A Client’s Reflection on Uncontrolling and Relational Therapy

by Janyne McConnaughey

How can counseling that’s not about God restore a client’s trust in God?

Eight years ago, I walked through the door of an old Victorian house for my first therapy appointment. The therapist I had come to see was on a list of psychotherapists recommended to the students in the counseling program at the college where I taught. I wanted advice about signing my faculty contract for the following year. Surprisingly, when asked what my goal was for therapy, I found myself writing the word peace. Little did I know that this longing for peace was due to surfacing memories of childhood abuse. The subconscious protective strategies built as a small child had stood the test of time and were collapsing.

Unlike the church-based myth that therapy that is not spiritually focused will draw people away from their faith, I found the exact opposite to be true. This reflection follows my quest to understand the reasons why my faith grew stronger—against all odds—while healing from early childhood, childhood, and young adult trauma, including religious abuse. The therapeutic healing process included EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). My growing understanding of Open and Relational Theology and God as uncontrolling walked alongside the trauma-based therapeutic process of healing.

In hindsight, I realize that my therapist’s therapeutic methods modeled the uncontrolling love of God. We became partners in the quest for healing layer after layer of my traumatic story. As a therapist, she was always working for my good but could not change the harm inflicted on me in the past. Nor could she control my actions and choices or the actions of some who, unaware of the impact of trauma in my life, unintentionally continued to cause additional harm while I healed.

Instead of controlling, her role was to empower me. This role did not involve rescuing—something I often wanted her to do and had hoped God would do for a lifetime. Her role was to help me recognize my strength and develop the resources and tools that would enable me to weather future storms in healthier ways. The idea that I possessed everything I needed to do this was counterintuitive to the teachings of an all-powerful God who controlled all aspects of my life. The lifelong teachings in the church about my identity being in Christ, having no strength without God, and never trusting my feelings or choices walked right in step with trauma-induced patterns of learned helplessness that caused me to second-guess every choice.

During the healing process, I realized how deeply the idea of God as controlling had permeated my spiritual life. Though I did mention God during sessions, that did not mean I wanted to talk about God. It was simply a fear-based response to being told to keep God at the center of everything. I quickly realized that the spiritually simplistic platitudes had never helped me and would never provide an answer to my inner turmoil. It was not a spiritual problem.

When I stopped looking for a spiritual answer, I recognized a deep-seated belief that God had caused my pain for the purpose of using me to help others. I believed the only reason to heal was to be used by God for this purpose. There was nothing in any of this that involved a relationship with God. My trust in God was as fleeting as my trust in my therapist. I now see that the process of learning to trust her eventually helped me to trust God. Therapy needed to not be about God. It instead needed to focus on building relational trust—the only path to this was an uncontrolling relationship.

Sometimes, when I mentioned God during the first two years of therapy, it was more about trusting my therapist than God. Would this person I was paying to help me give me the same answers as the church? After sixty years of receiving spiritual answers to what I was beginning to understand as the effects of developmental trauma, receiving spiritual admonitions would have been a deal breaker. It would have been evidence that another person placed spiritual answers above a relationship, disregarded my pleas for help, and attributed the problem to a lack of faith.

Those with a history of spiritual abuse often exhibit strong distrust for a God who appeared to abandon them along with the religious leaders and often the church in general. Those who are trying to keep their faith intact often believe that will only happen if they work with a Christian therapist, unwittingly seeking help that may add another layer of pain—usually due to a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma—especially when it is religious trauma. The therapeutic relationship cannot help but be intertwined with distrust. Focusing on a client’s relationship with a God they may feel abandoned them adds a layer that can stand in the way of developing the trust necessary for healing relational trauma.

How did trust develop in my therapeutic relationship? Some days I tried to take control and needed boundaries set that were appropriate for the relationship. On other days I fell into a pattern of helplessness and longed to be told what to do. The thing I longed for on those days—for someone to tell me what to do—was the very last thing I needed. I believed God required blind obedience and had been told what to do by parents, teachers, pastors, and bosses for over sixty years. I both fought against and longed for control. What I needed in every session was relational care. Being asked, “What do you need?” was a foreign question and certainly not something I thought God cared about. I needed the care of an uncontrolling God to be modeled.

My work as a survivor advocate allows me to observe many who have bravely chosen to seek therapy. Their success or failure depends on the principle of “good fit” which is dependent on the relationship. A therapeutic relationship is a dance that depends on an uncontrolling therapist and a client’s growing sense of empowerment. This is much like how God works in our lives—with uncontrolling love that leads us to self-reflection and builds confidence in making choices in line with that leading. This process moves us from powerlessness to empowerment.

In my advocacy work, I have learned that attempting to either push or control the healing process of others is most often useless and often damaging. Many trauma survivors want someone else to be in charge and dictate the direction and steps of their healing process. When this happens, they will often give a false sense that the work is successful when they may only be reenacting compliance from previous control-based relational abuse. I often tried to appear healthier than I was to please my therapist or help her feel confident in our work—she recognized this immediately.

Spiritual counseling is especially susceptible to this because the goal is to be more spiritual. The result is compliance, not empowerment. It is the exact opposite of what is needed. It is easy to fall into a controlling relationship with someone who was trained to be compliant—almost always true of those who have experienced religious abuse.

In conclusion, it was my therapist’s uncontrolling approach to therapy that allowed me to forge my personal path to finding answers to my spiritual questions. These spiritual questions were wound up with trauma but were not the core problem. The empowering care I received allowed me to understand the relationship God desired to have with me. The purpose of therapy was not to help me trust God. It instead provided a model of what relational trust feels like. For me, trust was the sense of felt safety for which all survivors long. Felt safety is what I attempted to ask for when I wrote peace on the intake form. God could not have modeled this trusting relationship without partnering with a therapist who empowered me through uncontrolling relational care.

Janyne McConnaughey, trauma-informed author and speaker (www.janyne.org ), has authored four books including Trauma in the Pews: The Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices. She earned a PhD in Educational Leadership from University of Colorado—Denver and retired from a forty-year career in education. Janyne currently serves as Board President for the Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN). She and her husband live south of Seattle.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love