Spiritual bypassing was coined by John Welwood, a prominent psychotherapist and author. I owe Rachel Ricketts, author of Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy, thanks for putting this term on my radar. In her book, Ricketts makes excellent points about how damaging spiritual bypassing can be and how commonplace it is. So, what exactly is spiritual bypassing – and why does it hurt wellness?
Spiritual bypassing involves a large degree of avoidance and repression of emotions, resorting instead to spiritual ideals in pursuit of enlightenment. As described in Welwood’s book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, spiritual bypassing is when someone uses “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”
Spiritual bypassing is a means of side-stepping hard emotions and truths through spiritual ideology and idealism. It’s succumbing to binary thinking and accepting black-and-white views of circumstances. Through spiritual bypassing people avoid the often painful and complicated realities of life by always trying to find a silver lining in traumatic events or saying “everything happens for a reason” instead of facing deep-seeded and difficult feelings. This happens because people mistakenly believe that we must rise above our “unreliable emotions” instead of facing them and allowing them to serve as inner wisdom in raw form.
Spiritual bypassing can look like the following go-to phrases during hard times:
- Everything happens for a reason
- There is no pain without purpose
- There’s always a silver lining
- God will never give you more than you can handle
- Only positive energy and vibes are welcome
- Your life’s circumstances are a product of the energy you attract
These statements are commonplace in everyday conversation about tough circumstances. They’re a way of glossing over the situation; an often underrecognized defense mechanism. My guess is that you’ve heard one of these phrases or something along these lines over the past year as the world has battled a deadly and devastating virus.
According to VeryWellMind, other signs of spiritual bypassing include:
- Avoiding feelings of anger
- Believing in your own spiritual superiority as a way to hide from insecurities
- Believing that traumatic events must serve as “learning experiences” or that there is a silver lining behind every negative experience
- Believing that spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer are always positive
- Extremely high, often unattainable, idealism
- Feelings of detachment
- Focusing only on spirituality and ignoring the present
- Only focusing on the positive or being overly optimistic
- Projecting your own negative feelings onto others
- Pretending that things are fine when they are clearly not
- Thinking that people can overcome their problems through positive thinking
- Thinking that you must “rise above” your emotions
- Using defense mechanisms such as denial and repression
Kelly Germaine, a trauma therapist, wrote on Medium that although Christians most notably use spiritual bypassing, “The church is not the only culprit. Those of us disillusioned with the faith lineages our people come from frequently escape into Eastern spiritual traditions.”
Kelly continues by explaining that when westerners pursue Eastern spirituality, it’s “often an attempt to escape the roots of violence our people have enacted and been complicit in. We run away to nature, India, or Latin America to meditate, tree pose, permaculture, and breathe our way out of the reality that we live in an empire dominating the world along the lines of class, race, and gender. Our attempts to go anywhere else on the globe to get away from this reality are futile. We cannot bypass the truth and holing ourselves off will not save us. We cannot escape our global, interlocking crises of oppression.”
These forms of bypassing, defense mechanisms, and escapisms deny our innermost feelings and needs on both individual and collective levels. As Kelly highlights, spiritual bypassing inherently denies the harsh realities of those who are oppressed by society or have difficult lives. It turns a blind eye to people who suffer at the hands of others who seek to explain away such undue hardships.
Spiritual bypassing hurts wellness. Big time.
We can never thrive or be collectively well when it’s at the expense or denial of others’ difficult circumstances. We also can never achieve individual well-being when we deny our feelings or refuse to face reality. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be spiritual or religious. We can!
True spiritual wellness is essential.
Spiritual wellness is defined differently by each person but it generally relates to a sense of greater meaning in one’s life and connection to others and/or a higher power. More specifically:
“Spiritual wellness provides us with systems of faith, beliefs, values, ethics, principles and morals. A healthy spiritual practice may include examples of volunteerism, social contributions, belonging to a group, fellowship, optimism, forgiveness and expressions of compassion. Spiritual wellness allows one to live a life consistent with his or her’s own belief and moral systems, while we establish our feeling of purpose and find meaning in life events.”
Here are a few ideas to embrace spiritual wellness without resorting to spiritual bypassing:
- Listen in earnest to the cries, laments and needs of others
- Demonstrate compassion
- Attune to your personal emotions and the roots of them
- Live in the here and now
- Admit when things are hard and you need help
- Engage in works of justice, charity and service
- Connect meaningfully with others
- Bring honesty into your community of worship
- Heal from trauma
- Accept your anger, grief, shame, etc. and find professional help when needed to work through these feelings
- Stay emotionally present with the people around you
- Avoid telling someone in pain how to feel or behave
- Admit that it’s OK to *not* be OK all the time
- Acknowledge your personal trigger responses, work towards healthier responses where appropriate, and set boundaries
Spirituality can help us achieve wellness when we avoid spiritual bypassing and find positive beliefs within our faith and moral systems. As mentioned, a person’s propensity to be overly positive and idealistic can be a harmful form of emotional repression. Positive belief systems are a bit different though. Positive beliefs associated with a higher power and our connection to others can be beneficial to one’s health.
On the other hand, negative spiritual beliefs can be damaging in many ways. For example, one study of over 200 people suffering from a range of conditions such as cancer, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and more, found that individuals who harbored negative spiritual beliefs had increased pain and worse mental health than those who held positive spiritual beliefs. Negative spiritual beliefs were associated with feeling disconnected from or abandoned by a higher power. The people with negative beliefs attended religious experiences less often and had lower levels of forgiveness.
Sometimes, for our overall health’s sake, we need to push the pause button and tune in to how our spiritual wellness is doing: Is it positive or negative? Are we making time for it? Is is helping us become more self-aware and fulfilled? I really like the reflection exercise (below) that I found on the Laborer’s Health and Safety Fund of North America:
Take a moment to assess your own spiritual wellness by asking yourself the following questions.
- What gives my life meaning and purpose?
- What gives me hope?
- How do I get through tough times? Where do I find comfort?
- Am I tolerant of other people’s views about life issues?
- Do I make attempts to expand my awareness of different ethnic, racial and religious groups?
- Do I make time for relaxation in my day?
- Do my values guide my decisions and actions?
As you can see, spiritual wellness involves diving deeper within and connecting to our most authentic self, values and beliefs. In doing this, we also convene with a greater power that connects all of life. The authentic practice of spirituality has the capacity to change the world and it reduces the amount of spiritual bypassing that is used in an effort to avoid the real work of wellness.
Yours in health and wellness,