Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Counseling in the land of religious liberty

By Cebrail Karayigit and Jason Kushner August 7, 2019

The MerriamWebster online dictionary defines minority as “a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment.” The United States is perhaps the most religiously pluralistic country in the world and one of the few to integrate religious freedom into its Constitution. Christianity is far and away the largest religion in the United States, however, and is in some ways the baseline faith that guides — simply as a matter of familiarity — how many counselors approach working with religious traditions that are different from their own.

According to the 2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, Christians represent 70.6% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, religious minorities in the U.S., such as Jews (1.9% of the population), Muslims (0.9%), Hindus (0.7%) and Buddhists (0.7%), are frequently viewed through the context of media and other popular portrayals. These portrayals often perpetuate stereotyped perceptions and promote the notion that religious minorities and Western traditions are in conflict with one another. Counselors, like all humans, have biases that inform our perceptions of self relative to some “other.” Given misunderstandings about religious minorities in the United States, this topic is particularly relevant for counselors because we are part of an inclusive profession that is oriented toward social justice.

Rethinking multiculturalism

In an era in which many people get to know about “others” via social media, an unfortunate side effect is that stereotypes can be easily formed or solidified because we usually see what we want to see. Therefore, counselors have an ethical obligation to cautiously evaluate their sources of information relative to news coverage and social media mentions about religious minority groups in the U.S. As is the case when working with people who are different from us in other characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and degree of ability, there is no substitute for direct contact with religious minority groups to promote counselor competency. According to a report released by Pew in 2017, knowing someone from a particular religious group was associated with warmer feelings for that group. So, direct interaction with people of a faith tradition different from our own (or the absence of a faith tradition altogether) is key to reducing or eliminating our biases — conscious or otherwise — toward religious minorities.

Within and outside the counseling profession, the terms multiculturalism and cultural diversity tend to focus on racial and ethnic minority groups, a practice promoted at least in part because of the categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau and data collected on applicants by American employers. Religious minorities are not so highly visible and are not generally regarded as “important” by mainstream American society because of this relatively hidden status. As counselors, we are in a unique position to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and in this way, we have a meaningful role to play in ensuring that minority groups’ values are incorporated into American society. Standard A.1.d. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics states, “Counselors recognize that support networks hold various meanings in the lives of clients and consider enlisting the support, understanding, and involvement of others (e.g., religious/spiritual/community leaders, family members, friends) as positive resources, when appropriate, with client consent.”

Misconceptions about religious minorities in Western societies are not new, but there remains an opportunity for counselors to lead the discussion and practice of widening the tent to welcome those of minority faiths. To do this, we must be uniquely competent as a collective profession at addressing the needs of this relatively small but growing population.

The relative absence of competence and knowledge about a plurality of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices is perhaps one reason that counselors may not actively seek opportunities to engage with religious minorities. Within the counseling literature, few studies address the unique experiences of religious minorities. Therefore, engaging more research on this topic is an important step in increasing the visibility of religious minorities within the counseling profession. That larger research base would then inform practice as it does in the cases of other kinds of minority populations with whom counselors practice.

Do’s and don’ts

Perhaps the most important step is to examine our own attitudes and behaviors as counselors toward religious minorities. To that end, in their seminal cultural diversity book Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, Derald Wing Sue and David Sue focused on the importance of examining our own attitudes by asking the following questions: Have you been influenced by the negative stereotypes regarding individuals of these groups? What would your reaction be if a client came in wearing traditional clothing?

One of the most common mistakes made by counselors is failing to recognize clients’ social and cultural identities and focusing only on visible manifestations of those identities, such as wearing a kippah or hijab. For example, when white American clients come to counseling, we do not typically refer to them as “Catholic clients” or “Protestant clients” and thereby put them in a categorical box. On the other hand, when a client wearing an orange robe comes to counseling, we are more likely inclined to refer to that person as a “Buddhist client.” Such labeling should not be considered the best practice of our profession.

It is necessary to challenge our stereotypical notions of the phenotypical appearance of minority groups to overcome the prejudiced messages that may be sent. Counselors must also be cautious in assuming that clients’ religious identity is the same as their social and cultural identity. Understanding clients’ behavior as a social-cultural concept, especially in today’s American society, is necessary to avoid a fixed and prejudicial view of their identity.

Religious minorities have typically been exposed to a history of oppression, so trust and empathy may be particularly important to them in a counseling relationship. Building rapport and developing a relationship with these clients is crucial to developing effective communication. Counselors should also understand that some religious minorities may be reluctant to seek counseling for a variety of reasons. Therefore, when working with these clients, counselors are encouraged to be active in and affirming of their help-seeking behavior and to assist them in processing resistance if any exists without forcing any particular religious or faith perspective.

In most cases and with most faiths, the individual expression of that faith is a uniquely personal experience. To that end, counselors should explore what it means to their clients without making assumptions based on the counselor’s own perceptions of various faith traditions. It is also important to note that people usually overestimate their openness to minority groups. As suggested in a 2014 study by David Amodio, individuals are typically unaware of their implicit biases. These biases can be particularly difficult to change in an era of news and social media that often reinforces prejudicial or stereotyped thinking rather than calling it into question.

Counselors are also encouraged to examine their use of theories in their practices because many widely used theoretical orientations (e.g., cognitive behavioral, person-centered) are rooted in Western value traditions that may ignore the unique needs of some minority groups. Some approaches focus on inward problems and view the individual as “problematic” outside of the context in which the individual lives. For example, some religious minorities experience a significant amount of tension and stress because of societal pressure and reminders of their differences. For this reason, a theoretical orientation that emphasizes knowledge of the effects of societal pressure and that has a social justice perspective ensures greater likelihood of a therapeutic alliance that will lead to more satisfying outcomes for the client and counselor alike.

As Derald Wing Sue suggested in Counseling the Culturally Diverse, to be multiculturally competent, counselors must also be knowledgeable about discrimination policies. If counselors learn about anti-discrimination policies, they will be able to raise clients’ awareness of their legal rights so that they can challenge discrimination and take appropriate actions when faced with discrimination. To be most effective, counselors need to educate themselves about laws, practices, policies, history and situations in a global context. No one expects counselors to be living encyclopedias, but to be competent healers, we have to be comfortable enough to ask religious minority clients about their faith traditions. In doing this, the counseling profession will expand its reach, make a difference and continue to uphold the value of diversity for which it is known.

Religious competencies

Religious competencies are important for all counselors to have, in particular when working with clients with religious and spiritual issues. Consistent with the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) provides a set of competencies for integrating knowledge of spiritual and religious issues into counseling practice. The purpose of the ASERVIC competencies is to “recognize diversity and embrace a cross-cultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts.”

The following competencies shed light on how to improve our ability to serve members of religious minority groups:

  • The professional counselor recognizes that the client’s beliefs (or absence of beliefs) about spirituality and/or religion are central to his or her worldview and can influence psychosocial functioning. Counselors cannot effectively assess their clients’ problems and formulate strategies without first understanding their clients’ worldviews.
  • The professional counselor actively explores his or her own attitudes, beliefs and values about spirituality and/or religion. It is important for counselors to seek self-knowledge through an active practice of self-awareness and self-reflection. For example, counselors can examine their attitudes about religion by asking themselves the following questions: When did I last push the boundaries of my comfort zone to learn about religious topics that are different from my own perspectives?
  • The professional counselor continuously evaluates the influence of his or her own spiritual and/or religious beliefs and values on the client and the counseling process. It is necessary and essential to assess any possibilities of countertransference to prevent the development of a negative relationship with clients. For example, counselors who are very involved with religious organizations should not impose such practices on their clients. Many members of religious minorities have a paradoxical relationship to religion. Although they may have firm religious convictions, attending religious services can be a less frequent activity for them.
  • The professional counselor can identify the limits of his or her understanding of the client’s spiritual and/or religious perspective and is acquainted with religious and spiritual resources and leaders who can be avenues for consultation and to whom the counselor can refer. The fear of not knowing should not keep us from learning from our clients. Our clients are our best teachers. Although we strive to understand clients’ religious perspectives, it is important to allow our clients to educate us about their religious beliefs.
  • The professional counselor responds to client communications about spirituality and/or religion with acceptance and sensitivity. Counseling is a profession based on understanding, which goes well beyond simply showing tolerance for those who are different from us. Seeking understanding and respecting our clients’ religion is key to accepting clients for who they are.
  • The professional counselor can therapeutically apply theory and current research supporting the inclusion of a client’s spiritual and/or religious perspectives and practices. It is important that counselors are flexible enough to modify their treatment perspectives to best match the unique needs of clients. Perceiving psychological functioning as an internalizing problem or an inward-directed form of distress can be problematic when serving some religious minority populations. The most well-known therapeutic techniques do not emphasize a religious perspective; it is important that counselors strive to use techniques that will reduce clients’ symptoms, even if that includes learning about faith-affirming interventions that would be most helpful. One example could include using the egalitarian and empowerment principles of feminist therapy. From that perspective, clients could be encouraged to recognize the many aspects of their religious identity, increase their awareness of the origins of their presenting problems, and enhance their well-being.

Hypothetical case study

To further illustrate the highlighted competencies, we offer a hypothetical case study as an example of how specific strategies could be integrated into counseling practice.

Mary, a 19-year-old college student, was initially referred to counseling because she was experiencing social isolation and increased levels of stress. During the initial interview, Mary, a native-born U.S. citizen, described herself as an American Muslim feminist woman. She reported having never felt treated differently in the past by her friends, teachers or peer groups, perhaps because she was fair skinned, spoke English without an accent, and came from a family of high socioeconomic status. She also changed her original name, Mariam, to the English translation, Mary, while in high school. When Mary was asked about her motivation for doing this, she stated that she wanted to be well-integrated and active in larger American society.

After Mary began college, she decided that she wanted to learn more about her faith tradition, which eventually led her to choose to wear a hijab (headscarf). She realized that the hijab had a large impact on her relationship with her friends and with people in general. She even stated that she started getting fewer likes on her Instagram photos. Although Mary has never questioned her choice, she no longer feels like she fits in with her peer group.

Because building rapport and developing a relationship with a client is crucial in any counseling relationship, the counselor shows genuine interest in Mary’s story and demonstrates an openness to discussing her attitudes toward Mary’s religious beliefs. It is important to closely examine Mary’s own feelings and values regarding the hijab. By having an open dialogue with Mary, the counselor attempts to explore the meaning that Mary ascribes to the hijab. Mary states, “A lot of my friends are asking if I was forced to wear the hijab because a headscarf can be seen as a symbol of oppression. I think that my hijab gives me the freedom to set my own standards in a land of religious liberty, but I cannot convince people about that.”

The counselor acknowledges Mary’s emotional experience by stating, “You value your hijab and see it as a symbol of freedom. While you are also frustrated by your friends’ comments, you are aware that you do not have control over what your friends or society think of your decision.” The counselor further explores Mary’s experience by asking another question: “A friend you haven’t seen for a while sees you after you choose to wear the hijab. What would be different?” Such questions help Mary to reflect changes within herself and her environment.

The counselor knows that understanding Mary’s worldview and experiences is a crucial step toward effectively assessing her presenting problems and then formulating strategies to address them. From here, the counselor will connect on a deeper level the literal and metaphorical symbolism of the hijab. The counselor also examines her own attitudes by asking herself some questions: “What was my initial reaction when this client came in wearing a hijab? Have I been influenced by the negative stereotypes regarding individuals of groups who wear symbols?”

While exploring Mary’s religious values, the counselor avoids responding in a stereotypical manner by asking to be educated by Mary about her background and beliefs. The counselor encourages Mary to do this by saying, “Tell me more about your experiences of being treated differently.”

Mary states, “I do not understand why people focus only on my hijab. My hijab is an important part of my life, but I was born and raised in American culture, and that has always been the most important thing in my life.”

The counselor reflects, “You feel it is unfair that people ignore your core identity, which is your social and cultural identity. You want them to see you as an American Muslim feminist woman, not as an oppressed person who wears a hijab.” The counselor acknowledges Mary’s cultural background as a salient aspect of her identity. This could be an important step toward achieving a positive outcome. If the counselor focused mainly or exclusively on Mary’s religious identity, the counselor might fail to recognize Mary’s social and cultural identity.

The counselor will also help Mary recognize how her religious identity, even if it is not her core identity, may have caused her some disadvantages. The counselor will help Mary examine whether she has suffered from oppression as a member of a subordinate group, both as a woman and as a Muslim. It is important to note that Mary’s overall experiences make her an excellent candidate to benefit from a feminist counseling orientation, especially because of Mary’s stated identity as a feminist. Therefore, the counselor acknowledges the societal impact on Mary’s life.

Because Mary describes herself as a Muslim feminist woman, encouraging her to engage in an action can be an important step toward a commitment to social change. The counselor asks, “Do you like to do tasks between sessions? What is one powerful thing you could do for yourself between now and the next session?” By asking such questions, the counselor empowers Mary to take action and promotes an egalitarian relationship.

Mary answers, “One thing I would like to do is to share my personal story about why I decided to wear a hijab. I hope that this will lead to an open dialogue with my friends, and they will be more comfortable asking questions.”

The counselor asks, “What have you done toward this goal? How will you go about doing this? What difficulty might you have?” The counselor helps Mary to specify her direction and organize small steps toward desired behaviors.

The counselor also encourages Mary to be active in the therapeutic relationship by inviting her to direct the conversation. The counselor might ask, “Are there topics you talked about or discovered that you would like to pick up on next time?”

Finally, for the purpose of achieving better and longer lasting outcomes, it is important to help Mary build her own support system. The counselor says, “I wonder if there are any particular groups that could make you feel more connected and involved in the community?” This is important so that Mary can recognize she is not alone and that there are other women who are experiencing similar experiences. By engaging with other women, Mary can find support and become more assertive in promoting social justice.

Conclusion

In thinking about ways to work with clients from minority religions in the United States, counselors can pick from any number of similar cases in which they counsel people who are different from them in some aspect. It is important to remember that more often than not, a client’s religion, the client’s perspective on that religion, the client’s perspective of others, and what the client wants from a counselor will vary quite a bit. A client’s expression of faith is completely subjective and unique to that person. These hypothetical case studies should not be used to describe the basis of a faith’s visual aspects. Counselors should not make judgments or use phrases that may alienate clients over issues of religion, faith or spirituality. That is why it is important to have a discussion, or at least include a question, about the subject.

There are universal elements to most faith traditions (or the absence thereof) that transcend counselors’ observations about a client’s observable characteristics. The task for counselors is to understand our own perspectives and what they mean to us, and to obtain a general knowledge of many religious/spiritual traditions and how those traditions intersect with the experiences of our clients and the help they are seeking from us.

 

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Cebrail Karayigit is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Since coming to the United States in 2010, he has gained a reputation as an expert in multicultural counseling and school counseling, which are his areas of research and practice focus. Contact him at ckarayigit@pittstate.edu.

Jason Kushner is a professor of counselor education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is a licensed professional counselor with experience in school counseling, college counseling and mental health counseling. Contact him at jdkushner@ualr.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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