Psychology = The Study of the Soul
By Jordan Johnson, MA, LPC(WI), LPCC(MN)
There are few areas of study that attempt to explain the nature and depth of the human soul. The term “Psychology” comes from the Greek words ψυχη (psyche, pronounced PSEE-key), which means “soul” and λογος (logos, pronounced LOW-goes). Lately, it seems as though modern psychology has moved away from being the study of the soul. Today it refers to a Counseling aspect of understanding thoughts, behaviors, and feelings along with relationships with self and others. It also refers to the Academic aspect of researching observable and measurable components of treating mental disorders.
One of the main challenges that the field of psychology has faced over the past few decades has been to gain recognition as a legitimate field under the large umbrella of Science. Indeed, it typically is lumped into the category of a “soft science” or “social science”, rather than given as much credit as the studies of physical sciences. With this challenge comes the focus on the physical realm and that which can be observed and measured. The logic is that perhaps if what happens during the treatment of mental disorders can be quantified and defined, psychology can be given proper respect. So, new methods of therapy are developed and researchers track behaviors and self-reports of symptoms before, during and after and try to quantify and prove in a concrete and measurable way that therapy has been helpful. Success is defined in behavioral terms, focusing on measurable outcomes. In doing so, a base of knowledge and research of what “works” in therapy, based on our observations of behavior is created. The problem is that sometimes even though it is clear that an intervention or treatment model works, it is unclear WHY it works.
No matter how hard we try to define and quantify what changes during therapy, we are often left without much clarity on how thoughts, feelings, and beliefs have changed inside of an individual that has gone through therapy. The closest we can get is a self-report of the client, since they are the expert on their own internal processes and experiences. However, the field of psychology as a whole and therapists individually all want the same question answered: “Have I helped you feel better at the deepest part of who you are?” Or more succinctly: “Have I helped your soul?”
What is the soul? It is a complex entity. It’s the essence of who you are, like identity. It is the very life-breath inside of you. It is the deepest part of who you are emotionally and mentally. Perhaps a better way to define the soul is to consider what the lack of a soul looks like - a dead body. When we observe a human to no longer breathe, move, or conduct electrical impulses through the nervous system, we can tell that something fundamentally has changed. They have gone from a living being to a dead body. What changed? The soul no longer animates the body. With the soul intact, we have life, vitality, personality, movement, emotion, creativity, relationships with others, thoughts, and much more. When the soul leaves the body, all that is left is the parts of the body assembled together to form what was once the home of the soul.
Another analogy may be to consider a computer. When the computer is built properly and connected to a power source, it turns on and can do tasks for the user. However, it will not operate without an operating system installed first along with specific software that provides the user with the ability to use the computer for its purpose. The soul is like a combination of the operating system, software, and electricity flowing through the circuits, processor, motherboard, memory card, and monitor. When you combine the parts and the “soul” of the computer, you get an amazing machine capable of nearly unlimited functioning. However, if you uninstall the operating system and software and disconnect the computer from the power source, you are left with an assortment of computer components made up of plastics and metals assembled together but not useful. Without a soul, we too would just be body parts with no creativity, direction, purpose, movement or life.
So why has psychology decidedly moved away from acknowledging and even embracing the immaterial, intangible nature of the soul?
I think our general uncomfortability with associating the soul with psychology is the lack of understanding about what the soul is. There is much more familiarity with observable behavior in the world of psychology, so to try to define and study something immaterial borders on the realm of spirituality and faith. This is identified in the academic community as “unscientific”. It’s regarded in the world of mental health professionals as “dangerous ethics”. We’re reluctant to consider that there may be something that exists that is not perceivable by our 5 senses. If there is an element of life that isn’t measurable or observable, then how would we begin to understand it? How would we prove it exists? And if it really does exist, then we’re up against some rather big questions about whether or not God exists and the purpose of life in the first place, including whether our souls exist apart from our bodies.
It can be a logical conclusion at this point that since we can’t measure or observe our souls, we should leave the topic of the soul or spirituality to religion, not to science. This has also been influenced by the past 50-75 years of the removal of God and spiritual concepts from science classes in favor of theories that don’t rely on that which can’t be measured or observed. This has been done under the banner of the separation of “church and state”, which also means the separation of “church and public education”. This movement has effectively removed the study of spiritual things from education and academics, leaving the current population of our country largely disconnected and oblivious to the subject of spirituality.
Oddly enough, for as much as secular education would like to pretend that spirituality and a person’s soul don’t exist, we as humans are drawn to that which acknowledges the existence and influence of a spiritual realm. In the deepest parts of who we are, we cry out to be understood and cared for. We resonate with stories with deep and complex meanings. We long to be connected with others in a way that allows us to know and be known, to love and be loved for all that we are, not just the surface stuff, like our appearance, hobbies and interests. We wonder at a deep level if there's something out there that is bigger and wiser than us and want to understand it better.
There are those who deny the existence of God and instead refer to the universe as having an almost magical and mystical connection with our lives, influencing its outcome based on our actions. It’s almost as if we are playing a grand cosmic game that if we can hack the code and put out the right energies into the universe, we can get anything we want. While at times these people identify themselves as agnostic or atheistic, many will self-identify as “spiritual” but not religious; they’ll acknowledge a spiritual existence, but don’t want the “baggage” of formal religion and its traditions.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who completely denies any sort of spiritual reality. Yet, many people struggle to care for their own soul, find spiritual peace, and feel whole. Wholeness is not possible without acknowledging the needs of our spiritual nature (soul) along with the needs of our physical nature (body). This is often the underlying reality to mental disorders- a troubled, unsettled, fearful and withdrawn soul. This is not to say that an awareness of a soul protects against depression, anxiety, etc. On the contrary, awareness is simply the first step towards caring for our souls. One could be aware of their soul but not care for it well. Sometimes those who are spiritual still lack peace, wholeness, hope, confidence, etc.
The key is to find balance in a way that integrates all aspects of a person into a unified being. This wholeness occurs when a person makes efforts to grow and develop in the important ways necessary to address all facets of their being: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual and Relational. Psychology has done well at addressing our Relational, Mental and Emotional facets. As a field, it has incorporated the Physical more recently as well. What is still sorely lacking as a field of study is the integration of the Spiritual facet of a person.
Therapists often have to err on the side of not discussing spirituality because their professional license may be jeopardy if they are accused of pushing their spiritual beliefs onto their clients. They often do not feel that the risk is worth the reward to discuss soul or spiritual matters. Unfortunately, by denying the spiritual in therapy sessions, they deny the deepest needs that clients have and instead focus on surface level concerns. They may be successful in helping resolve a concern in the short term, but neglect a deeper need that would prevent future concerns from surfacing. This creates an unnecessary dependence on future therapy services to continue to work on deeper healing.
As a therapist, I strive to acknowledge the reality that all of us need to care for our souls. I offer opportunities to my clients to express their beliefs and spiritual needs without judging or criticizing them. Rather, it begins a conversation that can go to a deeper level and provide some support for healing soul wounds from past experiences or relationships. Even if my beliefs differ from my client’s, I can support their journey to becoming more of a whole person by balancing Physical, Mental, Emotional, Relational, and Spiritual facets of their lives.