What Is Spiritual Bypassing and Why Is It So Problematic?
Sometimes there are no "answers." There's no "greater meaning." That's ok.
Posted November 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Author and psychotherapist John Welwood coined the term "spiritual bypassing" to describe this real human predicament.
- Trying to make sense of suffering is a human tendency. But it's not always helpful.
- We resist sitting with discomfort, uncertainty, pain and struggle--but trying to pass over them can have adverse consequences.
- Acceptance is a practice, and we can't heal in isolation.
There’s a strong tendency I notice in my work with hospitalized patients, as they navigate their unwieldy losses and scramble to find their unique and distinct “new normal.” It’s an inclination to look for answers to their suffering or to search for a reason that life has dealt them incredibly hard personal circumstances.
A 60-year-old stroke survivor states, “I don’t know what I did wrong. I’m a good person. I try to eat well and exercise. I pray every day and go to church. I’m caring about others. I don’t understand why I’m being punished like this—it’s not fair.”
A mom of a child with special needs shares that she wonders every day if there’s a higher reason she is in her role. “I’m not the person I used to be,” she quips. “I’ve lost my joy and love of life. I know the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but I often wonder how much life has been drained from me because I’m always so tired. I love my child, but the stress is killing me.”
A newly grieving spouse sheds tears of anguish, pondering aloud the question: “If everything happens for a reason, why do I feel like I’m crumbling inside?” I respond with silence, joining her in this weird mistrust of the common quips to explain away hardship and pain. Most often, words and sentiments barely scratch the surface as a balm to one’s suffering. It pains me to know this, though my mind darts from idea to idea in an attempt to make meaning or offer comfort. I breathe in and remain silent, noticing the achiness in my chest and the pressure of a warm tear brimming up to my eyes.
The only thing I’m able to offer is the extension of my hand to hers. Her soft hands are warm and filled with crumbled balls of moistened white tissues. She apologizes for her anguish and her inability to keep it together, and I find myself reaching out in the only way I know to embrace her. Pouring tears soak into my black heather-fleece vest as the grief overcomes her. Her shoulders shake as she sobs.
The late clinical psychologist and author John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypassing as a tendency to turn away from what is difficult, painful, or unpleasant, and to use spiritual ideas or beliefs to avoid the pain of facing these circumstances. In his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Welwood admits that it’s “tempting to use spirituality as a way of trying to rise above this shaky ground. In a sense, spirituality becomes just another way of rejecting one’s experience.”1
I’m struck by how many people sense the need to apologize for their feelings of grief, loss, or sadness these days. Almost like a knee-jerk reaction, folks are more concerned about “pulling it together” than allowing themselves to feel their sadness—a natural byproduct of allowing oneself to love strongly and intensely.
Welwood goes on to describe spiritual bypassing as the tendency to reject what is difficult or painful, to grasp onto something solid for comfort and security, and to desensitize ourselves “so that we don’t have to feel the whole problem of pleasure and pain, loss and gain at all.”1 It’s at the heart of the inclination to reach for quick explanations or answers, such as “everything happens for a reason” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Such sentiments often leave many folks feeling angrier and misunderstood—because those comments can be like a kick in the gut when the pain doesn’t go away.
Those well-meaning comments? Think again.
To folks who are in pain, grieving, or struggling with any life circumstances, well-meaning comments such as those above can feel like gaslighting. If internalized, they can feel like shame over feeling hurt and blame for the fact that the hurt continues to fester.
A parent of a child with complex medical needs may struggle every single day. Trying to convince him there’s a greater meaning might seem empty, especially while he may feel very alone, and saddled with the added burden that supportive resources are lacking.
Similarly, when a person loses abilities through illness or injury, it’s very seldom that their grieving ever stops completely. When life feels hard and arduous, we’ll always long for easier, less painful, or less complicated days. While these times can and do exist alongside the nuggets of gratitude that emerge along the way, the hard reality is that acceptance is a practice.
Acceptance as practice
As Sophia Li states in her 2020 Vogue post, “Much like in any 12-step program, we must reach radical acceptance—the final stage of grief—before we can heal.”2 Truly “doing the work” of wading through grief, pain and loss challenges me to sit with my pain and feel it. To not grasp for answers, but to understand that difficulty is part of the human condition.
It’s true that all of our life journeys are both grueling and glorious, and it’s important to integrate this whole scope of experience into our realm of understanding. Spiritual bypassing attempts to shortcut the feeling part, when burrowing into those feelings is exactly what’s needed to connect with one another.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in working with hospitalized patients, other struggling parents, and working through my own grief, it’s that we’re never guaranteed a life that’s smooth sailing. But I can embrace the grueling, ghastly, and glorious aspects of my life without glossing over them with prescribed belief systems intent on squelching my hard-won, tender truth.
Perhaps a lesson we’ve all discovered in living through several years of this pandemic world is that life is unpredictable. And while try-as-we-may to shore up feelings of anger, sorrow, or pain, it’s only in realizing that we’re not alone that we truly begin to heal.
 Welwood, John. Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Shambhala Publications. Boston MA. 2002. (p. 12,13)
 Li, Sophia. Are You Spiritually Bypassing 2020? Vogue. December 30th, 2020. https://www.vogue.com/article/wellness-spiritual-bypassing-radical-acce…
Conrad, M. What is Gaslighting? Meaning, Examples & Support. Forbes. March 2020. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-gaslighting/
Raab, D. What is Spiritual Bypassing? Psychology Today. 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-empowerment-diary/201901/wh…