My therapist just mentioned God. Should I dump her?
May 11, 2016 11:34 AM   Subscribe

At our last session my therapist alluded to God in an entirely benign way but it still leaves me wondering whether I -- as an irreligious gay man -- should start shopping elsewhere.

I live in a major world city with a largely liberal population. I have been seeing a therapist for around a month and for the time being I have been (surprisingly) good at waiting to reserve judgment until we get to know each other better. So far so good. Last week, however, in reference to particular habit of mine, she said something to the effect of "that is not a trait God gives us, but one we learn in life."

On its face, I know her statement was completely innocuous and all she meant to say was that whatever idiosyncrasy I have is not innate and is treatable. But I am an atheist. Beyond that, I'm a gay man who has rejected all forms of spirituality and is often uncomfortable around avowedly religious people.

For the record, I am not one to think that religion is necessarily synonymous with bigotry. I just can't help but question whether she can possibly treat someone who is not only devoid of religion but also whose personal life (naturally, a recurrent topic of discussion in therapy) is at odds with most religious orthodoxy.

What she said was mostly harmless -- I get that. But it clearly reflects a worldview that runs counter to my own, and one that may not bode well for the road ahead as her patient.

What to do? Are my concerns overblown?
posted by lecorbeau to Health & Fitness (67 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think your concerns are overblown. But you should mention it to her. Some therapists are very able to split up their professional lives and their religious beliefs, others are less so. She might have been floating a "trial balloon" to see how you'd react because for people with religion something like that might be calming (I am also an atheist). I have a therapist who is a bit more... spiritual than I am but is otherwise completely up my alley and right for me. She doesn't bring it up and I don't bring it up but some of her suggestions (like trying meditation for example) have been life changers. She suggested some other stuff earlier on that I thought were "woo" and told her so (in a more polite way). So if it were me I would bring it up and judge your decision based on her reactions to what you say. It's totally okay to have that be a deabreaker but if things are otherwise okay I'd see if you could salvage it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:42 AM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I mean to me, as an atheist-lite (I don't believe in god but also don't care if other people do as long as they're not assholes about it), that sounds pretty innocuous to me. Sometimes people believe in god, or even don't believe but mention the word "god" in an offhand manner, and that's fine and doesn't mean they're looking to burn you at the stake.

On the other hand, I also think you're within your rights to look for a militantly* atheist therapist if it's important to you. Since you're in a major city with a liberal population, this shouldn't be impossible to do if it's a priority.

A third way might just be to ask your therapist about this and talk about how her offhand reference to god made you uncomfortable. Partially to ask her to avoid future god talk, and partially to clear the air and work out some of your feelings about this stuff. (Especially if you're now afraid that your therapist is some kind of god-botherer who hates you for being gay.)

*I use the term "militantly" because you seem to want someone who will literally NEVER say the word "god" in session, which unfortunately is going to be someone who is a staunch, active atheist. For example I'm an atheist, but I still say "Oh my god!", "bless you" when someone sneezes, "Thank god you're OK", "god-given rights", etc. My more staunch partner deliberately replaces these expressions with others that don't mention god, and I don't think he's ever used the word in my presence aside from saying he doesn't believe in it.
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on May 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

I just can't help but question whether she can possibly treat someone who is not only devoid of religion but also whose personal life (naturally, a recurrent topic of discussion in therapy) is at odds with most religious orthodoxy.

Did you tell her that? Tell her your perspective and see if she's in line with it. She may have said what she said because it's so entrenched in our culture, not because she believes it. I don't believe in god or damnation but I say "goddammit" often enough.
posted by headnsouth at 11:43 AM on May 11, 2016 [16 favorites]

I think you are right to be concerned, if not about the LGBT angle, then definitely from a philosophical angle. If you don't find solace in religion, then I doubt you will find solace in your therapist if they live within a religious worldview. If you are a skeptical atheist, her mentions of God will only further alienate and hurt you and cause you pain. You may even feel like she is trying to make a believer out of you. Which runs completely counter to what you are trying to accomplish in therapy. I suggest finding an atheist therapist maybe even existentialist orientation
posted by winterportage at 11:43 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd mention your discomfort and see where that conversation goes. I know a number of people who would probably be functionally atheist who still use 'god' in this context.
posted by French Fry at 11:44 AM on May 11, 2016 [30 favorites]

Personally, I would be able to work with a therapist who said something like that, because I have lot of practice as an atheist mentally translating "What God gave us" into "Your inherent traits." However, I would not be able to work with someone who insisted on exploring my relationship with god even after we discuss how I don't have one and never have, and this doesn't bother me. I have a lot of personal differences from my therapist, but if it doesn't really impact what we're working on, then we're cool.

However! You should probably bring this up. If you're moved to ask strangers on the Internet, it's clearly going to bother you enough that you may not be able to work with this therapist until you nail down whether they're going to be neutral enough for you. This sounds like a boundary that you need to discuss.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:45 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know where you're coming from. I'm a gay man who had a therapist pull out a bible during a session and read the verses that proscribe homosexuality, which pretty much ruined my relationship with him.

If it bothers you, I'd talk to her about whether she's comfortable talking about the gay aspects of your life and make a decision based on that discussion. Lots of religious people are fine with gay people, and many others are able to compartmentalize their religious views away from their work (and recognize that their version of morality doesn't entirely apply to nonbelievers). And like you say, the quote isn't particularly solid evidence that she's even religious at all. It could have just been an expression.
posted by zixyer at 11:46 AM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

But it clearly reflects a worldview that runs counter to my own, and one that may not bode well for the road ahead as her patient.

Does it clearly reflect that? I mean, it's something worth actually talking about, I think, but to me, all that's clear is that she thinks there are some traits people are born with, and some that they learn. Which is just describing the nature/nurture thing. She doesn't seem to have said anything that suggests she's actually really religious. She might be, and if you guys can't have a productive conversation about this then that's reason enough to say maybe she's not the right therapist for you, I'm just saying: the actual sentence as you reported it isn't describing a belief in any particular behavior as being either promoted or forbidden by whatever God she believes in. You could substitute "fate" or "evolution" there without changing the meaning of the sentence. Saying what she said doesn't necessarily reflect a worldview that's particularly different from yours, just a verbal shorthand that's different from yours.
posted by Sequence at 11:50 AM on May 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

I understand why this bothers you, but it's something you should talk to her about before you make any drastic decisions. She might apologize and say she'll try to be more careful with her language from now on; in that case you might want to continue with her. Or she could get all weird and defensive, in which case of course you'd want to look elsewhere. You'll never know unless you bring it up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:50 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also wouldn't even take this as a sign that she even believes in God in any meaningful way. I think god-given is pretty much an idiomatic expression that lots of people would use and not think much about. A militatant atheist might scrub the phrase from their vocabulary, but people who are basically apatheists wouldn't. I would see this as on the level of saying "Bless you" after someone sneezes.

But if you're worried that she believes in God and if this idea bothers you, I think it's ok to ask.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:53 AM on May 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

I don't think your concerns are overblown. In your shoes I'd ideally bring it up for discussion and try to get a feel for whether I was overreacting or whether there really is a severe worldview mismatch.

That said, I've definitely been at places in my life, at various times, where I was sort of white-knuckling through the day trying to minimize any additional stress in my life, and ditching the therapist would have been less stressful than doing what felt like a confrontational religious discussion. Which probably would not have been the healthiest choice, but y'know, sometimes we do what gets us through the day instead of the absolute healthiest thing to do, and that's okay.

Which is to say I don't think you should just stick with the therapist and let it go entirely, because it's clearly going to be bothering you if you just try to ignore it altogether. But short of that, I think you could quite reasonably choose either to address it, or to take it as a sign that this isn't a great fit, and take a look around for another option. (Perhaps someone who explicitly advertises as being queer-friendly, so that's one less worry you'll have.)
posted by Stacey at 11:53 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think when it comes right down to it, you have to look at your therapy relationship as a point of alignment for the rest of your life, in a sense. You'll have to decide personally how much this betrays your trust within her. Any client will need to have a consistent point of reference with a therapist: dealing with how you'd like to find catharsis in any given situation, conclusions regarding your behavior, goals for the rest of your life, perhaps settling existential anxieties and dealing with grieving/loss(?).

For me, personally, I would say that my counselor having a dogmatic, theistic worldview versus my agnostic one would tip the scales: I'd need to find out whether she was comfortable in framing my questions of need in a way that agreed with my perspective. That's where the discomfort (thus, the problem) begins. I will say I know plenty of people of varying spiritual foundations that might do this efficaciously, but I think it's critical to find out whether her perspective contradicts to yours.

It's a healthy discussion to have: as a prospective counselor, I would agree with any client that it simply might not be a good fit if we don't see eye to eye, or if we're constantly losing ground over worldview. The whole unconditional-positive-regard thing, client-counselor trust, and just general rapport on the level of psychotherapy seems predicated on agreement to this point.
posted by a good beginning at 11:53 AM on May 11, 2016

And btw, there are religious people who are ok with gay people gayness etc. not just because some people compartmentalize and some people don't agree with every aspect of their church. There are lots of churches and religions that are just fine with homosexuality. If she does believe in God, and again I don't think it's obvious she does, she might be of one of those religions.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:55 AM on May 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

I think you need to ask what she meant by it!

I don't believe in god but may have said something like that in similar context, and in a secretly flip way, to boot!

A lot of people don't believe in god but refer to a deity of some sort without thinking too hard about it to make others around them feel comfortable. It coulda just been a habit of her way of speaking, not a declaration.

Ask her.
posted by jbenben at 11:58 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know about where you draw the line, but with me, using God as a placeholder for providence, luck, destiny, karma, "the universe", whatever, is fine.
If someone starts talking about god's love, god's laws, prayer, the bible, etc, then I am out of there.
posted by w0mbat at 11:59 AM on May 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

The great thing about therapy is that it's practice for the other parts of your life. So tell her what you told us, ask what she meant and listen to the answer. And then you'll know how to proceed. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:00 PM on May 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

Before I started therapy, I was somewhat concerned because my therapist's website mentioned her having a religious background. I'm an atheist, though a straight one, so I don't have as much potential for problems as you do. I asked her about it in our first session and she said she is religious, that she mentions it on her website, because some of her patients are also religious and like to see someone who has that background but that it doesn't have to be part of the therapeutic relationship. And then it simply never was. It never came up again. So it is possible to be an atheist in therapy with a religious person with no problems, provided the religious person is a) reasonable and b) understands you don't want religion to form part of your relationship. I don't know if that extends to being a homosexual person in therapy with a religious person, but if you haven't felt like she's been judging you up to now, there's a chance she isn't -- there are plenty of Christians who have zero problem with homosexuality.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:02 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist (and I did phone outreach for No on 8, for what that's worth) and I might have used that expression too. As well as "God forbid", "God knows", "God-given right" etc. But by all means ask her, if the possibility that she might believe in god worries you that much.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:06 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am an atheist and I still say things like "God-given right" or "he thinks he's God's gift to women" and "oh thank God" (as well as things like "goddammit/goddamned"). Doesn't mean I believe in God, they're just part of the cultural lexicon.

If you otherwise like her as a therapist, I'd just bring it up with her. It doesn't have to be confrontational, just like "Hey, so I wanted to bring up something you said last session that didn't quite sit right with me and I want to make sure we're on the same page before continuing with therapy. When you said "this is not a trait God gives us," it bothered me because I'm an atheist and would prefer not to bring any sort of spirituality into our therapy sessions. What do you think about that?"

If you're not comfortable with her response, then by all means, dump her as a therapist.
posted by erst at 12:08 PM on May 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

If your concerns are (potentially) interfering with your therapy, then they are not overblown regardless of how innocuous the statement was.

I am Jewish but totally, utterly secular and not raised in the religion in any notable way. A number of therapists I've seen (and one I still see) were Orthodox Jewish (i.e. I had no doubt as to what their relationship to theism was.) Keep in mind, a lot of religious Jews (of whatever sort) want to bring people like me into the fold and are often really pushy about it. However, because the person I was seeing was a professional, this didn't create any kind of conflict with the treatment, and rarely came up except for well-wishing around the holidays or innocuous statements like the one you had.

If you're uncomfortable with the phrasing, however, please mention it, if not just because it bugs you, but because if something really bugs you regardless of the context, it never hurts to bring it up in therapy!
posted by griphus at 12:09 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know religious people who won't use the word god. They mostly say, "Goodness gracious". Not using the term god does not mean they are not religious. My point it that using the term god in that context could mean anything to very religious to not at all. I would bring it up at the next session.
posted by AugustWest at 12:11 PM on May 11, 2016

I would definitely just talk to your therapist about this. I think there are a lot of possible situations going on here:
1. The therapist was using a turn of phrase and meant something along the lines of "born this way", and really didn't mean the statement to have any religious content at all.
2. The therapist meant the statement in a religious way, but has no issue with gay people (plenty of religious people/churches are not anti-gay!!), and is willing to avoid talking about religion with you in future sessions.
3. The therapist meant the statement in a religious way, and either isn't willing to stop talking about it and/or has homophobic beliefs

It seems like you only need to stop seeing the therapist in situation 3.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:13 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just can't help but question whether she can possibly treat someone who is not only devoid of religion but also whose personal life (naturally, a recurrent topic of discussion in therapy) is at odds with most religious orthodoxy.

I would suggest looking at how she's reacted to you talking about the core parts of your lifestyle rather than fixating on one off handed comment. I've known homophobic, conservative atheists that would judge and shame you and awesome, super-liberal Catholic nuns and Baptist preachers who would have absolutely no problem with your atheism or lifestyle. If you've opened up on things over the past six weeks and she hasn't battened an eyelid, I think you're fine, even if she does see the world differently than you do.
posted by Candleman at 12:14 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whether you're an atheist or not, the fact that she is your new therapist (and presumably doesn't know your feelings about religion yet), and thought it was okay to casually drop that statement into your therapy session... I would be bothered. Saying "that is not a trait God gives us, but one we learn in life."
is quite different than saying something innocuous like "Oh my god!" or "Bless you."

She's presuming you share her views on god existing or that you wouldn't find her discussion of god in the context of your therapy session offensive in some way without fully knowing your history or relationship to the subject of religion. Not cool. She's a professional. She should know better. Even if you did discuss your views with her and she promised to not do things like that in future sessions, you might (like I tend to do) always have that in the back of your head and constantly second guess any advice she gives you. Therapy under those circumstances would be stressful and unhelpful to me.

I would bail and find a new therapist without even discussing it with her, but I'm non-confrontational like that. What's to be gained? I'd do the same for any doctor or other professional service that I pay for.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:17 PM on May 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

in reference to particular habit of mine, she said something to the effect of "that is not a trait God gives us, but one we learn in life."

Even if we could rephrase her statement so that it doesn't mention G-d at all, I'd still like to re-run that moment on the tape and look at whether her comment was actually supportive and helpful. And if it wasn't supportive, but was confrontational, was it confrontational in a helpful way, or more like running into a wall? I'm hinting at the idea that the G-d mention might not have been the only off-key note in that statement that she made. The way I heard it from your paraphrase it sounded like a leading statement, a flat statement of fact where a more cautious therapist would not make statements or would phrase them clearly as opinions. I'd expect something like "Do you really think [habit] is an unchangeable trait?"
posted by puddledork at 12:21 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

But it clearly reflects a worldview that runs counter to my own, and one that may not bode well for the road ahead as her patient.

It really doesn't.

What to do? Are my concerns overblown?

Ask her? Talk to her? Query this.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:22 PM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm an atheist but I occasionally say things like "we are all as god made us" without literally meaning I believe in a god.

Also I've had non-atheist therapists who were helpful to me. The question is whether she sees your lack of religiosity as a problem that needs solving, or whether she can accept that you're a non-believer and get on with whatever issues you are there for. If you've openly told her you're an atheist and she's been accepting, I'd take that as an important clue. Even if you think differently, it may be no big deal to her - no more so than you liking sushi and her not. I know believers for whom my lack of belief signals that I am on a very dark path to hell, and others for whom it is simply not significant - their belief helps them but they don't feel everyone needs to believe.

If otherwise you like her and have a good rapport, don't cut the cord over this. Bring it up in your next session. Ask her how her personal religious beliefs inform her approach to therapy. You can also google her and see if she makes reference to religion or faith ... but since that's the first time it came up, I doubt you'll find anything like that.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'll admit I'm startled by so many responses saying that you should consider dumping your therapist for using what seems to be, in context, a figure of speech. Have you seen any indications that she's homophobic ? Because assuming that someone is a homophobe because she (basically) used the phrase "god-given talents" is, well, kinda wrong, in my opinion. First of all, it's hardly true that all religious people are homophobes, and in any event, there doesn't seem to be any indication that your therapist is 1) religious; or 2) homophobic.

I mean, if this is a deal breaker for you, it is, and you can't work with someone you're uncomfortable with. But it's actually way harder than most people think to find a good therapist, so dumping one you work well with because of an offhand and more or less irreligious reference to small-g "god" seems pretty rash to me.
posted by holborne at 12:36 PM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

This can be a really, really important part of the process of therapy. You actually end up using the tool of your relationship with your therapist to practice skills like trusting others, requesting and maintaining a boundary, disagreeing without a relationship ending, etc. So, while it's important that you feel safe in your relationship with your therapist, often it's equally important to experience some discomfort in that relationship and work through it. I absolutely agree with the others, ask your therapist about this. Let her know it bothered you and why and see how you address it together. If the solution isn't comfortable for you, it would make sense to end the relationship, but give yourself and her the chance first.
posted by goggie at 12:38 PM on May 11, 2016 [11 favorites]

First of all, you're very justified in being uncomfortable. Second, though, there's a good possibility she was speaking aphoristically, and does not particularly believe in God. I'm an atheist and I use the "God" metaphor on occasion. (If I were a therapy professional, though, I might think twice.)
posted by stoneandstar at 12:38 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you believe in a supernatural moral order, maybe, you're going to believe some other things that go along with that, which might inform your idea of what mental health is. You should query her on that.

For me, a therapist in a liberal city casually dropping the G word like that would be a red flag. That demonstrates a lack of awareness of boundaries and cultural difference. It might also have been a thoughtless blip - find out.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:41 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a similarly atheist gay dude, I'd bring it up at the next session... or I'd just sever the relationship entirely and find a non-god-spouting therapist. Trust is such a necessary component of the therapeutic relationship, and so difficult to achieve anyway, that throwing additional (and, in a sense, unresolvable because your concern may always be there) roadblocks in the way is actively counterproductive.

And yeah, while it's important to experience discomfort in a therapeutic relationship, that discomfort ideally arises from you discovering things about yourself. Being uncomfortable, especially as a gay man, with someone who starts talking about god in a therapy session is not the desirable discomfort one needs to find in therapy.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:41 PM on May 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

My current therapist is religious, and I've been pretty upfront about my atheism. He's only mentioned religion once, and that's when I asked for a recommendation for a couples councilor, and he sheepishly admitted he only knew a few and they were all faith-based, and wasn't sure if they'd be a good fit.

I love my therapist! He is the bees knees. I too was worried about the religion side of things- aside from above, he's never brought it up. I only know it because I google stalked him when I started seeing him. His father is a paster and has written faith-based books that give me the shivers. (It's a Jr Sr name issue, so looking for one led to the other). I know that a parent being religious doesn't necessarily reflect on the kid, but there was enough in my search to strongly suggest there is.

I also strongly suspect his political views are also completely opposite of mine, based on my search. In fact, had I found all this before I started seeing him, I would have said no way this therapist would be a good fit. It happened that it was a transfer from another therapist who was leaving, and I was a few sessions in before deciding to google him.

I wouldn't trade him for the world, he's been emensely helpful. Had I not googled him, wouldn't have had an inkling of the above from our in person conversations. His advice never struck me as particularly religious, and I can think of some instances where his advice has been counter to conventional christian teaching. The only give away in therapy was the couples councilor recommendation, and he, knowing I was an atheist, expressed his regret for not knowing any secular couples therapists.

Obviously it will depend on your therapist, and how her approach to therapy and religion is. But I don't think that alone should turn you off. As others have said, talk to her about it. But I wouldn't want you to miss out on a great therapist because your religious views don't match - it shouldn't matter if she is a good therapist. If the convo doesn't go well, then don't stick it out, obviously.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:00 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I am also an atheist who throws around "God" and phrases with God frequently. Along with Jeaus, Jesus Christ and the formal Jesus H. Christ. As well as all the silly "Christ On a cracker" type variants. Old habits die hard, and the lack of reverence makes it much easier. Not saying that is what is happening, but it's worth considering.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:04 PM on May 11, 2016

Yeah, I'd talk to her and clarify her position on the subject. Maybe it was just a turn of phrase (I might exclaim "Jesus Christ" without believing in anything). But if she is religious, and even if she can compartmentalize her religion and her profession, I don't think I could achieve the level of trust I'd require for a head doctor with someone who I know believes in magic.
posted by cmoj at 1:05 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's some seriously ill-informed stereotyping you're doing there. The Episcopal Church in America is essentially in schism from the broader Anglican Communion over the acceptability of full gay participation in the life of the church. Etc. There are a number of religious groups, and many more within other religious groups, who do not regard homosexuality as sinful. Not wanting a therapist whose spiritual views differ radically from yours is reasonable (so asking her would be appropriate), but jumping from someone's using an expression that mentions God to the conclusion that she's probably a homophobe is pretty abrupt.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on May 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'd ask her about it, because I'm not religious and that's the sort of language I would use anyway to differentiate between traits we are born with and ones we are not. For some people it's a turn of phrase.
posted by Toddles at 1:17 PM on May 11, 2016

Saying "bless you" or "jeez Louise" in ordinary conversation can be written off as a verbal tic acquired in a religious culture. Massive difference between that and the normative idea that humans are made a) in a particular image b) by a deity, and that there is some ideal way of being that's in alignment with that. Or believing that people who do wrong get it in the end, or that the universe is organized around your well-being. Those are all pretty religious ideas that have a bearing on what a person thinks about how one should or even can deal with negative events (like trauma) and what kind of normal one could or should shoot for. A therapist using it this way, in this context, is kind of shocking to me.

And that's not even getting into the particulars of your background of abuse.

Agreeing with puddledork that it was also a very *directive* way of communicating,one that I'm not sure I personally would be OK with. And isn't like what I've experienced in (good) therapy.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:20 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Personally, that would be enough for me to drop her. I have to be comfortable with a therapist, and I don't think that comment is along the same casual lines of "goddammit" or even "God given right." In my ideal world, someone's professional life ought to be completely separate from their personal life. I wouldn't feel the need to question her or talk to her about it, since I have zero desire to engage anyone in a discussion about region. I'd just quietly pack my shit and go.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:34 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, I'm an agnostic with an atheist overlay--that is, I have too great a respect for the limitations of the human mind to believe that we can draw utterly definitive conclusions about the existence of god(s), but my personal thinking and experience lead me to think that there aren't any, and I conduct my life on that basis. I have definitely used expressions like "These rules weren't handed down from heaven, we can change them if we want" and the like, without actually believing there is a heaven, or anyone up there to hand down such rules. Using "God" as a shorthand for "an outside, immutable authority" is just not that odd a turn a phrase. Certainly not so much that I'd just assume a person doing so was religious.
posted by praemunire at 1:35 PM on May 11, 2016

I am atheist and use "god" or "gods" in convo to mean fate. I viewed her statement a bit like that, but I would be uncomfortable if it crept into to therapy more than that.
posted by ReluctantViking at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2016

I'm a therapist and don't believe in god in any conventional sense. What your therapist said would drive me crazy. I'd talk to her about it but I would harbor bad feelings, I think, no matter how she explained it.

God is not a substitute for "innate traits" or something. It's implying a belief in conventional religion which she should (in my opinion) keep to herself in secular therapy.

On the other hand, somebody I know told me her therapist told her she was a certain way because of her Zodiac sign. My friend like the therapist and so decided to stay. That one would make me flee without even discussing it!

If your therapist says something about it that you can live with, then maybe it's worth staying;obviously its up to you, but you should DEFINITELY bring it up (after all, if it was worth a MetaFilter question, it's important to you!)
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:45 PM on May 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

"Using "God" as a shorthand for "an outside, immutable authority" is just not that odd a turn a phrase"

In regular conversation. Use of the phrase does suggest there is a *view* on the constraints of human nature, and some immutable authority defining them (fine we all have to work with something). Also, that those constraints and their source either haven't been really examined (red flag to me for someone dealing with mental health and illness) or that the constraints and their source are thought to be supernatural.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:47 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't agree with others that this is the same as "bless you" or "thank god." Those examples keep coming up, and of course non-believers say them all the time, but those are common expressions.

I feel like I've heard "innate traits" and "inborn traits" and "traits we're born with" a million times, but I have never heard that particular phrasing. It wouldn't roll off most tongues unthinkingly. So, I'm gonna say, what your therapist said isn't a common expression at all. Also, therapists have to be careful in their speech-- this isn't a causal conversation, this is a therapeutic session you're paying them for.

I think you should bring it up and see where that takes you. If you decide you don't want a god-believing therapist, I think that's just as valid as e.g., my not wanting a male therapist.
posted by kapers at 1:59 PM on May 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am a gay agnostic clinician in training, but I am not your gay agnostic clinician in training. I could potentially see myself using a variant of the above statement idiomatically, though perhaps regretting the turn of phrase I chose in the moment depending on the client. I agree with everyone who suggests that the answer will become superbly clear if you ask about this the next time you see her. Right now this feels a bit like a Rorschach test onto which some people are projecting quite a bit of content onto a single debatable utterance without much context.

Any of the people in this thread might be right, so give it a go. If it's resolved to your liking, awesome, you can continue if you otherwise feel like a good fit! If not, that's OK, but also awesome, you tactfully tried to disambiguate the situation.
posted by Keter at 2:04 PM on May 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would also read this as a figurative expression with no genuine religious content behind it. Similarly if someone described an event or a song as "haunting" I wouldn't consider it an expression of belief in ghosts, and if someone were to call a happy turn of events "lucky" I wouldn't consider it an expression of belief in the supernatural.
posted by Andrhia at 2:17 PM on May 11, 2016

I don't agree with others that this is the same as "bless you" or "thank god." Those examples keep coming up, and of course non-believers say them all the time, but those are common expressions.

I feel like I've heard "innate traits" and "inborn traits" and "traits we're born with" a million times, but I have never heard that particular phrasing.

I agree. I am a Christian but pretty secular, and I say things like "thank God" or "God-given rights" seriously, and things like "That's why God invented microwaves" sarcastically . . . but I wouldn't say "that is not a trait God gives us" unless I was speaking to other Christians.

It would bother me too! I go to the person who has gone to school to study the brain for my mental challenges, and I go to the person who has gone to seminary for my spiritual questions. Never the twain shall meet. Bring this up to her and see what she says, but I'd be prepared to look for a new therapist.
posted by chainsofreedom at 2:28 PM on May 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

"Using "God" as a shorthand for "an outside, immutable authority" is just not that odd a turn a phrase"

I just wanted to reiterate this. I am a pretty dyed in the wool atheist, raised so by an atheist parent, and I will commonly use expressions like this casually, mostly because I find them poetic. Also, I guess, a little ironically.
posted by 256 at 2:33 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I say bring it up with her... "Hey, last week you said x, and that me uncomfortable because y." Listen to what she says, and at the end of the session, if you still feel uncomfortable, then you can bail. But that moment where you give her your honest feedback and fears and watch her deal with that can be really fruitful, especially if you struggle with confrontation or expressing negative emotions to other people. If she's a good therapist, she'll welcome this opportunity to get into the feelings this is bringing up for you, and with your fear of rejection. It could end up being a moment where you feel connected and respected. And if not, then you'll know to bring this up when you interview your next therapist.
posted by tuesdayschild at 3:11 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bring it up with her. Your concerns are likely a bit overblown because any competent therapist should respect boundaries and differences of opinion in that area. But, unfortunately the field does get cranks with an agenda.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:26 PM on May 11, 2016

Chiming in with some anecdata here.

I've been seeing my therapist for (oh my god) almost two years. She has been an absolute godsend and has helped me in many, many ways.

I'm also gay, and not religious -- in fact, there's some trauma in my history that is sort of linked to religion, so I'm actually more leery of religion and religious people than is characterized by "not religious." (And the two 'gods' in the preceding paragraph were accidental, so there you go.)

I'm fairly certain that my therapist is actively christian, and that has given me pause on occasion. I've never felt judged by her for being gay, although she does sometimes reveal a heteronormative tilt. (But why wouldn't she? That's her lived experience.) Anyway, my probably-christian therapist has been a very good therapist for me. She doesn't seem to judge me, and I am able to not-judge her, but the one thing that I can't really wrap my brain around is how she is able to reconcile the ideas that a) we're responsible for our own growth and our own reactions, and that it's our reactions to situations that are problematic, not the situations themselves (which is something that has been very helpful to me), and b) "HELLO OMNIPOWERFUL DEITY, I'm going to pray for this thing and then you make it happen, okay?"

I don't get how those two things can be in the same person without fighting each other, but that's okay. She's entitled to her own beliefs, and they've never seemed to get in the way of our therapy. I do wonder sometimes whether she follows each session with a prayer for her clients, but I think that says a lot more about me and my wariness of religion than it does about her and whatever her practice of it may be.

TLDR: Having a therapist who's a christian isn't the same thing as being in christian therapy. That, for me, is the important distinction.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:02 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Go with your gut.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:23 PM on May 11, 2016

I'm a therapist, and agnostic, and close enough to atheist that I don't reject the label. I attended school in a large progressive city for my master's degree, and it was a Jesuit school (which I chose only after the dean of the school said that he welcomed students of "all faiths and no faith," which was the first time I'd heard a religiously-affiliated official welcome atheists to an institution in a way that wasn't about converting anyone). Some of my classmates were strongly Catholic; some were gay; and some were both. I have been attempting to drop "god" phrases from my vocabulary for years, but I suspect that the complete lack of personal emotional charge from the word is making it harder. One of my biggest recent challenges was with a client who was gay and very (Christian) religious and struggling a bit with coming to terms with both identities, because while I absolutely wanted to help her, I also needed to work hard to make sure I did not impose my own ideas of whether a spiritual community was necessary on her.

Given all that background, I'd be inclined to give your therapist the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, and I absolutely agree that asking her what she meant would be the best way to go. These are all big complicated issues of identity and don't tend to reduce down to flowcharts very well ("If Christian --> Judgmental of Same-Sex Relationships; If Atheist --> Never Says 'God'; etc.), and her reaction to your asking about it is likely way more predictive of how she'll work with you than her having used this one possibly throw-away phrase.
posted by lazuli at 5:34 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

And as a data point: I've been trying to drop the word "god" from my vocabulary because I worry it'll offend the religious; it (stupidly) never occurred to me it might offend the non-religious, and it's entirely possible I'm more likely to use it with non-religious people than religious people, because I assume they'll take it as the metaphor I intend it to be -- which is apparently a bad assumption, and something I'm going to be way more conscious of now, but those of us atheists without any religious trauma in our backgrounds may not always recognize religious phrases as triggering.
posted by lazuli at 5:39 PM on May 11, 2016

If my therapist said to me that God gave me certain traits and some I had to develop in life I would get up and walk out. How can you take someone who says that seriously? If they believe God designs you, what else do they believe?

Saying that is not the same thing as using God in a common phrase. She's attributing part of who you are to a magical figure. It's similar, to me, if you'd said you were stubborn and she'd asked if you were a Taurus. Or what your Meyers Briggs type is. Or your enegram type. Or wanted to align your chakras. Or see a psychic. Or bring up something from Dr. Oz. Or Carolyn Myss. Or any other foolishness.

I'd bolt. While laughing.
posted by orsonet at 5:57 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am the atheistiest of atheists. I might say what your therapist said. I think it's really more a figure of speech than it's any indication of her spiritual beliefs, and certainly says nothing about her thoughts on your homosexuality.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2016

You are never ever going to find a therapist whose beliefs align 100% with yours. You will find no one in any part of your life for whom this is the case. Your goal is to find the therapist of best fit who also helps you.

You're assuming I see that it was God and not god. I (gay, female, agnostic? athiest? I really don't care)
will sometimes say, "If god wanted us to..." and related iterations as a short-hand turn of phrase that people will recognize. BUT I also say, "Honestly, I think that's just how he came out of the factory," though it is not my personal belief that humans are assembled in factories.

My therapist has some beliefs and practices I think are completely bonkers and contrary to what I believe/do. She very occasionally recommends, in my opinion, woo-style remedies for some issues along with mentioning energies and auras and crap like that. If she asks for my take I'll say I think that's bonkers. And we move on.

How long have you been seeing her? Is she otherwise a good fit? If she is, and if she does think that there is a god who gives us traits, she's been thinking that the whole time she's been helping you. If she's not a good fit then this is a non-issue that hopefully inspires you to find something you can actually work with. But if you've been making strides that you're proud of and are going to dump her because she has different beliefs than you, no, I think that is not at all a prudent decision.
posted by good lorneing at 7:20 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

You are never ever going to find a therapist whose beliefs align 100% with yours. You will find no one in any part of your life for whom this is the case. Your goal is to find the therapist of best fit who also helps you.

This is also a good point. Along the lines of Einstein's advice (which I hope is not apocryphal) that "we can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them" or Audre Lorde's acknowledgment that "the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house," it's important to acknowledge that a therapist who's different from you may help you develop those neglected parts of yourself that will help you find the balance and strength you're looking for. If you could have solved all your issues by thinking exactly like you do, you would have done so already and wouldn't need outside help!

Which doesn't excuse a therapist who's contemptuous, of course, let alone actively harmful (and I know that such therapists exist) but I think there's a tendency for smart people to think that being more thinky is the only way to solve problems and to look for therapists who engage their thinkiness without challenging them to develop their other parts (emotions, spirituality (which does *not* need to be religious), physicality).
posted by lazuli at 7:31 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I could see flagging that statement in my head from anyone, let alone my therapist. That said, I'm an atheist and anti-religion, and my daughter just asked me two days ago why I say "Jesus Christ!" when I'm angry. So, yeah.
posted by defreckled at 7:40 PM on May 11, 2016

Saying that is not the same thing as using God in a common phrase.

There are plenty of commonplace aphorisms about how we're born with certain strengths/gifts and not others; I actually commented in this thread because I said something similar over the weekend using a God metaphor, despite being totally nonreligious. It's shorthand for a certain idea. I also know people who say, with some degree of levity, "God giveth and God taketh away," and "God helps those who help themselves," even though they, too, are totally nonreligious young folks-- they're just ways of expressing certain truisms about lived human experience. (As in, sometimes something amazing happens and is ruined immediately, leading to despair, or someone is floundering but refuses to take first steps to save their situation. These are conundrums of human behavior, difficult things to understand, and our Western culture is suffused with a lot of Christian parables and philosophizing.)

As for "what else do they believe?" it doesn't actually matter what they believe, as long as they're skilled at their job and they're helping you. You can ask your therapist about this more, or say you're not interested in hearing about God in the future (if she was serious), or move on if you think her possible spirituality is bleeding too much into your sessions. But immediately jumping to the conclusion that she's an irrational idiot because she may have mentioned God is a bit ridiculous. (See the entire history of thought, where many very intelligent and influential intellectual figures have had a wide variety of religious beliefs.)
posted by stoneandstar at 9:21 PM on May 11, 2016

It smuggles in a theory of human nature, is the problem. It's a theory about what in people is fixed and what's changeable - what change looks like, and what its limits are; what's good, what's bad; what's disease, what's health - it's a theory that is fundamental in the process of facilitating psychological change and adjustment in another person.

in reference to particular habit of mine, she said something to the effect of "that is not a trait God gives us, but one we learn in life."

Which "traits" are from God, and which are learned? How does she know which are which? Which ones has she decided are clinical problems that you need help with? (Because she has decided what's normal, there, not you. You need to feel you're trusting her reference points for it. Or I would.) How much does she think you can expect to change? It's not at all academic.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:06 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

This would also be a red flag for me. The usage is neither profanity nor another type of instinctual phrase. I agree with you, that it clearly expresses a counter worldview. You are not overreacting. I think it is a reasonable thing to bring up with your therapist or drop them for.

If you don't feel comfortable bringing this up with your therapist, how useful are future sessions going to be anyway?
posted by mountmccabe at 11:10 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a ton of gay male friends. Most of them I know through the Episcopal Church. Many are deeply religious--very serious about their faith. None are bigoted. Maybe your therapist is a bigoted Christian. But maybe your therapist is like many of my gay Christian friends--some of the most amazing people you ever will meet. It would be a shame to miss out on good people because there are others who are awful.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:17 AM on May 12, 2016

Which "traits" are from God, and which are learned? How does she know which are which? Which ones has she decided are clinical problems that you need help with? (Because she has decided what's normal, there, not you. You need to feel you're trusting her reference points for it. Or I would.) How much does she think you can expect to change? It's not at all academic.

The words a therapist might use to intervene with a client are not the same words, most of the time, that same therapist might use to explain her own beliefs, let alone construct her own theories of human nature. There's a complex dance of trying to help the client develop their own beliefs, and especially in early sessions, there may be a lot of throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks to figure out how best to work with the client's own beliefs and strengths and tendencies.
posted by lazuli at 6:23 AM on May 12, 2016

Sure, trying out different metaphors, OK - a metaphor used this way still always conveys an idea about what this thing is a person is suffering from, who they "really" are, what's normal... That doesn't have to be in DSM language - although surely being communicated ideas about any diagnoses is important - but I think it should still be honest. And if I as a client had a traumatic experience relating to religion, someone referring to religion or a god for their source material, even metaphorically, would lose my trust.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:49 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just ask her. Being religious doesn't automatically exclude a person from being an effective counselor. I believe effective counseling is predicated, largely, on the quality of communication between both the counselor and the patient. Persons with strong, antithetical existential opinions are not likely to communicate well beyond superficial exchanges. My flags would begin to hoist if she asked me to pray for guidance, or if she suggested that I worry about Satanic influence. Well, I suppose other religious notions might also raise my hackles. I can see how this could cloud a counseling session.

However, it seems to me that being gay doesn't automatically exclude you from believing in God (or vice versa), so, in that respect her statement may not be too far afield. It may be worth your time to investigate her beliefs, and determine how they fit with your own. For all you know she may not predicate her counseling tactics on religious ground at all.

In any case talking with her about her statement is completely appropriate. It may lead to fruitful communications between the two of you. If it leads to a blind alley, then move on.
posted by mule98J at 10:51 AM on May 12, 2016

Personally I think it might just be an innocuous generic figure of speech, and no reason to be fussy about.

But if you feel something or anything about this issue, then you do have the freedom to find a new therapist. It can be about something trivial, and it can even be for no reason at all, except that you feel like finding a new therapist. Which is also valid.
posted by ovvl at 6:26 PM on May 12, 2016

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