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Gold, J. M. (2013). Spirituality and self-actualization: Considerations for 21st-century counselors. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 52(2), 223-234. Retrieved from http://library.capella.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F1459204678%3Faccountid%3D27965
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This article presents the core of individual self-actualization (Maslow, 1986, 1998) found in individuals’ spiritual identity, as illustrated through a case study, its debriefing, and identification of counterindications for the clinical use of spiritual interventions. Future research possibilities on the topic of spirituality and self-actualization are provided. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]
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This article presents the core of individual self-actualization (Maslow, 1986, 1998) found in individuals’ spiritual identity, as illustrated through a case study, its debriefing, and identification of counterindications for the clinical use of spiritual interventions. Future research possibilities on the topic of spirituality and self-actualization are provided.
As the 21st century unfolds, the practice of counseling seems to be buffeted by multiple conceptual forces that may appear incongruent. Two of these forces form the framework for this article. One pressure concerns the balance between a deficit-focused, pathology-oriented approach to counseling, as used through the practice of diagnosis for the purposes of third-party reimbursement, and a growth-focused actualization model of professional service, as espoused by the humanist tradition. A second divergence calls attention to issues of cultural diversity in the practice of counseling, without specification as to which issues are most salient to which clients and for which client issues. As a potential resolution to these two tensions, this article provides a rationale and guidelines for incorporating a growth-focused model integrating the attributes of spiritual identity.
To accomplish this purpose, topics including the focus of counseling and distinguishing deficiency and growth needs within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory lead to an exploration of the process of identity formation. This discussion of identity narrows to a focus on spiritual identity and maturity, including a brief consideration of eudaimonic well-being. The connotations of these philosophical and theoretical bases will describe the centrality of spirituality in a growth-focused model for clients. This description is illustrated through the use of a case study, its debriefing, and attention to counterindicators for using such interventions in counseling. In additions, the implications of this viewpoint for future research are provided.
The first identified pressure asks counselors to determine how they wish to balance the deficit and potential-focused belief systems about clients and their issues. This query invites counselors to bear in mind their underlying assumptions regarding the potential of individuals to transcend their current life situations. For those counselors who choose to adhere to the tenets of humanistic counseling, the Association for Humanistic Counseling (AHC; 2011) website specified such core beliefs as follows:
Humanistic theories attempt to describe the phenomenologically constructed world of the client by exploring the potential of humanity through the nature and experience of values, spirituality, meaning, emotions, transcendence, intentionality, healthy relationships, the self, self-actualization, creativity, mortality, holism, intuition, and responsibility (among other topics) . . .
It is within the humanistic counseling tradition that the core conditions of counseling emerged: unconditional positive regard, empathy, congruence, authenticity, caring for the client, phenomenological assessment strategies, self-discovery, and insight. These core conditions permit therapeutic intervention in life areas which were previously inaccessible, such as love, hope, meaning of life, loss, relationships, creativity, holism, spirituality, freedom, transcendence, personal growth, social justice, multicultural and gender issues, responsibility, and interdependence. (“What Defines Humanistic Theories?”)
These values hold that reaching human potential comes not through curative measures, such as diagnosis and symptom amelioration, but through freeing innate impulses for personal growth. It is accessing of one’s “true self” that reveals those canons germane to each individual. Among those values are one’s spirituality, meaning, and transcendence. The counselor must then help clients to weigh how these three specific values are intertwined in their reports of their life experiences, issues, and triumphs.
The description of life experience can be viewed as composed of several dimensions, including the religious or spiritual. Wilber (1999) placed the spiritual at the heart or core of the interaction between all five given components of the spiritual or religious, moral, social, somatic, and psychological aspects of life. Myers, Sweeney and Witmer (2000) and Sperry (2001) identified spirituality as core human experiences that contribute to overall well-being. It could be asserted that an individual’s spiritual values have an impact on the psychological, moral, social, and somatic functioning of each individual. From that perspective, all life purposes and needs stem from that spiritual center and resonate throughout the other life components (Nakashima & Canda, 2005). Furthermore, it could be suggested that all impetus for growth originates within the spiritual dimension. This growth impetus entails attention to both deficiency needs and growth needs (Maslow, 1986,1998).
In summary, a deficiency need addresses those basics of life that must be attained to sustain the individual (Maslow, 1986, 1998). When one series of needs in a particular stage is fulfilled, a person naturally moves to the next. The physiological needs take first precedence. When physiological needs are met, the need for safety will emerge. This safety need includes personal security, economic and vocational security, health and well-being, and a protection against accidents/illness and their adverse effects. After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third layer of human needs is referred to as needs for belonging. This social aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy involves attention toward emotionally based relationships, such as friendship, sexual intimacy, and family. The belonging needs are followed by esteem needs. All humans have a need to be respected, to have self-esteem and self-respect, and to respect others. People need to engage themselves in activities that give them a sense of contribution, acceptance, and self-valuing, whether those efforts are manifested in a profession or hobby. Deficiency needs may be therefore seen as basic life motivators.
In comparison with deficiency needs, self-actualization and transcendence are categorized as being or growth needs, because they are enduring motivations or drivers of behavior (Maslow, 1986,1998). Self-actualization can be described as the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their abilities and to strive to be the best they can. Self-actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already within the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is. Unlike deficiency needs, which can be satisfied, there is no ultimate conclusion to growth needs; there exists a consistent motivation for seeking more of oneself. In short, self-actualization is reaching one’s fullest potential. Although it was perhaps popularly conceived as a single concept, Maslow later divided the top tier of the hierarchy of needs triangle of self-actualization to add self-transcendence or spiritual needs (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).
Spiritual needs are different from other needs because, according to Wilber (1999), they are accessible from many levels. For example, for children, the belief in a Supreme Being who wants children to “do good” provides a sense of trust in the order of the world and a comfort in the existence of a “super-parent” (Fowler, 1981; Genia, 1995; Spero, 1992). At the stage when one seeks a sense of belonging, membership in a faith fellowship provides confirmation of one’s belief system plus support in those times of personal strife or grief (Fowler, 1981; Genia, 1995; Spero, 1992). These examples serve to corroborate the focal point played by one’s spirituality in directing one’s life (Bauer & McAdams, 2004). Growth needs also specify an individual’s perceptions of the “good life” and, equally important, the
values that will guide his or her conduct in progressing toward that future. In seeking those personally held definitions of the good life, counselors may wish to incorporate attention to eschatology (beliefs of individuals about the end of life or end of time; Walker, 2000) within their explorations of growth needs with clients. All faith traditions contain the “code of conduct necessary to attain a favorable placement in the hereafter” (Walker, 2000, p. 5). This aspiration to eternal life and immortality is an essential human need (Brown & Cullen, 2006; Harding, Flannelly, Weaver, & Costa, 2005; Walls, 2002). Those ipsative answers for growth direct the evolution of an individual’s identity.
“Identity formation is central to development across the lifespan” (McLean & Pratt, 2006, p. 714). One life directive, as a pathway toward self-actualizing, may then be to build consistent value themes bridging all five areas (spiritual or religious, moral, social, somatic, and psychological) with the genesis founded in the spiritual area. Consistency speaks to the virtues that an individual has consciously adopted to guide and define his or her life. These values or virtues then guide all beliefs, thoughts, feelings, interactions with others, and evaluation of self within the multiple roles and contexts of life. Favorable self-evaluation may be seen as a function of the degree of individual congruence and genuineness, the extent to which one’s values are consistently exemplified through action across contexts and are manifestations of the “true self” living toward its highest potential. Negative self-evaluation is based in either inconsistent value expressions based on context and social pressure or a lack of clarity of one’s virtues within the five areas of functioning.
On the basis of centrality of spirituality as the axis of the moral, social, psychological, and somatic identity elements, the constructs of spiritual identity and maturity are worthy of exploration and definition (Watts, Dutton, & Gulliford, 2006). The rationale for this exploration holds that the evolution of spiritual identity toward spiritual maturity would then filter and direct how growth or stagnation in the other four domains might be expressed. The topic of spiritual identity would also serve as the initial focus for insight and intervention to affect the moral, social, psychological, and somatic realms of the client’s understanding of the presenting issue and of his or her functioning. Intentional self-development would be a precursor to, and result of, this focus on growth needs as “coherent goal hierarchies are essential to intentional self-development” (Sperry, 2001, p. 124). Regardless of their content, such needs embrace exploration, learning new things, self-challenge, and contribution to society-the very terms used by Maslow (1986, 1998) to describe self-actualizing individuals.
For the practicing counselor, an in-depth understanding of the evolution of spiritual and/or religious identity is essential for working with clients on these needs. “Since time immemorial, it is believed that spiritual experiences and practices are significant in life and play an important part in establishing an integrated personality” (van Dierendonck & Mohan, 2006, p. 227). Spirituality underlies personal growth impulses toward healing and personal development and cultural and social activities. Therefore, the health of the spiritual identity affects both the individual and his or her social milieu. For the purposes of this discussion, the term spiritual identity refers to a relative point in growth toward spiritual maturity. Identity may be construed as the foundation around which the formation of maturity surfaces through the confirmation or refinement of the components and expressions of identity. It must be assumed that spiritual identity and maturity remain lifelong processes of advancement, for as long as an individual wishes to direct attention and energy toward their emergence. With 60% of Americans claiming affiliation with formalized religious traditions, and an additional 15% to 20% describing themselves as “spiritual” (Harris, Thoresen, & Lopez, 2007), it seems that the majority of clients would view attention to this topic as integral to their understanding of the problem etiology, motivation, resources, and choice of interventions.
Thoresen, Oman, and Harris (2005) affirmed that spiritual maturity can be explained as the extent to which “spiritual practices based on beliefs, codes, rules and attitudes about how and why one can live one’s [faith] in daily life” (p. 206). The transition from participating in religion to living religion begins in independent preference for the teachings of one or multiple religious and spiritual traditions. Even the claim of general adherence to a faith tradition (e.g., Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, Wicca) carries the supplementary demand for ownership of its attendant creeds and dictates. The path toward spiritual maturity deals not only with the guidance, which one’s spiritual wisdom tradition imparts, but also one’s awareness of how that wisdom directs one’s multiple daily choices. In addition, this guidance must be consciously reevaluated at any time of life challenge or stressor to monitor its application to understanding and transcending the current life challenge. The materialization of spiritual identity also involves reconciliation of the mystical, personal, meditative-contemplative, or experiential expressions of faith with the dogmatic and liturgical guidelines offered by each formal religion. It might seem more simple to accept totally the certainty of the teaching and rules of any one religion or faith tradition, rather than consider their resonance with that which one wishes to become on a personal level. Each spiritual tradition provides answers, but not each answer fits for each person.
According to van Dierendonck and Mohan (2006), mature spirituality serves as an expression of the inner self and a sense of being part of a deeper dimension. It provides the road to personal significance in life on the pathway to the development of an individual meaning schema. Spiritual maturity offers strength in times of crisis and support and guidance through prayer or contemplation. Spiritual maturity has also been hypothesized to help an individual better relate with others because the growth toward this maturity helps individuals recognize their connections to others (Fowler, 1981; Genia, 1995; Spero, 1992). Spiritual maturity provides a sense of optimism or acceptance of the limit of one’s power in any given situation and the ability to add a “spiritual perspective” on any life event to the multiple other viewpoints one may assume.
Faiver, Ingersoll, O’Brien, and McNally (2001) identified nine common themes relative to spiritual growth and identity. This list included attention to hope, virtue, sacred ground, polarities, facing oneself, compassion, love, meaning, and transcendence. The purpose of this listing focuses one’s contemplation of self in one’s spirituality. On the basis of the idiosyncratic expression of these virtues within one’s spiritual tradition, one can evaluate one’s action toward others in terms of congruence with such depictions. These characteristics, echoed by Jacobsen (2007), can be considered as “ever-developing, trans-cultural themes, universal to human existence” (Faiver et al., 2001, p. 18).
This linkage of spiritually based action to humanistic theory can be further refined by distinguishing between hedonic well-being (experiencing joy and avoiding pain and discomfort) and eudaimonic well-being, which exceeds the hedonistic view. Eudaimonic well-being concentrates on those actions that “are an expression of the best within us” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 232). Ryff (1989) identified components of eudaimonic well-being as self-acceptance (self-respect), belongingness, autonomy (whether or not to conform to social norms), environmental mastery (mastery, competence, and trust in handling one’s environment), purpose in life (directedness and meaningfulness), and personal growth (realizing one’s potential). Jacobsen (2007) referred to these principles as “idiosyncratic, personally-devised intentionality” (p. 45). This inventory corresponds positively to the core beliefs described earlier in this article and confirm the linkage between spirituality and the tenets of humanist counseling.
Given these premises, the challenge is not whether one is in possession of such drives or capacities, but whether and how one chooses to explore and exercise their preexisting spiritual potential. Stemming from this affirmation, the translation from philosophy to practice would seem to be the next logical exploration.
IMPLICATIONS FOR COUNSELLING
Focus of Treatment
The concept of a eudaimonic perspective toward client issues embraces the tenets of humanistic counseling, defined as an “understanding and expression of factors that allow individuals to flourish” (Fitzpatrick & Stalikas, 2008, p. 138; Jayawickreme & Chemero, 2008; Leary, 2007). The emphasis acknowledges client need for change and growth by focusing on positive affect and life direction (Jacobsen, 2007). This intentionality refocuses the counseling session from an exploration of client liability to that of client competence, resource, and strength. Such a perspective allows client and counselor to wonder about the individual’s ultimate purpose in accordance with his or her true nature-a fulfillment in living, that which is uplifting and nutritive in life.
This emphasis on using spiritual direction as a component of selfactualization has been found to be essential to reduce negative emotional states; to provide viable alternatives for client attention; and “may ensure absence of negative characteristics and behaviors” (Flarris et al., 2007, p. 4). The barometers of success of this intervention model include more open, receptive clients (Leary, 2007); an increased ability to live in the now as contrasted to rumination about the past; and a new-found trust to “base life choices on what feels immediately right” (Jacobsen, 2007, p. 48).
Definitions of Healthy Functioning
When terms such as empowerment, actualization, human potential, growth, and strength-focused services are coloring the professional literature and clearly stated in the AHC mission statements, there is an implication that mental health service providers see their therapeutic objectives to move beyond immediate problem solving. By stopping at problem solving, clinical interventions do ameliorate the client’s current pain but do little to prevent similar problems from reemerging in the client’s future. When attention to the client’s growth needs is integrated within the therapeutic process, there seems to be a commitment to assisting clients to take better charge of their lives. This empowerment may serve to prevent further issues identical to that which prompted access to service and, should such a similar issue reemerge, the clients would then feel more confident and competent to respond more effectively. On the basis of positions put forth in this article regarding the centrality of spiritual identity as the nexus for client growth, it can be suggested that clinicians must then integrate notions of spiritual identity and maturity within their clinical growth agendas.
Focus on Client Insight
Counseling has encouraged individuals to imagine themselves in their ideal, beyond the current struggles that bring them to treatment, as a motivator. This motivation is “related to positive psychological and emotional states” (Joseph, Linley, & Maltby, 2006, p. 209) and visualizes a more healthy, fully functioning individual. Exploring the intrinsic spiritual identity (Harding et al., 2005) of each client provides a glimpse of that ideal self. Those values, as itemized earlier in this article, provide aspirational goals of how each client would like to act. Directing clients toward their personal spiritual directions would require the counselor to acknowledge the validity of these needs and to reexamine personally held beliefs about the value of inviting clients to explore these facets of their lives (Joseph et al., 2006).
Focus on Client Change
“To know oneself and act accordingly has been seen as a moral imperative throughout history” (Wood, Maltby, Baliousis, Linley, & Joseph, 2008, p. 385). Change can focus on the enactments of those motivations such as the convictions, attitudes, and goals of which the individual may not be aware but which, nevertheless, direct that person’s life (Lemire, 2007). Martin (2007) pointed out that “virtue promotes happiness” (p. 89), as helping clients to self-define and then act on their operationalizations of such virtues as hope, virtue, sacred ground, polarities, facing oneself, compassion, love, meaning, and transcendence (see Faiver et al., 2001) will not only serve to remediate the presenting complaints but will provide a foundational blueprint on which to build a life vision. The following case study illustrates how exploration of the topic of spiritual identity can be used to help a client create a coherent guiding force for self-understanding and change.
Case study. Sam, a 49-year-old tax accountant, was referred to counseling by his physician. Sam is a pseudonym for an actual client. He had presented with multiple somatic concerns for which no underlying physiological etiology could be discovered. His physician could not promise Sam that counseling would be helpful but did promise that it could not exacerbate his presenting complaints. At intake, when asked about religious or spiritual affiliation, Sam mentioned briefly that he had been raised in the Jewish faith but had “turned his back on it in his teens.” In responding to inquiries about his satisfaction with his family, friends, career, life plans, the same adjective emerged; all was “nice.” However, Sam grudgingly admitted that “nice was no longer enough.” He wondered aloud whether he ought to change jobs, get a divorce, or return to school, or what would create that spark that seemed so absent. He stated that he felt numb, as though he was going through the motions in life. At that point, the counselor invited Sam to weigh the veracity of a theme of superficiality as relevant to his current situation. When asked to clarify, the counselor opined that it was less a question of what Sam did than the spirit that moved him to do the things he had already chosen to define his life.
This exploration asked Sam to weigh how, while he had “abandoned” his faith tradition in his past, that faith had not abandoned him. Its tenets still defined for him the quality of the “good life” and added the shading of growth needs that could still be met within his already defined existence, calling for more self-awareness and conscious living. Sam joked that this discovery seemed far less painful than surgery or injections. At that point, the counselor asked Sam to begin to verbalize how his own statement of virtues and those he learned as a child within his Jewish faith were today congruent-in which did he feel successful and which were yet to be achieved? This shift away from his somatic complaints, he later reported, totally took his mind off them, and allowed him to truly consider, for the first time in his life, what it would mean to be Sam.
Through conjoint exploration, the counselor and Sam focused on four “missing” spiritual values of hope, virtue, facing oneself, and meaning (Faiver et al., 2001). Sam recognized that these four themes represented underdeveloped areas in his life. Sam felt relieved at this realization, because each individual issue seemed too overwhelming to tackle and the number of issues felt defeating. Sam was asked to read the faith texts of his childhood religion to see if any answers might be found there and, if not, to seek other faith traditions for the answers. The counselor and Sam identified multiple local leaders in differing faiths so that Sam could learn from those who did live each particular faith. Sam had to surrender his hope in both single-faith answers and the faith of his childhood, the second being a more painful reconciliation. In considering contemplative practices, Sam stated that he was familiar with prayer but was uncertain to whom he ought to pray and that the practice of meditation seemed too weird for him to adopt. The counselor responded that perhaps once he felt more spiritually focused, prayer might seem more directed for him and not to commit to its practice without that certainty. Sam agreed to wait for a better time to begin this practice. Currently, Sam feels no longer “stuck” in a meaningless existence. He reports feeling more optimistic toward his spiritual and overall functioning and future.
Case study debriefing. The initial focus of counseling helped Sam to identify similar feelings in each troubled area of his life. Rather than address each issue separately, those overarching affective themes connected all Sam’s issues and helped him to identify life themes, rather than life events, that were troubling to him.
In summary, from the nine identified most common spiritual strategies (Gold, 2010), prayer was evaluated as a potential strategy for a later date, whereas bibliotherapy (use of religious or spiritual text), surrender, and referral and consultation seemed to be successfully accepted by this client. Meditation was dismissed as personally unacceptable. Forgiveness, use of ritual, and spiritual journaling were held for later introduction. As a resource for counselors, Hodge (2005) offered a synopsis of six qualitative assessment tools for the process of spiritual assessment that may be helpful in recognizing growth accomplishments through this process. Exercises such as spiritual histories, life maps, and genograms can help clients trace personally held spiritual values over one’s life span or between generations. Although Sam was open to this approach to his life review, there are client issues and situations for which a spiritual orientation may be inappropriate.
Counterindicators for Using Spiritual Strategies With Clients
This brief section identifies those clients for whom a spiritual focus may be unsuitable. It seems obvious that clients who are unwilling to participate, who see no relevance between their spiritual outlooks and presenting issue, or who present as antispiritual may be exempt. Clients in crisis have basic safety and immediacy needs that cannot be met through the spiritual exploration (Gold, 2010). In addition, Sperry (2001) cautioned that clients whose perception of the deity as distant or punishing or those clients who hold a passive religious problem-solving style are unlikely to benefit. Finally, counselors who are insensitive to issues of multicultural or spiritual diversity would be unprepared to work effectively with clients around these issues.
Implications for Research
The positions put forth in this article offer four possibilities for future study. Gold (2010) asked counselors to consider the value of qualitative research in the exploration of spiritual identity. Although studies documenting religious affiliation and enumerating attendances and participations in formal ritual are of value, it is the meaning and life direction that those activities provide, or fail to provide, that foster individual growth (Hodge, 2005). Narrative studies of individuals responding to similar life transitions or challenges may reveal common spiritual themes or practices that ease or hamper those responses. Second, a related question may ask about the concept of a spiritual deficit disorder as a counter position to adequate spirituality in one’s life. Although the topic of toxic spirituality, such as cult membership, has been studied, little attention has been directed toward those individuals asserting no spiritual affiliation and how those beliefs have an impact on life transitions. Third, in terms of the application of one’s spirituality to one’s life challenges, C. S. Cashwell (personal communication, October 17, 2007) raised the question of a “spiritual bypass,” an avoidance mechanism for dealing with anger, loss, and grief and how to address this practice. For counselors who may be less familiar with these client behaviors, perhaps inclusion of clergy who provide counseling may provide examples of clients who use this measure of protection and offer possible intervention strategies. Last, the integration of a sociological perspective along with the psychological may place the individual within a social context of spiritual beliefs and investigate the advantages and limitations of spiritual community for individual growth. Study between members of differing faith traditions exploring spiritual coping strategies in similar life situations may result in discovery of similar spiritual themes of value for addressing life transitions or challenges.
As the counseling profession strives to integrate issues of multiculturalism into 21st-century professional practice, attention to client spirituality has been recognized as a relevant cultural variable. In seeking to adhere to a humanist orientation in the delivery of counseling service, this article has offered that the path toward individual fulfillment, defined as self-actualization, originates in one’s spiritual values and identity. These values form the growth needs that direct each individual along personally congruent life paths. Counselors are asked to consider the merits of the positions put forth in this article and to see how integrating these concepts and practices may help them better facilitate the growth needs of their clients.
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Joshua M. Gold, Counselor Education Program, University of South Carolina. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joshua M. Gold, Counselor Education Program, University of South Carolina, 253 Wardlaw Hall, Columbia, SC 29208 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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