Psychotherapy, Mormonism, and me

When I read advice for counseling Church members, I did not expect to see myself

A while back, searching for something else, I came across an academic paper advising psychotherapists how to treat Mormon clients.

I began reading the article, by Stephanie Lyon at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, with a certain degree of smugness – ready to look down on what I had left behind years ago.   

Even though so many of the Brethren’s directives are harmful, I know many Church members are loving and kind and wake up every day hoping to make the world a better place. But I’m a better person outside the Church, and I’m proud that I left.

I’m also proud of some personality traits that I ascribe to growing up Mormon among Southern Baptists and evangelicals. Industriousness, yes, plus a willingness to express counter opinions. I’m not sure that’s what my Sunday School teachers had in mind in their lessons to proclaim the faith, but there it is.

I figured any insights I’d gain from the Journal of Religious Health would be about the religious. To be sure, there was plenty of that.  I’d like to think I am no longer at risk of being “overly deferential and obedient to a male therapist,” for example. No longer are questions of faith “a severe source of anxiety,” though they certainly were in the past. And I’ve relaxed on “this constellation of ideal traits [that] can encourage Mormon people to be rigid, structured, ritualistic, and overly restrained in their way of approaching the world.” (See more quotes from the article at the end of this post.)

Lyon’s observations included that Mormons tend to resist introspection and be leery of ambiguity and paradox, and that Mormon clients do better if they frame psychotherapy as a type of “work,” rather than as an inward journey or self-care. Lyon describes how deeply embedded the idea of eternal progression is to Mormons and advises therapists to focus on “action-oriented” therapies because “‘Mormons are comfortable with the notion that one must do something to make progress and see change.”

Oh, hello. I’ve never been particularly good at those activities where you are supposed to “just be”. I don’t want to bask on the lake shore. I want to tromp around it, make a full and complete circle, finish the circuit. In my teacher training days, a fellow trainee observed how important it was for me to feel I was making clear, constant progress rather than just being happy to participate. (She did not mean this as a compliment.) I was always impatient at the assignments when we were just supposed to write our reflections.

This manifested in the journal-keeping I did as a child because the prophets advised it. When I was 12, I gave myself a set of indicators of spiritual progress that I listed out and checked off in my journal every night. Even when I had to give myself an X instead of a check, I felt a sense of security flipping through the pages in my journal and tracking the marks, trying to gain insights into my mistakes and failures.

According to Lyon, the preference for action is paired with something else: a “resistance many LDS people feel toward looking inward and seeking to deeply know the self.”

So now I have to wonder – is that from me being me, or from being Mormon?

Also, if I thought really hard about that question, would I be making progress at introspection?

I’ve put it on my to-do list for the weekend.


Other quotes from the article: Lyon, S. J. Psychotherapy and the Mormon Church.  J Relig Health (2013) 52:622–630

NB: My husband just read some these and kept saying “that’s you.” Dear readers, which do you think apply to you?

All of the major defensive patterns employed by Latter-day Saints serve to distance the Mormon person from his or her emotions through a discouragement of introspection.

The LDS church places a high value on certain personality characteristics and encourages that these characteristics be cultivated by members of the church. Some of these traits include industriousness, the careful use of time, restraint of aggression, control of temper and sexual impulses, and compulsive performance of religious and personal duties. While these traits may make an individual a more highly valued church member, these same traits could also easily become pathological.

While the idea that each person is ‘‘God-in-embryo’’ can provide a great sense of purpose to a Mormon person, it can also lead to a great deal of shame because any identified flaws are viewed as personal defects, compromising one’s potential for godliness (Koltko 1991).

Members of the LDS community are also often encouraged to be perfectionistic and are therefore prone to the disappointment that follows when one inevitably fails to attain perfection.

A therapist working with this population would be wise to explain the potential benefits to be obtained by looking inward, including that greater insight can help a person learn from his or her mistakes, as this ability is highly valued by most Mormon people.

Because of the high worth the church places on free agency, ‘‘Mormons typically feel that they are totally responsible for all their actions and feelings—an attitude which when taken to extremes can results in despair, depression, and inaction bordering on paralysis’’ (Koltko 1991).

The patient may expend a great deal of psychic energy speculating about the therapist’s beliefs or wondering what the therapist thinks and feels about LDS beliefs.

Emphasizing that seeking to understand the self through psychotherapy is a type of ‘‘work,’’ or a way of exercising one’s free agency, may be particularly well received by members.

Questions of faith have the potential to be a major source of anxiety for a Mormon person because ‘‘a fear about the stability of your testimony is a fear about the stability of something as central as the way you deal with reality’’ (Koltko 1992).

‘‘Mormons have a relatively low tolerance for ambiguity and paradox; they seem leery of the existence of conflicting unconscious motives and drives’’ (Koltko 1991). This belief is in direct conflict with the foundations of psychodynamic modalities of treatment.


Raised Mormon in the American South. Grateful to have left the Church, grateful for many things it taught me

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Donna Banta says:

    Wow. This is a great post. And what an interesting and insightful take on “free agency.” Rather than freeing a Mormon to choose, agency means a Mormon is responsible for all of his/her(no “their” in this scenario) failures. He/she made the wrong choice. We all know freedom to choose comes with the expectation that we choose “the right” until we attain perfection! If a member falls short it has nothing to do with the unrealistic expectations the LDS Church imposes. He/she(not they) just needs to work harder.

    Yikes! I think I’ll take a moment to meditate now.

  2. chanson says:

    a fellow trainee observed how important it was for me to feel I was making clear, constant progress rather than just being happy to participate.

    I completely relate to this. I was trained to set goals and always be making progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.