The Psychotherapist’s Doubt

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW




“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood

where the true way was wholly lost.”


Dante Alighieri from The Divine Comedy



When Words of Faith Feel Alienating


So far I have been focusing on the inspiring aspects of faith, but what about its counterpart, the doubting component? If we fail to also acknowledge the presence of doubt in our lives, the times when we feel “wholly lost,” then words of faith can quickly become meaningless and ultimately alienating—as if they were meant for other people who have their lives more together. The reality is that so much of the time we are not inhabiting this faithful place. Instead we are lost, seeking but not finding, struggling, worried, overwhelmed, out of touch, or otherwise preoccupied with our daily concerns and challenges.


As memorable as it is, the 23rd Psalm does not begin to capture the full complexity of the actual human experience. For most of us, the journey is not just about being guided to still waters and green pastures and resting there happily for the remainder of our lifetimes, knowing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Often we are not feeling fully alive in body, mind and spirit, as Brother David described, and we do not always have access to that feeling of belonging that reminds us of the unity of all things and of our place in that universal belonging. We may have experienced faith and even believe that our path is guided, to some degree, by the wisdom that we have accumulated over the course of our lives, but for some of the time, at least, the feelings of love and the other spiritual emotions are nowhere to be found.



Therapists Must Work With Their Doubt as Well as Their Faith


This is very true of psychotherapy as well. As much as therapists may have faith in the healing forces of nature, this does not guarantee that we will always be able to access these healing forces in our work or that they will be able to help us along in every situation. Just as there are meaningful and transformational times in psychotherapy, there are also plenty of times when therapy feels stuck, where there seem to be few if any moments of meaning (not to mention transformational moments), and where the psychotherapy relationship, even if it is a solid, does not feel sufficient to inspire or to help a client move forward. It is hard to imagine any therapist who would not feel “wholly lost” at times in their work.


It is helpful for therapists to actively experience faith, but we also need to learn to be skillful in our times of doubt, to know how to be with our clients when the path is not clear and when our inner knowing does not feel sufficient to guide us. Key to doing this is to begin by remembering that doubt is not some horrible enemy threatening to derail our process, but rather is something to be expected. After all, doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an aspect of faith. Because therapists are working in the realm of faith rather than the realm of certainty, we are to some degree separated from the content of our faith, as Tillich described. If we think of the content of our faith as involving our connection to the healing forces of nature, then it is clear that therapists should not expect to have the sense of control that certainty could offer.



Disorientation is a Legitimate Part of a Therapist’s Experience


A good way to illustrate how we as therapists are separated from our objects of faith is to think about what happens when we are trying to harmonize with a client’s experience of felt meaning. Unlike the old way of thinking, where therapists would assume that their interpretations were correct, we are now more humble and attempt to make interpretations that the client finds meaningful and that create a sense of forward movement. As a result, our interpretations become mere hypotheses until proven otherwise. We must be flexible enough to alter our hypotheses based upon client responses, which will always reflect each client’s unique intricacy, beyond anything that we could ever precisely anticipate.


As we become experienced as therapists, it becomes easier to see this process of trial and error as more of a friend than an enemy. With experience we are less likely to interpret our times of confusion or disorientation as meaning that we are not doing therapy correctly or that we are failing to have a sufficient understanding of a particular client. Rather than have it be a signal of a problem, that familiar disoriented feeling can be a friendly reminder that reality is more complex than we can imagine and that we have to take in new information and regroup. We can expect to follow a kind of rhythm of creating structure, dismantling (to various degrees) what we have created, and restructuring.


Once we know that doubt is not the enemy, we are in a position to accept ourselves and our process in times of doubt, just as we attempt to accept and appreciate our clients in difficult moments. We can still make efforts to help a stuck interaction come alive again, but ideally we can do this without conveying a sense of urgency. Having patience is essential for therapists; we do not want to feel anxious about making progress, and we certainly do not want to impose our anxiety or frustrations on the client. This is particularly challenging for beginning therapists who do not fully understand the rhythms of faith and doubt in our work and who may be too quick to blame themselves (or worse, the client) for not being able to move the process forward.



The Need for Poetry That Includes Both Faith and Doubt


If the poetry of spirituality only highlighted the uplifting aspects of faith, it may end up being more off-putting than reassuring. By contrast, if we are able to feel met and appreciated right where we are, in our place of doubt, discomfort, despair or alienation, then we are more likely to experience an emotional shift. Like everyone else, psychotherapists need a source of inspiration that speaks to our doubting side. This may be especially true for our profession, since the various advocates of different psychotherapy approaches tend to emphasize their successes and to ignore failures or instances when their approaches are not working.


I find that some of the most beautiful poetry of spirituality addresses this place of no faith and offers ways to re-frame our experience; it helps us to open the door to the unexpected. The segment below is from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” and speaks to that complex mix of faith and doubt that is so much a part of the human experience. Just as the 23rd Psalm extolls the uplifting qualities of faith, Mary Oliver’s poem introduces the possibility of finding some way to belong, even in more troubled times.


“Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again. 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”


Excerpt from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver


“Wild Geese” is not about the profound experience of belonging that Brother David describes as being at the heart of our feelings of aliveness. Instead, it touches on a different kind of belonging that may happen when we are not feeling as connected or inspired. The poem suggests the possibility of finding our place in the family of things, but doing so from a state of loneliness. The world can feel harsh, like the harsh call of the wild geese, but it can be exciting at the same time. It suggests that we might hear the world calling to us to belong, even in the darker times.



The Transition from Doubt to Faith: Opening to Faith


When we look at faith and doubt together, we have the advantage of being able to focus on something very critical to humanity, and that is the transition from doubt to faith. Given the demands of our day to day existence, our ordinary lives don’t necessarily inspire faith, and, as a result, we tend to seek some ritualized way to rekindle the experience of faith. I believe that it is this transition to faith that most of us are looking for when we attend church or synagogue or maintain connection with our spiritual communities or spiritual literature.


In the same way, we as psychotherapists are often challenged to make this same transition, to move more into a place of faith and out of our everyday mindset. So much of what we do depends up our ability to make the transition from doubt, fear, preoccupation or indifference to faith. The poem below by David Whyte helps us experience how, in just an instant, we can begin to open the door to faith.


“I want to write about faith,

about the way the moon rises

over cold snow, night after night,


faithful even as it fades from

 fullness, slowly becoming that last

curving and impossible sliver of

light before the final darkness.


But I have not faith myself,

I refuse it the smallest entry.


Let this then, my small poem

like a new moon, slender and

barely open, be the first prayer

that opens me to faith.”


“Faith” by David Whyte


In the poem “Faith,” the narrator admires how the moon can remain faithful even in its cycle of fading. The moon is such a good soldier, content to rise over cold snow until it gradually disappears into “the final darkness.” Yet for people, our times of fading are rarely met with faith. We are more likely to feel critical of ourselves or discouraged or frightened in those fading times. We always want to shine at our brightest, although we know intellectually that all of nature, including human nature, must be subject to the cycles of fullness and fading and ultimately of birth and death.


What I like best about the poem is that the narrator takes a stand (just like Dante’s hero who is lost in the dark wood) and is willing to admit that he has no faith himself, that he refuses it “the smallest entry.” In making that statement to the world, he is acknowledging and, in a way, actually embracing his place of no faith. He reminds us that we can be blessed in this place of no faith, and from there we can still offer a prayer. He writes a poem about the faith of the moon, and this helps to inspire him. With his “small poem, like a new moon, slender and barely open,” he offers a first prayer to open himself to faith.



Conclusions: Keeping Hope Alive


Having experienced faith is an advantage for us when we encounter the inevitable times of doubt in our work. A crucial part of a therapist’s faith is not just about accessing the miraculous healing processes, but also being able to trust ourselves and our process, even when we are not feeling connected to our faith and the healing powers do not seem to be present. A big part of what makes psychotherapy feel like a spiritual practice is our role in keeping the hope and possibilities alive when the therapy is less dramatic or expansive.


We need to know how to work with both our faith and our doubt because ultimately we serve as “keepers of the flame” for our clients. We provide a special kind of holding environment to protect our clients and the two of us together during the more fading times when our faith cannot shine enough to guide the way. With the help of our clients, we can continue to hold hope that something might emerge that will surprise us and open up unexpected possibilities, no matter how subtle, for carrying life forward.


Fortunately we have an excellent ritual for returning ourselves to a place of faith, and that is through our experience with our clients. Just as the moon is inspiring, we often find that, in the course of our working day, and often in the course of the minute to minute interactions with our clients, we receive the inspiration that we need. Just a subtle “ah-ha” moment, as when the client speaks a particular phrase that captures just what they are feeling, can make a big difference. Similarly, a moment in an otherwise uneventful session when we might see the innocence in a client’s eyes, or when we are able to laugh together, can feel like that prayer that opens us to faith.