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The 15 Symptoms of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing

Mar 8, 2023 | Weekly Reflections

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Five days ago, I discovered a paper titled Exploring Experts’ Perspectives on Spiritual Bypass: a Conventional Content Analysis, by Gabriela Picciotto and Jesse Fox from the February 2018 volume of Pastoral Psychology – I have to share the findings with you as they are so relevant to our series on spiritual bypassing.

This journal article, based on ten interviews with U.S. experts on spiritual bypassing, presents the current consensus on the definitions, symptoms, causes and effects of spiritual bypassing. Picciotto and Fox collated the information by coding and scoring the professional opinions of the experts and I am excited to share some of their major findings with you in this reflection.

Brief review 

The February 22, 2023 weekly reflection titled Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style, covered the what and the who of spiritual bypassing and defined the three critical components of spiritual bypassing 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.

The weekly reflection from March 1, 2023, titled The Whys of Catholic Spiritual Bypassing, reviewed the causes of spiritual bypassing and took a close look at the whys.

Today, we are going to cover the symptoms of spiritual bypassing in much greater depth, going far beyond Kendra Cherry’s 13 signs of spiritual bypassing from the February 22, 2023 weekly reflection.

The 15 symptoms of spiritual bypassing according to Picciotto and Fox

In distilling the data from the interviews with experts by analyzing their responses with conventional content analysis, Picciotto and Fox discovered a professional consensus that spiritual bypassing generates 15 major symptoms.

For each symptom detailed below, Picciotto and Fox’s quotations are in red, followed by my commentary with connections to the common expressions of the symptom in Catholics in black. Their analysis was not specific to any religious tradition; thus, I’ve added some examples to illustrate how these symptoms might be manifested by spiritually bypassing Catholics.

The first five of the symptoms are all related to emotional experience and regulation. Remember that avoiding, evading, or escaping emotional and psychological distress is a primary motivation driving spiritual bypassing, so Picciotto and Fox’s first five symptoms all relate to the emotional realm.

  1. Emotional dissociation: the disconnection of the individual from their emotional life or great difficulty getting in touch with their own emotions. Emotional disconnection is very common in highly intellectual Catholics caught primarily in the realms of thinking or of doing. Emotions are distrusted, devalued, and minimized because they are perceived, consciously or unconsciously as dangerous. Fear, grief, anger (see the next symptom), and shame are particularly dissociated. Check out Interior Integration for Catholics episode 38, titled Seeing the Signs of Shame in Yourself and Others to learn more about how we emotionally dissociate shame.
  2. Anger phobia: the fear of becoming angry. Anger phobia is particularly common in Catholics who have been punished as children for all expressions of anger toward authority figures. In addition to the law written on their hearts, children learn what is right and wrong by what is rewarded and punished. If Catholic parents do not allow children to express anger toward them, children learn that anger as an emotion or a passion is “bad.” In order to preserve critical relationships necessary for their survival, Catholic children will disavow their anger, relegating it to the unconscious and defend heavily against it, even after growing up and leaving the environment in which they were raised. There are high levels of confusion about the sinfulness of anger in Catholic circles, because the same word is used for both a morally neutral emotion and a capital sin. Check out IIC episodes 103, 104, 105, 106 and 107 for much more about how to understand and work through anger, all grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.
  3. Intellectual dissociation: where there is a transition to reason and the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. Catholics who are intellectually dissociating can present like a Catholic Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek series. They devalue not only emotions, but also non-linear thinking processes, including intuition, imagination, creative associations, artistic connections, expanding in multiple directions at the same time, etc. One presentation of chronic intellectual dissociation is found in some Catholics who have advanced degrees in philosophy and theology (but by no means all) who are compensating for a lack of relationality with God by studying Him intellectually rather than connecting with Him interpersonally.
  4. Minimizing or denying our “shadow side” and negativity: a superficial acceptance or nonacceptance of the shadow or negative side of humanity. The term “shadow side” may be unfamiliar to many Catholics. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, the shadow “is in the analytic psychology of Carl Jung, an archetype that represents the “darker side” of the human psyche, which may comprise anything (e.g., a trait, desire, or emotion, whether positive or negative) that is unacceptable to an individual’s conscious ego and as such remains unexpressed and hidden in the unconscious.”  Catholics who spiritually bypass deny their own “shadow side” by idealizing themselves in a defensive way. They often struggle to see how the saints considered themselves “wretched sinners.”
  5. Overemphasis on the positive: an unrealistic emphasis on the positive side of situations. Catholics who spiritually bypass present with Pollyannish approaches to suffering and pain. The are apt to gives spiritual advice in unattended ways that sound like a cliché, such as “offer it up” and “this is just a cross.”

The next seven of Picciotto and Fox’s symptoms of spiritual bypassing are expressed in the interpersonal realm — in relating with others.

  1. Relationship problems: difficulty in engaging in relationships, not being open, available, or believing that they can engage in a relationship, or idealizing a relationship as possible only with an ideal spiritual partner. This is where spiritual beliefs or practices are used to justify the lack of relational engagement and commitment.
  2. Sexuality dysfunction: [expressing] sexuality in an unhealthy way by practicing forms of polyamory or completely avoiding any type of sexual relationships. Because sexuality draws in so many different aspects of our humanness, Catholics who spiritually bypass have difficulty with sexual connection in an attuned, relational way with their spouses, and can contribute to sexual distancing in marriage.
  3. Avoidance of toxic people: [avoiding] contact with people whom they judge to be nonspiritual or toxic or with whom they have painful or strained relationships. Catholics who spiritually bypass can misuse Scripture passages such as Matthew 18:15-17 to disconnect from important relationships, even relationships where they have a responsibility. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This can involve condemning another person with psychological diagnoses, such as labeling one’s spouse a “malignant narcissist” or a “raging borderline” in order to unnecessarily justify disconnecting from them and abdicating the filial, spousal, or parental responsibilities set forth in divine and natural law. (Of course, there are situations in which the best course of action is complete separation, and the Church recognizes these). Sometimes the obligated Catholic engaged in spiritual bypassing offers to pray for the other as a “poor, lost, soul,” but offers no other assistance.
  4. Narcissism and grandiosity in the spiritual domain: [acting] spiritually superior to others, the owner of reason, and the holder of all the answers; the only one who knows and who sees beyond. These include the Catholics who in their insecurities present as knowing so much or being recipients of special graces such as locutions or visions.
  5. Blind following: a blind belief in charismatic or cult-like leaders. This can happen when spiritually bypassing Catholics idealize Catholic media personalities. Another variation occurs in religious communities and other settings where there are clear authority structures and individuals subdue their own consciences because it is easier to submit than to think and feel independently.
  6. Blind compassion: an exaggerated tolerance or undiscriminating attempt at caring through which the individual ends up being overly permissive. This kind of caring occurs at the expense of others, including the Catholic engaged in spiritual bypassing. Appropriate limits and boundaries are not set. This can happen with Catholics who struggle with dependency issues.
  7. Fear of confrontation: [attempting] to not disappoint others; the person is afraid to put up a barrier, to challenge, to disagree, or to confront. This can happen when one is overly deferential to ecclesiastical authority, as frequently happened in the clerical sex abuse crisis. Fear of confrontation can also be expressed in marriages where a Catholic wife does not set appropriate limits on sexual behaviors demanded by her husband that demean or otherwise violate her integrity.

The final three symptoms our authors list address personal responsibility, thinking/cognition, and the body.

  1. Avoidance of responsibilities: the tendency to avoid responsibility (such as dealing with work or money) by not taking their career seriously or making long-term financial plans. This can happen with Catholic heads of families who fail to provide for the economic, physical, educational, social, and other needs of their children because they are on a spiritual journey or quest.
  1. Magical thinking: a mixture of superstition, perception of illusory connections. conflation of correlation with causation, wishful thinking, and awaiting divine intervention instead of taking personal responsibility. Catholics who are prone to thought disorders or who are developmentally arrested in the intellectual realm are particularly prone to magical thinking. One example is that a 17-year old girl’s parents receive a request for donations in the mail from a marketing-savvy religious order, and the girl sees it as a “sign from God” that she has a vocation to that order. Magical thinking also is much more likely to occur in states of high emotional arousal, such as after a breakup, when Catholic frequently consider vocations to the priesthood or religious life, seeking mystical guidance.
  1. Disconnection from the body: [losing] intimacy with [one’s] own body, including a certain disdain for the physical body and lacking grounding in the body. Many Catholics are disconnected from their bodies, demonstrating a de facto Manichaeanism, seeing the body as bad, or just as a temporary, disposable container for the soul.

Next week, we will wrap up our series on spiritual bypassing by revisiting its causes and detailing its effects, informed by Picciotto and Fox’s research on expert opinions. And, as always, I will bring these causes and effects into a Catholic context.

Interior Integration for Catholics Episode 107: How to Work Through Your Anger at God

In this 94-minute episode, I walk you through the four tracks or pathways Catholics commonly follow with their anger at God, tracks proposed by Michele Novotni and Randy Petersen in their 2001 book Angry With God, and elaborate on them extensively. These four tracks are 1) Trust in God Track; 2) the Cover-Up Track; 3) the Wrestle with God Track; and 4) the Long-Distance / Disconnect Track. We discuss how to better resolve anger issues with God through a wide variety of means with a focus on practical solutions. I emphasize the importance of God images, felt safety and protection, a sense of trust, the infused virtue of Faith, courage and fortitude, and the critical role of emotional co-regulation in working through anger at God. Please share your impressions, comments, and questions below; how did this episode land with your parts? Here is a downloadable PDF of the episode outline with links to the resources.

Be With the Word for the Third 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 Learning How to Hope Again. In this episode, we discussed how we often blame God like the Israelites did, relying too much on our human perspective, and assuming that we know the causes of our disappointments. We provide a guided reflection to help you explore your own experience as well. Listen as we share the Mass readings out loud here.

Fun fact and side note: Author Jesse Fox also happens to be co-editor of the new journal Integratus: The Journal of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, which just released its first volume a few weeks ago. That journal is worth reading for those who are invested in the interface between psychology and Catholicism, and both the print and online subscriptions are new benefits for Catholic Psychotherapy Association members. I heartily recommend both the journal and joining the CPA.

Conversation Hours

I am here for you every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time to take your calls during conversation hours. Call me on my cell (317.567.9594) and we can talk about any of the themes in these weekly reflections or the podcast episodes. Or email me at [email protected] – just know that it can take a week or more for me to respond to emails, depending on the volume.

In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S: Our most effective marketing for Souls and Hearts happens when you share our resources with others who need them in a personal and attuned way. Please share this weekly reflection (or any other of my reflections in the archive) with those you know who may benefit.

P.P.S. But even more important than that is to pray for us at Souls and Hearts. Our whole outreach is fueled by prayer and an absolute dependence on God the Father and Mary our Mother. We can’t do this without the support of so much prayer. So please keep your fellow Souls and Hearts members, our communities, and our staff in your prayers. And please pray for me, personally, too – by name – that would be “Dr. Peter.” Thank you.

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