What is Spiritual Bypassing? And Is It Dangerous?
Spirituality can provide a deep sense of contentment, connection and awareness. It’s a lifelong journey of learning, practice and growth. What often gets ignored is the darker side of spirituality. The pain, the exhaustion, and the dangers. This article will explain what spiritual bypassing is, how it can be dangerous, and give examples of it.
I see spiritual bypassing all the time on the internet, and from the occasional person in real life. Usually the ‘Eat Pray Love’ types: the ones who travelled to East Asia during a gap year to ‘find themselves’, and came back with ‘enlightenment’… not to mention an affinity for cultural appropriation.
If that made you cringe, I’m glad!
Spiritual bypassing is very prevalent among some communities on the internet. It’s important to raise awareness and understanding, and try to prevent others from falling into the trap.
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
A false sense of positivity, security, and/or enlightenment. Spiritual bypassing is a coping mechanism of escapism. It’s a disservice to real self-growth that isn’t always beautiful or positive. It also invalidates the trauma and emotions of other people.
Spiritual bypassing is a resistance to the darker side of your humanity, an attempt to push it out, ignore it, and embrace ‘the light’.
If you’ve fallen into this, I don’t blame you: it’s alluring, enticing, and often very manipulative. When you’re struggling, those ‘positive vibes only’ communities can beguile you and convince you to avoid your problems.
The definition of Spiritual Bypassing:
John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, coined the term ‘spiritual bypassing’ in 1984. He defines it as:
“a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. [Source].
Psychologist Ingrid Clayton wrote in Psychology Today: “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.”
Examples of Spiritual Bypassing
- Forced optimism, even in the face of tragedy and trauma.
- Not allowing yourself to feel ‘negative emotions’ like anger or sadness.
- Extreme idealism.
- Believing that any problem can be overcome with positive thinking. Telling people to stop being ‘negative’, when discussing things that made them angry or upset.
- Detachment from reality and/or ignoring the present.
- Individualism. Especially as a way to avoid talking about poverty, abuse, and racism. These are real issues that need real solutions. ‘The Secret’ is a glaring example of this. There are certainly links between spiritual bypassing, gaslighting, and victim-blaming.
“Rather than trying to solve problems in the environment that lead to pain, individualism teaches people that they alone are responsible for their destiny.”
Is Spiritual Bypassing Dangerous?
Psychologists do not consider a spiritual bypass dangerous when used temporarily to cope with acute stress. The keywords here are temporarily and acute stress.
Spiritual bypassing becomes dangerous when used as a long-term coping method, e.g. for unresolved mental illness.
Fox, Cashwell and Picciotto wrote a detailed paper in 2017 titled “The opiate of the masses: Measuring spiritual bypass and its relationship to spirituality, religion, mindfulness, psychological distress, and personality”, in Spirituality in Clinical Practice.
They point out the many negative consequences of spiritual bypassing, including:
- Emotional confusion
- Exaggerated tolerance of inappropriate behaviour
- Spiritual narcissism
- Blind allegiance to charismatic teachers
- Disregard for personal responsibility
- Excessively controlling oneself and others
As you can tell from that list, spiritual bypassing can have severely harmful effects on yourself and others.
Spiritual bypassing perpetuates white supremacy through passing responsibility to the individual. ‘Mindset’ is not going to dismantle systematic racism.
It also enables victim-blaming towards those who have experienced abuse, poverty, mental illness, and disability. It is not my fault that I was abused, nor is it my fault that I have a disability.
How To Avoid Spiritual Bypassing
Critical thinking. Listen to that voice in the back of your mind, or in your gut, that tells you ‘this isn’t right’, or ‘this doesn’t make sense’. Ask questions, think about things from a variety of perspectives.
Do not take the opinion of one person (or community) as fundamental truths. Seek alternative points of view. Do your own research, and please do not blindly follow a charismatic leader. That is cult-like behaviour.
Remember that just because someone claims to be ‘spiritual’, doesn’t mean they can’t lie to you. In fact, I would completely avoid people who only talk about positivity. It’s not realistic. ‘Love and light’ cannot exist without hate and darkness. It’s a balance.
Likewise, you aren’t always right. Neither am I. No-one is. We must all accept that we are often wrong, and we need to learn from that. Don’t live in denial or cognitive dissonance.
Ground yourself. It can be easy to let yourself get sucked into lofty ideals of eternal joy, and enlightenment. Grounding yourself can help you feel present and connected to the Earth.
The world is not always optimistic, and neither are people. You can, of course, practice gratitude, and look for the positives in situations. What you can’t do is be happy all the time, or never feel any negative emotions. This is toxic positivity. All emotions exist for a reason.
Using spiritual bypassing as a defence mechanism for your struggles will hinder you. It’s an illusion that prevents personal growth, and the ability to process trauma.
I’ve always felt a bit sickened by the people who tout ‘positivity only’ and ‘light work’, but it really hit home for me when I was diagnosed with PTSD. No positive mindset that could get me through that.
What I needed was time to grieve, then therapy and medication. I learned how to practice real self-care. I mean, literally looking after myself as a human, not the capitalistic form of self-care (a topic for another blog post). I had to learn what my responsibility is, and how to set healthy boundaries.
Unfortunately, trying to help someone deep into spiritual bypassing is difficult. I’ve tried it myself and got nowhere. They refused to listen to me. I really do hope they find their way out.
As much as you can encourage therapy, I know that it’s not available to everyone. I am incredibly grateful that in the UK, I was able to complete two courses of CBT, without paying for it. The more mental health gets discussed openly, without stigma or shame, the better. We all need support, and improved systems to provide therapy access.
Sources For Further Reading on Spiritual Bypassing:
- Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, by Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D.
- Rude Awakening: Perils, Pitfalls, and Hard Truths of the Spiritual Path by P. T. Milberger
Originally published at https://emilyunderworld.co.uk on December 6, 2020.