Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Spiritual Self: Toward a Conceptualization of Spiritual Identity Development

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Spiritual Self: Toward a Conceptualization of Spiritual Identity Development

Article excerpt

Both researchers and practitioners have demonstrated considerable interest in identity development, and positive personal identities have been associated with numerous positive mental health outcomes. However, major theories of identity development have neglected the salience of spiritual identity, even though the early work of William James placed this as a central component of personality. This article reviews four major theories of identity development (cognitive, psychodynamic, systems, and narrative) and suggests spiritual identity parallels to these theories. A tentative model of spiritual identity development is presented. Implications for therapy and future research concerning spiritual identity development are discussed.


That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being"; as certain also as your own poets have said, "For we are also his offspring (Acts 17:27-28).

Professional counselors and psychotherapists are demonstrating increasing interest in the spiritual lives of their clients, recognizing the importance of addressing spirituality in therapy (Miller, 1999; Richards & Bergin, 1997; Schwartz, 1999). Furthermore, research indicates that mental health may be promoted through spiritual means (Bergin, 1991; Miller & Martin, 1988; Richards & Potts, 1995; Shafranske, 1996). In fact, some research suggests that certain clients may be effectively treated only when therapists respond to their spiritual and religious issues (Bergin, 1991; Kelly, 1995; Shafranske, 1996; Worthington, Kurusu, McCullough, & Sanders, 1996).

Recently, Millet (1999) issued a challenge to formulate a theory of spiritual identity development that particularly addresses how spiritual identity may be encouraged within therapy. This sense of spiritual identity, an individual's belief that she or he is an eternal being and connected to God, is an aspect of human spirituality thought to be effective in protecting and restoring psychological health (Richards & Bergin, 1997). The supposed power of spiritual identity to promote resiliency and change in individuals corresponds with research indicating that similar benefits are derived from a strong sense of personal identity.

Previous research has shown that the health-promoting and health-restoring effects of a strong sense of identity are evident throughout the lifespan. In adolescents, healthy identity development may protect against depression (Koteskey, Little, & Matthews, 1991) and encourage optimism and selfesteem (Roberts et al., 1999). Psychological wellbeing is also linked to healthy identity in adults (Pulkkinen & Roenkae, 1994). Elderly individuals with healthy identities are able to maintain a sense of continuity in their lives and to deal effectively with age-related changes (Brandstadter & Greve, 1994). According to Erikson (1950), successful identity development enables individuals to proceed more effectively with subsequent life tasks of intimacy, generativity, and integrity. Developing a sense of spiritual identity may also contribute to such desirable effects for individuals throughout their development. Through this article, we hope to respond to Miller's (1999) challenge by suggesting a spiritual identity deve lopment model and by providing implications of the model for psychotherapy and for future research.


William James (1890, 1902, 1910/1968) provided an early yet enduring conceptualization of identity development. He posited that the study of one's identity involves considering two aspects of the self: the "I" and the "me." An individual's "I" functions consciously and objectively to create and connect the various "me's" and to maintain a sense of continuity of self across time. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.