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Spiritual Life and Our Emotions Part 2 - Spiritual Bypassing

Spiritual bypassing, a term coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1983, is the use of spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.

It is pervasive in our culture - both personally and collectively - where we don't have much tolerance or acquired skill to face our pain, preferring instead a numbing analgesic, particularly if it can be seemingly legitimized by 'higher' spiritual goals and values. The critical problem is that by avoiding confronting our pain, uncomfortable feelings and wounds, we 'split-off' part of ourselves and undermine our growth and capacity towards 'wholeness' or peace, the root of which, in biblical language, is the same. And for those in the Christian tradition, as well as other spiritualities, we are called to a life of peace, which is about completeness and fullness of our life and humanity rather than internally dividing ourselves into good and bad.

Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow side of spirituality, manifesting in many forms, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects include :

  • Exaggerated detachment

  • Emotional numbing & repression

  • Overdone niceness verses emotional depth & authenticity

  • Overemphasis on the positive

  • Anger-phobia (confusing anger with aggression and ill will)

  • Debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow side

  • Weak or porous boundaries

  • Blind or overly tolerant compassion

A common example is someone who runs around continuously seeking to serve and help the needs of others, often to great physical and personal detriment to themselves. In our faith communities we can reward such people as shining examples. However, if such sacrifice is done, at root, to cover over a sense of deep inadequacy and wounded identity, seeking the love and affirmation of others to buoy up a painful sense of worthlessness, then the so called 'self-less' behaviour is a way of dissociating from this uncomfortable feeling giving the illusion that all is well, avoiding addressing the real inner need to feel unconditionally accepted and truly loved.

It is only by recognising and being with that need in all its painful nakedness, bringing it into relationship with the divine unconditional loving presence, that this wound will ever start to be healed. The laying down of ourselves in the service of others needs to come from a healthy ego that is willing to transcend itself, not one that is injured and using the spiritual practice of service and sacrifice to feel good about oneself. Being a 'good Christian' can become a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficit identity where we feel badly about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. It is a way of staying afloat psychologically, albeit rather fragile, with a veneer of bright spiritual acceptability whilst avoiding the dark, fearful issue in our depths.

If we bury part of ourselves, feeling unacceptable or bad because of our emotional nature, our spirituality may exacerbate our feelings of worthlessness or 'sinfulness' and actually rewound us. Someone who fears their capacity to feel strong emotions, such as anger, as being bad in some way, suppressing them, can compensate by becoming overly tolerant, avoiding confrontation, and being 'nice' in quite an inauthentic way.

When we're entrenched in spiritual bypassing we tend to like our relationships sweet and light - no confrontation, no anger, no messy feelings. Relentless kindness, positivity and smiles tend to dominate the relational menu with everyone doing their best to make nice. But there is not just denial here but dissociation masquerading as loving kindness. Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by side-steeping them like this is superficial and dangerous. It sets up a debilitating split between our true Christ-like nature and our humanity, and posits the view that the deepest truth is found in transcendence of the physical, emotional and instinctive nature, undermining the more profoundly challenging message of the Incarnation.

Wallowing in our feelings is different to being with them. Wallowing is being fixated in going over and over stories in our mind. On the other hand, being with our feelings with unconditional presence is about opening nakedly to that feeling instead of being caught up in stories about that feeling. So, for example, if the feeling is sadness, wallowing might involve fixating on a story around 'poor me' rather than directly relating to the actual sadness itself, which may then allow us to relate to its underlying wisdom.

There is a lovely example of this Sue Pickering shares in her book 'Spiritual Direction : A Practical Introduction'. She describes a time when at a workshop on the spiritual life she was introduced to a woman who had two books of spiritual poetry published. She reveals how she congratulated her, but when then sitting down felt a wave of envy arise within her. She could have dismissed this response as 'unchristian,' but instead, in the space for reflection that followed, she let herself feel the envy, explore it and acknowledge it before God. In doing so it became clear to her that this 'envy' was drawing her attention to her own deeply held longing to give herself more fully to writing. She resolved to honour that longing and her excellent book above was the creative result. Sue neither rejected the feeling of envy or became swallowed by it, where she may have acted inappropriately out of it. Rather, she listened to the wisdom inherent in her feelings, even though uncomfortable.

Feelings then may be described as valuable raw material for growth, and give us a different level of information about ourselves than our rational mind can provide. The challenge is to find ways to refine our relationship to our feeling life so that we can come to a place of willingness to feel whatever we're feeling, and experience whatever we're experiencing, in a way that is liberating, and allows the wisdom of our feelings to touch and inform us without our falling into acting out of these emotions inappropriately.

In part 3 of this series, looking at our spirituality and our emotional life, I will explore some practical ways of integrating and being with our feelings and emotions as part of our spiritual life and journey.

One good contemporary book on spiritual bypassing is 'Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality disconnects us from What Really Matters' by Robert Masters.

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