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Assisting the client's spiritual growth

March 1, 2007
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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Nicholas A. Roes, PhD

Most practitioners would agree that recovery has a spiritual component, but when it comes to defining spirituality there remains much disagreement. Because of the many different definitions and the difficulty of measuring spirituality scientifically, little research offers specifics on an empirically validated approach to incorporating spiritual development into a treatment program.

A search on uncovers 68,168 offerings with spirituality in the title. These include books entitled Essential Spirituality, True Spirituality, Messy Spirituality, Integral Spirituality, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Mother Earth Spirituality, Practical Spirituality, Jewish Spirituality, Reel Spirituality, Celtic Spirituality, Living Spirituality, Children's Spirituality, Active Spirituality, Selling Spirituality, Transforming Spirituality, Creative Spirituality, Christian Spirituality, Creation Spirituality, Reclaiming Spirituality, Extreme Spirituality, Passionate Spirituality, African Spirituality, Reformed Spirituality, Cannabis Spirituality, Subversive Spirituality, Engaged Spirituality, Down to Earth Spirituality, Apocalyptic Spirituality, Pagan Spirituality, Marriage Spirituality, and, of course, Spirituality for Dummies.

So the lack of research has not resulted in any lack of literature. You might guess that the experts who write these books on spirituality would be of some help in defining the term. Guess again. The author of Spirituality and Mental Health writes, “I have not yet read a complete definition of spirituality that I find satisfying.”1 He believes there are three dimensions to spirituality: meaning, transcendence, and love.

The author of Pathways to Spirituality agrees that there are three components, but he thinks they are connection, compassion, and contribution.2

I introduce the topic in this manner, and affectionately tease my fellow authors, because I've decided that adding my thoughts to the current glut of literature will do no harm. This is my definition of spirituality: “one's attempt to figure out one's optimal relationship with the universe.” The universe, of course, includes the self. Notice that in this definition, making the attempt is considered spiritual, regardless of any perceived success or failure. Emptiness, loneliness, alienation, anger, shame, trauma—if these are part of the problem, spiritual development can be part of the “cure.”

While most of these terms present challenges to those trying to study the process of recovery scientifically, there is pretty much universal agreement that they figure somewhere into the equation. It does seem from personal observation that there is a correlation between the severity of the problem and the likelihood that spiritual development (as defined here) will play a part in the solution.

Overcoming uneasiness

Studies suggest that therapists as a group have less interest in religion than our clients do.2 Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of promoting our own values—even by accident—to people who seek our help during very vulnerable times in their lives. Many of us are more uncomfortable discussing spiritual issues than discussing trauma, rape, sexuality, or suicidal thoughts.

But it is the therapist's job to help clients develop the values necessary to achieve their goals. We must work to overcome any discomfort we may have in discussing spiritual issues, and harness rather than alienate our clients’ spiritual side.

Openness to and acceptance of our clients’ spiritual resources does not require us to share any of their spiritual beliefs. We can respect the diversity of those we serve by judging spiritual beliefs according to the contribution they make to quality sobriety. We can encourage those beliefs that support positive change (such as “God doesn't make junk”) and challenge those that are obstacles to personal growth (such as “God must want me to be a junkie, or else I wouldn't be”).

Agents of growth

Whenever we help our clients develop values that will help them reach their goals, we become agents of their spiritual growth. The development of values is a natural byproduct of successful therapy, because values have meaning only in the context of goals. If you have a goal of staying alive, for example, you value food. If you don't care whether you live or die, food does not have that same value to you. Quality sobriety requires clients to develop goals and values for their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.

We might assume that the goal of clients in treatment is sobriety, and that they will value those things that support this goal. More often, the real goal is something else: happiness, an end to emotional pain, or obedience to their God. As we help clients move toward their real goals, they will begin to value sobriety. Clients who used to value drugs or alcohol in pursuit of happiness will realize that sobriety constitutes the more reliable road to their goal.

It's good that so many of us would be uncomfortable in the role of “guru.” Our clients must take the lead in developing their own spiritual direction. Clients often speak of their “journey,” or of “finding” themselves. This serves to confirm that the therapeutic process, in itself, is a spiritual experience.

Nicholas A. Roes, PhD, has written hundreds of articles and several books, including

Solutions for the `Treatment-Resistant’ Addicted Client (Haworth Press, 2002; reviewed in the January 2003 issue of