NDJ:8 Dorothea Crites, MDIV

Prickly Creatures:

Case Studies of Pastoral-Psychotherapy with Two Fundamentalist Christian Clients

Conservative or fundamentalist Christians are often stereotyped as unlikely candidates for psychotherapy treatment. True, these people often have prickly, difficult defenses, demonstrate self-righteousness, and seem quite judgmental. But in reality the born-again Christian may have many conflicts, both with the church and in life outside the church and, when he or she seeks help from a psychotherapist, benefit greatly from treatment.

An object relations approach is at the heart of successful treatment of fundamentalist Christians, since their relationship with God is central. Parental introjects lie behind the adherence to an authoritarian God and church. Character defenses of splitting and denial can lead to a rigidly righteous conscious life and simultaneous compulsive involvements based on suppressed impulses.

PRESENTING PROBLEM: I’ve Found the Right Way, but I’m the Wrong Kind of Person

As a psychodynamically-trained pastoral counselor, I am often called for therapy by clients I would characterize as conservative or fundamentalist Christians. The client reports, “I was saved in 1972,” or “I came to know my Lord Jesus Christ in college.” Right here, a secular therapist may feel s/he is in foreign territory and long to get back home. The client is describing an often-powerful personal experience: conversion, or their initial turning to faith and committing to it. (Hunter, Ed., 1990).

For another type of client, conversion is not so central. He will proudly describe his “righteous” life, a highly organized, even regimented existence. He seems automatically to put others first, is highly responsible with work and family, and usually has an important, highly responsible position in his church. There may or may not have been a moment of conversion, but this individual is deeply locked into a system of belief and behavior.

Anxious about their need for human help, some clients will check out my bona fides. My response: mainstream Protestant clergy. No, I wouldn’t describe myself as a “Christian counselor;” pastoral psychotherapy is an interfaith discipline. With some of these people, that conversation means I do not see them again. But I have been surprised by how many stay. My own reaction in these initial sessions is dual. I feel drawn to the longing or passion I often sense behind the words. But I also feel cautious in connecting to the individual, sensing that if I make a comment that veers too far from the party line, I may be promptly dismissed.

For one group of clients, the presenting problems seem separate from religious belief — problems like depression or anxiety attacks. For example, one client I will follow through this article, L., complained initially: “I can’t break away from my former husband, who is a gambler, and I know there is no future in it.”

Or the problems are directly related to religion. They can’t seem to “get with the program,” and wish to be helped to be better Christians. They have found Christ and a Spirit-filled church, built a good life of righteousness. But there’s something wrong with them. There are subtle variations on the theme of “everything would be great, if only I could change.” L., twice divorced, feels she “ought” to be married to a “righteous Christian man.” S., a man in a desperately unhappy marriage, has come to me, a therapist who is also a minister, to be talked out of getting a divorce. Wanting a divorce? It’s a terrible flaw in him, selfish and hurtful to his wife.

It’s black or white. Religion is all good. But whatever their public commitments, these clients have a secret side they confess to with shame. They are BAD — not in the sense of “we’re all sinners,” which implies a forgiving attitude, but terribly wrong. They are not the kind of people the church says they should be: caring, sacrificial, utterly devoted to God and the things of God.


As more narrative unfolds, another kind of problem surfaces that reveals tension between the two worlds, the all-good world of righteousness and faith, and the world of the self’s feelings and desires.

S. prayed regularly for his wife, for her well-being, and for strength in himself to be a more loving husband. Meanwhile, every night as he drove home from work to face the tirades and abuse with which his wife filled his evenings, he watched to see if the lights in the house were on. Why so interested? Several sessions into our work, he described a desperate hope that while he’s away, it would be God’s will for his wife to have a heart attack and die. This would be the only acceptable way out of his dilemma. I gently questioned what I had heard. S. unconsciously believed that it is better to wish for his wife’s death than to want to end their marriage. Consciously, he was appalled that he could hate someone to the point of wishing her dead, especially someone he’d vowed before God to love.

Another example: L. told of outrageously unprofessional treatment by her boss, who abruptly cancelled her health insurance. When she questioned it, the boss replied he was not surprised by my client’s response because he knew her heart was not true, her faith flawed. Gradually I heard more about this man, a charismatic leader in his conservative church but a sociopath who talked gullible people out of thousands of dollars.

Was L. part of these schemes? Happily, she’d distanced herself from them. I noted that she’d allowed herself to be involved– if briefly– in criminal dealings. Unconsciously, she had allied with  “righteous” individuals related to the conservative church and blocked out any “clay feet” beneath these people. But discomfort surfaced between the righteous world and a reality it hid. Simply recognizing the discomfort, before any working out of where s/he stands, is a major step for these individuals.


Conservative Christians who come in for therapy are already feeling some friction, some discomfort, which they often attribute to their inability to be good enough Christians. Quite soon, though, the therapist begins to see that the friction may also be a function of their lives rubbing up against the rigidity of fundamentalist religion, as in the examples above. But to identify this friction brings us up against a first main resistance: the splitting defense.

From a psychodynamic perspective, in troubled individuals who hew to conservative churches, there is a simultaneous capacity for denial and for a splitting that feels necessary to keep the holy in its central place, on its altar. Splitting is a deeply ingrained defensive style for many. Elements of our own selves that do not fit our ideal are projected outside ourselves, and we consciously identify only with the ideal we hold. Our world is “split” into all good and all bad. L., for instance, is reluctant to see any problems with the conservative congregation who asked her to leave the church when her marriage ended. Everything about “right” religion must be maintained as all good or, she believes, she will lose a genuine, precious resource — the love of God. Yet L. tells me she has no joy, no fun in her life, which is filled with work and duty. She insists that what is wrong with her life is that she ought to be married to a Christian man “I can pray with,” and that she ought to belong to a congregation and stop shopping among various churches.

Apart from what “ought” to be, L. recognizes that her life feels empty. I reframe: she sees her life as empty to avoid feelings and memories that would flood her. There are painful memories she’d have to recall if she recognized the elements that fill her life. Her mother’s secret affair is one such disturbing memory — as are the years that followed, years of her own drinking, drugs, promiscuous sex and stealing as L. became the classic acting-out, angry adolescent.

As an adult L. had a conversion experience, abruptly ending the acting out. Now, in her mind, the human realities of her life must be suppressed — including both a painful past and anything in the present that does not fit securely into the category of righteous living. In a second phase of therapy, she recognizes that she keeps secrets– as her mother did– and that she is living almost a robotic existence. L. will have to experience the pain of the past in the usual psychotherapeutic process before the emptiness begins to fill, the rose returns to her cheeks. Biblical scriptures certainly promote living out a full life: Jesus says, “I bring you abundant life.” But there is a great resistance to seeing that being saved does not fix it all.

The conservative church may reinforce the client’s individual tendency toward splitting, since fundamentalist doctrines emphasize human imperfection. The individual can do nothing good without divine grace. After such grace is granted in the born-again experience, connection with the divine is maintained through involvement in the fundamentalist church — now understood as the only source of good and strength (Moyers, 1990).


For these clients, religion becomes like a relationship with an abusive parent. That parent is the only source of life and warmth. When he demands that we suppress any objections or interests outside of him, we say “yes” to it all, because to say “but” or “maybe” is to lose all. These clients do what it takes to hold on to this God as God appears to them, even if it means contorting themselves or their reality to keep God in God’s place.

Splitting affects how these clients relate to others. Lonely people, they tell the therapist that no one is there for them in their daily lives. S. finally decided on a divorce. After confidently predicting that his mother, pastor, and friends would all abandon him, this man learned otherwise. Far from condemning him, these central people in his life had been terribly concerned about what they’d seen of his marriage; any angry indignation was toward his wife for her mistreatment of him.

An object relations approach is at the heart of successful treatment of fundamentalist Christians, since their relationship with God mirrors family relationships from the clients’ formative years. In the process of psychotherapy, slowly and gradually, for these people “God” changes character from an external, distant ideal, the source of all that is good and nurturing and also the object who allows no competition; they discover God all around them, filling the world with wonders good and substantial in the here and now, including connections with real people. They come to identify God also working, in surprising ways, with their own impulses and desires.

Pastoral counseling with conservative Christians entails delicate and judicious questioning of the dichotomy that God is “out there” and all good, while the client is all bad. It entails guiding the client in rethinking rigid sets of beliefs that powerfully affect the client’s self-esteem. In the clinical example that follows, I use D.W. Winnicott’s 1965 article on “The Antisocial Tendency” to help the client begin to question the black-or-white condemnation of her bad behavior. Winnicott’s understanding that there is hunger and hope behind stealing or vandalism presents an entirely different response from the fundamentalist church’s. Winnicott suggests the possibility that perhaps the shameful impulses built when rules are too rigid can be understood, not simply condemned.

A client’s personal and familial background presents the context for the formation of religious experiences. Successful treatment of clients loyal to a rigid and judgmental God often entails working though powerful introjects based on past human relationships; inconsistent and narcissistic parents are one set of such introjects. Here we can apply Ana-Maria Rizzuto’s ground-breaking work on how psychological development affects an individual’s experience of God. In the language of object relations, we can analyze the parental introjects informing our client’s God-image (Rizzuto, 1979).

For example, until L. was two, she was raised by her grandmother. Her parents had become pregnant as teenagers and had given over her care to her grandmother, who loved her deeply and provided warm nurture. Then her mother reclaimed her, taking her from her grandmother and prohibiting any contact between them for a year. This change was always spoken about in L.’s family as a purely good thing — the mother taking up her proper role. No one should have any objections! The mother took responsibility but was quite limited emotionally and brooked no criticism. Deeply attached to her grandmother, the little girl was bereft. What a recipe for a God-image based on L.’s mother!

L.’s longings, and the deep bond of love in a relationship where she could be herself, had to be put away, kept secret. For years, she lived a dutiful as-if life, which looked good on the surface but did not touch deeper needs. Now as an adult she experiences God as requiring her to suppress personal needs and to seem, at all times, whole and content. Later, when her narcissistic mother’s affair and her parents’ divorce shook up any stability in the family, the teenaged L. seemed to “lose it,” and there followed the years of adolescent acting out noted above.

CLINICAL PROCESS: Reframing Shame, Revisiting Introjects

L. was pretty clear that her childhood and adolescence had been rough. She saw that she was given little help in dealing with terrible loss. She was “miserable inside” during much of her adolescence, and she knew this feeling was not right. As an adult she spoke openly to her daughter and other intimates about the divorce. But her own bad behavior was never spoken of, the drinking, promiscuity, and stealing kept a shameful secret. In one session when we were talking about her adolescence, she puzzled over how she could have lost her way to such an extent. I
commented how alone she must have felt as a 15-year-old. She was the only voice in the family calling a spade a spade, I proposed, with almost no support or help. She acted out of desperation, but honestly, to get some of what she needed and to call attention to something pretty crazy.

Here is where I brought in Winnicott’s “Antisocial Tendency,” explaining that some theories hold that stealing, for example, can be an expression of hope in a child who is ignored or neglected. The child grabs, takes, what she knows in her bones she is entitled to — but in symbolic form. I told her I was surprised she had so little compassion for the 15-year-old she was. I pictured this girl in pain, lonely and betrayed, but also a courageous truth teller. “It’s just striking me,” she mused: “my brother has told all his stories to his sons.” Her brother had also acted out, in more typically male forms: vandalism, fighting, and being thrown out of school, as well as heavy drinking. A notable difference is that their father intervened with his son, acted with urgency and strength to set limits for him and provide help. L., in contrast to her brother, internalized her shame. Where her brother tells these stories and then the happy outcome, and reflects on the terrible circumstances that produced his troubles, L. has suppressed her stories of adolescent hell-raising as a judgment on herself. “But you were doing the same thing as your brother, no better, no worse. You were just reacting, too.”

I felt like a priest, giving absolution. Here was a session where we reached the defense of the rigid, judgmental categories –and also the pain and shame that hold them in place. The heart of Christianity is compassion and healing, and the inconsistency of this “heart” with harsh, poorly thought-through condemnation is clear. For L., the reframing of her life as a 15-year-old meant reclaiming a disowned part of herself. But such reframing of bad behavior comes squarely in conflict with the mores of the fundamentalist church. Questioning the harsh judgment is essentially questioning the conservative Christian system of righteousness, so it is really jarring to these clients. Much is involved in resisting such a compassionate insight. L. had experienced terrible absence of caring in her family, betrayal by her mother, years of living with no anchor of love or security. Religion, as it presented itself, was the most powerful and helpful sustainer she found, along with becoming a mother. It felt disloyal, to say the least, to question this sustaining source, to take it apart and accept some but not all of it.

Meanwhile, L. has not joined any church. She felt terribly hurt that the church leadership of her last congregation rejected her when she divorced her husband, an out-of-control gambler. Perhaps L. cannot settle on a church because she believes that no church could accept what really goes on inside of her. Though she recognizes the lack of compassion in her former church, the concrete definitions of righteousness feel untouchable. This is the way Fairbairn (1966) describes the loyalty of the abused child to the abused parent, who is the only source of nurture: “It is better to be a sinner in the world ruled by a good God than to be a saint in a world ruled by the Devil” (p. 321). It felt crucial to L. to see the church as good regardless of the contortions of truth involved.

It is vital for the therapist to recognize the client’s fear that she loses any relationship with God if she questions rigid categories. For L., it is a radical new idea that she could accept and celebrate her own spiritual experiences of the presence of God and follow where they lead. Until she can entertain such an idea, letting go of the fundamentalist religious beliefs only feels like a terrible loss.


L.’s session about her experience as a teenager was crucial, but the resistance to change is also powerful. I knew L. had more objections to the new, compassionate view of that girl than she articulated. Moreover, she was just as hard on her present-day self. She felt there was something truly wrong about her that she couldn’t meet the ideal Christian man of her convictions. In her view, she simply did not have the will to do it and was actually attracted to the “wrong” types of men.

Meanwhile, there was another ingredient in her life, which I think of as a very powerful pseudo-solution. For years before therapy began, and for a long time during treatment, L. was invested in a fantasy life that engaged her imagination and functioned to help her avoid any real working through of her conflict about romantic relationships. Her ex-husband, a gambler, claimed that he was in recovery. L. did not trust him and was convinced that he was not a good prospect for a relationship of substance. Yet she spent significant, regular time with this man, who was emotionally

available in certain ways. He had seen her worst during their breakup; around him she could let out everything rotten about herself. This made him a treasure, but one she could not value consciously. Instead, she compulsively held on to him and berated herself for it.

For L., this relationship was far more than a fantasy: she had an as-if marriage and family. To be clear, there was no sex, and no talk of future reconciliation with this man. But I sensed that as long as L. spent time with her ex each weekend and attended family functions with him, there would be no real room for another man. L. had an ability to live in denial that could become very concrete. We could talk all we wanted about unmet childhood needs, but she felt enormous comfort in this “part object.” The feeling I got from her, the objective counter-transference, was that without this relationship there would be a terrible absence, another experience of a family lost.

Given this threat — and the temporary comfort — as if relationships or situations are very seductive, making the client’s life look whole, while actually providing very little of substance. L. wished to avoid the messy process of dating needed to find a man who could really be a partner to her. Meanwhile, how wonderful it felt when it LOOKED like she had a husband and an intact family.

The long-term, intense emotional affair that S. carried on with the “woman of his dreams” functioned similarly. Once or even twice a week, they had a romantic dinner together, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes with longing. They spoke several times a day by phone. They behaved as if they were a couple. But since he was married throughout most of this time, as good Christians they had no actual sexual contact.

Both S. and L. lived in a dramatic kind of bubble. Each was deeply entrenched in a drama they

said they did not choose and struggled to get out of, in each case a kind of pseudo-romance. Their

everyday lives were filled with work, duty, self-denial. But a different type of drama was played out in these guilty, compulsive relationships.

This stasis is another example of splitting. Struggling to BE right, not just LOOK right, would involve integrating true dependency needs. Ironically, this shift would involve more genuine humility than maintaining the “shameful” secret life. For the purposes of this paper, suffice it to say that these secret compulsions are common for fundamentalists and get them into a lot of trouble.


So much has been denied in fundamentalist clients. Those who, in the process of psychotherapy, become more aware of experiences they have denied are already taking powerful steps toward integration. They can recognize disagreements or disappointments they have with the church that offers itself as the only true interpreter of God’s will. They see dangerous patterns they have fallen into, which I have called pseudo-solutions, and questionable characters they have allied with simply because the person seemed like an authority in the world of righteousness.

Some will go further and achieve a fuller working through. The work now involves integration of denied elements. Clients learn to tolerate qualities in themselves they formerly viewed as all bad. When L. and I talked at a later stage of her treatment, she was in a passionate relationship with a man who returned her love. She felt terribly guilty because she “turns hot and cold,” feeling in love one day and critical and angry toward him the next. She knew this hurt her new boyfriend and sought my help to stop this behavior and be more Christian, which means loving and open. My response was that this was not my goal. Her family had considered her angry feelings or critical thoughts to be merely an inconvenience, bad behavior and nothing more. Here was a man who wanted to know her and tolerated a wide variety of her feelings. Contrary to her goal, I thought something good was happening right now: both the loving and angry feelings were real and impor

tant topics for discussion. Here, in a healthy working-through, she may finally bring red-blooded, fully experienced sides of herself into a relationship and find that all is accepted, at least to a substantial degree. She is also taking the time to evaluate a relationship with a man fully before committing to marriage.

L. now attends a church within the conservative category, but one where sermons lead to passionate discussion, disagreement, struggles with life and faith. These religious practices, attendance at worship and impassioned discussions in Bible study are lively and stimulating to her. To refer again to Rizzuto’s analysis of parental introjects informing a God-image, gradually God is becoming more like what L.’s grandmother was to her, accepting of her needs and passions, loving the full human being that she is. S. too has made progress beyond pseudo-solutions; he finally decided to divorce. He continues to live out an extremely responsible daily life while maintaining that there is nothing for him in his existence. He returns daily to his soon-to-be ex-wife’s home to clean and make repairs. He spends many evenings a week with his child. He works overtime to give his wife twice the support that is legally required (while she earns plenty). S. is vaguely conscious that he is overdoing it. He has barely furnished his own apartment. He is outraged when the divorce attorney questions why S.’s paperwork for the settlement is late. “I can’t do paperwork when I don’t have a minute to set up my computer at home. Have you been listening at all? The 100-hour workweek? Babysitting four nights a week?” This wail is double-edged: the outrage that such a superior, righteous man as he should be questioned, and the wail that he has so little time for himself. Gradually he has learned to care for himself a bit more, to tolerate the rage that HE has not been the recipient of nurture and care.


As a religious client makes positive changes in therapy, his religious experience and commitments may change as well. When a client is making a transition in his experience of God, old categories fall away. Often now the client feels he is no longer a Christian, will not be accepted in a church, and has lost his relationship with God. This sense of loss can be a genuine crisis for some clients, a total change of landscape that can be devastating (Rothbaum, 1988). No longer guided by the unequivocal pronouncements of fundamentalism, the former believer may feel awash in a sea of confusion. As with any loss, there is an associated grief reaction. Explicit recognition of the extent of the client’s loss, and of the monumental experiences of religious transition, will offer a sense of permission to grieve and seek new ways, new reliable guideposts and supports, a new relationship with God.

When the client is ready, it is useful to have some cognitive guidelines to think about new possibilities. It is helpful if the therapist has some sense of alternative spiritual paths. If I perceive that a client retains a spiritual quality or could experience God in the here and now, I will carefully point it out. This new framing also models for the client the idea that an experience of God could be something that is already present, not a goal or ideal to work toward in the future. A fuller discussion of material to open up new, more mature possible religious commitments, beyond a suggestive example or two (e.g. Pruyser, 1976; Hill & Hood, 1999), is beyond the scope of this article.

Bringing in Biblical stories can be eye-opening, for example, to address the perfectionism  that is a common character issue for fundamentalist clients. King David of Hebrew Scriptures had a man murdered so he could marry that man’s widow, with whom he was having a sexual affair –hardly a perfect person! He thereby broke three of the Ten Commandments — murder, adultery, coveting — yet God worked through him and blessed him greatly. On submission, especially of women to abusive husbands, we can quote Ephesians 5:25-31, which defines submission as a voluntary and loving response to a loving husband. These are examples of creative thinking for expanding cognitive categories in a context that the client recognizes, without head-on confrontation. Sometimes a client is open to reading new spiritual material: Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (1978), for example, can offer new perspectives within a religious frame of reference.

Also, depending on the church, the client’s pastor or other figures may be a resource.


My intention in presenting this description of primarily initial stages of the treatment of conservative Christians is to give a feeling for the work with this group, which can seem so alien and unappealing to some therapists. The treatment of fundamentalist clients brings up challenging forms of resistance, prickly defenses — and real dangers for these individuals: their uncritical alliances with religious authorities as well as their compulsive involvements I’ve called pseudo-solutions. Preparation by way of understanding the attachment to an authoritarian God and church, and the characteristic resistance of this group to change, can guide the therapist’s expectations. Then, psychodynamic treatment with the fundamentalist Christian who seeks out psychotherapy can be successful and rewarding.

(Notes and References available on request.)