Spiritual Bypassing: What It Is, Why It’s Harmful, And What To Do About It.

I remember the very first time I heard the term “Spiritual Bypassing” and someone told me what it meant.

I was 25 years old and living and working at Esalen Institute as a member of the kitchen staff as an Extended Student. Extended Students (or ES’s) back then had lots of little daily tasks like cleaning up the lodge (the communal dining facility), restocking teas and breads, and tidying up after meals.

I was doing just this one late afternoon sometime before dinner and well after lunch with one of my fellow ES’s when a yoga group workshop broke for the afternoon and the participants came into the lodge for a break.

This group had been at Esalen for the week and the theme of the workshop was something about “existing in love and peace.” I remember being impressed with them because then (and now) I could barely do yoga for one hour let alone a whole week!

Anyways, several members of the workshop came into the Lodge and when one saw that the drink container of lavender lemonade was empty and, when explained by a fellow ES of mine who was working in the lodge with me, that it wouldn’t be refilled until dinner, they angrily exploded and cursed at my friend for not having more available given how much they were paying for the workshop.

Watching this play out, I was stunned that this person who had signed up for a workshop on existing in love and peace for a whole week then lost their sh*t over lemonade being unavailable to them! Where the heck did all the love and peace go?

Talking it over later with a friend, a longer term Esalen staff member, she told me about the term spiritual bypass and described it as a concept where people use spiritual principles or ideas to avoid dealing with their unresolved emotional issues and their strong “negative feelings” and instead sidestep this work through following and espousing “more positive feelings” or concepts. She also said that sometimes when folks do this, their “negative feelings” might leak out sideways surprising them and others with their intensity. Like what happened in the Lodge with the yogi and the staff member.

In the years since as I went to grad school, trained, and became a licensed psychotherapist, I came to connect the concept of “spiritual bypassing” with several other key therapeutic concepts I learned about: psychological disintegration, the Shadow Self, and projection on others.

I also learned why it’s so important we work to heal “spiritual bypassing” and what there is to do about it. 

 

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Spiritual Bypassing As a Form of Psychological Disintegration and Projection.

As I mentioned, “Spiritual Bypassing” is a term I learned about informally in my early days in California but then later came to connect to core therapeutic concepts like psychological disintegration, The Shadow, and projection.

Psychological disintegration is, essentially, when we consciously or unconsciously disown or disavow certain aspects of ourselves – usually the parts of us that are the hardest and most painful to acknowledge and own. In doing so we become disintegrated, we become psychologically un-whole.

Those disowned and disavowed aspects then comprise what Jungian psychotherapists would call The Shadow – the entirety of our unconscious that we are not fully aware of which “holds” the behaviors, memories, and ways of being we do not identify with and we judge as largely “negative.”

And, as Carl Jung, M.D. would say,

“Everyone carries a shadow…and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

In other words, problematically, what we resist persists.

What this may mean is that, when we spiritually bypass or disavow/disallow certain aspects within ourselves, we may also disavow and disallow it in others through the form of projection.

What’s projection? Well, on a micro level, this may mean verbally shaming and blaming a family member who displays irresponsible behavior (possibly because you don’t own and accept that erratic, irresponsible part in yourself).

On a macro level, this may mean shunning or actively politicking against someone with a more fluid form of gender or sex identity (possibly because you’re unwilling to look at your own sexuality and gender identity and practice acceptance around that).

That which we cannot own within ourselves, in our Shadow, we tend to project outwardly, potentially impairing our relationships, and most certainly leading to continued psychological disintegration within our own psyches.

Several ways that this “spiritual bypassing” or psychological disownment/Shadow work may show up can include:

  • Anger avoidance
  • Devaluation of feelings versus lauding of spiritual principles
  • Emotional numbing and repression
  • Over-emphasizing the positive
  • Judgment of others for feeling those “negative feelings”

The bottom line? Spiritual bypassing is a psychological defense mechanism.

It may seem more preferable or tolerable than a defense mechanism of alcoholism, binge eating, or deflecting with sarcasm, but it’s still a defense mechanism that keeps the person using it from feeling the full range of their experience and moving towards psychological integration.

 

So if we find ourself Spiritually Bypassing, what do we do about it?

The reality is that we ALL most likely “spiritually bypass” or avoid or disavow or project onto others the parts we don’t like in ourselves some of the times.

My point here in this article isn’t to cast a stone at yogis and meditators (not even that one who lost it in the Esalen lodge) or you, my lovely blog reader. I have a Shadow side, I have parts of myself I’m still very much trying to integrate and own, I still project. None of us are perfect. And that’s not what we’re aiming for, anyways.

We’re aiming for progress, not perfection, and a slow and steady march towards increased psychological wholeness, more embodiment, and an increased ability to live a more fully enlivened life.

So if you, like me and like so many others, find yourself “spiritually bypassing”, projecting or disavowing, know you’re not alone. And if you’d like to do something about it, I have some thoughts:

 

No Such Thing As a Bad Emotion.

First, importantly, I think it’s important to train or retrain ourselves to understand no such thing as “bad” emotion.

Look, the reality is that we don’t get through this human experience without feeling strong feelings including anger, greed, jealousy, pain, anxiety, grief, etc..

And there. is. no. such. thing. as. a. bad. feeling.

All feelings contain valuable information for us, and when we learn to feel and appropriately express and tolerate all of those feelings within us, we move towards psychological wholeness and a greater level of embodied, enlivened experience.

 

Bring Awareness to Your Process.

Next, as is true for any process of change we’re trying to undertake, it’s important to bring your awareness to your patterning around “Spiritual Bypassing” (ideally closer and closer to the moment you actually catch yourself doing it).

As you do so, be really curious about how and why you might do this.

Ask yourself what feels hard about acknowledging that there’s anger, rage or jealousy [fill in the blank] inside of you? Where and when did you learn that these feelings, behaviors, or ways of being are “not okay”? What do you imagine might happen if you let yourself feel this or do this yourself?

 

Practice Allowing Yourself To Feel or Embody This Yourself.

Safely and appropriately, work on allowing yourself to feel more of what you’ve denied, live out more of what you hate in others, or own the parts that you’ve tried to tuck away.

For example, if you can’t stand laziness in others and get furious each time your significant other crashes on the couch after work versus immediately joining you in the housework, maybe practice letting yourself do this, too.

Or maybe, if you need help feeling the rage you’ve tucked inside for so long but are afraid of what may come up if you start to feel this, work with your therapist to safely titrate your feelings and find ways of processing what comes up for you around this.*

(*Please note: I’m not talking about and advocating for acting out and allowing destructive behavior in yourself or others such as rape, physical violence, verbal abuse, etc.. That kind of behavior is not okay, period. But it’s much different than acknowledging and appropriately allowing feeling states inside ourselves which we may label as “destructive” or “negative.” Allowing the feeling to exist versus acting on it = big difference.)

Wrapping this up.

As we work on integrating the Shadow Side of us, as we work on eliminating any Spiritual Bypassing, as we work on owning our projections, we then practice psychological integration — a positive and healthy psychological development that can lead to increased emotional maturity.

So now I want to ask you a question: what’s been one tool or practice that’s helped you move past any Spiritual Bypassing or projecting? How have you worked on this in yourself? Leave a message in the comments below so our community of blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.

And until next time, take very good care of yourself.

Warmly, Annie

 

References:

  • Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P. 131)

 

(Disclaimer: This article and accompanying content (links, etc) is for informational and discussion purposes only and should not be construed as psychotherapy or psychotherapeutic advice of any kind. Annie Wright Psychotherapy assumes no liability for use or interpretation of any information contained in this post. The information contained in this post is intended for discussion purposes only and should not be an alternative to obtaining professional consult from a licensed mental health professional in your state based on the specific facts of your clinical matter. Annie Wright is licensed to practice psychotherapy in the State of California only.)

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