You may be familiar with the concept of spiritual bypassing. If you are not, it can be summarised as using spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with emotional wounds or psychological issues in one’s life. In addition to this well-known way of coping with or avoiding emotional pain, I am also seeing a different type of bypassing arising as psychotherapy becomes a little more accessible and soundbites of therapeutic concepts such as attachment and trauma gain increasing traction on social media: therapeutic bypassing.
But first, let’s start with spiritual bypassing. Where did it come from and what does it mean?
First coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood in the 1980s, spiritual bypassing can be a helpful short-term strategy to deal with the pain of difficult personal circumstances. The exact processes involved differ depending on the spiritual or religious practices a person is using, but some people might recognise some of these examples.
- Believing that God/the universe only gives you as much pain as you can bear and will deliver you from suffering if your faith is strong enough
- Seeing challenges or hardships as just punishments for spiritual failings that only delving further into your spirituality will resolve
- Sacrificing agency to external forces such as God, astrological charts, tarot, saints or more earthly forces like religious ministers, spiritualist mediums, gurus or teachers to tell you how to deal with difficult circumstances in your life
- Having faith that meditation, prayer retreats, psychedelic experiences, fasting or other forms of self-mortification offer paths to overcome emotional pain through spiritual awakening
Spiritual bypassing doesn’t stop with organised religion. It can be found in so-called new-age movements, naturopathic healing, health and wellness practices that offer solutions in the form of potions or particular diet or exercise practices, amongst other things. But how does this relate to therapeutic bypassing? What does that even mean?
Spiritual bypassing methods have one thing in common: avoidance of present pain by focusing on things other than the practical or emotional problem itself with a promise to resolve suffering. Although therapy seems like the opposite of that – on the surface, it is about confronting your emotional pain head-on and dealing with it – I believe that therapeutic bypassing is different.
I am increasingly hearing about people using the kind of language that you might acquire through therapy to circumvent their problems in the present, giving up their agency in the process. This often arises in the context of interpersonal conflict. Some of the ways I’ve seen this show up include:
- Using attachment theory to explain away relationship conflicts rather than looking at what needs to change, using labels such as being “an avoidant” and claiming that withdrawal from intimacy is inevitable and others just have to accept emotional distance; or insisting that reassurance is provided on demand because of being “anxious preoccupied”
- Using the language of triggers to attribute discomfort to something beyond your control, such as talking about being triggered by something that someone did or said and using that to avoid making amends for hurting people with upsetting or aggressive behaviour
- Assigning the terminology of ‘gaslighting’ to times when someone says they do not understand a situation in the same way, and using the terminology of coercive control and emotional abuse to simple disagreements
- Projecting therapeutic terminology onto other people in order to make them responsible for conflict, such as calling someone a narcissist, saying they have borderline personality disorder, or making ‘observations’ about another person’s attachment style or references to their trauma to draw conclusions that make them at fault for arguments
- Analysing conflicts and relating them to the historic issues of one or both parties, including using terms such as trigger, transference, and attachment to explain why all parties think the conflict arose at the expense of resolving the disagreement
What does this mean?
This isn’t to say that understanding your past experiences and present issues isn’t helpful. No-one would go to therapy if it wasn’t useful! Likewise, spirituality can be tremendously enriching for many people in whatever form it takes, but it is not the single answer to psychological and emotional distress.
The potential problems arise when people try to use spirituality or therapy speak as a way to avoid dealing with the challenges in their life rather than as a supportive practice to find ways to live more comfortably in the present. Taking responsibility and recognising agency over present circumstances can be scary and overwhelming, especially for the people who are struggling with mental health.
I have no answers for this, but being able to recognise where you or others in your life are zooming out of a present difficulty to analyse its cause, attribute blame to historic factors or personality traits developed through past experiences rather than feeling the discomfort and finding ways to make amends and move forward positively.
If you are able to do so, processing these connections to past experiences with a therapist can draw a clear boundary between the time to analyse and interpret, and the time to focus on the situation that requires resolution in the present. This could mean calling time-out on discussions about conflict, noticing when you are avoiding things and making a note to discuss why that might be with your therapist, or moving your focus from the why of what you’re feeling to the how of what you feel and what you need to deal with that emotion in the moment in order to move forward productively.
Therapists can help you work out strategies for soothing yourself through heightened emotions and reach a point where you are able to work towards goals or resolve disagreements in ways that don’t require devolving into discussions that might be best had between you and your therapist.
Moving forward is important as a part of therapy and part of life. Using therapeutic terminology and concepts to bypass the process of change and continue to exist with old patterns of behaviour defeats the object of the therapeutic process. Blaming other people for conflict or expecting others to make your life better is just as self-defeating as using spiritual practices to bypass emotional pain. It prevents people accessing ways to live more contentedly in the present the same way spiritual bypassing blocks access to the joyful and enriching experiences that spirituality has to offer.