The Causes and Effects of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

Mar 15, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts members,

This is the fourth in a series of reflections on spiritual bypassing. The previous reflections set us up for a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of spiritual bypassing:

Today, we will examine the article Exploring Experts’ Perspectives on Spiritual Bypass: a Conventional Content Analysis by Gabriela Picciotto and Jesse Fox with a special focus on the causes and effects of spiritual bypassing, according to the ten experts they interviewed.

Picciotto and Fox identify three major kinds of factors that contribute to spiritual bypassing: 1) personality traits; 2) life experiences; and 3) reasons for spiritual bypassing. We will explore each category in turn.

Personality traits that contribute to spiritual bypassing 

The experts that Picciotto and Fox interviewed identified five personality traits that they believe predispose individuals toward spiritual bypassing. I will identify quotes from their article in red, with my commentary in black.

  1. Attachment Patterns: individuals with an unhealthy attachment pattern (i.e., children who had breaks from their primary caregiver resulting in unmitigated pain, abuse, neglect, or other ways in which they did not have their needs met that subsequently impaired their ability to develop healthy emotional attachments). The authors did not pursue why difficulties in attachment might contribute to spiritual bypassing. For Catholics, I wonder if small children who did not get their relational or natural needs met adequately by caregivers felt prematurely forced to rely on God to provide, before they were developmentally ready to depend on Him. An example might be the little child Jenny in this scene from Forrest Gump, who copes with ongoing sexual abuse from her father with her child’s prayer.
  2. Co-dependency: individuals with an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity. Catholics who suffer from major dependency issues often become disappointed in their human relationships for being “not enough” to meet their attachment and integrity needs on a natural level, and can turn to God, hoping that in His power, he will allow them to circumvent the necessary but difficult human formation work by magically and painlessly meeting those needs.
  3. Neuroticism: people…who are more emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress. According to the psychological test NEO-PI-3 from which this trait was drawn, neuroticism encompasses a variety of forms of psychological distress, including anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability.
  4. Openness: people who score both high and low in openness (appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience). This is also drawn from the NEO-PI-3, and the experts indicate that both individuals who are very high in openness and those who are very low in openness are more prone to spiritual bypassing. More explanation was not given in the Picciotto and Fox article, but those very high in openness may be particularly open to spiritual explanations for their experiences; those low in openness might have very limited coping repertoires, and rely heavily on only a few defensive strategies, including spiritual bypassing.
  5. Obsessive compulsive personality disorder: people with personality features consistent with OCD. This could include individuals suffering from scrupulosity, who may spiritualize natural phenomena, as I discuss this in episode 87 of Interior Integration for Catholics, titled Scrupulosity: When OCD Gets Religion.

Life experiences that contribute to spiritual bypassing

  1. Trauma survivors: people who have experienced very difficult situations with a high level of pain or trauma during their life journey. Catholic trauma survivors are frequently overwhelmed by the intensity of their inner experience, and often fear “going inside” and connecting with their emotions. Because of how unresolved trauma creates chaos inside, they may opt for a rigid approach, asking God to miraculously heal deep wounds without having to address the human formation issues. I discuss this at length in my trauma series within Interior Integration for Catholics, beginning with episode 88, titled Trauma: Defining and Understanding the Experience.
  2. Non-conducive environment: examples include low socioeconomic status or parents who might be addicted. “Non-conducive” environments may not provide enough modeling of good human formation and of coping strategies that are more adaptive than spiritual bypassing.

The reasons for spiritual bypassing

  1. Avoidance of pain: low tolerance of facing, dealing with, and working through pain and things that hurt. This is likely to be the primary reason for spiritual bypassing.
  2. Defensive structure: [habitual] use of defense mechanisms. In my February 22, 2023 weekly reflection titled Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style, I listed 11 defense mechanisms that contribute to the defensive process of spiritual bypassing. Individuals with a high need for self-protection are more likely to spiritually bypass.
  3. Religious/spiritual leaders and communities: negative influence or lack of psychological knowledge of religious or spiritual leaders or communities. This one is particularly important for Catholics, as spiritual bypassing is often encouraged by poorly formed religious or spiritual leaders. Different Catholic communities can also develop norms for spiritual bypassing, reinforced by a communal effort to avoid addressing internal pain and distress on the natural level.
  4. Receiving “wrong” messages: receiving strong messages around self-worth or psychological misinformation that it is not okay to feel anger, sadness, fear, or shame. Such experiences can lead to desperate attempts to find spiritual ways to manage natural emotions, to overcome the deep sense of unworthiness or inadequacy, or perceived ‘badness’ on a natural level. For a lot more information on this theme, check out my Interior Integration for Catholics 13-episode series on shame. This downloadable PDF provides a brief description of each episode and a link or seek out episodes 37 to 49 wherever you listen to podcasts.
  5. Lacking the conditions for spiritual development: an individual does not live in an environment or social context that encourages their spiritual growth and therefore sabotages their spiritual development. Thus, spiritual bypassing may be more common in those raised in impoverished spiritual environments. An example might be a rigid Catholic household very preoccupied with “not sinning” and emphasizing modesty in dress and the recitation of rote prayers, but providing very little guidance in developing a personal, close relationship with God, dismissing the emotional, relational and embodied dimensions of the Faith.

Negative effects of spiritual bypassing

  1. Getting stuck: a person stays paralyzed, does not know what to do, feels lost, and ends up going in circles or not evolving. Limited access inside to one’s emotional life results in developmental arrests – the person becomes caught at the point in his or her developmental trajectory when spiritual bypassing started to be overused. The more a person avoids the natural/emotional/psychological/bodily aspects of his or her life out of fear, the more fear grows, and there’s very little opportunity to work on the growing edges that lead to progress.
  2. Not growing spiritually: a person does not evolve and remains young and even immature in terms of their spiritual life. For Catholics, the disconnection from the body and from the inner life of emotions and other psychological experiences lead to a shallow or nonexistent relationship with God. St. Thomas Aquinas describes how interior integration is essential for union with God, and I cover this in detail in the September 22, 2022 weekly reflection titled Why Is Interior Integration Crucial for Union with God?
  3. Blindness: a person lacks the capacity for self-awareness and ends up losing contact and access to the self. These Catholics do not “remove the beam” from their own eyes. The more we don’t look, the more we lose the capacity to see. Catholics who spiritually bypass and are out of touch with their own inner worlds frequently externalize. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines externalization as: a defense mechanism in which one’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions are attributed to the external world and perceived as independent of oneself or one’s own experiences. For example, a Catholic woman who is out of touch with her feelings of alienation and isolation in her marriage experiences a sexual attraction to another man. She then externalizes that sexual desire, disowning it, and interpreting it as a temptation from the devil, seeking deliverance prayers and the use of sacramentals such as holy water that don’t address her deep need for relational connection and intimacy.
  4. Staying immature: the person does not grow cognitively and stays stuck in childish illusions of magical thinking. Often this is coupled with the passivity of dependency, in which the Catholic is unwilling to exercise agency. This also leads to stunting of the faculty of imagination.
  5. Suffering and causing unnecessary suffering: suffering caused by spiritual bypass. There are major costs to using a defensive process like spiritual bypassing. Those Catholics who remain fragmented and unintegrated inside lack the capacity to attune effectively to others, including those who need them. Here we may consider a practicing Catholic parent who “checks all the boxes” but whose teenager cannot confide in or seek counsel from due to the low level of attunement.
  6. Neglecting relationships and families: people who tend to devote so much time to their spiritual practices and beliefs that they end up not devoting enough quality time to their relationships and families. The children of Catholic spiritualizing parents suffer from a lack of parental attunement and can come to associate Catholicism with neglect or disconnection (see below). By following the parents’ example, the child learns to justify rejecting or disconnecting from others for spiritual reasons. A somewhat exaggerated example is in this short video clip.
  7. Disconnection: difficulty connecting with others, possibly negatively affecting their empathic attunement with other people. Those with better human formation and a greater capacity for interpersonal attunement can sense that those who spiritually bypass are “off” in their human relationships, and the relating does not feel fully “real.” In this vein, this five-second video clip offers a diagnostic indicator of how well your spiritual life is coming along.
  8. Preying on others’ indecision and avoidance: denotes instances where people or institutions take advantage of the vulnerability and stagnancy of people who spiritually bypass by selling products and services that often exacerbate their spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypassing, like other defensive processes that drive our inner experience into the unconscious, leave us vulnerable to being manipulated by others who sense those repressed and suppressed experiences. An example may be seen in a quasi-Catholic website promoting ‘special, insider spiritual information’ for subscribers, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Another might be false visionaries or seer who claim to be receiving private revelations who are not approved by Church authorities.

Additional negative effects of spiritual bypassing

In my experience, some of the hardest individuals to bring to Catholicism are psychologists. Why? In part, because they are sensitive to spiritual bypassing. When non-Christian psychologists experience Catholics who engage in spiritual bypassing, those psychologists associate Catholicism with denying and rejecting inner psychological and emotional experience and they are unimpressed. In short, Catholics who spiritually bypass unknowingly discredit Catholicism, especially for those non-Catholics who are psychologically more integrated and attuned.

Satan must also greatly approve of spiritual bypassing, as it renders a Catholic stuck and no longer progressing in either the natural or spiritual realms, rendering him “low maintenance,” no longer in need of scarce diabolical influences to draw him away from God. People who spiritually bypass derail themselves, remain unintegrated, and thus cannot form deep unions with God or others.

Next week…

In next week’s reflection, we will close out this series on spiritual bypassing by discussing how to overcome it, the solutions and alternatives to spiritual bypassing, so please join me for that!

Dr. Gerry in the news…

Dr. Gerry Crete, co-founder of Souls and Hearts was quoted extensively in a recent US Catholic article by Rhonda Miska titled Men’s Ministries Refocus on Friendship and Vulnerability.

Conversation Hours

Reach out and connect with me during my conversation hours — every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time. I take your calls on my cell (317.567.9594) to discuss any of the themes in these weekly reflections or the podcast episodes. Or you can email me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com – just know that it can take a week or more for me to respond to emails, depending on the volume.

Be With the Word for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Join Dr. Gerry and me for a psychological reflection on the Mass readings for the Third Sunday of Lent in the episode, God Heals Our Deepest Wounds. In this episode, Dr. Gerry shares his own journey as a survivor of child abuse, how it formed his own thoughts about himself, and how he eventually found light, love and healing through God. Dr. Gerry and Dr. Peter read the Mass readings out loud here.

Please pray for us…

Please pray for Dr. Gerry, all the Souls and Hearts staff and members, and me as Souls and Hearts makes the transition from being a start-up to a more established organization, with all the growing pains thereunto. Our whole enterprise, our whole outreach is fueled by prayer, and we need yours! We are also praying for you.

In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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