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Spiritual bypass

Spiritual bypass is a term coined by psychologist John Welwood to describe the tendency of some people to use spiritual practices, beliefs, or experiences as a way of avoiding or denying their psychological issues, emotional wounds, or unresolved conflicts. It is a form of escapism that can have negative consequences for one’s mental health, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual growth. In this article, we will explore the concept of spiritual bypass, its causes and manifestations, its potential harms, and how to avoid or overcome it.


The term spiritual bypass was coined by John Welwood in 1984. He defined it as “a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. Spiritual bypassing can involve detachment, numbing, positivity, weak boundaries, and denial of one’s shadow side. It can also disconnect the individual from the present reality. Welwood observed that people often used spirituality as a shield or a defence mechanism to protect themselves from harm or to promote harmony between people. However, he argued that this approach did not resolve the underlying problems, but rather glossed over them, leaving them to fester without any true resolution. He suggested that spirituality should support the transformation of the self, rather than replacing it.

What is spiritual bypass?

Spiritual bypass is a term that refers to the use of spiritual practices or beliefs to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, or fundamental human needs. It is a form of self-deception that often involves projecting one’s own shadow onto others, denying one’s own emotions, or escaping from reality. Some examples of spiritual bypass are:

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  • Claiming to be “above” anger, fear, or sadness, and judging those who express these emotions as unenlightened or immature.
  • Using positive affirmations, meditation, or prayer to avoid facing the root causes of one’s problems or conflicts.
  • Pretending to be happy, peaceful, or compassionate, while suppressing or ignoring one’s true feelings.
  • Dismissing the importance of social justice, human rights, or environmental issues, and believing that only personal transformation matters.
  • Avoiding responsibility or accountability for one’s actions, and blaming others or external factors for one’s own suffering.
  • Fighting and suppressing one’s own dark side, rejecting aspects of self that are not perceived as “good”

Spiritual bypass can have negative consequences for oneself and others. It can prevent one from achieving authentic spiritual growth, healing, and integration. It can also lead to a lack of empathy, compassion, and connection with others, and a denial of the complexity and diversity of human experience. Spiritual bypass can also contribute to the perpetuation of oppression, injustice, and violence in the world, by ignoring the systemic and structural causes of these issues.

Spiritual bypassing can be prevalent in religions because many religions teach that suffering is a result of sin, karma, or lack of faith, and that the solution is to surrender to a higher power, pray, meditate, or perform rituals. These practices can be beneficial if they are done with awareness and compassion, but they can also be used as a way of denying or minimizing one’s pain, anger, fear, or guilt. By doing so, one may avoid confronting the root causes of their problems and healing them at a deeper level.

Spiritual bypassing can also be influenced by society, which often values positivity, optimism, and happiness over authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty. Society may pressure people to hide their negative emotions, pretend that everything is fine, and focus on the bright side of life. This can create a culture of superficiality, conformity, and repression, where people feel ashamed or guilty for expressing their true feelings and needs. Spiritual bypassing can prevent people from developing genuine self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. It can also lead to spiritual narcissism, where one feels superior or special for being more spiritual than others, and judges or criticizes those who do not share their beliefs or practices.

In its extreme form, spiritual bypassing has been suggested as a source of psychosis in the individual, to quote one person:

“I was suffering from quite severe psychoses, which involved me fighting with demons who wanted to kill me. It was not until I realised these were a manifestation of self, and took steps to accept, love and integrate these aspects into self that the psychoses stopped, and I was able to feel normal again. These “demons” simply turned out to be assertive sides of my character that I’d been suppressing since childhood.”

Healing the wound – recovering from spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing can be overcome in the individual by cultivating a more balanced and integrated approach to spirituality that does not neglect or dismiss the importance of psychological and emotional healing. Some possible steps to achieve this are:

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Recognizing and acknowledging the signs of spiritual bypassing in oneself, such as feeling superior, judgmental, defensive, or detached from one’s feelings or reality.

  • Developing a healthy sense of self-worth and self-compassion that does not depend on external validation or spiritual achievements.
  • Seeking professional help or support from trusted friends or mentors if needed to address the underlying issues that trigger spiritual bypassing.
  • Engaging in practices that foster emotional awareness, expression, and regulation, such as journaling, meditation, therapy, or art.
  • Embracing the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences, both positive and negative, as valuable and meaningful aspects of one’s spiritual journey.
  • Practising humility, honesty, and accountability in one’s spiritual path, and being open to feedback, criticism, or challenge from others.
  • Respecting and appreciating the diversity of spiritual perspectives and experiences among different people, and avoiding the temptation to impose one’s own views or standards on others.
How confronting spiritual bypassing has helped individuals

Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by psychologist John Welwood to describe the tendency of some people to use spiritual practices or beliefs to avoid dealing with their emotional wounds, psychological issues, or unresolved traumas. Spiritual bypassing can manifest in many ways, such as denying or repressing negative emotions, avoiding responsibility or accountability, rationalizing harmful behaviour, or dismissing the reality of others.

However, spiritual bypassing can be overcome by engaging in honest self-examination, confronting one’s shadow aspects, acknowledging and expressing one’s feelings, seeking professional help if needed, and cultivating compassion and empathy for oneself and others. Here are some use-case examples of how spiritual bypassing has been overcome in the individual:

  • A person who used to meditate as a way of escaping from their anger and resentment towards their abusive parents realized that they were not healing from their trauma, but rather suppressing it. They decided to seek therapy and join a support group where they could share their story and process their emotions in a safe and supportive environment. They also learned to use meditation as a tool for mindfulness and self-awareness, rather than as a means of avoidance.
  • A person who used to believe that everything happens for a reason and that suffering is part of their karma learned to question their beliefs and examine how they were affecting their well-being and relationships. They realized that they were using their spirituality as a way of justifying their passivity and victimhood, rather than acting to improve their situation. They decided to take charge of their life and make positive changes, such as setting boundaries, pursuing their goals, and seeking help when needed. Also, they learned to accept that some things are beyond their control and that they can still find meaning and purpose in their life.
  • A person who used to judge others for not being spiritual enough or for having different beliefs realized that they were projecting their own insecurities and fears onto others. They decided to practice tolerance and respect for diversity, and to acknowledge that everyone has their own path and journey. They also learned to appreciate the value of different perspectives and experiences, and to listen and learn from others without imposing their views or expectations.
Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about spiritual bypassing, here are some weblinks that you can check out:

Spiritual Bypassing as a Defense Mechanism by Kendra Cherry, MSEd. This article explains what spiritual bypassing is, how to spot it, and why it can be harmful. It also provides some tips on how to avoid it and how to deal with it in yourself and others.

What Is Spiritual Bypassing? by Diana Raab, Ph.D. This article pays tribute to John Welwood, the psychotherapist who coined the term spiritual bypassing, and discusses how his work can help us understand and overcome this phenomenon. It also shares some examples of spiritual bypassing and how to address it in therapy.

Spiritual bypass by Wikipedia. This article gives a brief overview of the concept of spiritual bypassing, its origins, its criticisms, and its relation to other psychological concepts. It also lists some references and sources for further reading.

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