E21. Ralph Piedmont #2 – Incorporating the Numinous into Psychological Practice


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For the second time, my guest today is Professor Ralph Piedmont, Managing Director for the Center for Professional Studies, former Professor of Pastoral Counselling at Loyola University in Maryland, USA, and past president of the APA’s Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Ralph co-authored (with Teresa Wilkins) the recently published, Understanding the Psychological Soul of Spirituality.

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After a postdoctoral fellowship under two of the giants of personality psychology, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, Ralph’s work has primarily focused on the five-factor model (FFM) of personality and studying spirituality using the methods of personality psychology.

In this conversation, we discuss spirituality as a clinically-relevant personality trait, and how one can go about integrating spirituality into clinical practice.

Show Notes

1:30 – Why study spirituality or ‘the numinous’?

10:40 – What is ‘the numinous’?

19:30 – How can the numinous be incorporated into clinical practice.

36:50 – What are the three numinous motivations?

44:25 – What are the promising areas for progressing the integration of spirituality into psychology?

46:50 – How much does a mental health professional need to know about spirituality in order to bring it in to their work?

1:30 – Why study spirituality or ‘the numinous’?

Ralph doesn’t study the effects of religion and spirituality as it is traditionally conceived. Instead, he studies what he conceives of as the universal psychological dynamics and motivations that propel us to ask questions such as “Where do I fit in”, “How do I fit in” and “Am I good enough to fit in” (and hence make religion and spirituality important to us). In addition to being of universal relevance, the numinous, and particularly the dimension of worthiness, is a significant predictor of mental illness independent or neuroticism. Specifically, Ralph identifies moral injury, suicide, body image dysphoria and substance use disorders as conditions which to which the numinous is particularly relevant.

10:40 – What is ‘the numinous’?

Ralph follows Erik Erikson in depicting the numinous as related to the feelings that come to the infant when it is fed. This is thought to evoke feelings not just of being loved and feeling safe and protected but feelings of awe and wonderment at the power and beneficence of the person who provides the feeding and soothing.

19:30 – How can the numinous be incorporated into clinical practice.

Ralph suggests that a place to start is to assess people using scales such as the Assessment of Spirituality and Religious Sentiments (ASPIRES; Piedmont, 2020) and provide feedback to the client. Alternatively, therapists could use a structured intake interview such as the Comprehensive Psycho-Spiritual Clinical Interview (CPSCI; Piedmont and Wilkins, 2020). These tools serve to open the conversation on spirituality. This might be particularly important given the historic exclusion of such topics from clinical practice. It’s also important for therapists to understand the ‘numinous status’ of their clients.

The next step is to provide therapeutic interventions that address deficiencies in numinous traits. This is the cutting edge of the research, and currently there are not well-defined therapeutic interventions for these constructs.

36:50 – What are the three numinous motivations?

These are infinitude (“Is death the end”), meaning (“Is life random”) and worthiness (“Am I good enough”). Worthiness seems to be the motivation most relevant to current psychological disorders. Deficits of infinitude and meaning are likely to provide a valuable perspective on psychological difficulties that aren’t well captured by the existing catalogue of psychological disorders.

44:25 – What are the promising areas for progressing the integration of spirituality into psychology?

Ralph suggests that what would really make a difference is for a big organisation to set a research agenda in this area, such as the National Institutes of Health’s Religion, Spirituality, and Health Scientific Interest Group.

46:50 – How much does a mental health professional need to know about spirituality in order to bring it in to their work?

Professional bodies, such as the American Counseling Association, and  have guidelines regarding competencies for addressing spiritual and religious issues. Ralph’s work defining the facets of the numinous can also help, as they indicate the broad areas of spiritual issues that are likely to come up.

Episode Links and References

Harold Koenig – Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Associate Professor of Medicine at
Duke University

National Institutes of Health – Religion, Spirituality, and Health Scientific Interest Group

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