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Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style

Feb 22, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In our reflection from last week, Naturalizing and Spiritualizing: Two Errors Catholics Make, we explored how devout Catholics spiritualize as a way to protect themselves. To review: What does it mean to spiritualize the natural? It means to elevate to the spiritual realm that which is properly in the natural realm, attempting to make the natural into something spiritual.

One particularly prominent form of spiritualizing is spiritual bypassing.

General definitions of “spiritual bypassing”

John Welwood, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, teacher, and author, was known for integrating psychological and spiritual concepts, especially for bringing Buddhism to western psychology. Dr. Welwood had repeatedly seen how Buddhist meditative practices were being used defensively to try to escape psychological problems, in order to “rise above” or transcend distress in the natural realm.

In the 1980s he coined the term spiritual bypassing. In his 2002 book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, he defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”

Rose Hahn in her article Spiritual Bypassing: What It Is & How To Avoid It fleshes out the definition for us in greater detail. She writes:

Bypassing occurs when spiritual ideals get elevated to the realm of absolute truth in such a way that our real, lived experience is somehow denied. Rather than doing the work of healing deep wounds, we may use these ideals to deny, devalue, or avoid meeting our more human needs – such as emotional bonding, love, and esteem. In other words, rather than risk opening ourselves to real human connection, and possibly get hurt, we adopt a more enlightened, spiritual way of relating to the world that doesn’t rely on human relationship.

Psychosocial rehabilitation specialist Kendra Cherry in a VeryWellMind article described how “Spiritual bypassing is a way of hiding behind spirituality or spiritual practices.”

Spiritual bypassing as a defense mechanism

Psychologist Ingrid Clayton in her Psychology Today article Beware of Spiritual Bypass classifies spiritual bypassing as a defense mechanism. She writes:

Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.

The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.

Defense mechanisms used in spiritual bypassing

It makes sense to me to consider spiritual bypassing as a defense mechanism. However, a more nuanced and technically correct approach (from a psychoanalytic perspective) is to consider spiritual bypassing as a defensive, self-protective process that incorporates multiple defense mechanisms. The defense mechanisms involved in spiritual bypassing include but are not limited to (with definitions in red adapted from the APA Dictionary of Psychology):

  • Avoidance: the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, environments, individuals, or things because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequence of such an encounter or (b) anxious or painful feelings associated with them…. [Avoidance is used] as a response to fear or shame…
  • Compartmentalization: in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments. In the classical psychoanalytic tradition, compartmentalization emerges in response to fragmentation of the ego, which ideally should be able to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence.
  • Compensation: substitution or development of strength or capability in one area to offset real or imagined deficiency in another. This may be referred to as overcompensation when the substitute behavior exceeds what might actually be necessary in terms of level of compensation for the deficiency. Compensation may be a conscious or unconscious process. In his classical psychoanalytic theory, Sigmund Freud described compensation as a defense mechanism that protects the individual against the conscious realization of such deficiencies. The idea of compensation is central to Alfred Adler’s theory of personality, which sees all human striving as a response to feelings of inferiority.
  • Obsessions: a persistent thought, idea, image, or impulse that is experienced as intrusive or inappropriate and results in marked anxiety, distress, or discomfort. When obsessions and compulsions enter the spiritual realm, scrupulosity can result (see the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, Episode 87, Scrupulosity: When OCD Gets Religion for more on this)
  • Compulsions: a type of behavior (e.g., hand washing, checking) or a mental act (e.g., counting, praying) engaged in to reduce anxiety or distress. Typically, the individual feels driven or compelled to perform the compulsion to reduce the distress associated with an obsession or to prevent a dreaded event or situation. Nancy McWilliams, in her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, describes how “Obsessive-compulsive individuals idealize cognition and mentation. They tend to consign most feelings to a devalued realm associated with childishness, weakness, loss of control, disorganization, and dirt.” Thus, obsessions and compulsions defend against experiencing basic human needs and emotions in conscious awareness.
  • Dissociation: a defense mechanism in which conflicting impulses are kept apart or threatening ideas and feelings are separated from the rest of the psyche.
  • Perfectionism: the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. 
  • Regression: a return to a prior, lower state of cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning. This term is associated particularly with psychoanalytic theory, denoting a situation in which the individual reverts to immature behavior or to an earlier stage of psychosexual development when threatened with overwhelming external problems or internal conflicts.
  • Denial: a defense mechanism in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness. It may take such forms as refusal to acknowledge the reality of a terminal illness, a financial problem, an addiction, or a partner’s infidelity. Denial is an unconscious process that functions to resolve emotional conflict or reduce anxiety.
  • Repression: basic defense mechanism that excludes painful experiences and unacceptable impulses from consciousness. Repression operates on an unconscious level as a protection against anxiety produced by objectionable sexual wishes, feelings of hostility, and ego-threatening experiences and memories of all kinds. Repression is an unconscious process of restraining something.
  • Suppression: a conscious effort to put disturbing thoughts and experiences out of mind, or to control and inhibit the expression of unacceptable impulses and feelings. 

Bringing together the elements of spiritual bypassing

Examining these definitions, we can distill the following three critical components of spiritual bypassing:

  1. Spiritual ideas, practices, or actions must be misused
  2. to avoid, evade, or escape
    1. emotional or psychological distress,
    1. acknowledging deficits in one’s human formation that negatively impact relationships or one’s own integration and integrity, or
    1. recognizing and accepting one’s basic human needs in the natural realm
  1. all in a self-protective, defensive process.

Signs of spiritual bypassing

In her article, Kendra Cherry provided this list of potential signs of spiritual bypassing:

  • Avoiding feelings of anger
  • Believing in your own spiritual superiority as a way to hide from insecurities
  • Believing that traumatic events must serve as “learning experiences” or that there is a silver lining behind every negative experience
  • Believing that spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer are always positive
  • Extremely high, often unattainable, idealism
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Focusing only on spirituality and ignoring the present
  • Only focusing on the positive or being overly optimistic
  • Projecting your own negative feelings onto others
  • Pretending that things are fine when they are clearly not
  • Thinking that people can overcome their problems through positive thinking
  • Thinking that you must “rise above” your emotions
  • Using defense mechanisms such as denial and repression

Catholic spiritual bypassing

Almost nothing has been written by Catholics or for Catholics about spiritual bypassing except a post by a blogger named Katharina, who goes by the moniker “The Bohemian Catholic.” Katharina gives us a personal example of experiencing spiritual bypassing when she writes:

I would love it if a novena prayer would cure me of my genetic condition, but alas, that hasn’t happened yet. And so, (albeit it mostly well meaning) fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have told me over the years, “If your faith was stronger, you wouldn’t be sick” (yes, really). It’s not that these people were trying to dismiss, or punish or add on or anything else of the sort – but they have failed to understand that being sick is not a punishment from God.

Here are other examples of spiritual bypassing that Katharina, the Bohemian Catholic, provides:

  • When a Christian says, “I am dealing with cancer.” – our immediate response shouldn’t be, “Well, Jesus will restore you if you pray about it.”
  • When a Christian says, “I am struggling with depression” – our immediate response shouldn’t be, “How? With God there is always hope – and thus happiness!”
  • When a Christian is dealt with an unimaginable loss, such as the death of a lost one, our first response should not be, “Well, go to church, you’ll feel better.”
  • We might be struggling with a tough day, and tell ourselves we aren’t allowed to, because as a Christian we should have hope/happiness at all times.
  • We might forgo seeking medicinal help (either for treatments, or psychologically) because we believe that faith will fix our bodily ailments.

Katharina’s first three examples focus on how Catholics can use spiritual bypassing to avoid someone else’s emotional pain, distress, needs, and human formation deficits — I call this interpersonal spiritual bypassing. Her final two examples discuss how we engage spiritual bypass within ourselves, and I call this internal spiritual bypassing, because it happens within just one person, intrapersonal (within oneself) rather than interpersonal (between or among two or more people).

Examples of interpersonal spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing is often easier to see in relationships among people, so the following list provides examples of interpersonal spiritual bypassing, Catholic style. As you read them, see if you can identify the three critical elements of the spiritual bypassing: 1) the spiritual idea, practice or action being misused to 2) avoid, escape, or evade distress, deficits in human formation, or basic human needs 3) in a self-protective, defensive process.

  • A husband discusses the difficulties with his supervisor at work with his wife at supper. Rather than listen to him, she cuts him off, telling him his troubles at work are a gift from God, part of God’s Providence and to “offer them up” for their troubled teenage daughter who needs prayer and sacrifice.
  • At the cemetery, relatives hold a de facto, improvised canonization process for the deceased and reassure each other that the formerly boisterous and happy-go-lucky departed family member is “in a better place” – he certainly wouldn’t want them to grieve for him.
  • In order to try to avoid attracting her principal’s attention to her lack of discipline in the classroom, a Catholic grade school teacher encourages her bullied third grade student to “turn the other cheek” and to “love her enemies” and “pray for her persecutors” rather than consider the emotional impact of the bullying or to address her own difficulties setting limits and boundaries in her class.
  • A priest feels threatened by his romantic attraction to a woman coming to him in confession. He cuts short the penitent’s description of the difficulties in her marriage. He tells her to focus on her own sins and repent from them (which she had been doing) and to follow the example of St. Monica in loving her husband in order to end his discomfort in the confessional as quickly as possible
  • A confirmation candidate opens up to her sponsor about how her parents’ longstanding marital conflict has recently escalated to domestic abuse and it is tearing her up inside. Her parents are prominent and well-respected members of the parish. Not wanting to “make waves,” the sponsor advises her to pray more for her parents and fast for her parents’ reconciliation, telling her that “This too shall pass” and misattributing the saying to the book of Proverbs. She advises the confirmation candidate to read about the lives of saints with difficult parents, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Eugene de Mazenod, St. Laura de Montoya, and St. Maddalena of Canossa. The sponsor does not try to help protect the youth from a potentially dangerous home environment.
  • A wife experiences painful vaginismus, but her husband insists on “the marital embrace” anyway, reminding her of her “marital debt” to him and telling her that if she focuses on God and him rather than on being so preoccupied with her body, her pain will be considerably lessened.
  • A vocations director minimizes the discussion of psychological difficulties in the psychological assessment report of an applicant to major seminary, reassuring the young man by quoting Philippians 4:19, “But my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” and suggesting that the structure, fellowship, and spiritual formation of seminary life will help him coalesce his identity and resolve his chronic anxiety.
  • When a teenage son is discovered to have been using the home internet to frequent “adult” websites and breaks down to his parents about his addiction, his father is embarrassed and ashamed of both his son and his own ongoing porn use, and thus fixates on his son repenting from mortal sin and on getting him to confession as soon as possible. The father does not consider his son’s emotional state or any of the psychological factors that fuel his porn use and would be embarrassed and ashamed if his son were to discuss porn use with anyone outside the family except a priest under the seal of confession.
  • One Catholic woman shared with her Catholic friend about the intensity of anger she has started to feel toward God over the losses and traumas of her life. Her friend becomes anxious, insecure, and unsettled, and asks her “But God is love — How could you ever be angry with Him? That’s disordered, He has never done you any injustice.”
  • In beginning her second career, a middle-aged Catholic woman enrolls in graduate school in counseling, undergirded by a Catholic anthropology. In her practicum sessions with a new client, she feels uncertain and insecure in her role as a therapist. Her new client is sharing suicidal thoughts and impulses as well as feelings of intense despair. This rattles the student therapist even further, and she begins to counsel the client not to share such thoughts and feelings in therapy, and not to think about them. To give credibility to her “treatment approach,” the student therapist invokes Philippians 4:8, quoting St. Paul to her client: Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
  • A bishop is impressed with the repentance, humility, and “rekindled spiritual life” of a priest whose sexual affair with a woman parishioner was recently reported to the diocese. The bishop and the priest frame the affair in terms of concupiscence, giving in to temptation and a failure in the virtues of chastity and self-control. They both discount the psychological dimensions and power dynamics of the seduction. The bishop exhorts the priest to grow in virtue and to resist temptation, and reassigns him as the parochial vicar in a remote parish without psychological assessment or treatment. They keep the affair hidden from the new parish as a matter of “prudence” as nothing that happened in the affair was illegal under state or local statutes.
  • A newly married husband and wife both have unresolved child sexual abuse trauma that has prevented them from consummating their marriage. They are now encouraging each other to consider the beauty of a special calling to a Josephite marriage, unconsciously seeking to avoid in themselves and in each other all the intensity that working through sexual issues will bring up.

These last two examples illuminate how spiritual bypassing can be a joint endeavor shared both within and between people. This leads us to the original conception of spiritual bypassing being primarily an intrapersonal phenomenon, something we do to ourselves. This can be more difficult to detect. Many people who are committed to believing in a single, homogenous, unitary personality (a concept which I reject – see this weekly reflection for more), lack a model for explaining how they relate to themselves, making it more difficult to recognize how they spiritually bypass.

As you review the following examples of inner spiritual bypassing, see if you can recognize the three critical elements: 1) the spiritual idea, practice or action being misused; 2) the deficits in human formation, or basic human needs being avoided; and 3) the particular defense mechanisms or protective measures being employed.

Examples of inner spiritual bypassing:

  • A college coed at a Catholic university struggles with social anxiety, and is fearful of the dating/courting scene. She puts the word out that she is considering religious life, and makes visits to convents and monasteries to avoid becoming more integrated in the social life of the campus. Rather than address her underlying fears, she seeks to be seen as “holy” and “set apart” to ensure that no young man asks her out on a date.
  • A young man with same-sex attraction interprets his sexual desires as a sign of God that he is not geared for traditional Catholic family life, and thus, pursues priesthood as a more viable option. He has a goal to become asexual and to use the cover of seminary and priesthood to avoid being pressured about romantic relationships.
  • A middle-aged Catholic father has never separated sexuality from intimacy with women. When his daughters reach their teenage years, well into puberty, their fun-loving, casual, and close relationship with him changes, as he becomes much more focused on teaching them to pray, bringing them to different forms of Catholic spiritual practice. The father focuses on connecting with his daughters primarily around religious or spiritual topics and within religious contexts, to protect himself from experiencing a sexual attraction to them in conscious awareness, which would be horrifying to him. His daughters begin to experience his relationship to them as awkward, stilted, hyper-religious, and weird, and are not sure what to make of it.
  • A widower avoids and suppresses his grief about the loss of his wife by throwing himself into many hours of volunteering at the local St. Vincent de Paul food pantry outreach, focusing most of his attention on the corporal work of mercy to feed the hungry while he starves for relational connections himself.
  • A young woman with a long history of eating disorders begins fasting during Lent as a way of elevating unhealthy restricted eating of her anorexia to the spiritual realm. This behavior is driven by how some parts of her hate her body, seeing herself as “too fat.”
  • A father of a large Catholic family is ashamed of not providing well enough to meet the family’s financial needs. He unconsciously assumes that if he trusts God enough by giving away so much money, he will get a better-paying job. He frustrates his wife by giving away money they desperately need for the household budget to various charities in almsgiving. He responds by quoting Matthew 5:42: Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. He burdens his wife with the impossible task of making ends meet with what is left over of his paycheck after his donations.
  • A woman is very lonely, suffering from unacknowledged father needs, and she idealizes the older priest in her parish. She goes to confession two or three times a week, considering herself a “great sinner” in need of that frequenting of the sacrament. She relishes the individual attention of the priest during those minutes of confession, unconsciously hoping that they will resolve the aftermath of her father’s neglect.
  • A Catholic man, married 30 years, has given up on attempts toward closeness, intimacy, or love in his marriage. He schedules hours of adoration, Stations of the Cross, and other devotions at the parish in order to get away from his wife. He no longer attempts to live out his vows or even to relate with his wife with ordinary human kindness, substituting his evening religious practices as a way to shore up his fragile self-esteem and to silence his internal critic.
  • A young Catholic woman has a long history of self-harm, cutting herself. The sight of her own blood reassures a part of her that she is still alive during times when other parts of her feel so dead inside. She has taken to scratching and cutting the palms of her hands. She experiences dissociative amnesia, not remembering that she cut and scratched her palms, which allows her to wonder if she might be graced with the stigmata.
  • A Catholic woman with a history of complex PTSD prays the Rosary when she is anxious. She prays in a very rhythmic, sing-song way, while swaying from side to side. This way of praying fosters dissociation inside her, temporarily disconnecting her from the pain and distress of unresolved trauma. She seeks no relational connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary or with God, or with any of the mysteries during her reciting of the Rosary in this way.

Looking ahead

In today’s weekly reflection, we covered the “what” and the “who” of spiritual bypassing. Next week, we will explore the even more interesting questions of “why” we bypass – the motives we have. We will also discuss “when” spiritual bypassing is more likely to occur in our lives. After that, we will discuss “how” to stop spiritual bypassing. So, stay tuned for that.

Interior Integration for Catholics episode – with an experiential exercise on anger at God

I released IIC episode 106, titled God in the Hands of Angry Sinners. In this 57-minute episode recorded live, informed by Internal Family Systems and grounded firmly in a Catholic worldview, I guide you in how to connect with your spiritual manager parts who protect you against your own anger at God. We get to know those parts’ concerns about why anger at God is dangerous or unacceptable — an important step in the journey to working through your anger at God. We discuss how to work safely with your parts, with a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, not rushing. Come join us on an adventure inside. At the end, audience participants debrief, share their experiences with me, and I answer questions.

Be With the Word for the First Sunday in Lent

Join Dr. Gerry and me for our podcast Be With the Word for the First Sunday of Lent, where we consider the Sunday Mass readings from a psychological perspective, grounded firmly in a Catholic understanding of the human person. In our 38-minute episode titled, Sinful Temptations Often Reveal Legitimate Needs, Dr. Gerry explains how temptations reveal deep, unmet needs. I share how giving in to temptation usually begins with doubting God’s willingness or ability to meet our needs.

Connecting with you

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time I am available to connect with you on my cell phone: 317.567.9594 – let me know how these resources are landing with you!

In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S: Please share these weekly reflections with others. Anyone is welcome to repost this reflection (or any other of my reflections in the archive), in its entirety in other forums, as long as attribution is granted to me, Peter T. Malinoski, Ph.D. of Souls and Hearts.

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