Spiritual Director or Shrink? How Does One Discern? (Part I of II)

Dear Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters, I have long been dealing with a deep sadness and lack of joy in life.  The vortex of emotional suffering seems to revolve around my unanswered prayers for a spouse and romantic love, but when I look at myself honestly I see that I am not selfless enough to have been a good wife. I pray that the Lord changes my heart, and makes me a better person, and I am trying to curb my faults.  But I’m too old now to have the romantic bond and marriage that I long for (especially since a man willing to date a woman who won’t sleep with him is almost impossible to find). I can’t get past the unhappiness and loneliness.  I know I have to forget my dreams, and focus on serving others, like a good Christian spinster-lady is supposed to do.  But every time I try to turn Holy_Sepulchre_cross for post on spiritual director or shrinkmy thoughts and heart in that direction, everything inside me screams “noooooo!” I need help, but I’m unsure if it is spiritual direction I need (as with so many others, I haven’t been able to find a director) or if it is a (Catholic or other Christian) psychologist / psychiatrist. It seems to me that my emotional and spiritual “symptoms” may have roots in matters that psychologists and psychiatrists deal with, or may have spiritual roots — or maybe that’s not a very meaningful distinction and I ought to explore both. So how does one discern whether to turn to a Spiritual Director or a Shrink? With gratitude and prayers!

Pax Christi! The very way that you phrase this question is a breath of spiritual fresh air. Clearly, you are seeking the Lord, and seeking to walk a path of life that is pleasing to him. And just as clearly, you are well along the road to deep and sincere self-knowledge, a sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in your soul. The way you identify both your noble desires and your fears manifests a well-grounded humility. I mention all of this only by way of introduction, and by way of encouragement: God is at work in your life, guiding you and giving you light and right desires. You are in Very Good Hands. That’s the bottom line, and it should give you a lot of spiritual comfort to know that.

A Third Possibility

Your question is a good one, but it’s almost impossible to answer completely from a distance. You are wondering if the difficulty you are having as you deal with the heavy cross of loneliness and discouragement is merely spiritual, or whether it is rooted in some psychological wounds or problems. If it is merely spiritual, you would want to seek spiritual direction to help you find God’s action in the midst of this suffering. But if it is psychological, you would want to find some solid Catholic counselor to help you deal with the underlying issues.

I can’t say for sure which it is, in your case. I would need to know a lot more, to have a few conversations with you. But I can offer a third possibility, which may give you some hope and some direction. But since I am writing without specific knowledge of you, please ignore anything I say that doesn’t resonate!

Roots of Our Root Sin

Usually, as we grow in spiritual maturity, we begin to discover the roots of our root sin, so to speak. Our root sin is generally some form of pride, vanity, or sensuality that manifests itself in self-centered behaviors, more or less dramatic. In the early stages of the spiritual life, God moves us to work intentionally to form good habits (virtues) that can counteract those self-centered behaviors and attitudes. We make progress in this way by practicing what our tradition calls the ascetic life. This is what you refer to as “trying to curb my faults.”

Eventually, when God in his wisdom deems that we are ready, we are brought to a different level or mode of spiritual work. God begins to show us that the deep transformation of our soul, the transformation that he wants to work so that we can enter into a more and more intimate communion with him, has to happen under his direct action. We can only make so much progress by our own ascetic efforts; there comes a time when he has to work more directly, when he himself has to touch and heal the very roots of our root sin. Spiritual writers liken this to when a doctor has to engage in surgery. In surgery, the patient does absolutely nothing; he has to abandon himself completely to the doctor’s action and let himself be worked on. When this begins to happen in the spiritual life, it is often painful, confusing, and disorienting – it’s a real gear shift away from “trying to curb our faults.”

In my next post, we will look at the spiritual and psychological connections that emerge as God begins to act more directly in our lives, and I’ll offer some practical considerations.


Art for this post on spiritual director or shrink: Wooden crosses near the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre Church, Own work by uploader Adiel Lo, October 2006, Permission: other versions, Category H; Wikimedia Commons.

Share this post with your friends


Stay Connected

Sign up for our free email newsletter to stay up to date on the latest from SpiritualDirection.com!
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Scroll to Top