'Pray It Away'? The Effects Of Spiritual Bypassing

What you resist, persists

-Carl Jung

What images come to mind when you think about spirituality?

Spirituality is personal, and it means something different to each of us. 

However, we can’t deny that spirituality has a certain branding. The word conjures images of retreats, expansive spaces, and other-worldly experiences. We may even visualize practices such as meditation, prayer or, repeating mantras. 

This isn’t meant to dismiss the validity of those experiences! For many of us, such practices and symbols are essential to our understanding of spirituality.

We can acknowledge that AND also explore the idea that some of those images and practices have been co-opted. In other words, they are being used to fulfill a role they were never meant for.

Which leads us the goal of this post! I want to discuss a concept that comes up a lot in therapy, and especially faith-based therapy: spiritual by-passing.

This won't be a how-to type of blog-post (I know how much we all love those!).

My goal is to help us understand the experience of spiritual bypassing and how faith and spirituality in general can sometimes be used to 'override'  or dismiss our very human needs.

Let's dive in.

What Is Spiritual Bypassing?

The term spiritual by-passing was coined by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychologist. He defines it as:

"A widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."

This occurs when spiritual ideas and practices are elevated to the point where they deny our reality and lived experience.

For example, say you are experiencing depression. Years of having low self-worth and struggling to connect emotionally in relationships has led you to this moment, where you do not feel confident or worthy enough to face the world.

In this scenario, spiritual bypassing would look like ignoring the root causes of your depression, and instead, going to a spiritual retreat or seeking an enlightened state of mind that ultimately allows you to disconnect from your situation- or bypass it.

This can look like praying to be relieved of the painful feelings without working towards this goal. Or using meditation to detach yourself from feeling your emotions.

Spiritual bypassing devalues our human need for love, esteem, and real human connection. What it does instead is enable us to strive for an ‘enlightened’ way of relating to the world where we can feel like we are ‘above’ our problems.

Spirituality Is An Important Part Of Healing

Faith and spirituality are important! In my own practice, one the most common requests I receive is for faith-based therapy services. It’s clear that faith and spirituality have vital functions in our lives:

Create meaning and purpose

Provide answers to existential questions and help us explore our own existence

Connect us to something higher

Comfort us in times of chaos and uncertainty

Places our difficulties into context (i.e. 'I am being tested')

Spiritual frames are very valuable. They capture our highest ideals of self-improvement and inform the big-picture direction our lives can take.

Faith-based therapy incorporates the client's faith and spiritual beliefs into the process of therapy. Sometimes, the client's concerns are rooted in their beliefs (i.e. a crisis of faith), other times the client interprets their challenges from a faith-based lens.

Centralizing spirituality in a client's healing journey is important because too often, people expect their beliefs to be dismissed or treated as separate from who they are.

Criticizing the concept of spiritual bypassing does not undermine spiritual beliefs! It simply highlights situations where spiritual beliefs are used to minimize, undermine, or even dismiss real mental health challenges.

Spiritual Bypassing As A Defence Mechanism

Spiritual bypassing occurs when we are having trouble processing something difficult.

This can be a difficult event or the reality of a bad situation. We also have a tendency to engage in spiritual bypassing if we are feeling afraid or wary of experiencing the intensity of our emotions, and even the consequences of them.

In these circumstances, spiritual bypassing becomes a defence mechanism. It essentially helps us avoid discomfort by seeking a higher state of mind that places us above our pain and grief.

For example, we may use the spiritual principle of non-attachment to avoid taking our feelings of grief or loneliness seriously.

Or perhaps you use meditation to withdraw or separate yourself from feeling painful emotions

Focusing on higher spiritual ideals can make us feel like we have our life together in a way that gives us some kind of moral superiority (i.e. a holier than thou perspective).

However, without working through difficult human emotions and experiences, this elevated perspective becomes a mask we put on to distract us (and others) from the messy reality of how we feel inside.

Without connecting with our emotions and dealing compassionately with the pieces of ourselves that are suffering, we are not truly achieving a higher state of mind.

Before You Go...

I wrote this post for anyone who has been told their faith or belief is weak because they are struggling with mental health concerns. The truth is that prayer and spiritual practice are one piece of our mental health journey. For many of my clients, faith and trust in the plan of a higher power is THE most important part of their healing.

However, we should be wary of using faith and spirituality as a means of suppressing real emotions and real challenges! Our lives don't exist in a vacuum. Taking care of our mental wellbeing will enhance our religious and spiritual beliefs. Vice versa, ignoring the reality of life means we are overriding the real work- and this can affect our spiritual life too.

I want to hear from you: Have you seen, or personally experienced, examples of spiritual bypassing in your community? How have you dealt with that situation?

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!