Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Psychological impact of self-forgiveness

Authored by Rebecca Schichtel,  who is an undergraduate student here at Trinity Christian College.
 
When a cognitive process is disrupted, it can cause an abundance of problems. As sinful human beings, it is important for us to learn to forgive ourselves. We are imperfect and flawed. Without the ability to forgive ourselves, we can fall into an unhealthy pattern of negativity and self-depreciation. Two psychologists, J. H. Hall and F. D. Fincham studied some factors that could affect people’s likeliness to forgive themselves (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012).. This article focuses on how perceived forgiveness from God affects self-forgiveness (McConnell & Dixon, 2012).
 
Before focusing on how perceived forgiveness affects self-forgiveness, this article began by briefly analyzing a few other factors. In comparing guilt and shame in this context, shame appeared to have a more negative effect on self-forgiveness than guilt. This could be because guilt seems to center around other people, whereas shame tends to center around the person feeling guilty. This focus on oneself could lead to self-disapproval and evasion, which could lead to a damaging cognitive pattern. Hall and Finchman (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012) also compared empathy and conciliatory behavior. Empathy was found to be only slightly related to self-forgiveness. Surprisingly, when attributions were studied, they were found to be completely separate from self-forgiveness. Hall and Fincham had thought that inner attributions would have inhibited true self-forgiveness because the person would place a great amount of responsibility on him- or herself. Moreover, Hall and Finchman studied how the severity of transgressions affected people’s ability to forgive themselves. They found that altering the perception of the severity of transgressions did have an effect on self-forgiveness because the offenders may have seen more severe wrongdoings as too terrible to allow self-forgiveness (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012). Finally, the authors dove into the idea of perceived forgiveness, particularly perceived forgiveness from God, as increasing people’s likelihood of forgiving themselves.
 
When people experience guilt and shame, they “can experience guilt and/or shame ‘internally’ in relation to their selves and ‘horizontally’ in relation to other persons, but also ‘vertically’ in relation to God” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 32). It has been shown through studies that people who feel guilt and shame will be more likely to forgive themselves if they receive forgiveness from other people, such as the person who had wrong done to them. Spinning off of that idea, Hall and Finchman tested “the hypothesis that self-forgiveness is a possible antecedent variable of perceived forgiveness from God in personal instances” (as cited in McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 33). They did this by presenting three questionnaires to “evenly distributed” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012, p. 33) groups of participants. The participants also received the questionnaires in varying order to eliminate order as a variable. One questionnaire asked about adjective ratings (ARG), one asked about God image inventory (GII), and the other was about self-forgiveness. In the end, they found that personal “perceived forgiveness from God is significantly correlated with self-forgiveness” (McConnell & Dixon, 2012p. 36).
 
If people are forgiven by those they hurt, by other people around them, and by God, would it not make sense that they would have an easier time forgiving themselves? If people hurt others around them, and those who were hurt will not forgive them, it would be more difficult to forgive themselves. The good news is that we do have a forgiving God, a God who will forgive all our sins no matter what we have done. Seeing God in this light can help people forgive themselves because if the Creator of the universe is willing to forgive them, why should they not forgive themselves? Unfortunately, many people do not see God this way, and many have a contradictory belief that even though we have a forgiving God, God would not be willing to forgive them personally.
 
Perhaps the knowledge that perceived forgiveness from God can help people forgive themselves, ultimately allowing them to live a more comfortable and more joyful life, can be used in therapy. People who cannot forgive themselves may have illogical thinking processes involving thoughts about how terrible they are, that there is nothing that they can do to change that, and because they are so dreadful, God would not possibly be able to forgive them. Perchance this type of faulty thought process could be stopped through cognitive therapy. If people could see the areas that do not match up, maybe they could come to see they are forgiven and then eventually be able to forgive themselves.
 
Thought stopping could also break the chain of actions that can come from this type of thinking. If people think they are terrible, they do not think they deserve to be forgiven. That could lead to them feeling there is no point in trying so they do more things that make them feel worse. Stopping those thoughts would also stop that chain of disagreeable actions (McConnell & Dixon, 2012).
 
This article helped me understand more about the cognitive side of therapy. It made me think about how people think and how those thoughts can be changed. It made me think about why certain processes of thought should be changed and how just faulty patterns of thinking can change your whole life. I can completely see how this would be related to depression or possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. How we think and what we focus on can have such a greater impact than I thought.
 
All in all, it seems the forgiveness of self might be closely connected with perceived forgiveness from God. If this is the case, it could be very beneficial to bring people’s spiritual and religious views into the light of conversation in therapy. If people are able to work through the difficult feelings of shame and guilt vertically, they might have an easier time doing the same internally. I wonder whether those who have not been forgiven by those they hurt would be able to forgive themselves without the knowledge that God forgives them. This makes me wonder what is the best way to help people through situations where they might never be forgiven entirely by those they hurt. They still need to learn to forgive themselves.  
 
References
 
McConnell, J. M., & Dixon, D.N. (2012). "Perceived Forgiveness from God and Self- Forgiveness." Journal of Psychology and Christianity 31 (1), 31-39.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Psychology Renewed Conference


Additionally, CEUs will be available for LPCs and LCPCs for a small processing fee. Please contact Michael DeVries with questions at michael.devries at trnty.edu

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Loving the Deviant of the Group


The following blog entry was adapted from a chapel speech given by Dr. Clevering on October 30, 2013

One of the great things about finding a major in college is that you get insight into the Bible from a whole new perspective.  A history major might learn more about ancient Mesopotamia and therefore have a better understanding of the culture and customs of the people surrounding Israel.  An English major might learn about syntax and parallelism and have a better appreciating of the poetry of the psalms.  And a psychology major may have insights into Jesus’ social interactions.

One passage which I feel I understand better as a psychologist is Luke 19:1-10.  This is the story of Jesus meeting Zaccheus, the tax collector, and going to eat with him.    

To understand the psychology in this story we also need to understand the historical setting of the story.  Zaccheus was Jewish.  And he collected taxes from the Jews on behalf of the Romans.  If that weren’t bad enough, the taxcollectors in those days were allowed to charge people whatever they wanted so long as the Romans got their portion.  That meant the tax collectors got to line their own pockets with a lot of extra cash.  So we can’t think of these tax collectors as just an ancient version of the IRS.  Tax collectors were pretty shady characters and they fraternized with the enemy.  In fact, because of their interactions with the Roman gentiles they were considered to be unclean by their fellow Jewish countrymen. 

As a tax collector, Zaccheus is what we would call an in-group deviant.  In-group deviants are in your in-group.  They have an association with you.  When you use the pronoun “we” it includes them.  They belong to one of the groups you belong to.  Other people make a connection between you and them.  But they are different, and weird, and just not normal.  They don’t go along with the group norms.  They are an embarrassment.  The term deviant refers to the fact that they deviate from what is expected.  They deviate from how everyone thinks they should behave.  Deviants don’t do what they’re supposed to do and don’t think how they’re supposed to think. 

Zaccheus was an in-group deviant.  He was Jewish, he lived among his fellow Jews and counted himself as a belonging to the Jewish people.  And yet he collected taxes for the Romans.  He associated with gentiles and took money from his own people.  So nobody liked him.   

Studies show that people tend to dislike an in-group deviant even more than someone from a rival group.  One interesting study was conducted at a university which was known for being a party school.  It was not cool to be studious at this university.  The students at this university were asked to rate how much they would like to be friends with several types of people.  One type was someone at their own school who spent a lot of time studying.  Another type was someone from a rival school who spent a lot of time studying.  The people at that university said they would rather be friends with the studious person from the rival school than someone from their own school who was studious.  In other words, it is easier to love a Roman than someone from your own group who collects taxes for the Romans. 

This is why Jesus’ behavior is so fascinating.  In the book of Matthew Jesus verbally commanded us to love our enemies.  That is really hard.  But we can often get away with thinking we do this.  After all, an enemy is an abstract concept.  Enemies are not in your in-group.  They aren’t your people.  You don’t feel a connection to them.  You don’t come into contact with them often so it’s easy to love them in theory.  But then in the story of Zaccheus, Jesus commands us by example to love our in-group deviants.  This is so much harder. 

Just think how easy it is to talk about accepting each other’s differences and how hard it is to love that guy who always sits with you in the cafeteria making awkward comments and asking you to explain all your jokes.  How easy it is to accept the guy in the cool car driving by you on the road and how hard it is to love your clueless upper-class roommate who has no idea what it really means to work hard for something.  How easy it is to attend a civil discourse presenting both sides of a political debate and how hard it is to love your best friend from high school who insists on posting the most ridiculous, biased, political nonsense on facebook.  How easy it is to volunteer at an agency working with people recovering from addictions and how hard it is to love and forgive the person in your own family struggling with addiction.  How easy it is to have an international-style worship service and how hard it is to love that member of your church who let slip a racist comment the other day. 

Those people just don’t get it.  They are so embarrassing.  They are so frustrating.  They are so hard to love. 

The passage ends with Zaccheus having a change of heart – He gave half of his possessions to the poor.  Jesus then declares “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10) Jesus reminds everyone that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham.  He reminds everyone of who Zaccheus belongs to.  We must seek the ability to love our in-group deviants because they belong to us and we belong to them. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Christians and help seeking behaviors


Megan Hanfee-Major is a sophomore at Trinity Christian College double-majoring in Psychology & Communication Arts/ Theatre. Originally from New Richmond, WI, Megan plans to continue her education in Psychology by pursuing a M.A. degree with an emphasis that has not yet been determined. She hopes to eventually serve God's people through a career in counseling, perhaps integrating her love of theatre into the therapeutic process


In an article in The Journal of Psychology and Christianity entitled “Measuring Protestant Christians' Willingness to Seek Professional Psychological Help for Mental Illness: A Rasch Measurement Analysis” (2012) researchers Kenneth D. Royal of the University of Kentucky and Juan Michael Thompson of the University of Louisville attempt to see whether or not self-professed Christians that attend a Protestant- based church are likely to seek professional help with mental illnesses.  This is a particularly interesting topic considering the differing views within Christianity concerning the classification of mental disorders as illnesses or demonic or the like.  The authors’ methods are fairly simple; they conducted a survey within churches regarding the likelihood of seeking professional psychological assistance when dealing with a mental illness.

The survey used was a simple 10 question one with statements such as “If I were experiencing a serious emotional crisis at this point in my life, I would be confident that I could find relief in psychotherapy,” that the participant reacted to.  Overall the results showed that, generally, the group of 540 was not likely to seek professional help although the majority believed that professional intervention could help with their psychological problems.  However, the respondents generally did feel that if they had been feeling depressed or distressed for a long period of time or if they felt as if they were having a mental breakdown that they would seek help (Royal & Thompson, 2012).

The researchers reflected upon previous work done in this area and concluded that “religious” people are less likely than the average person to seek out treatment when a psychological problem arises.  They cite that the most commonly held reason why people in general do not seek help is the stigma attached to receiving psychotherapeutic assistance.  Does this mean that Christians feel this even more strongly?

This would make sense.  Perhaps Christians feel that they should be equipped to manage any sort of distress they encounter in their life because Christ has set them free from bondage.  And while this is true, many people know and are realizingthat just because Christ has gifted us with freedom in His name we can still face trials.  In fact He assures us we will face trials.  And because He knows this He encourages us to lean on our brothers and sisters in the faith for support.  It is unfortunately  still a commonly held belief (especially for Christians) that we should be able to handle our problems on our own and reaching out for help is a sign of weakness.

Another factor that should be considered is that Christians will often reach out to leaders in their churches (pastors, elders, etc.) for assistance in a crisis.  A person of this standing may not be equipped and trained to handle situations involving some mental illnesses, but  may provide valuable insight when dealing with problems such as depression.  Although this may not be the most effective solution it is one many people feel more comfortable with (again, it has less of a stigma attached).  I have to wonder how this study would be able to consider this in their data.

It doesn’t seem like the people involved in the survey were against the idea of seeking treatment altogether.  The majority said that they would consider it- as a last resort.  What causes this mindset?  Why do Christians (those who should understand somewhat the level of human fallibility) especially shy away from seeking out psychotherapeutic help during times of trial and when concerning mental illness?  But the most important question, I think, is how do we combat this?  How can we remove as much as possible the negative connotations associated with receiving psychological help when needed and make it a better option in the minds of people, but especially Christians?  How can we show Christians that dealing with their problems professionally is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but of faith in that they care enough about their whole-body health to seek support?

References:


Royal, K. D., & Thompson, J. (2012). Measuring protestant Christians' willingness to seek professional psychological help for mental illness: A Rasch measurement analysis. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 31(3), 195-204.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What do we teach in our graduate program?

Recently, I was invited to visit one our undergraduate courses to discuss the Christian perspective that is taken in our graduate program.  The framework for this conversation was taken from Johnson’s (2010) book, “Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, 2nd Edition.” After consultation with my faculty colleagues and reflection on our goals in the program two perspectives arise as the most salient, levels of explanation and integration.

The levels-of-explanation perspective asserts that there are unique means and methods to studying psychology that differ from other disciplines such as philosophy, theology or physics. This perspective endorses a belief that it is important for Christians to learn how to examine constructs of human behavior from a psychological point of view including such things as the scientific method and biological bases for behavior. In our graduate program this means that we study and explore many of the empirically validated treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  It is also reflected in our emphasis on ethical practices within the field and the development of a strong professional counseling identity. A levels-of-explanation perspective exposes our students to a wide range of information and leads to more prepared and informed practitioners.

The integration perspective more clearly blends the study and practice of psychology and Christianity. Integrationists value science and rigorous study but do so from a distinctly Christian perspective. Those using this perspective often examine psychological science and explore its direct relationship to Christian theology. In our graduate program conversations about the impact of Christian faith on the practice of counseling are commonplace. In one of my courses on Social and Cultural Diversity we spend time exploring the impact that Plantinga’s (1995) text, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin” has on our understanding of human pain and difficulty. Examining our clinical and scholarly work within a worldview shaped by Christian thought is an ongoing practice. Working within an integrationist perspective allows our students to deeply engage with biblical values while considering their application to the wider world.

When I consider what goals our faculty have for students who complete our graduate program two main ideas emerge:
 
When you complete TCC’s Master’s Program in Counseling Psychology our faculty aim for you to be a competent and qualified beginning counselor whether you want to work in an explicitly Christian setting or not.

When you complete TCC’s Master’s Program in Counseling Psychology our faculty want you to be able to articulate a holistic view of human nature, including a perspective on how a Christian worldview impacts the practice of counseling.

These two goals align clearly with our Christian perspective in the master’s program.  We value the application of science and the study of psychology from a research based perspective. In addition to that we explore the unique perspective that a Christian worldview provides on psychology. This flexibility suggests a well-rounded and thorough perspective.

          Ultimately our perspective in the graduate program is a reflection of our reformed and ever reforming theology.  As we seek to prepare well-rounded and well-prepared helping professionals we are also responding to the call echoed throughout the bible that “the Kingdom is coming and the Kingdom is here.”  Both are true, that we long for the coming of the day when God’s kingdom rules every corner of the world and that we know that God’s hand is at work within every part of creation right now in the midst of brokenness.  Our philosophy within the master’s program in Counseling Psychology seeks to honor and respect those realities.

References:

Johnson, E.L. (Ed.). (2010). Psychology & Christianity: Five views. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Plantinga, C. (1995). Not the way it’s supposed to be: A breviary of sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Christianity and depression

Ashley Roberts is a junior Psychology and Theology major at Trinity Christian College.  She is currently a Resident Assistant for upperclassman in Alumni Hall.  She has just begun to look at graduate schools; she hopes to study Psychology at graduate level to eventually become a Licensed Clinical Professionals Counselor.  Ashley has a huge heart for service and hopes to love and serve God’s people for the rest of her life.    



            In the Heart Cry Biblical Model of Depression (HCM), David P. Armentrout (2004) attempts to persuade researchers that depression is a normal, God created response.  According to Armentrout, depression is a response that is spiritual function, as well as biological and psychological.  He assumes that this response was originally intended by God to propel corrective action in a way that furthers wisdom, sensitivity, resilience, and hope.  However, as with all things in a fallen world, the depressive response has been distorted and thus has devastating effects.  Armentrout (2004) introduces this model with empirical data comparing those suffering with depression who believe in God and those who do not.  In general, studies have found that religious involvement is positively correlated with lower levels of depression and suicide.  However, another study has shown that depression levels are higher in religious youth that have lost a sibling than those who are not religious.  In the same study, approximately twenty-four months after the loss, the participants were re-interviewed.  Researchers found that those same religious youth had significantly lower levels of depression, while nonreligious youth were still significantly more depressed (Armentrout, 2004).  Armentrout thus concludes with the HCM, “that a Christ softened heart may make an individual more susceptible to depressed feelings, the course of recovery should be faster and less likely to multiply into destructive depression” (p 41). 
            Armentrout highlights that many symptoms of depression align with symptoms of spiritual distress.  He centralizes HCM around 70 Hebrew words found in Scripture and the many references that describe a spiritual loss.  This spiritual loss can be produced by physical or cognitive events that decrease one’s awareness or God or an event that creates perceived separation from God such as enmeshment in sin.  Armentrout also states an individual with a Christ softened heart may experience feelings of depression when mourning with others.  In both schools of thought, the depressed response promotes the loving of God and neighbor if delivered from such feelings.  Normal feelings of depression can thus be seen as motivational in some circumstances.  However, depressed feelings are maladaptive when they become persistent and recurrent.  Armentrout recognizes here that there are some biological preconditions that might make depression reoccur, especially if underlying neurochemical disturbances are occurring during the depression.  Analyses show, once an individual is depressed he or she is vulnerable to become depressed again.Depression is spiraling in nature.  However, Armentrout does not want to simply credit depression to biology.  He cites studies that indicate that pharmacology and cognitive therapy may yield the same results in decreasing symptomology.  He thus concluded that when depression proceeds as God designed it, it will be resolved, self limiting, and usually have some form of enlightenment.  However, when it does not follow design, whether due to chosen habits or predisposed unconscious cognitions, depression will be processed on a destructive and self-repeating path (Armentrout, 2004).
             
            As I consider my development in understanding depression, this article could prove to be very formational.  Depression is so multifaceted and complex that it is hard to explain.  Even harder to explain is that an individual seems to truly feel the absence of God during such times.  Conceptually, this is a lot easier to understand if the Lord uses depression as a normal and adaptive response.  This solidifies the fact that Lord works in mysterious ways, and it all brings Him glory. 
            For further research, I would be interested in two main questions.  How should a clinician engage someone who does not love the one true God?  If depression is a spiritual issue at its core, then a clinician’s goal would be ultimately to share the gospel with their non-Christian clients.  What would that actually look like?  How would Armentrout proceed?  I would also like him to continue to flesh out the biological context of depression.  Some individuals do seem to be clearly predisposed to depression.  In that case, is it more of a biological issue than a spiritual one?       
       As one considers depression and Christianity, the tensions are easily recognizable.  How often has a clinically depressed person been told they are not having enough faith in the Lord, or that he or she just needs to “pray it out”? For whatever reason within the church, depression is often associated with faithlessness.  In the HCM, Armentrout combats this.  A major strength of this model is that he reframes how depression should be viewed.  If depression is a response designed by God it allows for more understanding and grace on behalf of the church.  I would hope that it takes the cultural shame found within the church out of depression.  Another strength I see in his article is that Armentrout does not use Scripture to supplement his findings, but instead uses Scripture as the foundation of his model.  As a Christian psychologist, integration is a long life-challenge; Armentrout successfully exemplifies integration.  This is something I hope to strive for as I continue in the world of psychology. 


References
Armentrout, D.P. (2004). The normal and pathological genesis of depression: The “Heart Cry” biblical model of depression revisited. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23(1) 40-50.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

An apologetic for a Christian practice of mindfulness

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 


If I told Christian people that I was writing a blog on mindfulness I can imagine the looks I would get. Some would be purely quizzical – others, queasy. Mindfulness sounds too “out there”, too wishy-washy, too new-age, too Buddhist. However, if you look at how mindfulness is defined and discussed in many psychological circles it is possible to see mindfulness as a practice of certain orthodox Christian attitudes.

First, mindfulness involves holding a non-judgmental attitude toward one’s thoughts and experience (Carmody, 2009).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness is accepting the forgiveness of their thoughts. Many scripture passages speak of God knowing the hearts of men. Psalm 139:1-4 says that God knows our actions when we sleep, when we sit, and when we go out, but he also knows our thoughts and knows the words on our mouths before we say them. Not only does God know our interior life but he knows that we can sin in our interior life as Matthew 5:28 explains about committing adultery in the heart.

It is important to remember that Christ died for all our sins, those of the heart and mind as well as those of behavior. Many Christians get caught up in works-righteousness, trying to be perfect before God to the point of trying to perfect their own thought-life. Guilt is then suffered over bad thoughts and pride is committed over good thoughts. A Christian practicing mindfulness can recognize that some thoughts are just thoughts and those thoughts that are sinful are nailed to the cross at Calvary and hold dominion no more. Christ forgives us and forgives our thought life. An acceptance of this fact looks a lot like mindful non-judgment.

Second, mindfulness involves being in the present moment (Carmody, 2009).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness realizes that God created us so to live one moment of our lives at a time. Christians who dwell on the past find it difficult to mature and grow and work toward the kingdom of God. Christians who focus on the future may forget to acknowledge who holds the future. God gives us one moment at a time and if we constantly think about our lists, our schedules, and all the things we have to do we run the risk of not fully honoring and respecting God, his creatures, or his creation. For example, when talking with a friend we honor that person as a creature of God by listening attentively, asking questions, and showing we care rather than thinking of the errands we need to run that day. When sitting at a child’s soccer game and the sun shines brilliantly in the sky and the birds are calling to each other in the trees we honor God’s creation by sitting still and enjoying it rather than immediately responding to emails on our smart phones. By living in the present moment we honor God, who, existing outside of time, also lives in an eternal present. This too is a practice of mindfulness.

Last, mindfulness involves giving up control (Mace, 2008).

A Christian practicing this aspect of mindfulness recognizes that we are not in control but God is. Many Christians feel burdened by responsibilities; they feel responsible to bring others to Christ, to raise a family with Christian principles, to be good examples at their workplaces, and to be engaged in their communities. It is important to recognize that the outcomes of these activities do not depend on us. We are not ultimately in control. God is not our co-pilot; he is our pilot. We must always hand over the reins, submit ourselves to God, recognize that it is Christ who lives and works through us, act as servants of God, and repeat the words of Jesus: “not as I will, but as you will.” Acknowledging God’s sovereignty can be a form of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is essentially a practice. For Christians who want a discipline for practicing these spiritual truths they should not be deterred by the wishy-washy sounding name and Buddhist associations of mindfulness. In fact, I think we could all do with a little more Christian mindfulness.

References

Carmody, J. (2009). Evolving conceptions of mindfulness in clinical settings.

Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), 270-280. Doi:10.1891/0889-3891.23.3.270

Mace, C. (2008). Mindfulness and mental health: Therapy, theory and science. New York, NY:Routledge/Taylor& Francis Group. 

Jessica Clevering, PhD Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College