to integrate these important values into the helping process. Although attention to clients’ culture is mandated by the ACA Code of Ethics and various counseling competencies, many counselors struggle to appropriately address aspects of clients’ religion and spirituality. The reasons for this struggle vary but can include counselors’ belief that they lack appropriate training, difficulty bracketing personal beliefs, countertransference issues regarding religion/spirituality and perceived setting constraints. Regardless of the reason, it is up to the clinician to engage in reflective practices and seek additional training as needed in this area.

Resources that are readily available to aid professionals in this task include the ACA Code of Ethics; the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling’s Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling; and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies. By increasing their knowledge and skills, counselors can feel competent to
address religion and spirituality with bullying survivors.




Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Elizabeth R. O’Brien is a licensed professional counselor and the immediate past president of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association. She currently serves as the counselor education program director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is a UC Foundation associate professor. She has presented both internationally and nationally on issues related to wellness and beginning counselors, marriage and couples counseling, and spirituality and supervision. She recently completed a co-edited textbook titled Supervision and Agency Management for Counselors. Contact her at Elizabeth-O’

Amanda L. Giordano is a licensed professional counselor and an assistant professor at the University of North Texas. She specializes in addictions counseling, multiculturalism and religious/spiritual issues in counseling. She serves on the board of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling and on the editorial review board for the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling. Contact her at

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