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The Whys of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

Mar 1, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Last week, in the reflection titled Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style I introduced and defined spiritual bypassing. We covered the “what” of spiritual bypassing, and we came up with this summary:

The three critical components of spiritual bypassing are as follows:

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

Last week, we also discussed the “who” of spiritual bypassing – how spiritual bypassing can be interpersonal, in which one person engages in spiritual bypassing with another. Alternatively, there is inner spiritual bypassing, in which one person internally spiritual bypasses within himself. I provided 21 examples of spiritual bypassing and explored 11 defense mechanisms that the defensive process of spiritual bypassing can utilize.

Today, we get into the reasons behind spiritual bypassing – the “whys” behind this defensive process. We need to understand the psychological factors that impel us toward this harmful practice. The burning question: Why do we do it?

The superficiality problem

So many times, when Catholics seek to understand themselves, they fail to follow the causal chain or web of events. They just look at what is happening on the surface, the symptoms, the end result.

According to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, a symptom is “any deviation from normal functioning that is considered indicative of physical or mental pathology.” The takeaway for our purposes is that symptoms point back to an underlying cause. Note that symptoms are not only caused by something but can cause other things, so they can be intermediate links in a causal chain.

Another way to look at spiritual bypassing is to consider it as a symptom, the result that happens at the end of a causal chain. So the most simplistic way of dealing with spiritual bypassing is to just try to stop doing it by willpower. It is like saying “When I recognize that I am spiritually bypassing, I am just going to stop doing it.”

And to many people, that sounds good. Just stop doing it. This is intervening at the level of the symptom, but it has its limitations.

Let’s argue by analogy: let’s say that you had intense abdominal pain and a high fever, and you went to the emergency department. The physician on call listens to you, and considers the problem as “fever and the abdominal pain disorder,” and prescribes Tylenol and painkillers to reduce both down to tolerable levels. But the fever and the pain are just symptoms – if your underlying problem, the root cause, is appendicitis and your appendix ruptures, that symptom-focused approach of lowering pain and fever did you no good and in fact, harmed you.

Instead of focusing on the symptom itself, we want to look behind the symptom, we want to look underneath the defense mechanisms or the defensive process to see the previous link in the causal chain or web. Our example of spiritual bypassing in this weekly reflection illuminates the more general search process– you can use the same method of inquiry for working through any psychological symptom.

Following the causal model back to the roots

When we look deeper in our causal web for spiritual bypassing, we will often find fear as the proximate causal driver of spiritual bypassing.

Figure 1 illustrates a web of interrelated causal connections in the natural realm that result in spiritual bypassing. This is a simple model for illustration – many other factors can causally contribute to spiritual bypassing.

Figure 1: Spiritual bypassing flowchart

In figure 1, we see the proximate cause of spiritual bypassing is fear – the fear that drives the avoidance, evasion, or escape from emotional or psychological distress and human needs that spiritual bypassing seems to offer.

So, a superficial causal analysis would say “Fear drives spiritual bypassing.” And that statement is correct, but it is far from complete. For if we just saw fear as the central causal factor, it would be tempting to resolve the symptom by invoking courage. And courage is a good thing, but it is not going to bring the grief, rage, shame, and unmet needs to resolution. We need to go deeper.

Following the fear back to the grief and rage

We need to ask the question about the next step back in the causal chain – What causes the fear? Fear is an emotional reaction. It is caused by something else; it does not just exist on its own, in a vacuum.

In Figure 1, grief and rage drive fear. These intense emotions threaten to flood the person, and so they generate fear, which can counteract and suppress them. Catholic psychiatrists Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars described this process as “fear neurosis” in their book Psychic Wholeness and Healing: “[Fear] represses other emotions which, as we have already mentioned, continue to exert their action in the subconscious life.” (p. 68).

But if we are going to continue to follow the causal chain, we must ask the question: What causes the grief and rage? Because like fear, grief and rage are also emotional reactions, caused by something else. Can we get curious about the causes of the grief and rage which drive the fear, which drives the spiritual bypassing? If we don’t, we are still missing much of the picture. We pursue “anger management” approaches to reduce expressions of anger without getting to the root cause of (perceived) injustice. We might focus on the grief as a symptom in “grief work” without getting to the underlying loss and unresolved needs.

The deep role of shame

For so many people shame is a deep, primary, unrecognized, and misunderstood causal driver for so many symptoms. Understanding shame and its causal role in our lives is so important that I dedicated 13 episodes of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast to it – episodes 37-49. (Click here for a download PDF with a brief description and a link to stream each episode).

As we discuss in those episodes, shame is not only an emotion, but it is also a bodily reaction, a signal, a judgment, and an action. (See episode 37, The Silent Killer Who Stalks You from Within for more discussion of what shame is.)

In our model in Figure 1, it is shame that drives both grief and fear. So, if we really want to effectively address spiritual bypassing, we do not want to just address fear, rage, and grief, but also shame.

And the even deeper role of unmet needs

In addition to being a primary driver of symptoms, shame is also a reaction. This brings up the question…wait for it… What causes the shame? And this brings us to unmet attachment needs and unmet integrity needs.

I’ve discussed these primary needs in many other reflections and focused on them specifically in episode 62 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled Unmet Attachment Needs and Unmet Integrity Needs. Let’s just list them here for reference:

The five attachment needs

  • Feeling safe and protected.
  • Feeling seen, heard, known, and understood 
  • Feeling comforted, soothed, and reassured
  • Feeling cherished, treasured, delighted in
  • Feeling the other has your best interests at heart

The five integrity needs:

  • My need to exist and survive 
  • My need to matter
  • My need to have agency
  • My need to be good
  • My need for mission and purpose in life

These unmet needs drive shame. And it is at this point, the starting point in the causal web, that our efforts toward healing and recovery should be focused for maximum benefit – both in the natural realm and in the spiritual realm. Focusing here at the level of deep unmet needs digs up the problems by the roots, rather than just snipping away the leaves of the symptoms.

The danger of just focusing on symptoms and not the root causes

The danger of eliminating symptoms without resolving their causes should be obvious. You still have the causes of your problems, and even if the symptom is eliminated – through medications or spiritual bypassing or hypnosis, or some other symptom-focused approach – those causes will express themselves through other symptoms. Often new symptoms. Freud observed this more than a century ago, and called it symptom substitution.

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines symptom substitution as: in the classical psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, the development of a symptom to replace one that has cleared up as a result of treatment. It is said to occur if the unconscious impulses and conflicts responsible for the original symptom are not dealt with effectively. Symptom substitution is often used as an argument against therapies aimed at symptom removal alone…

In my opinion as a psychologist, so many of the most effective psychiatric medications have so many side effects because of symptom substitution—especially when those side effects have no known relationship with the active ingredients of the drug. I think what’s happening in those situations is that the symptom (e.g. anxiety or depression) is being suppressed chemically, but the underlying causes of the symptom are not resolved. Those underlying causes find a new expression in a new symptom, and that new symptom is then labeled a “side effect” of the medication. That is a primary reason (in my non-medical opinion) why so many psychotropic medications have long lists of side effects.

To be clear, I don’t condemn the use of psychiatric medications – some are very helpful in symptom management; but I do think such meds should be used in conjunction with psychotherapy or other approaches that get to the root causes, not just used in isolation. Why? Because it is hard for me to see how an antidepressant is going to effectively treat deep shame or make up for unmet needs to be seen, heard, known, and loved or to experience a sense of ontological goodness in being a beloved child of God. The pharmaceutical companies themselves do not dare to promise that. Rather, they only offer the possibility of symptom remission.

Looking ahead

Remember, we discussed how symptoms are not only effects; they can also be causes of other effects. So next week, we will be exploring both the obvious and hidden costs of spiritual bypassing, the problems it brings into one’s one life and the lives of others, so stay tuned for that.

It’s all the rage…

In our model on spiritual bypassing, we saw the importance of the role that rage plays. I’ve done a series on anger in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast on anger. Check out these episodes

Episode 103: Your Anger, Your Body and You

Episode 104: Connecting with your Angry Parts — Experiential Exercise

Episode 105: How You Hide from your Anger at God

Episode 106: God in the Hands of Angry Sinners — Experiential Exercise

Meeting the deepest human formation needs

I founded Resilient Catholics Community to bring the best of human formation and psychological resources to Catholic who are committed to going to the deepest natural levels within and working through unmet 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, consider joining us on our pilgrimage together, supporting each other toward overcoming the natural-level obstacles, the human formation deficits that hinder us from a deep, personal and intimate relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity and our Mother Mary. Check out our RCC landing page.

Dr. Peter’s media appearances

Christian therapist Drew Boa invited me on to his podcast Husband Material and has published two episodes – if you struggle with sexual impulses, temptations, and sin, these would be really good to check out: Experience Healing Through IFS and A Guided Inner Exercise. Drew’s mission is to help Christian men overcome pornography use and become much better “Husband Material” in Christian marriage, and I respect and admire him and his work. I encourage checking out his resources. You can find my brief descriptions and MP3 links to my IIC podcast episodes on masturbation in this PDF and the whole series on sexuality in marriage in this PDF.

Charbel Raish of the Parousia Podcast invited me on as well, my first media appearance in Australia for an episode titled Catholic Psychology: Souls and Hearts. Charbel interviews me about how to integrate the practice of psychology with the eternal Truth of our Catholic Faith – he is a wonderful interviewer and we experienced such an engaging conversation together. Check that out as well.

Be With the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent

Join Dr. Gerry and me for our psychological reflections on the Mass readings for the Second Sunday of Lent in the episode Learning How God Delights in Us. Dr. Gerry emphasizes the difficulties with our fallen human condition and what to do about it. Listen as Dr. Gerry and I share the Mass readings out loud here.

Conversation Hours

I am available to connect with you on my cell phone (317.567.9594) every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time about anything in these weekly reflections or the podcast episodes.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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