Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by John Welwood, a famous psychotherapist, teacher and author of several books, including Toward the Psychology of Awakening, whose work integrated Western psychology and Eastern spiritual wisdom.
He described spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”
With the rise of the self-help industry (which is completely unregulated) and the New Age movement, spiritual bypassing has become a common phenomenon, and unfortunately, it has the potential to negatively impact supporters who follow certain ideas fanatically.
Before I move on to discuss how spiritual bypassing can be harmful, I want to emphasise that I’m not against New Age ideas or the self-help industry altogether. Every morning I listen to Abraham Hicks and I have done a lot of mindset work myself.
Why spiritual bypassing can be harmful
However, I don’t sign up to the belief that there’s only one truth or the black and white thinking that often accompanies those ideas. So while I love spirituality and its concepts, I reject aspects of it that don’t recognise trauma, our body experience, the inequalities and injustices of our world, leading to:
- Re-traumatising individuals who are vulnerable and more prone to repress their emotions and avoid uncomfortable situations, instead of resolving them.
- Avoiding one’s responsibility or engaging in constructive conversations that have the potential to lead to better outcomes.
- Idealising situations or putting people on a pedestal, instead of working to learn to trust ourselves and strengthen our self-leadership.
- Making us doubt our human experience, denying our reality and victim-blaming ourselves and others.
- Contributing to toxic positivity, which often triggers feelings of shame and inadequacy in many of us.
- Avoiding dealing with the reality of our world and denying responsibility in helping others or being involved in social causes
Spiritual bypassing can be very subtle, so it’s important to be able to recognise the signs and protect our perception and well-being from it. Here’s a set of beliefs the self-help industry has been selling to all of us for years and years, most of them (if not, all of them) are rooted in white supremacy.
1. “Love is the answer”
Love is indeed the answer ONLY when it’s combined with intentional action and committed growth. Love on its own isn’t love – it’s spiritual bypassing and an empty word that means nothing.
The worst part is that this phrase is often used by people who run purpose-driven businesses and whose mission is to make this world a better place, but they often avoid doing the hard work and the heavy lifting that would actually make this world a better place.
2. We all have the privilege to choose our mindset
First, this is presented as a universal spiritual truth by many in the spiritual space. The issue is that spiritual truths that don’t apply to every human being in this world, no matter who they are, where they live, the colour of their skin or their lived experience aren’t universal spiritual truths, they are white privilege.
Second, we can’t choose something that we don’t see around us in our environment, and what we see around us isn’t 100% determined by us, simply because we don’t get to choose the country we’re born in, who our parents will be, our family’s wealth and many other things that actually play a big part in shaping our mindset.
3. Can you just be positive?
This is a mega-sign of toxic positivity. My problem with toxic positivity is that we often use it as an excuse to avoid our collective responsibility to empower and support others who don’t enjoy the same privileges as us. We’re implying ‘it’s their problem, their thinking, they should deal with it.’
Spiritual bypassing doesn’t acknowledge that our successes and achievements are also results of us being born in specific parts of the world, receiving a standard level of education and having food on our table from day one. This is the type of positivity that fails humanity.
4. We are 100% responsible for our reality
Many teachers out there use this phrase as a way to empower people. This isn’t empowerment, but a capitalistic, white-centric approach to life that makes white people like us think that we’ve made a few more dollars than others because we’re God’s few chosen. We’re not but we’re pretty much suffering from a big Messiah complex.
In his book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, Bessel van der Kolk writes that “In today’s world your ZIP code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will lead a safe and healthy life. People’s income, family structure, housing, employment, and educational opportunities affect not only their risk of developing traumatic stress but also their access to effective help to address it. Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing all are breeding grounds for trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma.”
If we want to empower others, we must be humble enough to meet them where they are. This involves truly listening to them, seeing them and understanding them, instead of using catchy taglines to silence them.
Now enough about the problem. What about going forward?
What is our role as conscious, purpose-driven folks in the fight against any form of injustice and the change we want to bring in the world?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this and here’s what I believe we must all commit to, but especially, coaches, therapists, healers or other service-based professionals who help others to live better lives, one way or another:
- We must be willing to do any inner work that might feel like a blow to our ego but it’s absolutely necessary.
- We must get rid of our ‘white saviour’ complexes and instead of trying to save others, we must make space for their own voice to be heard, their own stories to be told, their own work to be shared, their own teachings to be spread.
- We must think of ways to actively support anyone who isn’t as privileged as us. This means meeting them where they are.
- We must closely examine our spiritual beliefs and ask ourselves the daring question ‘do these beliefs apply to everyone?’ If not, time to scrap them and replace them with ones that reflect the world as it is and not the world as we experience it as more privileged folks.
- We mustn’t stay silent about political, social and other issues because we’re afraid of ‘being political’ and losing followers. We can’t change the world if we don’t talk about politics, society and culture. It’s impossible given our whole lives and our physical and mental health are heavily influenced significantly by politics, culture and society.
- We must put humans above our brands, success, wealth and egos. Humans above anything else. That’s tough, isn’t it?
- We must apply critical thinking instead of blindly following influencers and sharing content. Social media, these days, often equal power, but although many are willing to collect the money that comes with this power, they’re not ready to acknowledge the responsibility that comes as part of the same package.
- For those of us who claim that we run ethical businesses, we must revisit what ‘ethical’ means and address any aspects of our business where ‘ethical’ is more of superficial marketing language than actual reality.
- We must use our platform to amplify voices of people who don’t look like us and who have different lived experiences than us. If we have a platform and we don’t use it for the benefit of all, it’s a waste of a platform.
Finally, we must remember that we are born in a racist, sexist, oppressive and discriminatory society whose systems have been created to benefit the very few and oppress the many. There’s a lot of work to be done – inner, cultural, social, political and spiritual.
When people are awakened and come together, we can be one of nature’s most powerful forces.
Let’s use this force for everyone’s benefit. Now and going forward.