An Example of Misguided Therapy
The Case of the Pillow-Thrasher
At the end of his rope, and feeling entirely frustrated with himself, an ill-tempered man steps into a therapy office in search of hope and healing. A well-meaning but frighteningly misguided therapist opens their session, “So tell me about this problem.”
The desperate man proceeds to describe the pent-up hatred that he’s been feeling towards a difficult coworker at his job, and how he comes home with a spent fuse. During evenings with his wife, he finds himself losing his temper with her over simple misunderstandings. The man closes his synopsis confessing, “Last night, I yelled at my wife so bad I made her cry. She didn’t even do anything wrong; I was just feeling so irritated about this guy from work, but it all came out on her.”
Then, feeling ashamed, he holds his face in his hands – waiting eagerly for some word of advice that might turn things around.
The counselor proceeds to instruct the man to take a pillow from among the couch cushions and to envision the face of his enemy from work on the pillow as vividly as he can. The counselor then advises the man to really allow himself to feel all the boiling hatred that he harbors toward this individual. Lastly, the caregiver tells the man to tear the pillow to pieces in a violent rage, all while picturing his enemy’s face in the eviscerated fluff.
“Feel better?” asks the therapist. “Doesn’t it feel good to be true to yourself? For now, use this pillow exercise whenever you feel angry; I look forward to our next visit together, when we’ll talk some more about this problem.”
Unpacking the Vignette
If you find yourself thinking that this so-called therapy sounds a bit off, your instincts are spot-on. For the record, a beneficial treatment in this case would have (1) first validated the dignified client and any legitimate anger that he’s experiencing, then (2) lead the client in letting go of hatred, and finally (3) help guide the client through the ongoing process of forgiveness. In contrast, the therapist in our vignette actually just made the problem worse; in fact, the issues with his suggested pillow-thrashing treatment are as numerous as they are glaring. Although it could take several hours and a few accompanying charts for us to fully unpack why his approach was harmful, a few key highlights will suffice.
To begin, Jesus explains in Matthew Chapter 5 how the sin of murder originates in the human heart, indicating that any deep-seated resentment would already render a person “liable to judgment” (see Matthew 5:21–22). First John 3:15 reinforces this same truth where it says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.” Thus, by urging his ill-tempered client to embrace hatred and to violently enact his murderous fantasies onto the ill-fated sofa cushion, the therapist in our above example further injured the man whom he was supposed to help – wounding his heart with the damaging sin of revenge. To be clear, prescribing murder is the opposite of healing it.
Also, notice the therapist’s closing question to his client: “Feel better?” In particular, notice what he didn’t ask. The counselor did not ask if his client chose better, nor if he reasoned better, nor if it sat better with his conscience. No, the caregiver asked only whether the man felt better – as though feelings alone were the only aspect worth considering. Although thinking better, choosing better, and the vital importance of having a clear conscience are all integral factors in human wellbeing, the counselor’s approach collapsed his entire treatment into an emotive outcome by itself. He ignored everything else.
As for folks who reject the Christian revelation, they can still find ample evidence of its truth in psychological investigations that examine the traumatic effects of hatred (Pryer) as well as clinical studies that show how synaptic routes are forged in the brain (Doidge; Shatz). Any reasonable person can observe beyond doubt – without ever picking up a Bible or other sacred Church document – that the therapist’s alleged treatment was undeniably damaging. It led to the client self-inflicting the trauma of a moral injury, while at the same time worsening an addictive propensity to intemperate violence. The therapist may as well have treated a puncture wound with a hammer and a rusty nail, instead of an antibiotic.
Notice, too, that when our therapist in the illustration said, “Doesn’t it feel good to be true to yourself?” that he made no distinction whatsoever between a well-ordered self versus a disordered self. As any self-reflective person will readily admit, there is a stark difference between the two.
Finally, take note of how the counselor both opened and closed the therapeutic session: by emphasizing the client’s problem. Is this therapist treating the person or the problem? It sounds as though the real client that this counselor was treating wasn’t the suffering person before him but the dysfunction itself. But what of the dignified human being beneath the dysfunction? Is there anything for this priceless reflection of God’s image to look forward to, beyond having fewer arguments at home with his wife? Beyond the problem that this man wants to be saved from, is there anything substantial that he is saved for?
A Widespread Crisis in the World of Caregiving
Attempting to Mend a Struggling Marriage by Destroying It
Tragically, cases of dangerously misguided therapy like the example above are all too common. Consider those therapists who counsel struggling married couples to watch pornographic movies together. Christians know that the willful engagement of lust constitutes adultery (Matthew 5:28). Moreover, clinicians know that pornography has the harmful effect of functioning in the brain like an addictive narcotic. Yet despite clear evidence of its destructive impact, so-called caregivers are trying to “save” marriages by, in essence, prescribing adultery and habit-forming opioids. That they would purport to heal a struggling marriage by destroying it rightly leads us to ponder what their working definition of “healing” even is.
Attempting to Cure Trauma by Inflicting It
Or consider the university that answered the therapeutic needs of its students by handing out free contraceptives. The spiritual ramifications of this course of action were overlooked, obviously. This university’s counseling offices also ignored observable scientific realities about human biology, such as the depression and even suicidal thoughts that can result from a break-up after bonding hormones have been released through sexual intercourse. Traumatic, lifelong wounds resulted from the broken hearts born out of this school’s sanctioned hook-up culture. How, then, did this university follow up? They could – and did – by supplying antidepressants. They threw a pill at the situation. Again, we rightly ask how they are even defining the term “healing” to begin with. After all, a pill may claim to alleviate pain, treat symptoms, or reduce suffering. But could antidepressants truly heal the students who had been injured by the school’s contraceptive campaign? When it comes to the holistic restoration of these souls who had been wounded psychologically, relationally, spiritually, and emotionally, what could condoms and drugs accomplish?
Ill-advice from Pastoral Caregivers
The Christian faithful might be tempted to categorize the phenomenon of misguided care as a purely secular problem. But in reality, the need we’re addressing is a far-reaching one that makes its way into churches and counseling centers alike. To demonstrate, one recent sermon at a Christian church claimed that the problem of gluttonous obesity has nothing to do with a person’s spiritual life. How did this doctrine – that the body has nothing to do with the spirit – make its way into a Christian liturgy? It sounds more Gnostic than anything else, yet it was preached as “Gospel truth”. In a similar incident, I heard a minister teach that the Beatitudes have nothing to do with salvation. (Yes, he actually said that.) To be clear, the beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount have everything to do with salvation, which is why Pope Saint John Paul II called them the “Magna Carta” of Christianity. Amidst such confusion, it’s no wonder why so many believers turn to Christ for their admittance into heaven, but then turn to Dr. Phil for their healing. Many of us are missing out on the fullness of what it means that Jesus is our Great Physician.
If in hearing these heartbreaking examples of misled caregiving you find yourself saying, “That’s crazy,” you’re right. To the point, psychosis regards a break with reality. In each of the cases above, caregivers lost touch with reality. Some of the therapeutic advisement out there in the world today is, quite literally, insane.
Illuminating the Crisis
Leaving God Out of the Picture… and the Inevitably Shortsighted Perspectives that Result
How did the world of healing derail this far off track? It starts the way all of history’s worst train wrecks start: by leaving God out of the picture. As soon as the Creator is neglected in the study of the creation, perspectives become correspondingly incomplete – and sometimes dangerously distorted. Academic disciplines have lost sight of the unity of reality: that science, religion, philosophy, theology, anthropology, and psychology are ultimately all parts of the same picture. In truth, a perceived opposition between science and religion, for example, is as ridiculous as suggesting a conflict between the ‘study of the paint’ versus the ‘study of the painter’. Yet many people tend to disconnect them, nonetheless.
This overall disintegration then trickles down into the daily lives of people – we often feel as though we are completely different people from one situation to the next, depending upon whether we’re at home, at church, with friends, driving a car, or online. We tend to think of body and soul as separate. Even if we recognize that exercise is good for the body and prayer good for the soul, do we grasp how healthy an Our Father is for us physically, or how beneficial a treadmill is for us spiritually? For the longest time, I honestly had no idea.
Myopic Approaches to Healing
This epidemic of disconnection is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel and its resulting chaos. The corresponding impact that such disintegration has levied upon the world of therapy is considerable. In all the confusion, piecemeal approaches to healing have developed which totalize one consideration to the neglect of everything else – the reductionist error of confusing one slice of bread for the whole loaf. It’s how well-meaning counselors are fueling rage rather than curing it, destroying marriage rather than mending it, and inflicting trauma in young people instead of healing it. It’s how pastors are misleading their flocks with misinformation. It’s how professional caregivers can completely overlook verifiable truths about the effects of bonding hormones, the addictive nature of pornography, or the brain’s neuroplasticity. It’s how a therapist can ask if his client is feeling better, with not so much as a mention as to whether the client is thinking better, choosing better, or living better.
Lost in the sound bites and quick fixes of today’s secular self-help market, approaches to caregiving tend to be overly affirming – even of some of the most harmful dysfunctions. They tend to lose the big picture, reducing their scope down to one disconnected slice of a larger whole. Healing strategies tend to collapse into mere pain-alleviation, symptom-treatment, and problem-solving, as though people are fundamentally problems to be solved. Many have forgotten that, essentially, we are God’s beloved who reflect His image. We’ve also forgotten that beyond any problem we’re saved from is the joy we’re saved for. In a nutshell, modernity left The Counselor – the Holy Spirit – out of counseling. The results have been unescapably catastrophic.
Unsatisfied with the Self-Help Industry
On a personal level, I ran headlong into the dysfunction of today’s therapeutic world when I finally recognized my dreadful need to lose weight. At one point in my life, at only five feet and ten inches tall, I weighed over 300 portly pounds. I suffered no thyroid problems or depression to account for my obese condition; in my case, poor diet and lack of exercise were the culprits. Trapped in the sin of gluttony, I lacked the virtues of humility, self-control, and self-care. Although the realization itself and my corresponding desire to change were themselves positive developments at that moment in my journey, the wide world of caregiving lured me into one empty gimmick after the next. Every diet, every counseling session, and every hour spent with a gym coach was followed by my gaining all the weight right back. I realized before long that these failed therapeutic approaches didn’t understand what healing truly is.
God blessed me with the eye-opening opportunity to witness a counseling role-play that not only helped me to lose a hundred pounds, but would come to inspire my own interdisciplinary work in the field of caregiving – as I humbly seek, by the instrumental grace of God, to heal the healers. During this enlightening role-play, an increasingly frustrated client asked her therapist why he kept asking about gratitude, other virtues, and happy memories. “When do we start solving my problems?” she asked him with eagerness, “When do we get to that?”
The counselor replied:
“The reason I asked what virtues you see in yourself, what you’re most grateful for, for your favorite memories, and for your most beloved qualities you see in your husband is to center this entire care process on you, your relationships, and your happiness. So much therapy today centers upon problem-solving. However, you are not a problem to be solved. You are a human person, with an inviolable dignity that ought never to be trespassed, with the potential for greatness, and with a divine summons upon you to prosper abundantly! If all you do is get rid of negatives, don’t be surprised when other, worse problems move in to take their place. You see, the problem is not our foundation, because you are never reducible to a mere problem to be fixed. Instead, the basis of this entire therapy is you, as an inherently relational and innately dignified human being intended to flourish in life to the fullest! That’s our starting point. It is not the problem, but the substantial reality of you, your inherent worth, the loves in your life, and your call to ultimate happiness that will ground this therapy.”
In this watershed moment, I suddenly had language to describe the deficiency of all those dead-end therapeutic avenues I had previously taken in attempting to lose weight. Across my series of failed diets, nutrition counselors, and trainers, these various approaches to healing had all been reducing me to a problem to be solved. Their notion of healing flattened to the mere riddance of a negative; that is, to the problem that I wished to be saved from – with no attention to the flourishing life I was saved for. They never addressed body-soul unity, the necessity of grace, the vital importance of prayer, or the foundational role of God – apart from Whom I can do nothing (John 15:5). In short, the world of therapy intended to heal the human person, but how could they do that when they didn’t even understand what exactly a human person is, in the first place? Clearly, today’s healing world is itself in dire need of healing.
The True Definition of Healing
What It Isn’t, and What It Is
Whatever healing is, it’s certainly not the myopic fixing of a problem nor does it stop at the mere treatment of a symptom. Human healing isn’t reducible to any sought-after ‘absence of a negative’. True restoration is a substantial reality – it’s the ‘presence of a positive’. In order for us to fully comprehend the hope-filled and exciting availability of redemption – deep healing, which is substantial, thorough, and lasting – we must begin by putting God back into the picture. To keep it as childlike simple as possible, God is love. The human person, created in God’s image and likeness, should reflect love. Healing regards the restoration, or repair, of what a human being really is. To be precise, healing can be defined as God’s repairing of the loving image that truly defines us.
The Central Role of Virtue
Pressing our definition further, a helpful way that we can think about love is to understand it in terms of virtue. Saint Paul defines love in this manner in his well-known passage from First Corinthians Chapter 13, “Love is patient, love is kind…” etc. Patience and kindness are virtues. And the list goes on, for love is also merciful, compassionate, and grateful. Love is humble, it’s self-controlled, and it’s courageous. Yes, each and every virtue is some quality of love. As St. Augustine says, “I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God.”
Thus, virtues are ‘what love looks like’. They are what God is like. God is patient, kind, faithful, merciful, and humble. Created in God’s image, virtues designate what people are supposed to be like. We’re supposed to be patient, kind, faithful, merciful, and humble. The more courageous we are, the more self-controlled we behave, the meeker we become, the wiser we are, and so forth, the more authentically human we are. Since virtues are the specific qualities of love, the graced cultivation of these beautiful qualities is central to the entire process. The virtuous person is the healed person – the person whose true humanity has been restored by the grace of God. It’s the person who reflects the loving image that defines us. It the best version of yourself.
The Real Meaning of Healing in Action: Returning to My Testimony
Notice that the virtues – these beautiful qualities of love – are substantial realities. They’re not an absence. In my case, the eventual healing I experienced was not reducible to a mere loss of excess weight. My healing was infinitely more than the riddance of a negative. It was an obedience that expressed love for my Heavenly Father. It was the graced cultivation of humility, self-control, and self-care that rendered me a more accurate reflection of my Creator, and thus a more authentic version of myself. God hadn’t just healed me from gluttony. He healed me for a more fruitful life. In the end, an increase in charity was what truly identified my healing. The evaporation of my former obesity problem was just a nice bonus.
Seven Key Aspects of Authentic Restoration
(1) Grounded upon God
I suggest seven key features of authentic restoration – like seven pillars upon which a real healing process can be built. Foremost, a healthy therapeutic avenue will always be grounded upon God. A helpful way to think of this first pillar is that an authentic restorative process is centered upon the person, not the problem – in particular, it’s centered primarily upon the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and secondarily upon the human person crafted in His likeness. Sin is not the foundation. God is.
It was leaving God out of the picture which led to the compartmentalization, reductionism, and shortsighted strategies that, ironically, keep people trapped in the very dysfunction that needs to be cured. But the good news is that, by recentering healing on the ultimate Healer, we encounter the most powerful therapeutic strategies for inner peace, wellbeing, healed relationships, personal victories, and unimaginable happiness. With God at the center, not only do we avoid the widespread dysfunction that plagues the self-help industry, but we also get to tap into the power of prayer, the daily guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the transforming grace of the Sacraments. For anyone else out there who, like me, is fed up with dead-end gimmicks that don’t work: center your healing on God, and welcome to a larger and infinitely more exciting world!
(2) Necessity of Grace
Second, authentic healing will recognize the absolute necessity of grace. Much of today’s misguided therapeutic tools – especially the ones that are actually keeping people sick – are built upon the Pelagian error that people can save themselves. In truth, no, they cannot. We need the Redeemer. The designation of “self-help” that is often attributed to today’s healing market is a funny one, come to think of it. In the victory I experienced over obesity, I discovered that I was utterly unable to save myself. On the contrary, I encountered my propensity to fall on my face repeatedly, my weakness for all things peanut butter, and my radical dependency upon the Lord’s help. I needed to learn, did learn, and continue to learn that God’s mercy is bigger than my sin. Just as healing is centered upon God, the entire healing process is centered upon the merciful, undeserved, and daily care that God shows us. Healing is all grace. We cannot do it on our own steam. And because God’s grace is always available, falling down is not the issue. Staying down is.
(3) Practical Steps
Third, true healing will be practical. It won’t turn to Christ solely for a sense of afterlife insurance while relying on other sources to actually heal. Rather, an authentic restorative process will “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” throughout the hands-on matters of the daily grind. Specifically, the most powerful strides in the healing process happen through everyday baby steps in virtue. For an ill-tempered person, healing means taking the practical step of stopping in a situation where his emotions are compromised, praying, and waiting until he can respond to the situation with kindness and self-control. For somebody suffering from a food addiction, it might mean the practical choice to keep cookie dough out of the shopping cart. For me, it meant saying a prayer and then stepping onto the treadmill. Every single baby-step act of virtue is like the seemingly tiny mustard seed that eventually grows to take over the whole garden. I didn’t lose a century of excess weight by losing a hundred pounds. I did it by losing just one pound – a hundred times. Our day-to-day, individual, baby-step decisions of virtue are where the healing happens – practical steps that will turn a dream into a reality.
(4) Aware of Each Phase of Development
How do our day-to-day baby steps in virtue turn a dream into a reality? How does one lost pound turn into a hundred? How does one tiny mustard seed of faith end up taking over? It happens because our actions don’t stay actions. Our actions grow, across three distinct phases of human development. To explain, when we repeat actions over and over again, something very special happens. Namely, through repetition our actions internalize into second-nature routines. God designed us in such a way that repetition carves new synaptic pathways in the human brain. We experience well-worn synaptic routes as tendencies, inclinations, propensities, dispositions, or second-nature routines – more commonly known as habits. Our habits, in turn, come to shape our character over time.
For instance, individual actions of brushing your teeth do not stay individual actions. Across time, repeated acts of brushing become the habitual routine of brushing. By doing it over and over again, we develop an internalized disposition to brush. It’s just part of our day. It’s what we do before we go to bed. It’s a routine. We tend to do it, feel inclined to do it, or even feel incomplete if we don’t. That’s the graced power of habit – what used to feel like a chore comes to feel like second-nature. The healthy habit then comes to shape a healthy person: the act of brushing became the habit of brushing, which led to a healthy mouth.
In my case, individual acts of stepping onto the treadmill turned into tendency to exercise, which shaped a healthier me. I remember asking, “Is it always going to feel this miserable to get onto the treadmill? I’m hungry, I’m sore, the weights in this gym smell bad – will it always be this awful?” The answer was, “No, it’s only going to feel this miserable twenty-seven more times.” Because the twenty-eighth time I stepped onto the treadmill, the habit-switch flipped. I actually felt like doing it. In the case of any virtue, and as St. Aquinas spells out, repeated acts of love internalize into loving dispositions that mold a lovely person.
To be clear, in the first phase of virtuous development, we repeat actions of virtue before we feel like doing it – out of obligation. In the second phase, we enjoy new habits that help us feel inclined toward healthier behaviors. In the third phase, we enjoy a thoroughly transformed character. Now, at each phase, the ongoing process of healing always involves taking the next graced baby step in virtue. That being said, our awareness of these phases of charity’s development within us will benefit us considerably. These phases give us hope that the process gets easier over time. They remind us that healthier actions led to healthier emotional states. They capture an essential truth about the healing process: that it’s not a matter of trying to feel our way into a new way of doing; but of doing our way into a new way of feeling.
(5) Honoring the Unity of Reality
As the term Catholic literally means universal, a real healing journey will honor the unity of the creation. It will welcome the best insights from anthropology, psychology, biology, and philosophy. It will look at both body and soul, their inherent union, and their reciprocal impact upon each other as we heal – as our spirituality affects our physicality, which affects our spirituality, which further affects our physicality, and so on.
For example, if a man’s spiritual conscience leads him to pray and cool down rather than lose his temper, then the endorphin release happening in his physical body will adjust; as his bodily emotions begin to feel better, this healthier emotional state will bring further support to his conscience in making additional wise decisions in the future. It’s when we only consider emotions, or only consider cognitive processes, or only consider the desire for a cathartic release – and nothing else – that we get into trouble. For an authentic healing process, we must keep the big picture in view, attending to the whole loaf of bread, and never collapsing our therapeutic strategy down to one disconnected slice.
(6) Conscious of Past, Present, and Future
In light of how our actions internalize into second-nature dispositions, which eventually come to shape our very character, authentic healing will remain conscious of the relationship between past, present, and future. We always live – and heal – in the present moment, of course. The thing is, whatever we desire to do in the present moment has been shaped, by us, across time, according to previous actions from our past. Past choices internalized into habits that felt more and more normal over time. Those habits, in turn, have come to shape our present character. Suppose a lazy student says that he “just doesn’t feel like studying”. For authentic healing to happen, it behooves this individual to realize that what he presently feels that he wants has been shaped, by him, across time – and can be reshaped in a joyful direction!
It is truly amazing that we exist… that we are. But perhaps even more wondrous is that, beyond the awesome fact that we are, there is more – we are also becoming. We are not static beings. We are dynamic, either growing or declining across time, as our choices – whether virtuous or vicious – propel us toward a happy end or an unhappy one. It’s no accident that each beatitude covers a timeline – an entire growth trajectory – as opposed to one isolated moment. Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy; the meek for they will inherit the earth; those who hunger and thirst to live rightly for they will be fulfilled. Our present has been shaped by our past, and our present will shape our ultimate future. To put it simply, there is no such thing as “it’s just one tiny little choice”. Any seemingly tiny choice is shaping you, for better or for worse, into the person you are becoming.
(7) A Substantial and Positive Transformation
The healing trajectory is, as we’ve seen, the virtuous one – the substantial cultivation of love’s qualities, repairing who we truly are, accomplished by the grace of the One we truly reflect. Those who accept this offer have something to look forward that goes infinitely beyond any absence of a negative. Because of Who Christ is, the person who is healing gets to look forward to the real presence of a positive, transformed, and abundant life – the joy of which no eye has seen, ear heard, or heart even conceived. I hope and pray that these seven pillars might be the foundation for a richer, healthier, and more sustainable breed of therapy. How our Lord longs to heal His healers.
A Message of Hope
To fellow saints-in-progress who still have sin in their lives as I do:
You are not a problem to be fixed. You are God’s beloved. You are not an ill temper, you are not a drug addiction, and you are not a burden. You are not a bad spouse, you are not a bad parent, and you are not a bad person. You are God’s beloved. You are not a problem. You have a problem — which is infinitely different from being one.
Take a moment to invite God into your heart. Let Him see you fully as you are, both the dysfunction and the dignified reflection of Himself that rests underneath. In this very moment, silence your hurried thoughts, and allow the Bridegroom to take delight in His bride. Really let God love you. Take rest in the truth that you are beloved, pursued, and delighted in. Think about the awesome fact that God awaits you.
Learn More About Authentic Catholic Healing
Here’s the one motivational book that provides you with a comprehensive approach to true healing — not cheap gimmicks masquerading as inner peace. Modern society has deconstructed our reality and placed blinders over our eyes. That’s why, in these pages, Ian Murphy shares the story of his healing from obesity –a story not about weight loss but about transformation, one that showcases what the life-changing truths of the Christian faith look like in action.
Unsatisfied with the typical “self-help” books that limit their scope to mere problem-solving, symptom management, or pain alleviation, Ian set out to demonstrate through his own broken quest for well-being that there is a path to true betterment — one that recognizes and celebrates a person’s inherent dignity as someone made in the image and likeness of God.
Ian’s story is both authentic and amusing, a journey into total and lasting healing that can be replicated by anyone who feels trapped in self-doubt or anxiety, toxic messages or addictions, lethargy or misspent energy. It’s for all who seek a way out of the rut of simply existing or who are sick of merely reducing suffering and long to attain abundant life.You will discover not only what you are healed from but what you are healed for — the God of all joy awaits you. You will learn:
- The definition of true healing and seven key aspects of restoration
- What obstacle blinds you to seeing and thinking clearly
- Our powerful ally against ignorance and irrationality
- The one truth that is crucial to healing
- What your focal point should be in the healing process
- Two things that many forms of therapy often miss
You will also learn about the role of emotions on your healing journey and how to cure disorder at its roots. Gradually, you will grasp how to overcome fear and develop virtue. By opening your heart to God’s mercy and healing, you will discover who you are as a beloved child of God and will experience spiritual renewal.