Identity and Individuality in the Nouveau-Religious Patient

Moshe Halevi Spero

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9 Scopus citations


Revitalized interest in the clinical complexities of psychotherapy with religious patients (for example, Bradford 1984; Lovinger 1984; Spero 1985a; Stern 1985) has drawn attention to the need for perspectives on religious personality development that account for healthy and adaptational aspects as well as psychopathological aspects of particular forms and levels of religious beliefs, enabling more creative, enriching psychotherapy. This search represents movement beyond the significance of infantile wish-fulfillment aspects of religiosity toward the broader domain of ego functioning and quality of object relations. Rizzuto (1976, 1979) and McDargh (1983) emphasize qualitative similarities between interpersonal object representations and God representations. Elkind (1971), using a Piagetian model, views religious beliefs and rituals as forms of constructive adaptation to normal cognitive needs for conservation, representation, symbols of relation, and comprehension. Meissner (1984) highlights the role of God concepts as transitional phenomena. In earlier papers, I have demonstrated the relationship between patients' use of religious themes and legends, quality of psychoseXUal and object relational achievements, and the consolidation of religious identity (Spero 1982a,b, 1986a,b). Throughout the preceding there is unequivocal recognition that religious development recapitulates many important aspects of healthy psychological development, and that in the case of pathological or dysfunctional religiosity something has gone wrong in an otherwise normal process. There is need to understand and if necessary distinguish between the development of religious belief in individuals whose ideological commitment is relatively constant from earliest childhood and its development in those who adopt or modify religious belief in later life, in conjunction with the many technical implications for psychotherapy. Clinical experienc~ has taught that the process of religious change in later life represents a significant psychosocial crisis, requiring certain important psychological tasks in order to achieve successful resolution. In some instances, generally when there are preexisting diffieulties or psychiatric disorders, the process of ideological change, either at the onset or during subsequent stages, takes on psychopathological momentum and quality. Clinicians who intervene at this juncture are confronted with patients whose primary complaints include malfunction in their religious lives or misuse religious metaphor or behavior enmeshed with mild to serious personality disorder. The present paper organizes insights gained through psychoanalytic psychotherapy of nouveau-religious patients, explicating two aspects of their personality transformation and the impact upon treatment. The first concerns changes in the temporal qualities of the nouveau-religionist's self-identity. The second concerns stages of individuation during the process of synthesizing religious self-identity and the relationship with a new religious peer group and concepts of God.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-71
Number of pages17
JournalPsychiatry (New York)
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1987
Externally publishedYes


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