The Lure of Spiritual Bypassing (and How to Stop)

If you've been around the personal growth movement for a while, you've probably seen spiritual bypassing in action. Even with the best intentions, spiritual bypassing is unhelpful, even harmful. Click the image to discover what it is, why it matters, and what we can do about it.

This week, I want to talk about something that is a plague—yes, that bad!—on the personal growth world: spiritual bypassing. If you’re not familiar with the term (I only recently discovered there was a name for this), here’s a couple of examples:

  • Millicent and Violet are talking about Millicent’s uncle, who is homophobic and hostile towards Millicent about her sexuality. Millicent is unsure whether to attend a family barbecue her uncle will also be attending because she finds his behaviour unpleasant and upsetting. Violet claims her uncle is in her life to teach Millicent her greatest lessons in patience and tolerance. She says going to the barbecue and engaging with him will be good for her personal growth. As she reminds Millicent: “The fact his behaviour bothers you is about you, not about him.”
  • Debra’s husband dies in a car accident at the age of 32. While visiting her a few weeks later, one of her friends tells her to have hope for the future because “this is all part of God’s plan.”

If you’ve been around the personal growth world any amount of time, you’ll have seen these kinds of responses delivered and even encouraged. I’ve been thinking about this lately because, although it’s a behaviour I find annoying in other people, I’ve noticed my own susceptibility to doing it too (the saying that the things we find most annoying in others are things we do ourselves? So true). And I don’t want to be that person. I don't want to respond uncomfortable feelings or experiences by dismissing them with a faux-enlightened platitude. Nor do I want to be swayed from my own feelings by other people attempting to do the same.

What is spiritual bypassing?

Psychotherapist Robert Masters describes spiritual bypassing as “The use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” As Dr Masters explains, “Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”

Psychologist Ingrid Clayton emphasises spiritual bypassing is a subtle but effective defence mechanism. She writes, “Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don't even know we are doing it.”

These explanations ring true. Even though I have almost a decade’s experience working with emotional support (or, despite knowing better, because of this), I hear someone talk about a challenge or issue and I want to help. I want them to feel better, partly for them but partly because seeing them in pain feels uncomfortable for me. At these times, I have to bite my tongue to stop myself coming out with one of the pithy platitudes that annoy me when I hear them from other people. Witnessing someone else’s pain requires a vulnerability that can be uncomfortable at times and part of me aches to jump in and try to rescue them.

I know I’m not alone in this: spiritual bypassing is a real problem in the personal growth movement. It shows up in quick-fix “inspirational quotes” that try to summarise a complex issue in a single, pithy statement. It shows up in best-selling books. It shows up in people’s advice to “just be grateful.” It shows up in self-prescribed gurus who, according to their PR stories, suffered from depression and anxiety until they woke up one day, realised they didn’t have to feel negative feelings anymore and—shazam!—the negative feelings went away.

Some of these quotes, books, and people are convincing. And some of the ideas and tools they share can be useful for examining stories, patterns, and behaviours that are outdated and no longer serve us. They don’t, however, offer the be-all-and-end-all solution. As tempting as it is to believe there is one thing out there that will relieve all our uncomfortable feelings and experiences, the simple truth is: there isn’t.

Why spiritual bypassing hurts us

Spiritual bypassing hurts us because it’s based on avoidance and repression. It’s like band-aiding a wound that needs to be stitched, or holding up a gushing arm, teeth gritted, and saying “Cut? What cut?”

The idea we can "cure" ourselves of negative thoughts and feelings is where the problem begins. Negative thoughts and feelings serve a purpose. Part of this purpose is evolutionary. Our ancestors needed to be alert to certain threats and dangers to survive and we are still hard-wired to do the same. Part of this purpose is also based on the present. Our negative thoughts and feelings alert us to things in our life that are not working. That might be a racist uncle. It might be the fact you're grieving a significant loss, or that there are changes you’re ready to make in your life.

These feelings make up an important part of what I call our internal GPS–our intuition. This is our felt sense of the world based on previous experiences, our beliefs, and information we have registered on an unconscious level. Our intuition doesn’t always reflect the truth, but it’s always worth paying attention to.

Spiritual bypassing is like driving to a particular destination with the belief that turning left is the unenlightened choice and therefore we won't do it. If each time the GPS tells us to turn left, we say “Oh, you don’t really mean that,” we’re very unlikely to end up where we want to go. Negative feelings and thoughts are the "turn left" of our internal GPS. When we engage in spiritual bypassing, we throw our internal GPS off course.

As well as ignoring vital signals, spiritual bypassing ignores an important truth: we can’t pick and choose only the good feelings. As Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “We cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Experiencing negative feelings and thoughts is part of being human. And it makes the sweeter moments even sweeter.

The alternative to spiritual bypassing

The alternative to spiritual bypassing is simple–not easy, but simple. It is to feel our feelings across the spectrum. To live as though every emotion were acceptable, with none being better or worse than the other. To accept all feelings are temporary, this too shall pass, and none of our emotional experiences are wrong or forbidden, they are what they are.

It also involves acknowledging what Walt Whitman writes about in Leaves of Grass: “We are large, we contain multitudes.” We’re allowed to have conflicting feelings about ourselves, our experiences and the world. Feelings matter and every emotion is acceptable (even those that are usually seen as not). You are allowed to have your feelings: the good, the bad, the glad, the mad, and the ugly.

Finally, it involves acknowledging our feelings in responses to situations that aren’t about us. The times when we feel the urge to jump in and rescue someone. The times we want to shut down their pain because we feel uncomfortable witnessing it. This requires a degree of mindfulness that, I believe, we can only cultivate through practice. This comes from being willing to sit, listen and be instead of do time and time again.

Spiritual bypassing is insidious. I can think of times people have told me I should feel good about something I don’t feel good about and I’ve capitulated, doubting myself even though I know deep down my feelings are valid. As I mentioned above, I've also been on the other side of this equation, even though I know better. After learning more about this topic, I’m even more convinced of the importance of embracing all feelings and giving other people space to do the same. What do you think?

Further reading: How to cultivate a healthy relationship with anger & Real talk time: feeling envy is OK

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