by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Where did you do your graduate studies? Dr. Sodergren: I earned my Masters and Doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from Divine Mercy University’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences, finishing up in 2009. I also earned a Masters in theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America in 2005. Gordon: What was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it challenging? Dr. Sodergren: I came from a public school background, from Kindergarten all the way through undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois. I had very little background in philosophy or theology, so when I got to graduate school and was confronted with Plato, Aristotle, and the great philosophical thinkers of the Western tradition, it was a bit overwhelming for me. It was a completely different way of studying and thinking for me as my background was heavy on modern science. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. The more I studied, the more I wanted to learn. It was as if I got a taste and wanted to drink more and more from this deep well of Catholic thought. That is why I prolonged my graduate studies by getting a Masters in theology in addition to my psychology degrees. Gordon: How has your Catholicism affected the way that your practice? Dr. Sodergren: My faith and my Catholic worldview affect every aspect of how I practice. I often tell other Catholic practitioners that integration of the Catholic faith and psychological practice happens primarily within the person of the therapist. It has to shape how I see my role, how I see the patient, how I understand who and what he is, his difficulties, where he is coming from, where his life is going, how I formulate the goals of therapy, the kind of therapeutic approaches I select to help us get there, how I approach the work, etc. A Catholic psychologist cannot cease to be a Catholic when he arrives at the office. It has to permeate everything. However, this all happens more or less behind the scenes. If and only if the patient is also a person of faith and desires to incorporate the language and/or practices of the faith into the therapy process does the integration that is already operative within me come out in an explicit way in our therapeutic dialogue. Gordon: What type of psychological evaluations do you do for candidates for the priesthood? Dr. Sodergren: I have been blessed to conduct many evaluations for candidates applying for seminary as well as those applying for entrance into a religious community. My approach to these evaluations is extremely thorough. I approach them as a sacred duty to help the candidate and the Church or religious community to discern whether this vocation is a good fit, what strengths the candidate brings, and what obstacles at the level of human nature exist that need to be addressed for this person to become a better candidate. These evaluations require a level of specialization that involves study of the Church’s norms regarding candidates to the priesthood and religious life, admission procedures, formation expectations, etc. as well as the evolving best practices in this area. I have been blessed to consult and confer with many good colleagues in the Catholic Psychotherapy Association who also conduct these evaluations in various parts of the US and beyond so that we can learn from each other and raise the bar on these evaluations. The Church and these candidates deserve the best our field can give. Gordon: What is attachment theory in psychological practice? Dr. Sodergren: I have studied attachment theory for many years, going back to my undergraduate studies in developmental psychology at the University of Illinois. I seized onto it in graduate school because I found it to be a useful bridge between a theological understanding of the human person as fundamentally relational and the applied work of psychotherapy Attachment theory was developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the middle of the 20th century.
It was developed and empirically verified by Mary Ainsworth and her students and colleagues. It only began to be applied systematically to the clinical art of psychotherapy in the early 2000s to the present. Now, it permeates many approaches to psychotherapy, and the research base confirming and expanding Bowlby’s basic insights is immense. Basically, attachment theory posits that we are fundamentally relational. We come into the world hardwired to bond with our caregivers, and these emotional bonds have profound influence on our psychological development, including our view of self and our expectations for close relationships.
Patterns develop in our early attachment relationships that often get carried forward into future relationships. In essence, I believe that attachment theory is psychology’s best answer to the question, “how do we learn how to love.” This fits perfectly with my view as a Catholic psychologist because I see the work I do as being focused on the vocation to love. I want to help people heal the wounds and remove the obstacles that are preventing them from being able to give and receive love more fully.
This includes truly accepting and living in their identity as a son or daughter of God in which they are infinitely loved by God and then sharing that love with others. It also includes the capacity to make a total gift of self through some vocational state (e.g., marriage, priesthood, religious life) and living that vocation faithfully, fruitfully, freely, joyfully Attachment theory helps me to see the relational aspect of the symptoms that patients report and gives me useful direction for bringing healing to these human wounds. Gordon: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected mental health/? Dr. Sodergren: The many, many disruptions to ordinary life brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a huge toll on mental health. Change in general is stressful , but just ponder how many changes people were forced to endure over the last year. This pandemic and all of the restrictions and procedures have affected nearly every area of life. When we add onto this the severe social isolation, uncertainty, and economic pressures, it is no wonder that people are suffering.
We are seeing high rates of depression, anxiety, addictions, and relationship (e.g., marriage and family) problems, and the like. The mental health needs of the general public are very high right now, and my colleagues and I are doing our best to meet those needs, but, sadly, many practices are at full capacity. Now more than ever, people need stability, connection, and hope. I invite all Catholics to work together to find creative ways to bring them to this hurting world. Gordon: Thank you for this interview that I know will be of interest to many of our readers.