Moving Beyond Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

Mar 22, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Welcome to the fifth and final weekly reflection in our series on Catholic spiritual bypassing. To lead off this week’s reflection, I’m sharing a testimony which is so relevant and important to our discussion on spiritual bypassing.

Gabriel’s story 

Gabriel Crawford is a convert to Catholicism and a mental health counselor who regularly reads these weekly reflections. He has given us all a gift: the gift of his story. He provides us such a clear example of Catholic spiritual bypassing, its consequences, and how to recover from it in this 17-minute audio. In his story, Gabriel shares with us how he unknowingly used spiritual bypassing to avoid his “shadow side,” his trauma, and the dysregulation of his body — for years. Listen as he describes how he used spiritual practices to avoid, evade, and escape his inner psychological pain, emotional distress, his sense of isolation, his wounds, and his unresolved trauma.

I invite you to pay particular attention to how the story ends – his final words brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, Gabriel, for your beautiful human formation work. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Moving beyond spiritual bypassing

In this reflection, we get into the different natural-level and spiritual approaches to overcoming spiritual bypassing recommended by Gabriela Picciotto and Jesse Fox in their article Exploring Experts’ Perspectives on Spiritual Bypass: a Conventional Content Analysis. Quotes from their article appear in red, my commentary follows in black.

When spiritual bypassing is not unhealthy

Interestingly, the experts in Picciotto and Fox’s survey describe two ways in which spiritual bypassing might not be unhealthy, listed below.

  1. Natural step of spiritual development: spiritual bypass can manifest as a natural step in our spiritual development and practically everyone who embraces a spiritual journey ends up experiencing some type of bypass. And this makes sense; when we reconsider the little child Jenny in this scene from Forrest Gump, who copes with ongoing sexual abuse from her father with her child’s prayer, we can understand her spiritual bypassing as step in her development; if she were to pray the same prayer at age 35 for liberation from an abusive husband, that would no longer be natural or adaptive.
  2. Short-term coping strategy: the use of spiritual bypass as something useful for coping with high stress or difficult situations for a short period of time. The emphasis here is on “short-term” something to be used out of necessity, and for a short period of time, rather than a chronic coping mechanism.

Treating spiritual bypassing in the natural realm

Picciotto and Fox wrote that: Regarding treatment methods, experts noted several viable options. In general there is no definite strategy for treating all cases of spiritual bypass; rather, the therapeutic technique needs to be tailored to the individual client… Spiritual bypassing as a defensive process is a symptom of deeper issues, as I discussed in the March 1, 2023 The Whys of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing. What we want is to treat and resolve or heal the deeper issue, and then the symptom dissipates, as it is no longer necessary. Picciotto and Fox suggested the following eight means that therapists and counselors can use in the natural realm to help their clients overcome spiritual bypassing.

  1. Empowerment-base model: a client autonomy-based model in which one explores the [clients’] goals for counseling and helps them perceive what is working so that they can develop the skills and capacity to gain control over their lives. This is standard language in the secular counseling world for a treatment approach that facilitates clients getting what they want from life. For Catholics, we might think of increasing agency and capacity to do the underlying human formation work that renders spiritual bypassing unnecessary, no longer needed. If Catholics develop the ability to address deep issues in their human formation, it will not only reduce reliance on spiritual bypassing, but also other maladaptive defensive processes and defense mechanisms.
  2. Existential approach: views the tendency to avoid what is painful and the fact that suffering will not go away on its own as “existential givens” and is based on what the person wants to achieve. What Picciotto and Fox’s experts are offering here is the idea that those who spiritually bypass need to connect with the reality of suffering, and to recognize that suffering is unavoidable if they wish to achieve their goals. They are challenging the (often unconscious) desires that life could be pain-free, without suffering and distress. Catholics have a richer appreciation of suffering, including the concept of redemption in suffering. For Catholics, there are ways to make suffering meaningful and redemptive, not just something that has to be stoically endured if one wants to pursue one’s goals.
  3. Stay sensitive to the purpose: focusing on the purposes or intentions that spiritual bypass serves by understanding what purpose the bypass is serving in the client’s life. Picciotto and Fox bring up a very important point here, understanding the perceived value or benefit that drives the spiritual bypassing. Can we get curious about our intentions and motivations behind our spiritual bypassing? In the March 1, 2023 reflection The Whys of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing, and the March 15, 2023 reflection The Causes and Effects of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing we explored the underlying motivations for spiritual bypassing, the perceived goods that are at least unconsciously sought when spiritual bypassing occurs. If those purposes (which are often to meet an unmet attachment need or integrity need) can be adequately addressed, the spiritual bypassing fades.
  4. Empathetic approach: denotes putting yourself in the client’s shoes, being empathetic, connecting with them, and finding their language. This is more what therapists or counselors need to do, according to Picciotto and Fox, rather than what one who is spiritual bypassing needs to do. However, we can adapt this for Catholics by advocating that each person who engages in spiritual bypassing be empathetic with himself or herself. This is part of loving oneself, to treat oneself with gentleness, kindness, compassion, and genuine interest, and is far superior to a “Just stop it” approach.
  5. Customized to each category: Normal bypass does not need to be treated because it is an aspect of spiritual development that is to be expected. States-driven bypass is treated by talking about the psychological experiences of the client and using supportive interventions. Problematic bypass treatment is focused on helping the person realize that they are experiencing spiritual bypass and dealing with the psychological problems that lie beneath it. Lastly, narcissistic bypass should be treated as narcissism in general. In this section, the authors are discussing four definitions of spiritual bypassing. As we noted above, if spiritual bypassing is a natural step of spiritual development, or short-term coping strategy, it can be adaptive. Picciotto and Fox are recommending that insight be a focus of treatment for spiritual bypassing when it is problematic. This is another way of emphasizing the importance of getting down to the root causes of spiritual bypassing. The narcissistic variety of unattuned spiritual bypassing is described in this evocative spoken word poem by Jon Jorgenson.
  6. Customized to each client: each client should be treated with a unique and customized treatment plan. In this dimension of treating individuals with spiritual bypassing, the focus is always on the individual, not the symptom of spiritual bypassing. The reasons for spiritual bypassing can vary dramatically from one Catholic to another, just as the symptom of a fever is nonspecific – a fever can arise due to a wide variety of underlying bodily or medical causes
  7. As other defenses: treating spiritual bypass in the same way other psychological defenses are treated in the therapeutic process. It is alien to me to think of “treating psychological defenses.” As a Catholic psychologist, I am always treating individuals, not disorders or defense mechanisms or problems. Different schools of therapy take different approaches in addressing defenses — psychodynamic therapists may interpret to better understand the defense and resolve the underlying conflict that drives the defense. Cognitive-behavioral therapists may explore the “irrational cognitions” that drive the defense. Behavioral therapists may encourage alternative behaviors that are more adaptive than the defense. I think what Picciotto and Fox’s experts are saying is that spiritual bypassing can be treated as any other defense would be treated in the counselor’s approach to therapy. A better approach is to work with the underlying causes unique to the individual who spiritually bypasses (or who uses any other defense mechanism or defensive process).
  8. Helping the client connect to the self: Using various therapeutic techniques that support the client to have a deeper contact with [his or her] self. This recommendation implicitly argues for interior integration within the self-system of the one who is spiritually bypassing — connecting with one’s various parts. From an Internal Family Systems perspective, I would also include fostering the prominence of the innermost self, a self who can effectively lead and guide his or her parts, becoming a secure internal attachment figure whom parts can come to trust. Ideally, the innermost self can also be the mediator, the bridge between the rest of the self and God, facilitating a deeper and more intimate relationship with God in the three Persons of the Trinity and with our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In that authentic, intimate relating, the perceived need for spiritual bypassing is likely to diminish.

One other aspect I must mention here is helping a person connect with what is real in the natural realm. Gabriel describes in his story about how paradigm-shattering it was to realize that so much of what he was misunderstanding and trying to resolve through a spiritual lens was really the effect of unresolved trauma in the natural realm – the symptoms and experiences of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fostering healthy spirituality

In this section, Picciotto and Fox described their experts’ opinions on seven spiritual means by which those who spiritually bypass can be helped, which may be particularly useful to clergy, spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, spiritual life coaches and others who mentor or guide Catholics in the spiritual realm.

  1. Paying attention to different areas of life and dimensions of the self: seeking to be attentive and working the different areas of life and being, such as work, relationships, health, and emotions… physically, mentally, psychologically, intellectually. I interpret this as a recommendation from Picciotto and Fox’s experts that both individuals and also the formators, confessors, spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, and others who work primarily in the spiritual realm be aware of the natural realm and the impact that the natural realm can have on the spirituality of the individuals with whom they work, not just looking at the individual through a spiritual lens. This is something that is essential for Catholics, and reduces the likelihood of spiritual bypassing.
  2. Possibility of connecting with their emotional world: posits that the path to a healthy spiritual life exists when a person’s spiritual practices and beliefs enable them to connect with their emotions. The experts are arguing that authentic spirituality incorporates the whole of the individual, including the emotions, which is entirely concordant with Catholic teaching as we see in Luke 10:27: Jesus answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” We are to love God with every fiber of our being, with all of us, not banishing our emotions from our spiritual life and spiritual relationships.
  3. Doing psychological work: in which the participants believed that the path to a healthy spirituality would be in the conjugation of spiritual practice with therapeutic work. Here Picciotto and Fox’s experts are advocating a two-pronged approach to personal development, with one prong being human formation in the natural realm and the other prong being spiritual formation in the spiritual realm. Both are necessary for Catholics, and among devout Catholics the human formation work is often either devalued or minimized or not considered, as we discussed in the February 15, 2023 weekly reflection titled Naturalizing and Spiritualizing: Two Errors Catholics Make.
  4. Greater compassion and self-compassion: which defines healthy spirituality as a path that brings one to a place of compassion for oneself and others. Fr. Jacques Philippe in his 2008 book Called to Life wrote about how the three loves in the two Great Commandments complement and support each other for Catholics: This self-love is good and necessary, not egoism that refers everything to “me,” but the grace to live in peace with one’s self, consent to be what one is, with one’s talents and limitations. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self grow together and sustain one another as they grow. If one is absent or neglected, the others will suffer. Like the legs of a tripod, all three are needed in order to stand, and each leans on the others. 
  5. Dharma, Sangha, and Buddha: refers to the path of healthy spirituality as the conjunction of having a set of values, a group of people, or a community to become a part of and to serve as a standard. OK, so here we are seeing in spades the Eastern spirituality embraced by at least some of Picciotto and Fox’s experts, but their point is still well taken for Catholics. This idea of having a set of values or virtues (as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and a group of people (the Catholic Church herself, the mystical body of Christ, especially as expressed in one’s local community). Regular connection and relationship with healthy Catholics helps to foster not only spiritual growth, but also human formation.
  6. Community and guidance: which refers to the fact that the individual has a support group and environment or a person who plays the role of mentor, guide, or spiritual teacher. The emphasis here on guidance can remind Catholics about the importance of frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a well-balanced, well-formed confessor who can discern the presence of spiritual bypassing. Catholics may also benefit from regular spiritual direction with a competent, well-formed spiritual director to recognize and overcome spiritual bypassing. Small groups of faithful Catholics may also help each other by gently pointing out possible instances of spiritual bypassing. Guidance for different Catholic organizations can also be found in 1983 Code of Canon Law and in other governing documents from the Church, including the constitutions or charters of different Catholic religious organizations.
  7. Involvement with the world: in which the path to a healthy spirituality would be spiritual practices that would help the individual to engage in the real world with real people. Rather than withdraw from the world with a sense of spiritual superiority that justifies spiritual bypassing, a healthy spirituality invites Catholics to love their neighbors and even their enemies in an ordered way, as beloved sons and daughters of God.

One final thought is to ask others – spouses, friends, and those who know you well — if they detect spiritual bypassing in you. And you can ask God, our Lady and your guardian angel if and how they see spiritual bypassing in you.

Finally, from an Internal Family Systems perspective, it helps to remember that spiritual bypassing is driven by a part of us – usually a spiritual manager part – and it doesn’t come from all of us. Working with a spiritual bypassing part to understand the concerns is so fruitful, as it opens the way to meeting the underlying human formation need (usually an attachment need or an integrity need) in a much more adaptive way.

Resources for human formation, including the Resilient Catholics Community

Our first human formators are our parents, and so much human formation happens before the onset of the use of reason, at about age 7; much human formation happens before the age of 24 months, when our capacity to represent experience in language is very limited. Contrary to common belief, counseling and psychotherapy do not have a monopoly on human formation in adulthood. Our outreach, Souls and Hearts, is all about bringing you the best of human formation resources, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.

In particular, I founded the Resilient Catholics Community (the RCC) for Catholics who are committed to going to the deepest natural levels within and working through unmet attachment and integrity needs, learning the three loves our Lord commands in the two great commandments: to love of God, one’s neighbor, and one’s own self.

If these weekly reflections and the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast resonate with you, check out the RCC landing page. The RCC provides a very structured year-long human formation program with many resources and the support of other Catholics in small companies, all making a pilgrimage toward better human formation with individualize human formation plans. The camaraderie and connection in the companies and with your companions make all the difference.

RCC member Joyce Lynn says of the RCC: “Making sense of self and the world around me through the lenses of my Catholic faith, psychology, and community is making all the difference!”

Be With the Word for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Join Dr. Gerry and me for a psychological reflection on the Mass readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in the episode, Living in the Moment. In this episode, we discuss how the things we fear in the present usually connect to a perceived life-or-death event in the past. I describe how my fears about COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 (when the episode was recorded) connected back to the financial crisis of 2007 and then further back to 1980 in a medical trauma I experienced when I was 11 years old. We also read the Mass readings out loud here.

Interior Integration for Catholics episode

The Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode number 108 is titled Giving Up the Idols We Hate. In this experiential exercise, we invite parts of us to share their stories of why they hold anger toward God. I offer an invitation to your parts to see if we can listen to those stories in an open, nonjudgmental way, understanding that there are always reasons for anger at God, reasons that stem from misunderstanding and misinterpretations of experiences. Parts are angry more at their images of God — their idols — than at who God really is. Live audience participants share their experience in debriefing and I also answer questions.

Conversation Hours

My conversation hours are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time. Call me on my cell (317.567.9594) to discuss any of the themes in these weekly reflections or the podcast episodes. Another way to get in touch is to email me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Recent Reflections

For quick reference, here are the previous four reflections, in order of publication:

February 22, 2023 Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style

March 1, 2023 The Whys of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

March 8, 2023 The 15 Symptoms of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

March 15, 2023 The Causes and Effects of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. If you didn’t listen to Gabriel’s story of spiritual bypassing, you are missing out. It’s worth the 17 minutes. Click here to stream it. So very relatable. Especially for you men.

P.P.S. Please spread the word about these weekly reflections. You are our best outreach – in your personal recommendations to others who might benefit from the offerings from Souls and Hearts. We are a grass-roots organization in so many ways, and we need the support of our members to get the word out. And please keep all of us in Souls and Hearts in your prayers, as our whole outreach is fueled by prayer.

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