The Difference Between Counseling and Spiritual Direction

Editor’s Note: Today, we are blessed to have Allison Ricciardi join our writing team. Allison is a licensed mental health counselor and has been a guest on the Mother Angelica Live and Abundant Life Shows on EWTN, as well as Johnnette Benkovic’s Women of Grace Show. Please welcome her warmly!

What is the difference between counseling and spiritual direction? When should someone pursue one versus the other?

Those are really good questions and ones that come up often. So let’s start by defining terms. First, spiritual direction, as the name implies, is primarily about the spiritual life…our relationship with God and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Counseling and psychotherapy are different. Those terms are often used interchangeably so I’d like to make a distinction here as well. Counseling helps us to work through and resolve problems in our lives and relationships. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, goes deeper and is primarily focused on the emotional life and helps us to heal past hurts and to look at and resolve unhealthy patterns in our lives. A good therapist will explore how a client is using their emotions and how their thoughts interact with their feelings.  Both counseling and psychotherapy can help clients to learn skills such as better communication techniques and conflict resolution.

In addition to counseling and psychotherapy, a much newer field known as Life Coaching is growing in popularity. Life Coaching deals with the present to help a person maximize their time and talents and set and achieve future goals. Coaching is also a great way to hone communication, problem-solving, organization and time management skills.

Now, you’re probably already thinking to yourself that there seems to be some overlap in these areas, and indeed there is. In coaching, we may need to address some bad habits or patterns before one can move forward and successfully achieve their goals for the future.   And, more importantly, when setting significant goals, consulting the Holy Spirit and discerning God’s will for one’s life through spiritual direction would be a very valuable, if not critical, step.

In spiritual direction, it’s not unusual that emotional patterns or fears can be obstacles to growth in holiness and may need therapeutic attention that is beyond the director’s scope of expertise. For instance, someone suffering from severe anxiety or depression or from scrupulosity, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, would benefit from psychotherapy to reduce their distress and expose and heal the root cause of their problem. In such a case, a working relationship between the spiritual director and the therapist, with the client’s permission and cooperation, would be the optimal approach to give the client the best results.

As a Catholic therapist, I believe it’s important to have our lives rightly ordered based on God’s purpose for human life: to know love and serve Him here and ultimately to enjoy eternity in heaven with Him and the saints.   Simply attaining human goals without an eye toward eternity can lead us seriously off the right path. In addition, understanding our hurts without forgiving our offenders, does little to bring about lasting healing. A good therapist will help a client work toward forgiveness, which is always a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Hence, I like to define the purpose of psychotherapy as follows: to remove the emotional and psychological impediments to union with God and communion with others.

So when should you pursue counseling/therapy vs. spiritual direction?

for post on counselingIf you are struggling with emotional pain and negative patterns of behavior in your life, dealing with depression or mood disorders, anxiety, addictions or other diagnosable conditions, psychotherapy is your best option. Do you need advice sorting out your life and your relationships? Counseling would be the way to go. Want to maximize your God-given gifts and potential to be the best you that you can be? Coaching would be a good choice for you. Are you trying to grow in your relationship with God and discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life? Then spiritual direction is what you should pursue.

Keep in mind that each discipline is not mutually exclusive and you can participate in spiritual direction along with therapy, counseling or coaching.

Remember, the Holy Spirit is living and active and can work through all of these modalities. Therefore, when seeking therapy, counseling or coaching, choosing a Catholic practitioner who is living a life of faith, is knowledgeable about Church teachings and open and receptive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, is a wise decision. Since moral issues often come into play, it’s crucial to work with someone who shares your Catholic faith and adheres to the morals and values the Church teaches. Psychology is not simply a scientific discipline but a philosophical one as well.  Finding a practitioner who understands this and ultimately directs you toward a fuller relationship with God is a blessing that will yield great results.


Art for this post on the difference between counseling and spiritual direction: Il Triste Messaggio (The Sad Message), Peter Fendi, 1838, PD-US; Holy Spirit detail from “Chair of Saint Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica”, 03 05 2008, Sergey Smirnov, CCA-SA; Schnapstrinker, Albert Anker, 1900, PD-US; all Wikimedia Commons.

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