"Just think positive! Good Vibes Only!"
"You're feeling off? ...I have a crystal for that."
You've probably read the mantra Good vibes only before. While it's nice to strive for good vibes and aspiring to be positive, there can be a harmful side to this attitude.
If you're feeling sad or frustrated, but instead of facing understanding and receiving help from others, you're being told to cheer up and just be positive, this can make you feel even worse.
If you're disappointed or angry, and are being told to sit down in a circle of crystals, burn some sage and raise your vibrations during the full moon... behavior like this can lead to denial and make you feel even worse in the long run.
What is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing describes a...
"...tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."
...as explained in an interview by the American psychologist John Welwood, who came up with the term in 1984. It is a form of escapism: using spirituality or spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with negative feelings, or distracting yourself from your uncomfortable feelings by focusing on spiritual or religious practices. The same way you can use food, alcohol, social media, or other distractions as a way to avoid or suppress your feelings, you can use 'spiritual' practices.
Bypassing can come in different forms, for instance:
fleeing into spiritual rituals because they make you focus your attention on something else than the issue at hand
excessive detachment (repressing your feelings, for instance by forcing yourself to be calm and think nothing during meditation, instead of acknowledging and working through negative emotions)
obsession with or blind trust in spiritual leaders
blind or overly tolerant compassion ("being of benefit to others turns into a duty, or a way of trying to feel good about [yourself]" - John Welwood)
trying to cut out everything 'toxic' in your life
a feeling of superiority due to one's spiritual pursuit
forced or toxic positivity, like the Good Vibes Only mindset, where negative emotions are being repressed
an addiction to spiritual practices
Spiritual bypassing is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm. It's a surface solution that does not treat the cause of the injury. Don't get me wrong - it can be useful in the short term (to provide relief from intense emotions, or to help you cope after a traumatizing event), but it's not a long term healing strategy. Some sources even say that spiritual bypassing is part of every spiritual journey and only becomes a problem if it's turning into a permanent state instead of being used as a short-term coping strategy.
"...spiritual bypassing is like any other form of avoidance that rewards us with a false feeling of security and happiness, while undermining our deeper path of self-growth and transformation." (source)
If we feel bad about ourselves (for instance due to low self-esteem, guilt, shame, or feelings of unworthiness), it can sometimes make us feel better when we fully commit ourselves to something new and get our self-esteem from this new found practice. For instance, if you start practicing spirituality to feel like a good student by being compliant, this is called "compulsive goodness", and can leave you with a false sense of superiority or worthiness.
"Being a good spiritual practitioner can become what I call a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficient identity, where we feel badly about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. Then, although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense." (John Welwood)
This way of coping only masks your feelings of unworthiness and doesn't deal with the root cause.
What are the consequences of Spiritual Bypassing?
If spiritual bypassing is used as a long-term practice instead of a short-term coping mechanism, this can lead to:
obsession (with rituals, spiritual leaders, or other things)
co-dependency in relationships
a need to control others (some people "may unconsciously use their spiritual brilliance to feed their narcissistic inflation and devalue others or treat them in manipulative ways." - John Welwood)
excessive tolerance of unacceptable or inappropriate behavior
feelings of shame, and other symptoms.
Privilege and Spiritual Bypassing
An important aspect to highlight around spiritual practices in Western societies is privilege. Spiritual bypassing is "often used in the wellness industry to avoid acknowledging privilege, and the harm white-centered spaces cause to BIPOC communities" (Anti-racism daily). If a person shares their struggles and is being told to engage in spiritual practices instead of being listened to and acknowledged, this invalidates their individual experience (for instance the racism they face, which can't just be overcome through spirituality or a change in personal attitude), and can even go as far as gaslighting or victim-blaming.
White people can more easily engage in spiritual practices without being stigmatized, and they can more easily follow the Good Vibes Only mentality because they don't face the very real issues of systemic discrimination and racism.
"Privilege is the ability to step in and out of this content at leisure, without any difference in how your capacity to move through society. Spiritual bypassing shows up so often in wellness that I feel it has warped into normalcy. It is ANYTHING but that." (Anti-racism daily)
How can you avoid Spiritual Bypassing?
The first step is to be aware that negative feelings or even traumas can't be healed by ignoring or denying them. They need adequate treatment. If you are dealing with mental illness or challenges you don't feel equipped to overcome on your own, it's best to seek help from professional therapists.
If you are using spiritual practices, be aware that the boundaries are not clear cut, so it's not always easy to determine whether you are spiritually bypassing in a specific situation. Just be aware of the practices you are using, and reflect on the effect they are having on you:
Which benefit do these practices bring to you?
Do you feel like you are acknowledging negative or difficult feelings?
Are these practices helping you deal with those emotions or are they just distracting you? If you're not sure, talk to a therapist to get an unbiased perspective.
If you are talking to someone who is sharing their difficulties, focus on listening to them instead of offering solutions. Ask them what they need from you and how you can support them, and be aware that negative emotions are valid and shouldn't be pushed aside.
If you are part of a spiritual group, there can be different dynamics arising, which you should critically reflect on.
"We could start by recognizing the fact that spiritual communities are subject to the same group dynamics that every group is. The hard truth is that spiritual practice often does not heal deep wounding in the area of love, or translate into skilful communication or interpersonal attunement" (John Welwood)
No matter which path you choose to seek relief or personal growth, it's clear that we have to stop antagonizing negativity. Negative or unpleasant emotions are valid and necessary. They are part of life and the human experience, and denying them won't make you feel happier in the long run.
Can you think of a situation where you unconsciously tried to bypass difficult feelings? Do you think that saying "everything happens for a reason" is a way of spiritually bypassing negative emotions?
I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.