The Unhealthy Rhetoric of Spiritual Bypassing
“Everything happens for a reason.” “She’s in a better place.” Some of us find these kinds of statements helpful, but others of us shudder when we hear them, especially when paired with other spiritual language. In this blog post I plan to unwrap some of the dynamics of why the thing termed spiritual bypassing can be toxic and harmful to a lot of people even when the same techniques and phrases help others.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’ll be coming at this from the perspective of a preacher’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination who got a PhD in Communication and studies and teaches with a focus on how stress, trauma, connect to communication, especially conflict communication.
Communication as Situational and Varied
And yeah, having just taught the first two weeks of the semester in my undergrad gen ed classes, which involve the basics of how communication works, I’m struck again with how much of communication and whether it impacts us in a healthy or unhealthy way is so very situational and personal.
Applying These Principles!
This is so important when we look at statements like those I opened this article with. Take that old saw, “everything happens for a reason.”
Sure, These Positivity and Meaning Things CAN Help…And Yet…
The thing is, there’s a good reason people encourage us to search for meaning in things. After all, multiple stress and trauma researchers have reported that feeling like we have meaning and purpose in what we do helps reduce stress in humans.
Same with thinking positively. Same with gratitude.
So why, we may ask, might we ask people to be hesitant before jumping in with these kinds of phrases?
Context and Situation Is Everything—and Repressing Too Many Emotions Can Harm Us
Well, read back up with your eyes a few paragraphs and you’ll see it. What we need at any given time or in any given situation may not be the same as another person may need at another time and in another situation.
And yeah, while thinking positively, with gratitude, and finding meaning are all important ways to reduce stress, repression of emotions, especially negative emotions, can actually lead to disease (see Gabor Mate’s book When the Body Says No).
Again, We Need Both Things
Do we need some sort of meaning in our lives?
Is it healthy to always jump to exactly knowing what the meaning of everything might be right away, bypassing the opportunity to deal with any feels we may have about the lack of knowing?
So yeah. That one is a resounding no.
Because yeah, sure, it’s good to have meaning and gratitude. But it’s also important to deal with our negative emotions and doubts.
Both are true at once.
Grieving…And Dealing with Ambiguity
Same goes for “she’s in a better place.”
Let’s be clear: death and grief are hard to deal with. Especially since anyone who’s alive doesn’t really at the core know what may happen afterwards.
We just don’t.
So yeah, no matter how strong your faith is, the truth is that both things are possible at once when someone dies. Someone might be in a better place, and ALSO that’s a guess we have.
Again, Someone Being in a Better Place Doesn’t Mean We Won’t Have Loss
And even if they are in a better place, that fact doesn’t mean a person’s death isn’t likely to leave a lot of grief for those left behind.
It needs to be VERY OKAY for those left behind to deal with whatever emotions they have about that situation.
The Words Aren’t the Issue On Their Own
And let’s be clear: the problem with these kinds of statements isn’t that they on their own are problems.
The problem is when they are used for the unhealthy practice of spiritual bypassing for an individual, or as attempted enforcement of spiritual bypassing on another person.
Let’s Finally Define that Spiritual Bypassing Thing, Then
But yeah, I haven’t defined spiritual bypassing for you, have I? Let me do that, then.
Spiritual bypassing is a concept that explains the ways that people use their spirituality to repress negative emotions in themselves or others in unhealthy ways.
Back to Thinking about How Grief Works
And yeah, it’s maybe easiest to think of these in situations regarding grief, so let’s think about “she’s in a better place” more in depth.
Surely we can imagine all sorts of emotions that various people experience after a death.
We think about various responses grief, right? Some people are in total shock. Some are angry. Others even feel relieved. Some are so overwhelmed with all the emotions that they need some distance before they can deal with it. Others are busy joking because they’re not ready for the feels yet.
Different People, Different Needs for Support
Thinking about this situation, surely we can understand that different people might need different kinds of support, right?
The problem in these statements like “everything happens for a reason” and “she’s in a better place” isn’t that they aren’t helpful for some people at some times.
We Still Need to Reckon with the Damages that DO Occur When They Do
It’s the same as we’ve discussed with purity culture in a recent blog post. It’s not that purity culture messaging damages all people at all times.
BUT purity culture does do a lot of damage when it’s internalized in ways that hurt people. And that happens a lot.
Sometimes It’s Fine, But Also…
Same goes for these kinds of phrases. In the right place and time with the right person in the right situation, they can help people access their emotions, or distance themselves from them so they can deal with them later in appropriate ways, or feel comfort if they’ve already dealt with their feels.
The problems don’t come when that happens.
One Size (Weirdly–Nope, Not Really Weirdly) Never Fits All
The problems come when they are presumed to be “one size fits all” statements. When they are used to keep us from negative emotions as though the emotions themselves were threats (spoiler alert—they’re not. I’ve previously talked about things related to this in lots of places, especially here, here, and here).
When Spiritual Bypassing Becomes a God Term
And they are ESPECIALLY problems when they create whole subcultures in which people equate the use of these phrases to stay away from emotion as making them better than those who have different emotional experiences.
Emotional experiences that include feeling the feels in healthy ways.
Bypassing Questions of Injustice and Abuse as Well (Shocking, Eh?)
Oh, and hey, while we’re talking about unhealthy subcultures, I would be remiss, especially during #BlackHistoryMonth, to fail to bring up how cultures of spiritual bypassing often fail to allow discussions of injustice to actually work on them. From questions of white supremacy to toxic masculinity, patriarchy, to imperialism and heteronormativity, abuse, and so on and so forth, these cultures that suppress negative emotion also often tend to try to keep one or more of these or other issues of injustice under wraps as well.
Ouch, Worse When Someone Already Has Spiritual Trauma
And yeah, it’s especially also an issue when they are used to try to say that those who have been experienced spiritual trauma are somehow less important than those who do.
Talk about kicking those who are down.
Allergies to Spiritual Language and Phrases, For Good Reason
Think about it. There are people who have allergies to spiritual language for all sorts of good reasons.
And it’s great and all if you’ve found phrases like these a comfort at various times. But it’s soooo important to recognize that others may have allergies to just these phrases for all sorts of good reasons.
In those situations, maybe recognize that different kinds of social support may be needed.
Extending Hospitality to Those In Differing Audiences from You
Because yeah, what works for you may not work for them AT ALL.
So yeah, if we want to avoid hurting people with these kinds of phrases, it’s so important to learn to make space for all sorts of emotional needs in the equation.
Why It’s So Tempting to Jump to These Kinds of Phrases
The problem is, of course, that we often jump to these phrases with others because WE are uncomfortable with them having big feels.
And yeah, let’s be clear:It’s human that we all have limits in how much we can handle others’ big situations.
Learning to Tolerate The Big Uncertainties and Feelings of Ourselves and Others
But when we are, a simple authentic dwelling in the unknowing of how to deal with the big things together, in the mystery of the fact that some things are too big for us to handle easily, can itself be a helpful support.
Sometimes all we can do is recognize that some situations are too big for one size fits all statements. That sometimes our efforts to support may fail.
We Can Learn These Skills
But all of us can learn to get better at making space for different people to react differently, and to go through things differently than us.
And we can get better at learning to discern in ourselves as well as others when it’s unhealthy to repress emotions.
Learning These Skills Literally Helps All of Our Health
One thing’s for sure—it’s certainly not more “spiritual” to ignore them long term. When we don’t do that, we’re unfortunately likely to take them out on ourselves or others.
And that doesn’t contribute to anyone’s health, spiritual or physical.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap, and get better at choosing the right message for the right situation, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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4 thoughts on “The Unhealthy Rhetoric of Spiritual Bypassing”
One of my favorite books on this is “The Dave Test” by Frederick Schmidt where he challenges Christians to not work out their own discomfort on others. He refers to it as dropping the “stained glass language” and to quit “blowing smoke.” Thanks for your contribution to this very important issue.
Ooh, that sounds like a great read, Anjel! Thanks for the recommendation. Cheers, DS Leiter
Appreciate the definiton of Spiritual Bypassing. Was never quite sure how to explain it just knew it when was happening. I come from a background very similar to yours. So I felt relieved when you’ve described how the church style of communication really works. I wasn’t crazy after all. Thank you!
You were absolutely not crazy. I’m so glad to hear the post helped you! Cheers, DS Leiter