How to Combat Spiritual Bypassing
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We live in an age of performative spirituality
The concept of spiritual bypassing was first described by John Welwood (a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist) as “using spiritual ideas and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks”. He describes it in more detail in his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening.
How do you know if you are spiritual bypassing?
Even if the terminology is new, you’re probably already very familiar with spiritual bypassing in action. It’s easier to notice in other people honestly.
Spiritual bypassing shows up in useless platitudes like sending love and light, or everything happens for a reason. Positive vibes only. Or in navigating the loss of a loved one, they’re in a better place or God needed another angel.
We’ve all been on the receiving end, and we’ve all done it ourselves. It’s especially prevalent in spiritual communities, where we’re all here because we’re looking for healing and connection and grace.
When we word vomit something pointless and don’t engage in an emotional response to a situation, we’re spiritual bypassing. Basically any time we avoid feeling an emotion, we might lean on filler words to still feel like we’re doing or saying something useful.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “love and light” but it doesn’t really do much, does it? When we aren’t willing or able to hold space for vulnerable emotions we do more damage with platitudes than by just admitting that we don’t know what to say or do when things are hard.
When it makes sense to create some space and emotional distance
Some would argue that there are times when spiritual bypassing is actually the best option. And I agree, in the short term. Sometimes spiritual bypassing is an effective temporary support mechanism. Like when a situation is so overwhelming that it can’t be immediately addressed from a calm, rational place. It can be an act of self-awareness and self-compassion to know when to take a step back.
But just note that it’s never helpful to anxiously chirp a pointless look on the bright side to someone sharing a vulnerable experience. So when I say spiritual bypassing can be okay sometimes I’m only talking about when you’re doing your own work on your own self.
When we need to create some space and distance to let our emotions calm a bit, how do we do that? In mindset coaching we call this emotional distancing. Not in the popular context of romantic relationships, but rather the helpful kind where we literally create some distance from turbulent emotions.
Here are four things you can do today to help with emotional distancing when feelings are too big:
1. Literally sit and notice the physical sensations you’re experiencing
A lot of times a client will say they feel angry, and I’ll ask how that feels in their body. It can seem like a trick question if it’s not something you’re used to paying attention to. But anger might feel like heat or pressure in the chest, a tightness in the throat, and so on. It’s helpful to be able to articulate that. For sitting and noticing feelings, I like this meditation cushion (I have it in Twilight and Plum colors). Also, this Jade Yoga Harmony Mat which I have in Midnight Blue (has held up really well over the years and through lots of travel!)
2. Free-write for at least 5 minutes (longer is even better)
I like to free-write for 15-20 minutes per day; you don’t really need more than that. You’ll be amazed at what comes up. It can help you trace back to the origin when you’re feeling really overwhelmed and emotional but not certain why, or don’t feel like your reasons “make sense”.
3. Give yourself the gift of working with a professional
Talk to an experienced and accredited mindset coach who’s equipped to help you untangle thoughts and feelings when they feel paralyzing
4. Do something creative and meditative
When we’re in a calmer, clearer place, we can dig in to what’s really going on – what lies beneath the impulse to engage spiritual bypassing.
The alternative to spiritual bypassing
A lot of articles are focused on the condemnation of spiritual bypassing, and I understand why – collectively, it’s damaging. But let’s take a look at it from a cognitive behavioral perspective. What’s really going on when we unwittingly engage in spiritual bypassing? What’s our true intent?
Usually, it’s to help.
Usually, we don’t know how.
So here’s what to do instead. When someone shares something vulnerable or emotionally charged, take a breath. Ask yourself what you can give, how you can support. If you don’t know, you can ask. Instead of sending you love and light try that sounds so difficult – how can I support you right now?
But what if you’re not in a position to help in a meaningful way? Just witnessing pain is much more powerful than trying to slap a bandaid on it with a random spiritual bypass catchphrase. And don’t offer support if you’re not in a position to actually support.
Witnessing rather than bypassing your own pain
Pro tip: This also works on yourself! If you’ve been conditioned to think it’s unspiritual to feel difficult emotions, or that your vibration isn’t high enough if something bad happens to you, it’s time to recognize that you’ve been sucked into the spiritual bypassing vortex. Bad things happen to good people. Spiritual people have bad days, they get mad, they use profanity (mainly when they’re driving in Florida where everyone is inexplicably the worst driver in the world).
When something is hard, ask what is really needed, and give that, even if it’s to yourself. What we need more than sending love and light is establishing firm boundaries and cultivating self-compassion. What helps more than texting thoughts and prayers is actually thinking of, and praying for, someone who is suffering. Pray in all circumstances, not just when your gossipy neighbor says “pray for so and so, this private thing that’s none of your business just happened to them.”
Two books I recommend that help us actually learn to face difficult emotions are Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D. and Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
The bottom line
What’s the antidote to spiritual bypassing? Digging in. Ask what you need more of, what you need to let go of, how you want to show up, and if you’re actually equipped to do so. Be ready to make mistakes, to be wrong, to have to ask questions. If it’s uncomfortable, you’re on the right path. None of this is easy. But we can show up in a meaningful way that actually moves the societal needle when we’re brave enough to ask what’s really going on and then addressing it, not wishing it away.
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