The Danger of Spiritual Bypassing In Our Relationships

For many years I didn’t see how a spiritual practice could be anything but positive. I came to spiritual teachings and practices with hope and an open mind. There was also a sense of desperation, as well: well, this might not save me but it isn’t going to hurt. Like so many of us, I wanted—needed—to believe there was more to life. Spirituality helped me to create a life with meaning and purpose. It also helped to ease the existential dread that led me to live in a perpetual state of anxiety and unease.

So, are there any risks in cultivating a spiritual practice? Yes, according to the late John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist who coined the term spiritual bypassing. The risk arises when our spiritual practice is a means for avoiding or repressing the work we need to do to grow and evolve.

Spiritual bypassing is a defence mechanism. It is self-protection from the most uncomfortable parts of ourselves and our lives. Defence mechanisms are a normal and a natural part of being human. It is not a reason to abandon the spiritual practices that are important to us. With understanding of our defence mechanisms comes the opportunity for us to be aware of them. With this awareness, we have the power to examine if spiritual bypassing is showing up in a way that is hurting us and those we love.

What is Spiritual Bypassing?

John Welwood introduced the term spiritual bypassing in the early 1980s. Welwood studied the integration psychological and spiritual concepts, including Western psychology and Eastern wisdom. He explored how spiritual bypassing can wreak havoc on our relationships in an interview with Tina Fossella (Human Nature, Buddha Nature, 2011). Here, Welwood explained the origins of the term:

“Spiritual Bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

Spiritual bypassing can lead us to downplay our needs, feelings, psychological problems, and the difficulties we face in our relationships. As Welwood warned, this puts us at risk of “trying to rise above the raw and messy sides of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”

I know for many of us, there is nothing that brings out our raw and messy sides more than our most intimate relationships. What exactly does this look like, though? It can look different for each of us, but Robert Augustus Masters provides some of the ways that spiritual bypassing can show up in our lives:

“Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”

(As an aside, Robert Augustus Masters was a cult leader from 1986 to 1994 who has since published a book called Spiritual Bypassing. After a near-death experience with the drug (5-MeO-DMT) left his sense of sense shattered, he stopped himself and the harm he was doing to the community of people following him. He has since clarified his past and has a wide range of offerings in the healing and well-being space. Cults can be an example of the more extreme dangers associated with spiritual bypassing).

Spiritual bypassing can be a coping mechanism when we aren’t able or ready to face something head-on. The tricky thing about it, though, is that spiritual bypassing can be hard to notice in others and ourselves. How could something so good be anything but supportive and nourishing? For those of us with attachment wounds from childhood, Welwood explores how spiritual bypassing can be a hazard to our relationships.

How Spiritual Bypassing Shows Up in Our Relationships

Welwood explains that for many of us, spirituality offers a way to deal with the pain of our psychological and relational wounding. Though, he says “we are often in denial or unconscious about the nature or extent of this wounding.” I was one of those people who spent years telling others and myself that I had a “perfect childhood.” In reality, not many of us get through childhood without experiencing pain that changes how we show up in our relationships as adults.

Spirituality may offer us a path to freedom from our suffering in relationships. We don’t have to know the origins of our pain to know we no longer want to feel trapped by it. Those of us with an insecure attachment style may be especially vulnerable to spiritual bypassing as a way to cope with early relational wounding. Spiritual bypassing can provide a way to move beyond the psychological and emotional issues that are present in our relationships without moving through them.

I remember returning from a silent retreat feeling confident I would no longer be in another relationship like my last one—and all of the ones that preceded it. I thought that I would be able to find the same clarity I’d found at the retreat in my relationships. The major difference is that the fears present in my relationships—of abandonment, of not being worthy of love—didn’t have chance to surface on the retreat. It is easy to feel as though we have it all figured out until someone triggers us in a big way.

The thing is, it is in our relationships where our unresolved trauma, fears, or attachment wounds tend to show up most intensely. Psychological wounds tend to be relational and most of them tend to form early in life in relationship with our caregivers. There is wisdom that says, “we are hurt in relationship and we heal in relationship.” For many of us, we need to learn what it feels like to be in a safe and secure relationship with another person and this takes practice.

Although our spiritual practices may help us move through the healing that needs to be done in relationships, it is not possible to bypass it altogether. That is where our spiritual practices can hurt our relationships—when we use them to avoid or neglect the psychological and emotional healing that needs to take place over time.

An Example of Spiritual Bypassing: The Avoidance of Attachment

Welwood speaks to how it is common for those with an avoidant attachment style to be drawn to Buddhist teachings. Those of us with an avoidant attachment style may have learned early on that it is best that we take care of ourselves and not rely on others. This most likely resulted from our needs not being met in early childhood, perhaps because our caregivers neglected or rejected us. Hearing the teaching of non-attachment for the first time may resonate deeply with someone who always felt safer not being in connection with others.

Welwood speaks of the difference between non-attachment and the avoidance of attachment. Avoidance of attachment is not freedom from attachment and in its own way, it is still a form of clinging. It is clinging to the idea that love is unsafe because it requires we trust another person wholly. It is a denial of our very human need of attachment. Practicing non-attachment for someone with an avoidant attachment style can be used as a way to support long-held defences that are hindering their ability to connect with others. As Welwood observed,

“I’ve often seen how attempts to be nonattached as used in the service of sealing people off from their human and emotional vulnerabilities. If effect, identifying oneself as a spiritual practitioner becomes used as a way of avoiding a depth of personal engagement with others that might stir up old wounds and longings for love.”

What does it look like to open ourselves up to the kind of connection that can support our spiritual and personal growth? Welwood talks about the capacity of being able to engage in I-Thou relatedness as a key to becoming a fully developed person. I-Thou is a beautiful philosophical concept explored by Martin Buber in his book I and Thou published in 1923. In Buber’s words:

“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

With this, comes the risk of being open and vulnerable with others and a “capacity for open expressiveness and deep attunement,” which Welwood notes is rare in our modern world. This rarity can be exemplified by how challenging it is for many of us to think of the last time we had a conversation with someone where we felt seen, heard, and deeply understood.

If an avoidant attachment style leaves us with a deep fear of connection with others, we may be drawn to the spiritual teachings that allow us to remain in a state of disconnection, rather than those practices that encourage it. In this case, spiritual bypassing can mean that we are using our spiritual practice to negate our own needs, including our need for love. As Welwood reminds us, we are “interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe,” and having close emotional ties to other people promotes this connectedness.

Does all of this mean we should stop engaging in spiritual practices altogether? No, of course not. I have not abandoned any of the practices that I have picked up in my life as they continue to help me tremendously. They also encourage me to be kinder to other people and the natural world. They became especially helpful when I allowed myself to finally revisit my childhood and explore how my early relational wounds were causing me pain as an adult. They are practices that helped me to hold myself through the darkness, not avoid it completely.

The danger of spirituality lies in the belief that it can allow to avoid the darkness by rising above it. To think that we can avoid all of our unpleasant emotions by engaging in a spiritual practice is not realistic for the vast majority of us. The way out of darkness is certainly not to hang out only in the light. In the words of Carl Jung:

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

That is what makes it difficult for us to work through our relational trauma or challenges, especially if they are rooted in the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. Spiritual bypassing may then best be investigated with a gentle curiousity and a patience for ourselves and others. Chances are if we are using our spirituality to bypass something, it is probably something that is painful. There is nothing more human than wanting to avoid pain. Pain may be inevitable, but our spiritual practices can hold us as we move through our lives and try to make sense of all of it.

If you are interested in learning more, here is a list of direct sources and inspiration for this article:

When Spiritual Bypassing Meets Racism Meetings Gaslighting by Camille Williams

What is Spiritual Bypassing? By Dr. Diana Raab

Human Nature, Buddha Nature: On Spiritual Bypassing, Relationship, and the Dharma — An Interview with John Welwood by Tina Fossella pg. 1–6

Spiritual Bypassing and Dysregulation in the Nervous System by Dr. Ron Manley

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