As a practicing psychotherapist who also identifies as a spiritual person, I have come to rely on my faith to get me through challenging times.
I’ve experienced firsthand how having a strong faith can help navigate the complex path of healing and shift negative experiences into positive ones.
Spirituality can provide deeper self-reflection and align us with our highest self. It encourages altruistic ambitions that work towards the goal of transforming suffering into wisdom and peace.
Unfortunately, though, it is all too common for people to use spirituality as a means to avoid unwanted or negative experiences — a phenomenon known as “spiritual bypassing.”
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing is a term used to describe a person’s tendency to use spiritual justifications to “rise above” and effectively deny negative emotions, experiences, and realities in order to avoid discomfort or painful truths.
Transpersonal psychotherapist John Welwood first coined the term in his book “Toward a Psychology of Awakening.” Welwood defines spiritual bypassing as a tendency to use spiritual understandings to “avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Spiritual bypassing is an unconscious phenomenon that must be made conscious in order to shift our negative experiences into something that is positive and healing. The trouble is that when spiritual ideals become elevated to the domain of absolute truth, our authentic lived experience can become discredited.
We all have shadow parts of ourselves that we’d prefer not to examine, and when we bury these aspects in the subconscious realm instead of resolving and integrating them, they can take on dysfunctional behaviors that thwart healing and cause harm to ourselves and others.
Spiritual Bypassing Can Look Like:
- Avoiding negative or uncomfortable feelings
- Using spiritual superiority as a means to hide insecurities
- Applying toxic positivity to traumatic events (i.e., there’s a “silver lining” or “lesson” to be learned from negative experiences)
- Feeling detached or believing you must “rise above” negative experiences
- Ignoring the present moment
- Projecting pain onto others as a result of your denial or repression
The truth is that whether we identify as being “spiritual” or not, we all have unconscious material — relationships, experiences, and emotions — that hasn’t been sufficiently sorted out. Thus, the main goal of therapy is to take this material and help change it into a clarified resource so we can live more thoughtful and productive lives.
It’s when people’s memories and emotions remain unconscious that they begin to interfere with their goals and ideals — and certainly with their spiritual aspirations.
Spiritual bypassing occurs at the unconscious level all the time, including when it comes to the systemic racism. Years ago, I attended a seminar on diversity where a seemingly well-intended white woman introduced herself to the audience and declared: “I don’t see color” — intending to imply that we are all “one” despite skin color.
The moderator, who was a black man, said: “Ma’am, with all due respect — then you don’t really see me.” The whole audience gasped!
However, what happened after this exchange was quite beautiful. It encouraged a deeper conversation — one where the moderator and this woman were able to talk all about how her “not seeing color” was akin to that of spiritual bypassing. She learned about her privilege as a white woman, and how this statement was actually a hurtful dismissal of the realities of injustice.
If we want to truly shift our negative experiences into something that is positive and healing, we must first acknowledge what is no longer working.
Denying or repressing the dark underbelly of racism, for example, has never worked. Not everyone has the same access to healthcare, housing, safety, education, food, and other basic human needs that matter when it comes to healing.
Denying color is a form of spiritual bypassing that not only invalidates experiences and tells others you “don’t see them,” but it also condones an avoidance of responsibility of doing your part to create the conditions that are *actually* equal and beneficial to all.
How to Shift Negative Experiences Into Positive Ones—Without Spiritually Bypassing:
- Build awareness around your unconscious behaviors and beliefs. I invite you to consider how you may have been either the receiver or the perpetrator (or both) of spiritual bypassing. Try not to judge yourself either, as most of us (myself included) have participated in both roles.
- Examine how you may be spiritually bypassing your unwanted emotions and experiences. Then work with a licensed and trained therapist to help you move through this material if it becomes too overwhelming.
- Work to understand the difference between intention versus impact. The woman who claimed: “I don’t see color,” for example, did not intend for her comment to come across as hurtful. However, the impact of her statement was just that.
- Shifting negative experiences into positive ones — without spiritually bypassing — involves taking accountability for what you do and say. Additionally, you can have pure intentions and a good heart, but still unintentionally cause others harm.
- Thus, apologizing for whatever hurt you’ve caused (albeit unintentionally) is what builds empathy and greater understanding in this world, which is something that is greatly needed right now.
- Practice unconditional positive regard towards others. Initially coined by psychotherapist Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard involves demonstrating complete acceptance and support of a person.
- As Rogers described, “To be with another in this [empathic] way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense, it means that you lay aside your Self; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish. Perhaps this description makes clear that being empathic is a complex, demanding, and strong—yet subtle and gentle—way of being.”
- Practice radical acceptance towards yourself. Dialectical Behavioral Therapist Marsha Linehan created the term radical acceptance based on the understanding that reality must be accepted rather than fought against—because fighting against a situation only creates more suffering.
- Once you become conscious of how you’ve been spiritually bypassing your truth, next comes the need to accept it. Radical acceptance means accepting everything about yourself, your situation, and your life, without question or blame.
- Focus instead on being present and compassionate with the parts of yourself that you have been spiritually bypassing, and then, upon practicing radical acceptance, work to understand your intentions behind doing so. To practice radical acceptance means to no longer fight or deny your reality.
Once you start implementing all that’s been outlined in this article, you will find yourself having more compassion and understanding for yourself and others without judging or exiling any parts of yourself or others as being unworthy. And the negative or uncomfortable experiences you once denied will be faced directly, causing unshakeable strength to ensue!
Fossella, Tina (2011). Human nature, Buddha nature; An interview with John Welwood.
Linehan, Marsha M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition.
Rogers, Carl R. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.