Therapeutic Rituals in Psychology: Characteristics and Benefits

Therapeutic rituals can be prescribed in psychology between sessions. They're a way of allowing patient to perform certain actions to process their emotions.
Therapeutic Rituals in Psychology: Characteristics and Benefits

Last update: 31 August, 2021

In psychology, there are many techniques and tools that professionals use to improve patients’ well-being, within the framework of therapy. One way is through therapeutic rituals, which can be very useful in marking the transition of time and helping us process emotions.

The importance of rituals is that, besides the fact that we can perform them periodically, they give another meaning to everyday life and invite us to reflect. Let’s see what they’re all about.

What’s a ritual?

Although there are different definitions of what a ritual is, in general, they’re characterized by the following:

  • They’re a specific act or sequence of acts. That is, they don’t occur only in the area of thought, but are expressed in an action or practice.
  • They have something specific or special about them. This implies that the language or objects you use acquire another meaning, different from their everyday meaning. Therefore, they have highly symbolic content.
  • They require prior preparation.
  • Although they can acquire their own personal characteristics or nuances, there’s a way of carrying out the ritual. Its execution is carried out repeatedly.

Likewise, a ritual can also serve the function of marking a milestone, of marking the passage or change from one stage to another. Finally, they’re a way of materializing changes in a double direction. From the inside out and from the outside in.

The change is happening, and we express it and communicate it through the ritual. At this point, it’s important that when using them in therapy, the patient knows that they’re participating and that they’re part of it.

A spiritual leader performing a healing ritual.
Rituals also happen collectively, especially in religious and mystical processes.

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What are therapeutic rituals used for in psychology?

Therapeutic rituals are used in the field of psychology as a tool or technique with a purpose. This purpose will depend on the objectives that were previously established with the patient.

One of the uses has to do with the possibility of the person experiencing this ritual as a transition. That’s to say, as an intermediate space, as a step.

They also mark the beginning and the end of something. For example, a graduation. In general, this involves the presentation of a diploma the person has achieved and the organization of a small celebration as a way of indicating that one passes from one state to another.

Rituals are also used as a way to move forward. For example, you can think of them as part of the mourning of a separation or a death. The therapist may ask the patient to get rid of objects or items that belonged to the loved one or that symbolize the ended relationship.

Many times, therapists prescribe the performance of rituals between sessions in order to achieve a certain goal and the practice of a certain skill.

In family therapy, rituals are especially interesting because they contain a lot of information about what’s happening in the family. They indicate the meanings of what’s done and why, the degree of participation of the members, and the hierarchies.

What are the benefits of therapeutic rituals?

In the field of psychological therapy, it’s often not enough to simply express or verbalize what’s happening to us. We may need to move on to action, to experiences, and to giving life to our emotions.

To do this, it’s useful to indicate the execution of a ritual. Rituals have a meaning and a reason for being. Sometimes we execute them on auto-pilot, but their symbolic importance comes from the fact that we believe that, by doing them, we enjoy or achieve something.

Among the benefits, we can mention the following:

  • When performed on an individual level, they bring enjoyment and satisfaction. For example, many people follow certain behavior patterns to the letter as a way of seeking peace of mind.
  • If they’re shared and established between people, they foster a sense of belonging and togetherness. For example, in some homes, the ritual of putting up the Christmas tree together still persists. Or counting down to the new year on December 31st.
  • They also allow for the expression of emotions and feelings. They can serve as a liberating catharsis.
  • Therapeutic rituals help to process our emotions or difficult situations. For example, this is the case with funerals and mourning.

Our life is full of rituals

If we think about how rituals are present in our lives, we’ll realize that there are many more than we think. For example, the most frequent and well-known are the following:

  • Preparing some special food to celebrate an important event. For example, the arrival of a baby for a couple that’s been looking forward to it for a long time.
A woman blowing out the candles on a cake.
A birthday’s a ritual where we celebrate in a certain way to mark the change in a person’s age.

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Rituals evoke meaning beyond the acts themselves

Rituals have their modus operandi, that is, there’s something that’s repeated and that gives it full meaning. Perhaps it’s not the act itself, but the date on which it takes place. Rituals don’t have to be stereotyped, but what really matters is that they’re meaningful to the person.

Finally, at first glance to an outside observer, the ritual may appear to be a simple set of actions. However, its potency lies in the meaning given to the action or actions it involves. Hence its importance as a therapeutic resource.

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