Using Rituals in Psychotherapy


The term “ritual” can bring to mind many different images and preconceptions. Rituals are powerful actions that are all around us in both religious and secular settings. One can consider standing for the national anthem as a ritual. Having a funeral after a loved one passes is a ritual. Weddings and graduation ceremonies can be considered rituals.

According to many researchers the use of rituals is designed to cause a shift in one’s consciousness. It is a method to open up to other ways of being in the world. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that rituals can put one in direct touch with mythic reality. Rituals can, if done correctly, be powerful methods of setting intention in one’s life. Rituals can also be used to facilitate healing, mark important transitions in one’s emotional development and signal new beginnings in one’s life journey.

From the psychotherapy perspective rituals can be very effective at assisting individuals (and families) in creating new patterns of responding to and interacting with the environment. Many times people feel stuck in a certain pattern and not sure how to change it. In his book “Rituals in Psychotherapy: Transition and Continuity”, psychotraumatologist Onno Van Der Hart writes that he feels the use of rituals to work through significant psychological distresses can result in major shifts in ones’ cognitions and emotional patterns. He feels rituals can create the process of healing in a manner that few other interventions can demonstrate.

The field of family therapy is full of great case studies of therapists giving clients odd rituals to perform that indirectly creates a change in the previous patterns the family exhibited. In other cases families may need to hold on to their rituals during difficult times to ensure their connection to each other. I read an article recently in the New York Times that cited the importance of the family dinner as a ritual in preserving the emotional health of the family.

When a therapist gives a client a ritual to perform it is often geared toward giving the client more flexibility and resources in working through the present issue being faced. If a client feels stuck he or she is merely lacking experience of a new action to take. Once the action has been taken in the form of a ritual the client will now know (at the unconscious level) that he or she has more options than previously considered.

An example of this happened in a session I recently had with a male client who was seeking therapy due to an upcoming divorce. His wife had a consistent pattern of infidelity and seemed to have no desire to reform and become part of a monogamous team in a marriage. My client was hurt and depressed by his wife’s actions. He did feel divorce was the right thing to do in this situation but he was totally stuck in moving forward with his life. He really felt he loved his soon to be ex-wife and had trouble even envisioning a life without her. He could not even bring himself to begin getting rid of some things that belonged to his wife that she had left behind at his home. Seeing those items and not having a vision of a life without her led to his feeling more depression and heartache.

After we covered the important points of what brought him to therapy, I decided to enact a ritual to help him move forward. I asked him if he would be interested in doing a small action that could assist him in feeling better. He replied he was very interested. I told him that what I was going to ask him to do may seem a little strange but it was in his best interest. His curiosity was peaked but he still was open to what I was going to recommend.

I sat quietly for a minute. I then looked him directly in the eyes with some intensity and told him, “I think you need to perform an exorcism!” This was not what he had expected to hear. “An exorcism?” he asked to make sure he had heard me correctly. “Absolutely.” I told him, “You need to exorcise a room in your house.” At this point he was all ears. “I think you have a real issue that needs a different approach. The exorcism you will perform is not for ridding your home of the devil but rather the pain of this relationship. I want you to take all of your wife’s belongings out of one room in your house. Put these in the garage for three days. After you take her things out of the room I want you to go get yourself some incense from your local store. Choose the kind that you like the best. Light the incense and face each wall of the room which you removed her belongings and make the sign of the cross (this client was a devout Christian). After you make the sign of the cross say out loud four times, ‘I ask for peace and love in the name of the Father.’ Do this ritual seven times each day for three days. After three days you can feel free to bring in your wife’s belongings and put it back where it was in the room.”

My client did not expect to hear this kind of thing from a psychotherapist. In spite of him being surprised by my odd directions, a part of him appeared to be excited and energized to begin this assignment. I was not telling him to get rid of his soon to be ex-wife’s belongings but rather just to put them somewhere else for a few days. This action gave him the flexibility and experience of moving her things to the garage which could possibly lead to moving them out of the home. Making the sign of the cross invoked within him a feeling of connection with his religion which previously had given him comfort when life was tough. He reported back with a new feeling of possibility and hope that even though he was very sad, he could go on and create a new future with someone who would be faithful to him.

I certainly could have spent our time together working on his illogical beliefs about the future, his family of origin issues or his self-esteem troubles but I felt that in that moment a ritual would do more for him than the traditional therapy. The action I directed him to take was so different than what he was doing that he had no choice but to have a new experience. His experience of taking charge of moving things in his house and asking for help from his God gave him the necessary resources he needed to create new changes in his patterns.

I think we as psychotherapists need to ask ourselves what are some ways in which we can help our clients move through their trials and tribulations other than just talking with them (although that alone can be pretty powerful). What actions can we take to shake things up and give our clients the resources and experiences they need to solve their own problems? What rituals can we perform for ourselves that will make us more effective healers?


  1. Intriguing idea. My mind automatically started thinking about what sort of ritual I could do for myself.

    Interestingly what you said fits together perfectly with something I just read in Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendricks, PhD. He said (paraphrased) that we can’t expect out behaviors to automatically reset to something healthy when our emotional blocks have been pointed out to us. Our physical bodies can do that because each cell has a DNA code to follow, but psychologically we don’t have that. So he suggests exercises for his clients to help with the process. I think what you are doing here is similar.

    So naturally, i have to give this a try!

    1. I agree with getting people to do something radically different rather than just becoming aware of where their troubles started.

      For many years I scoffed at the importance of rituals in therapy and in life (my left brain thinking) but recently I have begun to revisit rituals with a new found appreciation and have started incorporating rituals in both professionals and personal areas. It has given me great results with my clients, who sometimes think I am a little weird for asking them to do odd things but yet appreciate the changes they see as a result of performing the ritual. These are some of the things that help make therapy a transformational process to me.

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