What is Spiritual Bypassing…And, Is it Really a Problem?
“Spiritual bypassing, a term coined in the early 1980s by psychologist John Welwood, refers to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.” –Jonathan Toniolo
In extreme cases, it leads to denied or disowned aspects of ourselves that may leak out unexpectedly as we move through life.
We can suspect spiritual bypassing when we are using spiritual tools to avoid uncomfortable emotions, when we have become identified with the goal rather than the process of spirituality, or when we need to appear a certain way to be seen as spiritual.
Just as everyone uses defense strategies, everyone with a spiritual orientation is at risk of spiritual bypassing.
The trick is that one use for spiritual tools is to direct our attention, energy, and emotion toward positive growth. How do we tell the difference between this productive use of the tools and spiritual bypassing?
The answer is not in the tools themselves, but in the reasons that we use them. And it is not a binary system. At any point we may not be completely spiritually bypassing, but it is very likely that it is happening to some degree. We might be productively using our spiritual tools for the most part while also escaping some uncomfortable emotions that need to be examined.
Another area where people get confused about spiritual bypassing is when it happens in conjunction with intense emotions. Just because you have intense emotions—negative or otherwise—it does not mean that you are not spiritually bypassing. Sometimes we choose one emotional experience, even if it is challenging, over the one that we really need to be experiencing if we want to grow and heal.
The same is true for “confronting” realities. We might actively work on one area of our life so that we appear to be devoted to our spiritual and personal development while ignoring the area that is in desperate need of attention.
The bottom line is that it is not the superficial aspects of our behavior that represent spiritual bypassing, but rather the underlying mechanisms and our intent. It is very tricky terrain, and try as we might, we will all likely use spiritual bypassing at some point to cope with our lives.
The questions are—as with most things—to what degree are we doing it, and at what cost? When we frequently use spiritual bypassing, we are at risk of relegating parts of ourselves to the shadows—the disowned aspects of our selves. These parts of our selves are not gone: they are simply removed from our awareness because of our own denial. When we do this, we are likely to act in ways that are not in alignment with our spiritual efforts. If we are deep in denial, we will not even see what we are doing.
Spiritual bypassing is simply a defense mechanism, and, for many, a rather innocuous one—but for those people who are spiritual leaders or avid seekers, it poses a much larger threat because it presents a mechanism by which one can believe that they are on the path while in truth they are quite far from it.