What You Need to Know About Spiritual Bypassing

Exhaustion settles in

LuAnn is burned out from daily life. A single mom of two and mental health professional, COVID-19 has turned her life upside down. Since the pandemic and fear of exposure, she hasn’t been able to drop off the kids at her parents’. The kids play video games with their friends while she works. The family eat breakfast and lunch together, but scatter in different directions for dinner. LuAnn has small pockets of alone time to catch up with social media, friends or a 10-minute outside jog around the house.

Instead of going to the office, she now spends hours with clients on video chat. The basement laundry room is her new office location so the kids don’t overhear conversations. Clients report increased anxiety and new fears. There is no certainty when or if clients will return to – even remember – the primary reason they sought therapy.

LuAnn has created an unsettled yet manageable daily routine. Life is starting to open again and she makes plans for the kids’ summer camp. She looks forward to free time to meditate and practice yoga. She is excited that summer plans include quality social experiences for the kids.

What is bothering LuAnn? Her never-ending workload? Quarantine? Racism? Lack of self-awareness?
What is bothering LuAnn? Her never-ending workload? Quarantine? Racism? Lack of self-awareness?

A second plot twist

Her world takes another turn on May 25th. A friend texts to tell her to turn on the TV. A Black man named George Floyd dies at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. LuAnn barely absorbs the details. Since the pandemic she stores frustrations inside her heart and prioritizes the healing of others.

Mr. Floyd’s death precipitates LuAnn’s ensuing emotional breakdowns. Her feelings ricochet from broken-hearted to raging. LuAnn feels vulnerable and afraid for the safety of her Caucasian kids in this unpredictable atmosphere.CLEARING STRESS

A sense of overwhelm floods her. Her mind churns while laying in bed. Will her clients’ concerns segue from chatter around the pandemic to racism? Will a familiar world ever return?

Rather than addressing her emotional instability, LuAnn reverts to hand-me-down religious teachings to calm herself. Since childhood LuAnn has used the Bible to interpret events and to excuse herself from sharing opinions and expressing emotions.

When colleagues want to talk about racism and the accompanying tension, she reacts instantly with the tried and true words she uses in times of struggle: “I’m not worried. God is in charge.” LuAnn doesn’t want to engage with the topic – she rationalizes to herself that she has enough drama.

Scrolling Instagram posts, LuAnn reads a series of chastising comments accusing a well-known person of “spiritual bystanding.” Is this the latest way to accost people who avoid discussing race issues? LuAnn initially becomes irritated with herself for reading the comments. She is triggered, but denies that the post affects her.

After all, she never discusses race and believes that deep down she loves everyone regardless of color and ethnicity. She believes that no one could accuse her of being like those who feel entitled and better than others.

LuAnn’s wants help

After a week of high stress, poor sleep and lack of appetite LuAnn hits a wall. She forgets a client video call and screams at the kids. The world seems to be closing in. Happiness is nowhere to be found. A colleague helps connect her with a professional coach. LuAnn hopes to better:

  • Understand the impact of the virus pandemic and the arrested man’s killing
  • Reduce stress and overwhelm
  • Ask others for help

Understanding the impact of recent events

LuAnn’s coach imparts the meaning of Spiritual Bystanding, a term coined by psychotherapist John Welwood. A psychological defense mechanism, Spiritual Bypassing represents

“spiritual ideas and practices used to deflect or sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks….when spiritual practice is used to replace or compensate for challenging traits such as low self-esteem, social isolation, or other emotional issues they corrupt the usage of spiritual practice.

— John WelwoodFROM CHAOS TO PEACE

Tuning into guidance

In session, LuAnn closes her eyes and begins deep breathing. Coach asks her to tune into the three intuitive centers (belly, heart, mind) to gain insight on where and how she carries the stories of the pandemic and killing.

Using the symbol of a horse to connect to her inner awareness, LuAnn is asked to answer these questions: What does the horse look like? What is it doing? Where is it?

LuAnn relaxes her body and initially places her hands on top of the navel.

“I see a horse running loose and wild. It is locked inside a tall fence with barely enough space to roam. The horse looks frightened and alone.”

Next LuAnn places her hands on her heart.

“The horse seems passive and subdued. It’s as if it is drugged and doesn’t have a mind of its own. I am saddened at the sight of this deflated animal.”

Lastly LuAnn places her hands on both sides of her head.

“The horse is galloping in an open field. It takes frequent breaks for water and rest. It is free.”

The exercise goal is to create coherence with the belly, heart and mind. LuAnn’s three intuitive centers are out of alignment. Because of the constant running between clients and kids, she is unaware how much the current isolation has blocked her ability to trust her gut. The chaos has taken over and drains her of finding strength and hope.

Although the heart intends to offer comfort and self-love, LuAnn is numb to the world outside her home. It’s easier to pretend everything is okay. She over-compensates for bad times by over-emphasizing positivity and avoiding negativity.

When she can’t follow her heart, LuAnn slips into detachment, sarcasm and separation from others. Without an appreciation for the necessity of community and its opportunities to share her struggles, LuAnn doesn’t realize fully that what she resists persists.

The intuitive mind is not aligned from the belly and heart. LuAnn’s imaginations and dreams haven’t been nurtured in a long while, a sign she’s in survival mode. Ego has assumed a leadership position and dominates LuAnn’s every move. Until she values freedom over the isolation which creates stress and avoidance, she will remain in this state of burn-out and confusion.

The intuition exercise brings LuAnn newfound awareness. Coach recommends three tools to facilitate healing and alignment:

  1. CuriosityWith Coach, LuAnn works through uncomfortable questions such as:Why am I angry? Why do I think I am exempt when considering racism? Am I a racist? Why do I negatively judge others who willingly discuss this subject?
  2. ClarityLuAnn becomes clearer about misusing her default spirituality to avoid current discussions of COVID-19 and racial tension:Why do I place others’ needs before my own? Where did I learn to disconnect from my feelings? Why do I automatically turn to my upbringing spirituality and reject conversation? What created my strong intolerance for dealing with sensitive issues?
  3. CourageLuAnn recognizes that the pain of the last few months is leading to a fresh understanding of what it means to be genuinely spiritual. She reads Psychotherapist Ingrid Clayton’s article which suggests that bravely staying present allows something deeper to happen.

“There is something very necessary about being who and where I am. I understand this is a tall order. If I become present to who I am, all of me, there is a lot there I usually don’t want to see.”

What I don’t want to see consists of shame, anxiety, anger, loneliness, self-loathing, our “dark” side, and the list goes on. Hey, who wants to be present to all this?

But the more that I try to rise above it, or turn my back to it—the more it lingers and grows. Finally I must turn around and face my fears.

The most amazing thing happens. My shadow doesn’t swallow me whole. By recognizing the “dark” stuff I can finally experience and own what is “light.”

I can finally see the good stuff once I take responsibility for the stuff that isn’t as shiny on the outside. These are the real fruits of spiritual and psychological development. We stop running and return to loving ourselves.

Unrealistic expectations promote shame. Sharing our thoughts and experiences open us. Genuine spirituality helps us rest and accept our human condition.

Let’s be kind to one another as together we navigate the inherent challenges of accepting
all aspects of mind, body, and spirit

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