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  • Writer's pictureSudha

Spiritual Bypassing: Too Enlightened for Self-Compassion

In the quest for spiritual growth and enlightenment, many individuals embark on various spiritual practices that promise healing, inner peace, and self-realization. Yet, there is a pitfall in this journey that often goes unnoticed: spiritual bypassing. This term, first coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984, refers to the tendency to use spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid confronting painful emotions, unresolved issues, and psychological needs. Here is how to recognize and avoid this subtle but significant trap.

What is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing is a process where one's foray into spirituality also becomes an escape--spiritual beliefs and practices become a diversion from rather than a conduit to personal growth. Spiritual bypassing is thus the misuse of spiritual principles to avoid facing unresolved psychological issues and emotional wounds. It is a defense mechanism that can appear noble but is, in essence, an escape from the challenges of personal development.

Spirituality plays a crucial role in facilitating true healing. Spiritual communities can provide support and a sense of purpose that can facilitate healing when used in conjunction with therapy and self-awareness work. But spiritual approaches can be a double-edged sword, providing support or leading to denial and avoidance. When a person resorts to spiritual bypass, they may attempt to heal psychological wounds solely at the spiritual level, avoiding necessary work at cognitive, physical, emotional, and interpersonal levels. This oversight can lead to various problems, such as repression of emotions, spiritual narcissism, and even social isolation. It is important to addressing healing at all five levels--spiritual, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and physical--to achieve true wellness.

What does Spiritual Bypass Offer?

In the psychological exploration of spiritual bypassing, it's essential to understand the underlying motivations that lead individuals to this complex and often elusive coping strategy. Individuals who feel chronically insecure or depressed, and who find it challenging to connect with others, may be particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. For those who are grappling with feelings of inadequacy, fear, or isolation, spirituality might offer an appealing escape, a way to feel special or superior without confronting the underlying issues that contribute to those feelings. This is more than merely adopting a spiritual practice; it becomes an over-identification with the spiritual to the exclusion of other essential aspects of self, thereby becoming a form of avoidance or denial.

Those who feel disconnected or unable to relate to others may find in spiritual bypass a means to justify their isolation. They may perceive their withdrawal from social connection as a higher form of existence or a more enlightened path. This can create a cycle where the initial sense of disconnection is not only maintained but reinforced by the very spiritual practices meant to transcend it.

Moreover, spiritual bypassing might offer a temporary relief from symptoms of depression and anxiety by providing a sense of purpose or direction. However, this relief might be superficial if the root causes are not addressed, possibly leading to more significant issues down the road.

From a psychological perspective, the allure of spiritual bypassing may be particularly strong for those who have not had their basic emotional needs met or who have experienced trauma or significant stressors in their lives. The promise of a transcendent spiritual experience, where earthly troubles can be forgotten or transcended, might be powerfully attractive to those struggling with painful emotions.

It is crucial, then, for mental health professionals to recognize the potential for spiritual bypass in clients who exhibit these patterns and to help them navigate towards a more integrated and holistic understanding of spirituality. This means encouraging an engagement with spirituality that honors and includes the full spectrum of human experience, rather than using it as a means to escape or deny uncomfortable truths. The ultimate goal is to foster a spiritual practice that supports healing and growth, rather than one that inadvertently perpetuates suffering and disconnection.

How to recognize Spiritual Bypassing in someone you know in real life?

Here are some ways that illustrate issues that arise with spiritual bypassing in a wider context:

1. Isolation from Others: Spiritual bypassing can lead to a withdrawal from society, including family and friends. People may isolate themselves, avoiding contact with those considered "unspiritual." This disconnection extends to broader social responsibilities.

2. Unrealistic Relationships: This includes difficulties in starting and maintaining relationships. Individuals may idealize themselves or expect relationships to be exclusively spiritual, leading to unrealistic expectations.

3. Avoidance of Confrontation: Spiritual bypassing may lead to avoiding conflict or disappointment. This manifests as a refusal to set boundaries or confront others, often running away from conflicts.

4. Emotional Dissociation: Individuals may run away from emotions and pain. This avoidance leads to a disconnection from feelings, impacting emotional well-being.

5. Spiritual Narcissism: This involves feeling and acting superior to others based on spirituality. People may place themselves on a pedestal, leading to an imbalanced spiritual journey.

6. Blind Following of Leaders: Some individuals may follow a spiritual leader without question. This blind belief can hinder personal growth and lead to unquestioning obedience.

7. Unrealistic Living and Responsibility Avoidance: Spiritual bypassing may cause people to avoid responsibilities related to work and money. This includes neglecting professional careers, long-term financial planning, and abandoning personal or social responsibilities.

8. Anger-phobia: Viewing anger as an inappropriate emotion can be a symptom of spiritual bypassing. This leads to a disconnection from this powerful emotion, impacting emotional processing.

9. Exaggerated Optimism: An unrealistic focus on positivity may lead to a denial of reality. This exaggerated optimism can hinder genuine emotional growth.

10. Refusal to Acknowledge the Shadow Side: Individuals may ignore or repress darker aspects of themselves. This refusal to face the shadow self can hinder personal growth and self-understanding.

11. Rationalization: This includes overemphasis on reason and logic as a means of avoidance. This rationalization can lead to spiritual self-criticism and avoidance of deeper issues.

12. Lack of Embodiment: Spiritual bypassing can lead to a disconnect from physical sensations and the body. Ignoring the body's importance can impact overall well-being.

13. Overemphasis on Spirituality: Over-reliance on spiritual practices to cope with mental health issues may provide temporary relief without addressing underlying problems. This one-sided approach may impede lasting change.

14. Misuse of Spiritual Practices: Using practices like meditation to escape painful emotions can create a false sense of progress. Without addressing the root of suffering, this escape can become a hindrance.

15. Social Disengagement: This involves using spirituality to withdraw from social issues. Ignoring the interconnectedness emphasized in many spiritual traditions can lead to a lack of engagement with broader societal concerns.

The Harmful Effects of Spiritual Bypassing

The negative consequences of spiritual bypassing are multifaceted, affecting various aspects of life from personal development and family obligations to mental health, self-awareness, social connections, and self-love. Gabriela Picciotto et al summarize these, as expressed by people who have experienced spiritual bypass, in their paper as follows.

1. Arrested Development: A hyperfocus on spirituality can lead to stagnation or regression. Participants expressed feelings of paralysis and lack of clarity, going around in circles without knowing what they wanted from life.

2. Ignoring Familial Obligations: The inability to fulfill responsibilities as a parent or spouse due to a lack of financial support was noted. Participants mentioned not earning enough to help their families, creating strain in their roles as providers.

3. Depression and Anxiety: The pathological consequences of spiritual bypassing were identified as depression and anxiety. Emphasizing spirituality at the cost of other aspects of life can lead to these mental health issues.

4. Blindness: This refers to the lack of broader vision and loss of contact with oneself. Participants described failing to understand or see themselves, leading to a form of blindness that affected their self-awareness.

5. Social Disconnection: A difficulty to connect and empathize with others was noted, with participants describing feelings of disconnection and trouble relating to others. This was often linked to a sense of spiritual superiority.

6. Loss of Self-Love: An overly critical view of oneself, lacking self-compassion, was identified. Participants spoke about losing the love they had for themselves, with an excess of spirituality leading them to disconnect from their inner light.

These insights of people who have overcome spiritual bypassing highlights the complex ways in which an overemphasis on spirituality can lead to significant challenges in a person's life.

How to Overcome Spiritual Bypass

A balanced approach that includes spirituality, emotional awareness, cognitive restructuring, and sometimes professional therapeutic intervention tends to offer a more holistic path toward healing and personal growth. Here are some ways one can avoid the pitfalls of and also find a way out of Spiritual Bypass.

1. Seek Professional Guidance: Working with professionals knowledgeable about spirituality and psychology ensures an integrated approach to personal growth.

2. Embrace the Full Spectrum of Emotions: Accepting all emotions as part of the human experience helps prevent suppression or avoidance.

3. Practice Mindful Awareness: Mindfulness exercises foster awareness of when spiritual practices might be misused.

4. Engage in Community and Social Action: Spiritual growth should also involve active participation in community and global concerns.

5. Read and Educate: Extensive reading and attending workshops can deepen understanding.

Spiritual bypassing is a nuanced and multifaceted issue, weaving through the threads of spirituality, psychology, sociology, and even politics. Recognizing and navigating this complex terrain requires both self-awareness and a willingness to engage with the complexities of the human psyche. Through thoughtful integration of spiritual and psychological insights, we can achieve genuine spiritual growth that embraces the totality of human experience, fostering a holistic and authentic path to enlightenment.

My Short-Cut Filter to Avoid Spiritual Bypass

In my personal reflection and pursuit of understanding, I have come to use a simple litmus test to gauge whether any philosophy, belief, or "-ism" is healthy and wholesome. In this process, I regularly ask myself a series of questions. Does this belief draw me closer to others? Does it foster a sense of understanding, acceptance, and compassion towards those around me? Does it prevent me from becoming judgmental or arrogant, and shield me from the risk of hubris? More than seeking 'enlightenment', 'walking a different path' or 'ascension to a higher plane', I find myself evaluating whether my spiritual or philosophical leanings are grounding me in a deeper connection with humanity. This connection, I believe, is the essence of true growth and enlightenment. The path that embraces humility, empathy, and interconnectedness not only enriches our own lives but resonates with the very core of our shared human experience.


Suggested Reading:

"Toward a Psychology of Awakening" by John Welwood

"Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters" by Robert Augustus Masters

"The Only Way Out Is Through: The Peril of Spiritual Bypass"

By: Cashwell, C. S., Bentley, D. P., and Yarborough, P. (2007). The only way out is through: The peril of spiritual bypass. Counseling and Values, 51, 139-148.

Available at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/149233371.pdf

"Spiritual Bypass: A Preliminary Investigation"

By: Cashwell, C. S., Glosoff, H. L., & Hammonds, C. (2011). Spiritual Bypass: A Preliminary Investigation. Counseling and Values, 54, 162-174.

Preprint available at https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/C_Cashwell_Spiritual_2011.pdf

"A phenomenology of spiritual bypass: Causes, consequences, and implications"

By: Picciotto, G. (2017)

Available here.

"The Opiate of the Masses: Measuring Spiritual Bypass and Its Relationship to Spirituality, Religion, Mindfulness, Psychological Distress, and Personality"

By: Fox, J., Cashwell, C. S., and Picciotto, G. (2017)

Available here.


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