Spiritual bypassing is a term used for the phenomenon of people who use spiritual explanations to explain away, or avoid, complex emotional or psychological issues. Spiritual bypass can often be easier than facing these psychological needs or difficult emotions and experiences and is used as a psychological defence mechanism by some.
For many people it can be a whole lot easier to dismiss these feelings and emotions, and longer term psychological issues as simply ‘spiritual growing pains’. Whilst this may, in the short term, be easier than facing the issues squarely, in the longer term of course it does not actually resolve the issue. It papers over the cracks.
Who Coined Spiritual Bypass?
The term spiritual bypassing is a relatively new term in psychology and spirituality and was coined in the early 1980s by psychotherapist called John Welwood, who was a Buddhist teacher as well as a therapist. He noticed that people, including himself, often used spirituality and spiritual practices to avoid facing their unresolved issues or psychological wounds from their past.
Welwood noted that although most people who were engaging in spiritual bypassing were sincerely aiming towards self improvement, but chose to use spiritualism as a way to avoid actively engaging in the more messy – and emotionally raw – side of being human.
Why Is Spiritual Bypassing Bad?
As we mentioned in the beginning, the problem with spiritual bypassing, ie, using spiritualism as a way to hide any psychological traumas or issues, is that it does not address the root cause of the psychological issue.
For many, the idea of suffering is rooted in spiritualism. The Christian bible is littered with phrases that suggest it is human destiny to suffer, as Christ did. But there is physical suffering and then there is psychological suffering – and psychological suffering and mental illness can be debilitating. Christ did not suffer with debilitating mental or psychological issues (although there were times He asked his father to take away his suffering, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane).
Nevertheless, using spiritualism as a way to bypass facing ones past or getting assistance for mental health issues is not healthy and can in fact delay spiritual growth rather than assist.
How Do You Know If You Are Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing is a way that people can avoid facing their own emotions and feelings, particularly those that are painful or difficult. You may be using spiritual bypassing if you engage in any or some of the following;
Belief in your own spiritual superiority to avoid personal insecurities
Believing that prayer or other practices such as manifestation are always positive
Focusing on spirituality at the detriment to the present
Projection negative feelings onto others
Pretending that issues are OK when they’re not
A belief that psychological issues can be solved simply through positive thinking
Thinking that you must rise above your emotions
Using defence mechanism such as denial or repression
Believing that you deserve these feelings as payment for past karma
Believing that trauma is always a learning experience
The issues listed above should be taken in context though – because some of these things can potentially be a spiritual growth. But the key is to look at whether your use of them is, at an underlying level, helpful or a hindrance.
Some traumas, for example, can be used as a helpful experience – but it’s almost always going to need some additional assistance to process the emotions behind it and find the lesson. The mere act of saying, or believing it’s a learning experience is not enough – and is therefore spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual Bypassing Examples
It’s important to realise that it can be difficult to spot an episode of spiritual bypassing unless you’re aware of it. And it’s not so much about the specific belief but more about how you respond to it. Brushing things off as ‘spiritual growth’ or ‘character building’ is likely to be spiritual bypassing. But engaging with the event and learning how to deal with it is spiritual growth.
Some examples could be;
A spouse or partner becomes terminally ill and dies, but rather than grieving properly the surviving partner tells themselves and others that it was all part of God’s rich plan and that they are now in a ‘better place’. Whilst this may be helpful initially, in the longer term it is using spiritualism as a crutch for their grief.
A person who is now adult struggles with childhood experiences due to abuse or neglect. Rather than trying to work through the experiences and heal them, they decide that this is part of their karma that they had to pay off and was part of the plan for them. The problem is this though, they continue to accept similar treatment in life, believing they deserve it for previous lives of wrongdoing. They do not grow and overcome, and they end up existing rather than thriving.
The adult who was abused as a child can become an abuser themselves, either to their own children or to other people close to them because they believe that’s the ‘cycle of life’ and karma. They never learn to interact in a positive way to hurdles or challenges from others and instead react to try to hurt the other person, believing they are not worthy of love.
What Is Toxic Spirituality?
Toxic spirituality can be another term for spiritual bypassing. It is the basic belief that one must always be positive because there is no such thing as bad experience. But, just like spiritual bypassing this outlook actually prevents growth because it absolves us from the responsibility of looking deeper into ourselves and actually learning from negative experiences.
If we believe that everything negative has a positive spin and ‘always look on the bright side’ we don’t learn to deal with emotions that actually benefit us.
Thoughts such as ‘Just be happy’ or ‘Always focus on the good’ are a sign of spiritual bypass or toxic spirituality. ‘Everything happens for a reason’ can be a solid belief system (yes, it probably does) but unless we look deeper into that reason we’re just using it as an avoidance mechanism. Perhaps the reason it happened is because our decision making was flawed, and if we don’t face it, we’ll end up doing the same over and over again.
Avoiding Personal Responsibility
Spiritual bypassing can be used to try to absolve yourself of responsibility for bad behaviour. Perhaps, for example, you’ve lashed out at others as a result of your pain – and you may have done it for years. Now, this isn’t about victim blaming – if you have psychological hurts that need addressing they are not your fault. But avoiding addressing them IS and needs to be dealt with.
This can intensify your feelings of pain or grief, and can interfere with your growth even further because you know, deep down that you’re a good person but you can’t reconcile that with lashing out and hurting others. Spiritual bypassing can be used to pass the blame on to the other passing rather taking the responsibility for your own self.
But Isn’t This A Spiritual Website?
This may seem a strange topic for a spiritual website to discuss. But it’s important to understand whether you’re engaging on a spiritual growth path or whether you’re using spiritualism to avoid such growth.
Spiritualism, in its very essence, is about personal growth. Learning more about yourself and the world and universe in which you live. But importantly about yourself. So if you’re engaging in spiritual bypassing, it’s a very important topic for us. We never want to mislead you particularly in such crucial matters.
Looking into your emotions and psychological health is a necessary part of spiritualism too. Without doing so you cannot grow emotionally, psychologically OR spiritually because you won’t know which is which.
How To Overcome Spiritual Bypassing
Having made the decision to overcome spiritual bypassing is the first step. If you’ve looked into yourself and feel that you are spiritually bypassing and need to stop then there’s a few things you can do;
No Such Thing As Bad Emotions
Remember there is no such thing as bad emotions. There are some that are joyful and others are painful. But they all serve their purpose and exist for a reason. Feeling emotions does not make you a bad person, though being led by them is not usually helpful. Look at your emotions with acceptance and remember that all emotions are temporary.
Negative Thoughts And Feelings Serve a Purpose
Thoughts, of any nature, should be used to move us forward in life. Negative thoughts can be more powerful than positive to achieve this sometimes. Don’t try to bury the negative thoughts or feelings but instead feel them and look at the ways they can be used to move your growth.
Remember too that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can be a sign that something in your life needs to change. If those feelings are triggered from past experiences then perhaps these need to be addressed and dealt with. Professional help is wise at this point and can be sought through charities or your medical professional. Sometimes these negative thoughts or feelings just mean you need to alter your course. See them as an opportunity to grow and transform your life rather than just hiding them under the guise of ‘your karma’ or ‘Gods will’.
But only you can make that choice to free yourself from your past hurts and psychological issues. Whether you feel they’re a hangover from past lives, a bad childhood or other traumas and experiences, one thing is for sure – hiding behind ‘Gods Will’ will not help you grow. And growth is what life is all about.
Stopping spiritual bypassing does not mean you must let go of spiritual endeavours or thoughts. But you need to put things in the right box so to speak. Some things are spiritual in nature, and others are psychological. Spirituality in the right place has a very positive impact on many people and can have physical and mental health benefits.
1: Picciotto G., Fox J., Neto F. (2018). A phenomenology of spiritual bypass: Causes, consequences and implications. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 20:4 pp333-354. DOI: 10.1080/19349637.2017.1417756