What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

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What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing describes a tendency to use spiritual explanations to avoid complex psychological issues. The term was first coined during the early 1980s by a transpersonal psychotherapist named John Welwood in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening. According to Welwood, spiritual bypassing can be defined as a "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."

As a therapist and Buddhist teacher, Welwood began to notice that people (including himself) often wielded spirituality as a shield or type of defense mechanism. Rather than working through hard emotions or confronting unresolved issues, people would simply dismiss them with spiritual explanations.

While it can be a way to protect the self from harm or to promote harmony between people, it doesn't actually resolve the issue. Instead, it merely glosses over a problem, leaving it to fester without any true resolution.

While spirituality can be a force that helps enhance an individual’s well-being, engaging in spiritual bypassing as a way to avoid complicated feelings or issues can ultimately stifle growth.

Signs

Spiritual bypassing is a way of hiding behind spirituality or spiritual practices. It prevents people from acknowledging what they are feeling and distances them from both themselves and others. Some examples 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

Spiritual bypassing is a superficial way of glossing over problems in a way that might make us feel better in the short term, but ultimately solves nothing and just leaves the problem to linger on.

Examples

Spiritual bypassing can sometimes be difficult to spot because it is often very subtle. However, looking at examples can help make this phenomenon more apparent:

  • Following the death of a loved one, people tell surviving relatives that the deceased is “in a better place” and that it was “all part of God’s plan.” 
  • A woman is angry and upset about something that someone else has done. When she tries to share her feelings, her friends tell her to stop being so negative.
  • A relative regularly crosses boundaries and behaves in ways that are hurtful to other family members. Rather than confront this behavior, those who have been harmed feel that they need to repress their anger and remain overly tolerant.

Spiritual bypassing is also often used to dismiss the very real concerns of people who are dealing with problems. People who are faced with discrimination are often advised to simply be “nice,” “civil,” or “patient” when dealing with blatant abuse. It suggests that people can rely on individual positive thinking to overcome complex social issues.

Recognizing Spiritual Bypassing

If you say these things, you might be engaging in spiritual bypassing:

  • "Everything happens for a reason."
  • "You create your own happiness."
  • "It was for the best."
  • "It was a blessing in disguise."
  • "Good vibes only!"
  • “Thoughts and prayers!”

Before resorting to platitudes, ask yourself who the comment is really helping. Is it really giving someone comfort or insight, or is it just a way of dismissing a difficult situation so that you can feel better?

Causes

Spiritual bypassing acts as a form of defense mechanism. It protects us from things that seem too painful to deal with, but this protection comes at a cost. Ignoring or avoiding the issue can make stress worse in the long-term and make the problem more difficult to solve later on. While avoidance is a primary motivator behind this type of behavior, there are other factors that play a role in shaping it.

Wellness culture, which often perpetuates ideas of toxic positivity and permanent optimism, is sometimes a driving force behind spiritual bypassing. It teaches people that they cannot be well or healthy unless they are able to rise above any negativity. The problem with this is that negative emotions are normal and often a sign that something needs to change. Ignoring these signs can lead to worse problems down the road.

An individualistic culture that promotes the idea that people must aim for self-actualization in order to achieve true happiness also contributes to a tendency to avoid difficult or painful emotions. Rather than trying to solve problems in the environment that lead to pain, individualism teaches people that they alone are responsible for their destiny. 

Impacts

Spiritual bypassing isn't always a bad thing. In times of severe distress, it can be a way to temporarily relieve frustration or anxiety. However, researchers suggest that it can be damaging when used as a long-term strategy to suppress problems.

Spiritual bypassing can have a number of negative effects. It can affect individual well-being as well as relationships with others. Some of the potential negative consequences include:

  • Anxiety
  • Blind allegiance to leaders
  • Codependency
  • Control problems
  • Disregard for personal responsibility
  • Emotional confusion
  • Excessive tolerance of unacceptable or inappropriate behavior
  • Feelings of shame
  • Spiritual narcissism

Spiritual narcissism involves using spiritual practices as a way to increase self-importance. It often involves using spirituality to build the individual up, while also wielding it as a weapon to tear others down.

Denying Difficult Emotions

People often engage in spiritual bypassing when they think that they should not be feeling what they are feeling. Negative emotions can be overwhelming at times. Feeling of anger, jealousy, disgust, annoyance, and rage can be distressing, and people may find themselves feeling ashamed or guilty for feeling or thinking such things. 

Rather than deal with the negative feelings—and any resulting reactions to those feelings—spiritual bypassing becomes a tool for avoidance.

Just as you shouldn’t try to suppress your own negative emotions in order to avoid discomfort, you should also avoid the desire to save other people from emotions or situations that make you uncomfortable. Trying to save or shield others—either from their circumstances or their own poor choices—can also become a form of spiritual bypassing.

Dismissing Other People’s Emotions

Spiritual bypassing can be a tool to dismiss what others are feeling. At times, spiritual bypassing can be used as a tool to gaslight others into staying silent about things that have harmed them.

Rather than being allowed to express their pain, people who have been harmed are told by others that they are being a negative person. This tendency uses spirituality to reframe events in a way that lets people off the hook for the harm they may have caused. 

Avoiding Responsibility

Spiritual bypassing also reduces the discomfort that people may feel as a result of cognitive dissonance. People feel uncomfortable when they hold two conflicting beliefs or when they behave in ways that are not in accordance with their beliefs.

For example, if you believe yourself to be a good person, you might struggle to take responsibility for hurtful things that you have done. Admitting that you have harmed someone else through your actions not only causes feelings of guilt—it also conflicts with your desire to see yourself in a positive light. In this way, spiritual bypassing becomes a way to shift the blame back onto the other person while absolving yourself of any responsibility. 

Judging Others

Judging other people for expressing justifiable anger is a form of spiritual bypassing. Anger is a normal emotion and a perfectly reasonable reaction to many events and situations. It means that there is something wrong and that action needs to be taken to fix a situation or mend a relationship. Authentic spirituality doesn't suppress valid emotions just because they're uncomfortable. 

It’s okay to feel difficult emotions like anger, jealousy, and disappointment. The key is to deal with those emotions in healthy ways.

Justifying Suffering

Another example of spiritual bypassing is using supposedly spiritual actions to justify not taking action. Examples of this include saying things such as "it's that way for a reason," "it's as nature/God intended," or "it is what it is." It lets people off the hook for taking any responsibility, because according to such explanations, these things are natural, unchangeable, or divinely caused. 

Such explanations make it easy to just accept things as they are and not focus on the steps that we can take to make a difference. Some situations may be outside of our control or we might face obstacles that make change difficult, but it is important to acknowledge and accept the responsibility for what we can do to make a situation better.

Bypassing also becomes a form of victim-blaming, especially in cases where people are experiencing the negative effects of various kinds of trauma. Telling people that they should just stop being negative in order to avoid exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and other physical and psychological manifestations of stress is essentially telling them that they are to blame for their own pain and suffering.

How It Hampers Growth

While spiritual bypassing may be less harmful than some other coping mechanisms, it can still lead to negative outcomes that hurt an individual’s ability to grow as a person and fulfill their potential. It can stifle emotional development and even stand in the way of fully realized spirituality.

Spiritual bypassing can also sometimes involve participating in "spiritual" activities in order to feel superior or to get around having to take any meaningful action. Instead of talking about a conflict, you'll meditate. Instead of participating in your community, you'll visit a temple. Instead of confronting your discomfort, you'll recite a prayer. The problem does not lie in engaging in these spiritual practices. The problem is that you're using them as a shield to make yourself feel better—not for truly spiritual reasons. 

This is why spiritual bypassing can sometimes be so subtle and difficult to spot both in yourself and others. Meditation can be a helpful way to deal with stress that will help you cope with conflict. Visiting meaningful places can help give you a connection to your community. Praying can give you a sense of peace or comfort when confronting an uncomfortable truth. 

The difference lies in the intentions behind those actions. Are they a way of making yourself feel spiritually superior to others? Then they are likely functioning largely as a spiritual bypass preventing true growth.

Healthy expressions of spirituality help you grow as a person while bypassing creates a barrier between you and authentic growth. 

Tips and Tricks

Spiritual bypassing may act as a way to protect the self from things that we find threatening, but it neglects an important truth. We cannot pick and choose which emotions we experience. Life cannot be good thoughts, feelings, and emotions alone. In order to experience the highs, we must also endure the lows. 

Some things that you can do to try to confront a tendency to spiritual bypass include:

  • Avoid labeling emotions as good or bad. While some emotions may be negative or unpleasant, they serve a purpose. Emotional experiences are not wrong or taboo, and feeling these emotions does not make you a bad person. Try viewing your emotions with acceptance and remember that all emotional states are only temporary.
  • Remember that negative thoughts and feelings serve a purpose. The goal of life is not to avoid having such thoughts, it is to use those thoughts to propel positive actions. Simply putting on rose-colored sunglasses and ignoring a problem does not solve it.
  • Remember that uncomfortable feelings are often a sign that there’s something wrong and something needs to change. If you are always trying to reduce discomfort by simply avoiding it, the situations that are causing you distress will stay the same. Look at these uncomfortable emotions as an opportunity for transformation rather than a burden to avoid.

While spiritual bypassing makes it difficult to acknowledge valid feelings, it is important to remember that spirituality itself can be a positive force in your life. Research suggests that spirituality can often have a number of physical and mental health benefits. People often turn to spirituality to restore hope, cope with distress, to find support, and to find meaning in life. 

Studies have shown, for example, that people who engage in spiritual practices are less prone to depression, cope better with stress, experience better overall health, and have better psychological well-being.

A Word From Verywell

Don't be too hard on yourself for mistakes. Growth is a process and it's easy to fall into old habits, especially when you are trying to cope with something difficult. Spirituality can be a positive force in your life and many spiritual practices can be excellent stress management tools. By actively avoiding spiritual bypassing, you can make spirituality a practice that will help you live a more harmonious and fulfilling life.

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