By Rachel Puryear
In developing a spiritual practice for oneself, it’s important to be aware of spiritual bypassing – both what it is, and also how it can be damaging.
So first of all, what is spiritual bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing is defined as “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” (Coined in the 1980s by John Welwood, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist.)
I would even argue we could take it some steps further, including affecting how we respond to the world at large – as I’ll discuss more in this post.
So, what do the various forms of spiritual bypassing look like?
First of all, I would point out that spiritual bypassing not limited to particular faith or practice. It’s not even limited to spirituality – it’s just one method of emotional bypassing, generally (though the latter is a big enough subject for future posts).
Common forms of spiritual bypassing can include:
Positivity can be a great thing. Glossing over genuine problems under the guise of being positive, however, is toxic positivity.
Many of us have rolled our eyes at phrases like “good vibes only,” or “you’ve gotta think positive!” in situations where it’s more condescending or glib than helpful. Many of us have also used such phrases. Many of us have done both.
Toxic positivity can also be a form of spiritual bypass. It might include, as above, focusing on the positive to the exclusion of opportunities for personal growth, and improving lives.
This might include, in spiritual and religious contexts; only looking at the good things that come out of organized religion (encouraging charity and good works, community), but glossing over or denying the negatives that can occur (fundamentalism, encouraging bigotry and violence – especially where this influences public policy), and trying to silence criticism.
This could also include viewing one’s religion as making them special and better than others, rather than as a means of becoming a more compassionate person and working towards a more just society.
Invalidating/Denying Other People’s Experiences
Life deals some hard blows to all of us at times. For many of us, it’s understandably hard to know what to say to another, when someone is facing tragedy and heartbreak and pain and suffering.
Sometimes; the only things you can do for someone else is to be there for them, listen to them, validate them. It won’t fix what’s going on, but it helps.
At times, some people mean well and want to help, but say and do things which instead hurt and alienate the struggling person more. This can include attitudes which seem spiritual, but which are instead bypassing in an invalidating way.
For instance, you’ve probably heard people say things like, “It was God’s will,” or “everything happens for a reason,” or “God will never give you anything more than you can handle”.
These kinds of phrases, even if they were meant well, likely leave the other person feeling misunderstood and alienated – because they are invalidating. Furthermore, they are often said to help the person saying them avoid their own discomfort and lack of control over the situation, though that is likely unconscious.
Many people also – understandably, and even if they are people of faith – doubt their faith in some of the most challenging moments of their lives. For this reason, the “God’s will” angle could be extra alienating, if that’s the case – they might very well be wondering why any God would allow whatever is happening. None of us have answers to those questions.
Glorification of Suffering
As I’ve said before on this blog, suffering is not a badge of honor. While spirituality and faith can help many people get through difficult times and hardships in their lives, it is not necessary to create – or fail to alleviate – suffering in order to be closer to God, or more spiritually “pure”.
Some even take this so far as to believe that bad luck is evidence of punishment from “God,” and that one must continue to suffer needlessly in order to redeem themselves. There’s nothing inherently redemptive about unnecessary suffering. While people can and often do find growth through life’s challenges, there is also plenty of suffering in life that is just plain traumatizing.
Another form that this kind of bypassing can take, is to view spiritual “gifts” as a terrible burden, and complain a lot about them – I’ve observed people doing this many times.
For instance; a regular theme on this blog is celebrating empathic people (or, as Dr. Elaine Aron calls us, “HSPs”), and better understanding ourselves. There are some who identify as empaths – which, in itself, is fine – but view it as having a terrible burden, and complain to anyone who will listen about how crippling it is. It’s quite possible that at least some of these people have and need help for depression, or anxiety, or another condition in addition to being empathic/HSP – but I get the sense that some of them feel like they need to suffer in order to feel special or spiritually “pure” – and that’s not the case.
Empathic/HSP people have the same ups and downs in life everyone else does – and we can absolutely live full, rich, and balanced lives, maybe even more so than most others; as I hope to help demonstrate through this blog.
Demonizing Fear, Anger, and Other “Negative” Emotions
Our feelings are there for a reason. Whether they feel good or bad, they are telling us something that we need to know.
Sometimes, people suppress certain feelings of their own, and/or urge others to do so. Although people usually recognize and acknowledge that this commonly happens for males, it also happens comparably commonly for females, too – though perhaps more subtly for the latter, and it’s good to be aware of the ubiquity of this experience.
Some people are afraid of anger, and believe it’s “bad” – or, that a truly spiritual person wouldn’t get angry. Given that some people can behave in scary and destructive ways when they get angry, discomfort with anger is understandable.
However, having anger is human, and it’s there to alert us to possible injustice or maltreatment. The notion that anger is inherently destructive and unspiritual is spiritual bypassing. However, there’s nothing wrong with learning better anger management skills if one has difficulty controlling their behavior when they are angry – by all means, anger management is a good thing.
Another form of spiritual bypassing could be viewing fear as unspiritual, and as not trusting enough in God, or the universe, or whatever one believes in. Fear is there for a reason – to alert you that something might be wrong, and to get you ready to fight or flight.
Again, sometimes people develop anxiety, and this should be treated – there is nothing wrong with appropriate treatment. Nonetheless, fear is not inherently wrong, and it should be listened to – it’s trying to tell you something you need to know.
Hate and Exclusion Paraded as “Faith”
I cannot think of anything more anti-spiritual than bigotry and a sense of supremacy. The notion of “God hates (fill in the blank)”, or believing that only those who look and believe like oneself can be acceptable or worthy of love; reflects a bereft lack of understanding of spirituality.
Claiming in any way, shape, or form that your faith green lights racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other abuses is a very dangerous form of spiritual bypassing that’s infiltrated politics to a frightening degree.
This alone shows why separation of church and state is essential (though there are plenty of reasons). Even though a great many people use their spirituality to improve themselves and become more loving rather than hateful; the kinds of “religious” people and institutions that try to control government and influence public policy tend to be the bigoted and fundamentalist kind.
Denying the Shadow Side
As human beings; all of us, even the most magnanimous and empathic of us, have a shadow side – that is, a side that’s the worst of us, and most of us don’t even like to acknowledge is there.
But it is there – and the best way to prevent it from getting the best of us is to face it, and work on it.
Spirituality isn’t all about “love and light”. Sure – love, including unconditional love that some faiths promise and that many spiritual people feel from something they may or may not be able to explain; is an important part of spirituality.
At the same time, it’s critical for spiritual growth to face our inner demons – and we all have them. The only way to improve our faults is to courageously, and honestly, face them.
Denying the shadow side is spiritual bypassing.
In the USA, we have a major problem with gun violence, and accordingly mass murders are a regular occurrence. There is strong advocacy for sensible gun laws, and most Americans want that – but there is also an extremely powerful gun lobby that greatly hinders progress on such.
Mass shootings are so common that many of them don’t even make national news anymore – but when a shooting for some reason does get particularly widespread news coverage, many from the NRA and public officials beholden to them will publicly offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the family members and loved ones of those again senselessly gunned down.
Saying “thoughts and prayers” is fine for condolences where someone died naturally, and it was not preventable. However, it’s a pretty insulting form of spiritual bypassing for people getting rich off these daily bloodbaths, while fighting more sensible gun laws, to say that as though they have no further personal and corporate responsibility to help prevent these murders.
Some of the largest followings are attracted by fundamentalist congregations and sects, unfortunately. Fundamentalism is a very widespread form of spiritual bypassing. It refers to believing that your faith is the only true one, and that those who don’t agree are evil/sinful/lesser/deserve to suffer/going to hell.
Fundamentalists also tend to reject science and reason, believing that these are a threat to their religion.
Again, people who claim to have all the answers are the ones we should view with the most suspicion. No one has all the answers in spirituality. Quite often, the bad things about organized religion come from fundamentalism, rather than the actual teachings of the religion.
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