Spiritual Bypassing: Another Guest at the Denial Dinner Party

Spiritual bypassing defense mechanisms urim recovery

Spritual Bypassing is one of the many ways we protect ourselves

Defense Mechanisms Have Come Out to Play
“Spiritual Bypassing” has laid low for some time. The year 2020 hit, and our vocabulary list was among the many changes we rapidly experienced. Spiritual Bypassing is one of the terms on that list. As a trauma therapist who specializes in identity issues, especially with respect to intersecting and multicultural identities, these terms are not new. They are all aspects of trauma.

John Welwood
The term Spiritual Bypassing isn’t even new. The term was reportedly first used by psychotherapist John Welwood who sadly passed away last year in 2019. I would love to have heard what he might have added to social media commentary on this matter. There’s a lot of mud slinging going on and understandably so.

Feeling Attacked
We live in a time where we feel very much under attack, with threats unseen and our defenses down. Firstly, people feel the need to fight extra hard for their turf and sense of self. Secondly, they may not even realize that they are doing so. Everything appears to be happening so fast and many are in reactive mode. So what is “Spiritual Bypassing”? Welwood identified certain behaviors he observed in which people seemed to hide behind spiritual platitudes in a way that allowed them to avoid dealing with certain emotionally charged issues.

Spiritual Bypassing and Race
Speaking of social media, “Spiritual Bypassing” is often seen in company with racial gaslighting and white fragility in the context of discussing racial trauma. It’s as though they all showed up at the same dinner party as awkward plus one guests who would rather have stayed home or, alternatively, came, without a gift, and with the audacity to upstage the host. To many, these behaviors pass as “normal” while others react to the defensive energy attached to both. The simple explanation for this behavior lies in the defensiveness.

Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms are ways in which we avoid or try to disown parts of ourselves that feel problematic. Sometimes, we really don’t like how we behave, but don’t want to explore it. Well, not right now. Not while we’re crawling out of the barrel of everything that has happened in 2020. The easist thing to do is project our anger onto someone else, numb that feeling or just look somewhere else. You can do that with deflection, drinking, sarcasm, criticism or spiritual bypassing.

Dealing with Vulnerability
It isn’t easy when we feel already feel vulnerable with COVID-19 bearing down, job loss, economic uncertainty and home-schooling to fend off disconcerting feelings that we may have lasted this long in the world riding on privilege at the expense of marginalized groups. Being accused of spiritual bypassing can be a trigger. If you perceive yourself to be an ally of such marginalized groups, the awful realization that you might also be perceived as racist, may be way too much to handle. Especially if it’s true.

Do you Feel Your Temperature Rising?
You may not be aware that you are being defensive. You may truly think you are being passionate. Ardent. Determined. Very positive. These terms sound so much better than defensive.

Defensiveness can show up as:

  • Getting loud.
  • Being wordy
  • Getting flushed in the face with a long explanation
  • Shutting off comments in your social media after a very long explanation of your behavior
  • Being overly idealistic
  • Getting very angry
  • Bouts of crying and feeling like a victim
  • Feeling drained or numb
Spiritual bypassing urim recovery
Spiritual bypassing is a protective defense mechanism

“I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

―  John Welwood  

What to Do?
One way to catch ourselves drifting into Spiritual Bypass is to be aware of any increased tension or energy that accompanies what our prefrontal lobe may otherwise disguise as a spiritually uplifting moment. Our bodies often betray our acts of inauthenticity. Rather than resort to shame or berate ourselves, taking a stance of curiosity, which is common in mindfulness approaches, can eliminate some of the defensiveness.

Cognitive Dissonance
The question to ask, is what is it that we feel we need to protect? What is hurting? Go easy on yourself. None of us are perfect. We all live with moments of cognitive dissonance/ This is a form of ambiguity in which we hold opposing ways of being. Rather than fight with ourselves, curiosity allows a gentler approach in which we allow ourselves to explore. Of course, if this is distressing, a trauma therapist can assist with this process.

You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing here .  Miss your last group session? Check the blog for the latest subjects covered right here.

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