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The Difference Between Counseling and Spiritual Direction

February 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Allison Ricciardi, Counseling/Therapy

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: 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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About Allison Ricciardi

Allison Ricciardi is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York. In 2001 she founded in response to a growing demand for counseling that is faithful to the Magisterium and includes prayer and spirituality. She is also Founder and Director of The Raphael Remedy, which offers counseling and life coaching from a Catholic perspective. Allison's core belief is that God has a great plan for each of His children...and that by combining sound psychology with solid faith, clients can find real healing and lasting happiness. Visit Allison's blog at

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  • Welcome, Allison! I’m really looking forward to reading your posts! And thank you for creating! I had no idea, but have successfully used that site to find some amazing therapists in my area!

    • allisonricciardi

      Hi Diana- Thanks for your note. I’m so glad you’ve found helpful! Yes, we do have amazing therapists listed. I”m consistently impressed and proud of our members.

  • Mrshopey

    “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.” I like that definition.

  • LizEst

    Welcome to our writing team, Allison. We are blessed you have joined us. Thank you for this instructive post. God bless you!

    • allisonricciardi

      Thank you, Liz. Happy to be here!

  • nosidam

    Thank you. Beautiful. I have been searching for a Spiritual Director for years. I have met with many priests to talk a bit and discern if they are able to guide me. I have never found one who seems deep enough!
    I seem to get what I need from people like Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Peter Kreeft, Fr. Barron, Jeff Cavins, Scott Hahn, Steve Ray, St. Augustine and other saints, early Church Fathers, archbishop Fulton Sheen, the recent Popes, etc. etc. I listen on apps to many! Plus insight comes from the Holy Spirit in adoration (silence) chapels. When I spoke with Fr. Groeschel some years back,a couple of times, I told him he had been my spiritual director. He said his hope was that exact thing! He wanted people to get direction from his writings and talks.
    I have been frustrated because I cannot seem to find a face to face human. Thank God for you all and this site. God bless you.

  • Rachel Gehring

    Allison, (1) while the specializations mentioned above are a great
    development, it often seems like we are asking people to seek out so
    many different services which becomes problematic in itself time-wise
    and cost-wise. Are there some of these that overlap “more naturally’
    than others? Is it likely that there is a progression to these services
    that most folks go through? (2) One of the “specializations” not
    mentioned above is that of “pastoral counseling”? Can you explain this
    in light of your categories, above. (3) Also, I have heard a priest say that psychology has “neutered” spiritual direction. I am not exactly sure what he means by this, but I was wondering if you or Dan had some thoughts regarding this statement? Thanks:-). I look forward to your

    • Rachel – good questions. I will only tackle the psychologizing of spiritual direction. The priest is right. Because psychology can be far more concrete a science than spiritual direction, the tendency is to lean into the area that is easier to grasp. As well, much of popular writing on the spiritual life is psychologized. Prayer is about an intimate conversation with God, not about how you feel about prayer or what you are feeling during prayer etc.

      • Rachel Gehring

        Thanks, Dan. This is probably the most insightful comment I’ve received related to this question. You are absolutely right that “because psychology can be a far more concrete science than spiritual direction, the tendency is to lean into the area that is easier to grasp”. Good personal reminder for myself:-)

    • allisonricciardi

      HI Rachel- sorry for the confusion. I didn’t mean to suggest that we each need a team to work with. That certainly would get costly- and confusing! Basically, if one is dealing with emotional distress, they would want to start with a therapist or counselor, but one who incorporates the spiritual life into the process. Once they’ve resolved the emotional issues sufficiently they may, but don’t necessarily have to, engage a life coach to help them accomplish whatever goals they feel called to achieve. At any point, they may also have a spiritual director to help them in discerning God’s will and to grow in their relationship with God.
      Pastoral counseling refers to psychologically trained priests, ministers or deacons that would work with their congregation. Most priests do not have this training and so would refer people to competent therapists…hopefully Catholic ones. I hope that clarifies it. Good questions!

  • Karen Guilford

    Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you. Seek and ye shall find Him! Seek and ye shall find the Wonderful Counselor!

    I have a Wonderful Counselor! He graduated from the finest Highest School. Instead of earning His GED, He earned His GOD degree. He went on to be thee Bachelor of all the sciences. And, He is the Master of all psychology! He finally finished up His studies with not only His PhD, but even better yet, He earned His PPD! This degree has only been awarded to One Man ever. It’s called the Perfect Psychologist Degree! Because He is so sought after by many wise men and women, it’s very difficult to get in to see Him face to face. However, I can give you His receptionist’s direct phone number. She will definitely make you an appointment. She is not only His receptionist. She is also His Mother! Call her directly everyday, she will take you directly into HIs Heart! Her phone number is MOM-MARY.

    I can only give you one warning about this Psychologist. He prefers to work in a dual relationship situation. He will be your Psychologist, but He more prefers to be your Bridegroom! He doesnt just want to heal your broken heart. He wants to live in your heart! Be prepared to lose your heart to Him and fall head over heels in Love! This is ethically acceptable with this particular Psychologist; remember He has His PPD degree, so He can engage in therapy this way. He’s thee Perfect Psychologist of all eternity!

    Seek Ye First ….HIM ! 🙂

  • One resource I have really found helpful and am using as I write a book on trusting God is Fr. Groeschel’s Spiritual Passages: the Psychology of Spiritual Development. Since grace builds on nature, past hurts and disappointments can adversely affect the way we relate to God.I am finding that as I struggle to trust God more, it helps to look at the reasons I have had difficulty trusting Him in the past. Some of those are definitely spiritual–pride, for example. But being deceived by people I trusted can make me reluctant to trust God too.

    Fr. Groeschel says that even basically healthy people can get “hung up” on certain issues. So, where should those basically healthy people go, when their goal is to remove obstacles to greater holiness? Should these issues be covered in spiritual direction?

    • Connie – this is a good question. From my standpoint, everyone who desires to grow in holiness needs a spiritual director. If we talk about the central ailment of the human person it is in our fractured relationship with God and in our call to union. So, this is the place to begin the most important work. Even so, many who have experienced abuse (as I have) suffer many impediments to even beginning to understand God. For me, scripture memorization, acts of faith, spiritual warfare, and growth in holiness brought me about 99% of the way (thus far). I have only had to rely on counselors on rare occasions when I was not able to overcome relational difficulties. So, yes, these issues should be covered in spiritual direction. And, approaches should be taken to remedy these things through growth in holiness. However, when challenges are significant, persistent, or of a clearly psychological nature, a good partnership between spiritual director and a counselor/therapist can be a very powerful and necessary combination. One example for me is that I have no understanding of how to help a man break a pornography addiction. I know how to help a man strengthen his will against sin and to fight on that level. However, at the level of a severe and persistent addiction, I would never try to work that situation without help from a therapist.

      • Thanks, Dan. Those are basically my thoughts as well, but I wanted an expert opinion. 🙂

    • Paul Francis

      Funny how Thomas’ “Grace does not destroy nature” is rendered in Americanese to suggest that nature is the foundation of the spiritual life. Grace converts nature, elevates natures, transforms nature — these realities don’t tend to jump to mind according to the unfortunately ubiquitous turn of phrase repeated here.

      • Paul, I’m not quite sure what your point is. I am not a Thomistic philosopher. Are you just quibbling about words, or is there something in the substance of my comment that you disagree with or want to elaborate on?

        • Paul Francis

          I would respectfully submit that the person who puts him/herself forward to effect wisdom in the lives of others ought be able to speak of grace accurately. The expression “grace builds on nature” has been popularized now for decades and too often extends to nature a preponderance of what is likely to be growth in the spiritual life.

          • So, if I understand you right, you are saying: since I paraphrased St. Thomas in an informal comment on someone else’s blog, I am disqualified from writing or speaking on the spiritual life. That’s an interesting perspective. I respectfully disagree. 🙂

          • Paul Francis

            If I may offer a suggestion: whenever I come upon what I perceive to be a personal criticism, I try, when possible, to postpone defensiveness until my next visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Not infrequently, I discover, there, that there is something to be learned from the input. To critique another constructively is not to “heap coals” — I know precious little of your qualifications; what is apparent from your comment, though, is a readiness to take criticism personally, rather than to consider how you might learn. A Memorare for your intentions goes up today.

      • allisonricciardi

        Hi Paul

        You make a good point. It was actually St. Albert the Great that said that grace builds on nature. St. Thomas took it further and said that grace perfects nature. I think both are true…with St. Thomas giving us the ultimate hope of overcoming some of the shortcomings of our nature through grace.

    • allisonricciardi

      HI Connie- you pose an interesting question. Our past experiences have profound influence in our relationship with God. The devil knows this so his attack on families is relentless. Even basically healthy people can benefit from some counseling or therapy, although some of those issues certainly can and should be addressed in spiritual direction. They are all part of our spiritual formation since we can’t really separate the spiritual life from the emotional life and our past experiences as they all make up who we are and ultimately become. God bless you!

      • Thanks for your reply, Allison. I look forward to more of your posts here.

  • Welcome, Allison and what a wonderful addition you are to
    the team! I think Catholic therapists who identify them as such a blessing for
    those who need help for more clinical issues but might otherwise turn solely to
    a priest. By incorporating faith into your practice, you are able to marry
    spirituality with psychology and this is a more holistic approach to healing as
    it factors in the whole being. Personally, I grew up as the daughter of (an
    orphaned) neuropsychologist father (his father was killed in WWII) who was
    educated by Jesuits from kindergarten to his Ph.D. My father doesn’t call
    himself a “Catholic psychologist” but if you met him, you’d see that his faith
    permeates all of his encounters. Call it that “je ne sais quoi” but you just
    feel like you are in the presence of a holy man who loves and listens
    unconditionally. So, I guess what I have learned from him (since I am a
    triply-certified life coach and an Avila student on the path to being a
    Spiritual Director) is that no matter our hardships, we can ALL can bring lost
    sheep home to God. But what matters most is “walking our talk”. Who we ARE
    speaks volumes and being that loving presence always trumps what we say.

    • allisonricciardi

      Thank you, Pamela. You illustrate the most important point…we have to “be” Catholic and affirming in and of ourselves. We can have tons of education and techniques but if we’re not authentic we won’t bring as many souls to the truth. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Conrad Baars? You’d find it fascinating.

      Best wishes to you in your Avila training…sounds like you’ll be an awesome spiritual director!

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