When we mention the soul, most people think we are talking about religion. But the soul is as psychological as it is spiritual. The search for self-knowledge is as much a soul search as anything religious. Some people insist that the soul is nothing more than brain function, and that could be true. But even if what we call the soul is just a conglomeration of neurons in the brain, it doesn’t diminish its role in our lives. Numinous or neuronal, our inner being guides us toward what makes life worth living.
Whether you call it soul or cerebral cortex, its function is to know itself and to connect with other people. Some religions have linked the soul to issues of good and bad, or sin and purity. But these moral issues are totally separate from the psychological job of the soul. The true job of the soul is to point the way toward joy and connection. And what, exactly, is joy? It is the sudden full expansion of your deepest self into full and unconditional unity with whatever you are delighting in at the present moment.
Emotional distress says that something in your soul is clamoring for attention. We instinctively know that painful emotions are telling us something is wrong at the most basic level of our engagement with our own self. Just by turning our eye inward and seeing ourselves as worthy of study and attention, we feel better. That’s where the many forms of counseling can help. When we talk to another person about our problems, we are turning our attention to our inner world in order to feed our soul. When the soul is thoughtfully tended to and engaged with, it responds with energy, hope, and connection.
A successful counseling experience is like going on a life-changing trip to a strange country, but coming back with no photographs, no souvenirs, or any other proof you were there. There is only your word that it happened at all. This could also be said about the experience of having a soul. No proof, but a real experience nonetheless.
Whether the soul is organic or ethereal, our inner being wants to be known, seen, and validated. We do our best work when someone else is interested in our progress. In all the research into why it helps to talk about problems, the most common denominator is the quality of the relationship with the other person. If there is a good alliance, talking about problems seems to make us feel better faster. So what is it about this sharing that makes us feel better?
Being with a nonjudgmental person who honors the deeper regions of our hearts and minds makes all the difference when it comes to emotional healing. Once we feel lovable, we can face our deepest fears. The loneliest feeling of all is to experience things that others cannot understand or accept. The scariest feeling of all is to have an inner experience that we don’t understand or accept in ourselves. Sometimes just hearing someone say that our feelings and thoughts make sense can be all we need to get unstuck.
But do we need formal counseling for this? Why isn’t friendship enough, or a good partner perhaps? In many cases, it certainly is enough. We have all encountered people who make us feel hopeful about ourselves or who accept our feelings as understandable. The problem comes when our own view of ourselves has become so negative that other people’s encouragement can’t get in. Or when we get so confused we don’t know how to begin the conversation that will make us feel better. Unlike a friend or partner, any type of counselor is implicitly given permission to hold up a mirror to all our strengths as well as our self-defeating actions and thoughts. This combination of unconditional acceptance paired with tough love can break up old patterns in ways a friend would never get away with.
Therapy, pastoral counseling, or life coaching are examples of different counseling methods, but the steps toward greater happiness are universal and can be achieved whether you seek formal help or not. If you are willing to look at yourself, observe how you conduct your relationships, think about how you want things to be, ask people for feedback, and try something new, you can achieve similar benefits.
Getting counseling gives us permission to spend time with our deeper selves, something our busy egos do not recognize as a worthwhile pursuit. Best of all, by allowing yourself the time to become deeply interested in your own inner life, you will soon find yourself gravitating toward experiences and people that feed your soul. When we attend to our inner lives, we keep our souls well fed and become even more open to emotional satisfaction with other people.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.