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Exploring Experts' Perspectives on Spiritual Bypass: a Conventional Content Analysis

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Abstract

Spiritual bypafssing is a term coined in 1984 by the psychologist and Buddhist practitioner John Welwood to define the use of spiritual practices and beliefs as a way of avoiding dealing with unresolved psychological issues. Despite the popular appeal of spirituality, little research exists about spiritual bypass. The purpose of this study was to explore the perspectives of experts with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical settings by conducing 10 semi-structured interviews. The results of the conventional content analysis yielded 63 codes that the authors clustered into 10 categories: (a) Exploring Client’s Spirituality, (b) Definition, (c) Symptoms, (d) Personality Traits and Life Experiences, (e) Causes, (f) Negative Consequences, (g) When Spiritual Bypass Is Not Unhealthy, (h) Ways to Treat, (i) Healthy Spirituality, and (j) Longevity. The study’s findings offer future researchers a broader view of the phenomenon of spiritual bypass, including its main symptoms, causes, and consequences and methods of treatment.
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Exploring Experts’ Perspectives on
Spiritual Bypass: a Conventional
Content Analysis
Gabriela Picciotto,
Email up201608739@fpce.up.pt
Jesse Fox,
Faculdade de Psicologia e de Ciências da Educação AQ1 ,Universidade do
Porto,Rua da Venezuela, 227, Hab. 2.302,4150-744 Porto,Portugal
Stetson University,DeLand,FL,USA
Abstract
Spiritual bypafssing is a term coined in 1984 by the psychologist and
Buddhist practitioner John Welwood to define the use of spiritual practices
and beliefs as a way of avoiding dealing with unresolved psychological
issues. Despite the popular appeal of spirituality, little research exists about
spiritual bypass. The purpose of this study was to explore the perspectives of
experts with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical
settings by conducing 10 semi-structured interviews. The results of the
conventional content analysis yielded 63 codes that the authors clustered into
10 categories: (a) Exploring Client’s Spirituality, (b) Definition, (c)
Symptoms, (d) Personality Traits and Life Experiences, (e) Causes, (f)
Negative Consequences, (g) When Spiritual Bypass Is Not Unhealthy, (h)
Ways to Treat, (i) Healthy Spirituality, and (j) Longevity. The study’s
findings offer future researchers a broader view of the phenomenon of
spiritual bypass, including its main symptoms, causes, and consequences and
methods of treatment.
Keywords
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Spiritual bypass
Spirituality
Counseling
Conventional content analysis
Psychology
The pleasure principle states that, as humans, we seek the immediate
gratification of desire; in other words, we tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain
(Freud 1952). The motivation to seek pleasure and avoid pain is well
documented throughout history, extending back to the ancient Greeks and their
philosophy of hedonism. The ways to avoid pain are of course diverse; they
include alcoholic, narcotic, erotic, intellectual, material, selfish, or spiritual
means (Masters 2010). Though they may be common ways to create an
anesthetic or analgesic effect, they end up catalyzing even more pain (Masters
2010).
Over the past several decades, spirituality has been studied as an important
aspect of human development (Beutler and Clarkin 1990; Fowler 1981), and a
considerable body of research has consistently demonstrated that there is a
positive association between spirituality and health (e.g., Koenig 2012; Larson
et al. 2000; Pargament et al. 1998). Because of this upward trend, scholars have
focused on ways spirituality can be incorporated in counseling. Examples of
this are the publications of Cashwell and Young (2011), Maher and Hunt
(1993), Miller (2003), Parker (2011), Pargament (2007), and Richards and
Bergin (2005).
AQ2
Although counselors consider their clients’ spiritual practices and beliefs as
potential resources for improving their physical and mental health, the shadow
side of spirituality is often overlooked (Welwood 2000). In this regard, an area
that has still received limited attention within the clinical and psychological
literature is the issue of spiritual bypass (Cashwell et al. 2004), which is defined
as the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with painful
feelings, unresolved wounds, or uncomfortable issues (Welwood 2000).
Although the term spiritual bypassing was first used in the 1980s, few scientific
studies have explored this phenomenon. Among published works, there is a
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shortage of research focused on analyzing the perspective of counselors on how
to identify and treat spiritual bypass with clients. To address the lack of existing
literature, the current study focused on exploring the perspectives of experts
with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical settings in order
to describe spiritual bypass and its main symptoms, causes, and consequences
and methods of treatment. First, a description of spiritual bypass is presented,
followed by the study itself based on a conventional content analysis of 10
semi-structured individual interviews. A thorough understanding of how experts
with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical settings explore
the phenomenon of spiritual bypass and work with their clients can provide
scholars a solid foundation for designing studies that will assist in the creation
of assessment tools for spiritual bypass, measuring its main negative
consequences, and establishing parameters of treatment.
Spiritual bypass
The term spiritual bypassing was coined by the psychologist and Buddhist
practitioner John Welwood in 1984 to address the use of spiritual practices and
beliefs to avoid dealing with unresolved personal or emotional issues. Later,
Charles Whitfield (1987, 1995, 2003), a medical doctor and psychotherapist
who specialized in trauma, addiction recovery, and co-dependence, also used
the term. According to Whitfield (2003), spiritual bypass refers to a condition in
which an individual tries to avoid or bypass necessary work on the
psychological plane by jumping directly to the spiritual plane. The concept of
spiritual bypass was also referred to by Harris (1994) as “premature
transcendence” and “high level of negation” as a way of denoting this common
way in which clients attempt to skip over necessary steps in their spiritual
development.
AQ3
Spiritual bypass usually occurs when a person adopts the polarized thinking that
“human” issues are unimportant, eventually neglecting relationships and other
day-to-day aspects of life as a result of spiritual bypass (Sovatsky 1998).
Consequently, spiritual exercises and disciplines may be compartmentalized,
creating a gap between the sophistication of the spiritual practice and the
individual’s level of personal development (Welwood 2000). In short, spiritual
bypass serves an avoidance function; it allows the individual to avoid the often
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difficult and painful psychological work of healing old wounds (Cashwell et al.
2010). The main symptoms of spiritual bypass listed in the literature are
emotional alienation and repression; excessive detachment; too much emphasis
on the positive side of development; blind or overly tolerant compassion;
minimization or negation of one’s own shadow; illusions about one’s own
awakening; viewing everything, including suffering, as illusory as a way to
escape from suffering; disregarding the personal or mundane; and exaggerating
certain aspects of development (Cashwell et al. 2004; Masters 2010). Because it
is a form of escape, spiritual bypass eventually makes possible the
manifestation of a series of negative consequences such as an exaggerated need
to control others and the self, shame, fear, dichotomous thinking, emotional
confusion, high tolerance of inappropriate behaviors, co-dependency, and pain
(Welwood 1984, 2000). Other negative consequences of spiritual bypass would
be obsession or addiction, a blind belief in charismatic teachers, spiritual
materialism (the use of spiritual practice for material gain), and abdication of
personal responsibility (Cashwell et al. 2004). Finally, spiritual bypass
compromises long-term spiritual well-being because it leaves the process of
spiritual development incomplete (Cashwell et al. 2007).
Method
The purpose of this study was to better understand the perspectives of experts
with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical settings
regarding the characterization of spiritual bypass and to identify how they
usually treat clients who are experiencing this phenomenon. To accomplish the
aims of this study, five central research questions were developed. Each
research question is listed here, followed by sample interview questions in
parentheses:
How do experts with a background in working with spiritual bypass in
clinical settings explore the beliefs and spiritual practices of their clients?
(How do you explore the spiritual beliefs and practices of your clients?)
How do experts define the phenomenon of spiritual bypass? (How would
you define spiritual bypass? What are usually the main symptoms of
spiritual bypass? Do you believe there are any personality traits,
characteristics, or life experiences that make people more likely to have a
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predisposition for spiritual bypass?)
In the experts’ view, what are the main causes and consequences of
spiritual bypass? (What are the possible causes of spiritual bypass?)
How do experts treat spiritual bypass, and what would they consider a
definition of healthy spirituality? (What approaches do you usually use to
treat clients who are experiencing spiritual bypass? In your view, what is
the path to healthy spiritual development and practice?)
What is the origin of spiritual bypass and its historical evolution? (Do you
believe spiritual bypassing has always been present in society? Do you
notice any evolution of the phenomenon in recent decades? If so, for what
reasons?)
Sample
This study used a sample of 10 experts. The identification of these experts was
based on articles, chapters, and books focused on the phenomenon of spiritual
bypass. First, all authors who had written scientific articles, chapters, or books,
and those who had been mentioned in other authors’ publications as experts in
the subject, were selected. Finally, 13 experts with a background in working
with spiritual bypass in clinical settings were identified and invited to
participate in the study. Out of the sample of 13 experts contacted, 10 agreed to
participate in the study (N=10; 8 males and 2 females). All 10 interviewees
currently reside and work professionally in the United States.
Data collection and analysis
Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted with the experts. Each interview
was conducted by videoconference, lasted approximately one hour, and was
recorded in video and audio and later transcribed. The interviews were analyzed
using conventional content analysis (CCA; Hsieh and Shannon 2005). CCA is
usually used in studies that focus on exploring a phenomenon when the
existence of theoretical literature or research on the phenomenon is limited. In
this way, researchers use inductive logic, avoiding imposing any categorical
system of data interpretation (Hsieh and Shannon 2005). In addition, the CCA
offers researchers the ability to give their findings theoretical cohesion, which
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may potentially inform the direction of future research and substantiate future
findings (Fox et al. 2015).
The analysis of the data began with the principal investigator (Picciotto)
reading each of the transcribed interviews to immerse herself in the experience
of the experts and to get a sense of the whole phenomenon. Next, the principal
investigator read each of the interviews again, taking notes on her first
impressions, thoughts, and initial analyses, and then developed codes for each
unit of meaning identified. Definitions were developed for each of the codes
that were later grouped into clusters of related meanings to develop categories.
The categories were also defined to clarity their meaning. A peer debriefer
(Fox) audited the process by reviewing the research methodology, the coding
process, and the proposed revisions to the codes or categories.
Threats to validity and verification strategies
According to Hsieh and Shannon (2005), a potential weakness of CCA is that it
can fail to provide adequate context for the phenomenon investigated and
therefore overlook key categories. To ameliorate this potential threat to validity,
we followed Creswell’s (2013) recommendation that all qualitative research
should incorporate at least two forms of verification into its methodology. In the
present investigation, we included positionality, investigator triangulation, data
triangulation, peer debriefing, and thick, rich description.
Findings
The CCA analysis yielded 63 codes, all of which are defined in Table 1. Each
code was reanalyzed in context, and all codes were grouped into ten categories.
The ten categories are (a) Exploring Client’s Spirituality, (b) Definition, (c)
Symptoms, (d) Personality Traits and Life Experiences, (e) Causes, (f) Negative
Consequences, (g) When Spiritual Bypass Is Not Unhealthy, (h) Ways to Treat,
(i) Healthy Spirituality, and (j) Longevity. Each of the categories is described
below and provided with thick, rich descriptions, using examples from the
transcripts to clarify their meaning.
AQ4
Exploring Client’s Spirituality
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The first category, Exploring Client’s Spirituality, is defined as “ways used by
counselors to understand client’s spirituality.” The category captures the ways
in which experts usually explore their clients’ spiritual practices and beliefs
during therapy. Two distinct ways of exploration were identified. The first, used
by most of the experts interviewed, is asking questions during the intake, which
consists of the counselor asking questions related to spirituality during the
intake in order to have an overview of the role of spiritual beliefs and practices
in the life of the client. According to the answers and degree of interest of the
client in the subject, the counselor might follow up with more in-depth
questions. One of the participants said: “Well, in the intake on the first session,
I ask clients about their spiritual worldview, and about their family background,
if their family has a particular religion or orientation, if there was a particular
spiritual lineage they were brought up in. ..”
The second way is by using incomplete sentences through which the counselor
initiates a sentence directed to a particular subject, in this specific case directly
related to spirituality, and asks the client to finish the sentence. As one
participant said,
I like to use incomplete sentences . . . so I’m working with
someone else and wait for them to finish my sentences. Those
might be like: “What right now I’m feeling . . .”, “What I wish is
. . .,” and after a number of sentences I get fairly deep and they
might say something like: “What my spiritual beliefs are . . .” or
“What I hold to be sacred is . . .” and related things, like “What I
assume happens when I die is . . .” or “I feel most connected to
the source of things when . . .” I just make them up for each
person! And I see if that is in their way, if it supports the work
and what I want to know.
Definition
The next category identified is called Definition, and it represents an
“explanation of the meaning of spiritual bypass.” That is, all the meanings that
the experts interviewed gave for spiritual bypass were codified here. Five
different codes were found to define this phenomenon. Regarding the first,
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using spirituality to avoid something, the participants described spiritual bypass
as the use of spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with psychological
issues or trauma, relationship difficulties, emotional hassles, and developmental
tasks. One participant said: “It’s the use of spiritual beliefs and practices to
avoid, it’s the big word, it’s ‘avoid!’ to avoid dealing with relationship
difficulties, emotional hassles, challenges, developmental tasks. .. so basically
it’s ‘avoidance in spiritual robes.’”
The second code in this category is called self-defense and justification and
captures the meaning of spiritual bypass as the use of spiritual ideas and beliefs
in self-defense and as justification for acting on impulses. As one of the experts
said,
I think spiritual bypass is using spiritual ideas and beliefs into as
self-defense . . . sort of the old super ego substitutes the “old
shoulds” for “new spiritual shoulds”! It’s the same basic process
. . . it’s still holding down impulses that want to come up and so
it’s a defensive process . . . It can also be used, I think, as a way
to justify . . . But rather than holding vessels, it can be a
justification for releasing impulses! For example, Islamic
terrorism uses a system to justify murder and terrorism.
The third code is overall preference for or privileging of spiritual realities,
which defines spiritual bypass as the polarization of spiritual practices as
superior and psychological or physical work as inferior. One of the participants
said,
The way that I would define spiritual bypass is kind of an
overall preference for spiritual privileges or basic realities and
so it’s more about how people tend to take on that kind of
unconscious presupposition of how reality works in relation to
what they call spiritual.
The fourth identified code was spiritual development illusion in which spiritual
bypass is defined by the fact that the person believes they are at a level of
spiritual development superior to their actual level. As one expert reported:
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It’s the personal experience of someone that believes he or she is
in a particular spiritual stage of development that he or she isn’t!
So the perception, the meaning of certain experiences are kind
of dyed by the experience or belief that they are in a certain
stage and . . . being blind, basically to their own reality, you
know, it’s just too based on self-assessment. And there’s ego
inflation that happens because of that.
Finally, the last code, spiritual bypass as a four-category definition, subdivides
spiritual bypass into four facets: (1) normal bypass, (2) states-driven bypass, (3)
problematic bypass, and (4) narcissistic bypass. Normal bypass is related to
developmental models and posits that we all go through some kind of bypass
during our spiritual development. Thus, this form of spiritual bypass may not be
problematic but just an expression of where we are:
One of them is more influenced by developmental models. . . So
my understanding of the stages is that the stages have only
certain capacities, and one of those capacities is the ability to let
go of what we might call certain kinds of wishful thinking or
self-deception or beliefs which are not grounded in experience
but that those beliefs naturally arise during stages, so sometimes
when people that sound like a spiritual bypass it’s really not a
problem, it’s just an expression of where they are in their
development, and it may not be something that one would need
to challenge.
States-driven bypass involves the experience of spiritual states and the mental
and functional disturbances that these can cause in the life of an individual,
which one of the participants described as follows:
This is very specific for when people are going through periods
of very intense either spiritual opening or spiritual emergency,
whatever you want to call it . . . and they’re so what I would call
neurologically overwhelmed, just by the states coming, and
they’re so compelling that everything else gets put on the side.
So when somebody’s going through that kind of thing, they
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typically push other things aside, but that actually needs to
happen so it’s not a problem, it’s only a problem if people stay
past the point and that can be, you know, months, it could be a
couple of years, it could be longer in theory.
A problematic bypass, in turn, would correspond to the previous code using
spirituality to avoid something. One of the experts said,
I’d call problematic bypass, and this is more when people have a
lot of spiritual beliefs, they are really using those to push away
serious psychological issues, it’s not because they’re going into
super high states all the time and are compelled by that, they
have to set up their life . . . either consciously or unconsciously
to avoid.
On the other hand, in narcissistic bypass there is a melding within the person of
strong narcissistic tendencies with spiritual ideas, beliefs, or experiences, as
stated by one of the participants:
People with narcissistic personality disorder or features do have
basically moved into the spiritual world as a way to
communicate their narcissism. . . . Some of them may have
authentic spiritual experiences; some of them may just be
speaking about it in a convincing way . . . I’ve seen both! But in
either case, the problem is more that the structure of their
personality is very out of touch with the whole set of basic core
emotions and feelings so it’s almost like a separation, like there
are two layers of them and they cannot see that lower layer, so
that’s a harder situation.
Symptoms
The category of Symptoms encompasses “the main symptoms of spiritual
bypass.” This category possesses more unique codes than any other category:
16 in total. One of the symptoms frequently identified by the participants was
emotional dissociation, described as the disconnection of the individual from
their emotional life or great difficulty getting in touch with their own emotions.
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Relatedly, another identified symptom was anger phobia, which is the fear of
becoming angry. The third code identified in this category was intellectual
dissociation, in which there is a transition to reason and the person avoids
uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. One participant
described this as “intellectual dissociation, with the cognitive intelligence often
being far ahead of moral and emotional intelligence.” Another symptom
described was minimizing or denying our shadow side and negativity, which
would be a superficial acceptance or nonacceptance of the shadow or the
negative side of humanity. The fifth code, closely aligned with the previously
reported symptom, was of overemphasis of the positive, in which an unrealistic
emphasis of the positive side of situations occurs.
Following this, a series of symptoms related to interpersonal competencies was
identified. As a sixth code, relationship problems was described by the
respondents as difficulty in engaging in relationships, not being open, available,
or believing that they can engage in a relationship, or idealizing a relationship
as possible only with an ideal spiritual partner. Another symptom described was
sexuality dysfunction in which the person exerts their sexuality in an unhealthy
way by practicing forms of polyamory or completely avoiding any type of
sexual relationships. The eighth code identified was avoidance of toxic people,
in which the individual avoids contact with people whom they judge to be
nonspiritual or toxic or with whom they have painful or strained relationships.
Next, the category of narcissism and grandiosity in the spiritual domain
describes a person who acts as if they are spiritually superior to others, the
owner of reason, and the holder of all the answers; the only one who knows and
who sees beyond. As a tenth code, the experts reported that blind following is
based on the creation of a blind belief in charismatic or cult-like leaders. The
next symptom, blind compassion, denoted an exaggerated tolerance or
undiscriminating attempt at caring through which the individual ends up being
overly permissive. Much in line with this code is the fear of confrontation, in
which a person attempts to not disappoint others; the person is afraid to put up a
barrier, to challenge, to disagree, or to confront.
The thirteenth category code was the avoidance of responsibilities, which was
defined as the individual’s tendency to avoid responsibility (such as dealing
with work or money) by not taking their career seriously or making long-term
financial plans. The next code, magical thinking, describes a mixture of
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superstition, perception of illusory connections, conflation of correlation with
causation, wishful thinking, and awaiting divine intervention instead of taking
personal responsibility. One participant said:
That’s the type of thinking that’s common to young children!
Where they literally assume that they’re walking along and the
sun seem to be always over their left shoulder, the sun’s
following them! We know it’s not true, but for them it seems
true! And a lot of adults will engage in magical thinking when
they’re in severe pain, crisis, a dear one has died—they start to
think magically, like, if I only place the shoes in the right part of
the house, maybe my dead partner will return!
Finally, in the last code of this category, disconnection from the body, the
person loses intimacy with their own body, including a certain disdain for the
physical body and lacks grounding in the body.
Personality Traits and Life Experiences
The category of Personality Traits and Life Experiences refers to those codes
that are clustered under the definition “some personality traits and life
experiences that can increase the predisposition for spiritual bypass.” Seven
codes were identified in this category; five are related to personality traits and
two to life experiences. The first code identified was the attachment person,
which refers to individuals with an unhealthy attachment pattern (i.e., children
who had breaks from their primary caregiver resulting in unmitigated pain,
abuse, neglect, or other ways in which they did not have their needs met that
subsequently impaired their ability to develop healthy emotional attachments).
These individuals tend to be more prone to engage in spiritual bypass. In this
category, co-dependency was identified to illustrate that individuals with an
excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity tend to
be more prone to engage in spiritual bypass. As one participant said:
I think co-dependency can be a factor, so again if we’re talking
about recovery if somebody doesn’t really have a sense of self
and they’re coming into a 12-steps program, and someone says
to them “You’re just being selfish and self-centered and you
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need to pray about it,” they are going to take that direction on
wholesale and not really be able to unpack some of the subtleties
and what it means to both have all of their feelings and have a
spiritual practice. When I’ve seen it be pretty devastating is
when people don’t have a solid sense of themselves.
The third code in this category is neuroticism, which means that people who
score high on neuroticism (who are more emotionally reactive and vulnerable to
stress) in the Big Five personality traits tend to have a higher predisposition to
spiritually bypass. In relation to the fourth code, openness (which is also a
reference to the Big Five), there was some divergence of opinion among the
interviewees. Some reported a higher incidence of spiritual bypass among
people who score both high and low in openness (appreciation for art, emotion,
adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience). The last code
related to personality traits is obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCD),
which implies that people with personality features consistent with OCD may
be more predisposed to spiritual bypass. One of the participants said:
People who have the tendency to OCD where the perfection is
so important, you know, I always talk to my clients about the
realm of the gods and that we all are human beings, so that we
all love the gods, it’s perfect, right? Everything makes sense, it’s
meaningful, it’s organized, you know? There are like several of
them taking care of things. . . . So I always ask them, like,
“What you’re talking about is from the realm of the gods or the
human beings?” If you’re aiming at becoming one, you know,
that’s . . . your choice. . . . And most likely, you know, you’re
going to still be a human being, welcome to that realm of
messiness, you know? So the idealistic mind, the one who just,
like, looks into perfection, is the one that suffers.”
Regarding life experiences, the first code identified was trauma survivors,
which implies a greater tendency to engage in spiritual bypass among people
who have experienced very difficult situations with a high level of pain or
trauma during their life journey. The seventh code, growing up in a non-
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conducive environment, can increase the tendency to spiritual bypass, as
described in the following example by one of the participants:
. . . people who grow up in non-conducive environments either
from low socioeconomic status or parents who might be
addicted or . . . you know, something like that, I think there’s a
possibility that they might learn, you know, how to engage in
spiritual bypass.
Causes
Next, the category Causes was identified, which captures in the view of the
interviewees “the possible reasons why people experience spiritual bypass.”
Participants brought up five possible causes. First, the issue of avoidance of
pain was addressed, which refers to a person’s low tolerance of facing, dealing
with, and working through pain and things that hurt as a possible cause for
spiritual bypass. One of the participants said:
Probably just, I think, a natural avoidance of things that hurt.
That is totally natural, and to some extent normal. We have
diagnostic labels for people who consistently do things to hurt
themselves or hurt others. It is natural to avoid something
painful, but when that avoidance is really stifling to one’s
growth, the avoidance itself has to be addressed.
A second possible cause, a defensive structure, referred to ways in which a
person’s defensive structure and the consequent use of defense mechanisms
could cause the phenomenon of spiritual bypass. The third code,
religious/spiritual leaders and communities, described the negative influence or
lack of psychological knowledge of religious or spiritual leaders or
communities as possible causes for spiritual bypass, as illustrated by the
following quotation from one of the participants:
I do think that sometimes religious leaders in religious
communities . . . I consider myself both religious and spiritual
so I’m not “religion bashing” here, I think there are many, many
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good things that happen in religious communities, but I do think
there are sometimes where it’s encouraged by leadership in
religious communities . . . the example that I often give when
I’m talking to students about it, for example, is you experience a
death in your immediate family or some very close friend and
sometimes the religious community will say, for example, in a
Christian community, which is where I practice, will say, “Don’t
be sad, he or she is going to a better place and they’re not
suffering anymore.” And you know, my belief system tells me
that that’s completely accurate, that that is true . . . but I’m not
sad because they’re not here anymore, I’m sad because I miss
them and I long for them and I’m grieving for that and so
psychologically being sad is perfectly right!
Another identified cause was receiving “wrong” messages in which receiving
strong messages around self-worth or psychological misinformation that it is
not okay to feel anger, sadness, fear, or shame can cause spiritual bypass. The
last code in this category is the lack of time or social context conditions for
spiritual development, in which a possible cause of spiritual bypass would be
that the individual does not live in an environment or social context that
encourages their spiritual growth and therefore sabotages their spiritual
development.
Negative Consequences
The next category, Negative Consequences, denoted “the possible negative
effects or outcomes of spiritual bypass.” Eight negative consequences were
coded. The first, getting stuck, happens when a person stays paralyzed, does not
know what to do, feels lost, and ends up going in circles or not evolving. One of
the participants said, “We stay stuck; we don’t evolve! We go in circles and we
rise above that without ever having faced things! And we miss so much when
we do that! We miss life, like we’re in a bubble!” In line with the first code, not
growing spiritually captures cases when a person does not evolve and remains
young and even immature in terms of their spiritual life. Connected to the first
two negative consequences, blindness denotes when a person lacks the capacity
for self-awareness and ends up losing contact and access to the self, which is
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illustrated in this quotation from one of the participants:
One of the negative consequences is that they sort of have these
blinders on where they can’t see outside of “this is the route, this
is where I have to do, this is how I get there,” and they lose
access to everything to the left or the right of that, which means
they also lose access to themselves.
The fourth code identified in this category, staying immature, is linked to the
previously described symptom of magical thinking, the consequence in this case
being that the person does not grow cognitively and stays stuck in childish
illusions of magical thinking.
The final negative consequences identified are consequences that not only
directly affect the person who is experiencing spiritual bypass but that also
affect others in their social circle. The first, suffering and causing unnecessary
suffering, captures instances of suffering caused by spiritual bypass, which can
vary in intensity depending on how significant the issues are that are faced by
the person. One participant said:
People continue to just suffer unnecessarily . . . and they cause
unnecessary suffering, and that can be smaller or more intense,
it depends on how significant the issues that they have are or
how deep the problems are. . . . So yeah, that sounds like a
simple answer, but it’s just the whole range, it can be the whole
range! I mean, all the way to the point where . . . you know, I
talked to a guy the other day who has done a lot of spiritual
practice but he’s been suicidal for, you know, a couple of years.
Another consequence, not taking care of their relationships and families, refers
to people who tend to devote so much time to their spiritual practices and
beliefs that they end up not devoting enough quality time to their relationships
and families. Similarly, disconnection describes a difficulty connecting with
others, possibly negatively affecting their empathic attunement with other
people. Finally, the last negative consequence is preying on other people’s
indecision and avoidance, and this denotes instances where people or
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institutions take advantage of the vulnerability and stagnancy of people who
spiritually bypass by selling products and services that often exacerbate their
spiritual bypass.
When Spiritual Bypass is Not Unhealthy
In spite of the several negative consequences listed, the participants also
identified times when spiritual bypass was not problematic or could even be
necessary to coping or survival. The category When Spiritual Bypass Is Not
Unhealthy was defined as “times when spiritual bypass has no negative
consequences and can be useful or even necessary to someone’s development.”
In this category, two distinct codes were identified. The first, natural step of
spiritual development, captures the belief of some experts that spiritual bypass
can manifest as a natural step in our spiritual development and that practically
everyone who embraces a spiritual journey ends up experiencing some type of
bypass. As one participant said:
I think that probably all of us have gone through spiritual bypass
in our spiritual development and are still kind of . . . I imagine it
can be part of a normal spiritual development to get fascinated
for example with that particular belief and then just, you know,
put all of you to make that . . .
The second code, short-term coping strategy, describes the use of spiritual
bypass as something useful for coping with high stress or difficult situations for
a short period of time. One of the experts said:
It is just like any other psychological defense mechanism; it
serves an adaptive function. And so we don’t put psychological
defense mechanisms in that category—they’re all bad! We
actually put them in the category of “they are good for certain
points of life.” But they all tend to outrun their usefulness and
they become maladaptive. So I think the same is true for
spiritual bypass in that it can serve in an adaptive function,
especially when people are in trauma.
Ways to Treat
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The category Ways to Treat is defined as “ways in which counselors work with
clients experiencing spiritual bypass.” Eight codes were identified in this
category. The first code, empowerment-base model, described a client
autonomy-based model in which one explores the client’s goals for counseling
and helps them perceive what is working so that they can develop the skills and
capacity to gain control over their life. The second code, existential approach,
views the tendency to avoid what is painful and the fact that suffering will not
go away on its own as existential givens and is based on what the person wants
to achieve. The third method of treatment is to stay sensitive to the purpose that
spiritual bypass serves by understanding what purpose the bypass is serving in
the client’s life. One of the participants said:
I try to stay sensible to what purpose it is serving in their life. So
if it’s serving an adaptive function now they might be in too
much pain to really be able to look at that coping skill. Is it
outliving its usefulness? So I try to put it in the context of the
relationship that I have with them.
The fourth code, empathetic approach, denotes putting yourself in the client’s
shoes, being empathetic, connecting with them, and finding their language.
The fifth code, customized to each category, is related to the spiritual bypass
code as a four-category definition identified under the Definition category
above. Normal bypass does not need to be treated because it is an aspect of
spiritual development that is to be expected. States-driven bypass is treated by
talking about the psychological experiences of the client and using supportive
interventions. Problematic bypass treatment is focused on helping the person
realize that they are experiencing spiritual bypass and dealing with the
psychological problems that lie beneath it. Lastly, narcissistic bypass should be
treated as narcissism in general. The sixth code, customized to each client,
captures the belief that each client should be treated with a unique and
customized treatment plan. One participant said, “So it’s a unique journey for
me with each person. I have a unique therapy for each person, each session; I
make it up each time!” The seventh code, as other defenses, describes treating
spiritual bypass in the same way other psychological defenses are treated in the
therapeutic process. Finally, the eighth code, helping the client connect to the
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self, describes the use of various therapeutic techniques that support the client
to have a deeper contact with their self.
Healthy Spirituality
The ninth category, Healthy Spirituality, represents all the codes clustered under
“the path for healthy spiritual development and practice.” Seven codes were
identified in this category. The first code, paying attention to different areas of
life and dimensions of the self, denotes a path to healthy spiritual development
that consists of seeking to be attentive and working the different areas of life
and being, such as work, relationships, health, and emotions. One participant
said, “Develop yourself in all the realms that you are! In all the dimensions,
like, develop yourself physically, mentally, psychologically, intellectually.” The
second code, possibility of connecting with their emotional world, posits that
the path to a healthy spiritual life exists when a person’s spiritual practices and
beliefs enable them to connect with their emotions. The third code is doing
psychological work, in which the participants believed that the path to a healthy
spirituality would be in the conjugation of spiritual practice with therapeutic
work. One of the participants reported,
We have to put ourselves in therapeutic practices that address
these issues and then we have to put ourselves maybe in spiritual
practices . . . so people who only do psychology or therapy
sometimes just get so caught up in trying to solve everything
that way. . . . And then people who only do spirituality are much
more likely to bypass, people who do both are going to get
closer to the center! So I think it’s that cross.
The fourth code in this category is greater compassion and self-compassion,
which defines healthy spirituality as a path that brings one to a place of
compassion for oneself and others. The fifth identified code is called Dharma,
Sangha, and Buddha and refers to the path of healthy spirituality as the
conjunction of having a set of values, a group of people, or a community to
become a part of and to serve as a standard. Similar to the previous code, the
seventh code identified is community and guidance, which refers to the fact that
the individual has a support group and environment or a person who plays the
role of mentor, guide, or spiritual teacher. The final code in this category is
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involvement with the world, in which the path to a healthy spirituality would be
spiritual practices that would help the individual to engage in the real world
with real people.
Longevity
The last category identified was Longevity, which was defined as “how long
spiritual bypass has been present in society.” In this category, the participants
provided three different views expressed in the following three codes. The first,
for centuries, captured the belief that spiritual bypass is something that has been
present in the lives of human beings for centuries. As one of the participants
said, “Ever since human beings gained self-awareness, their sentience along
with that blossomed with the desire to avoid what’s painful and lie to ourselves
for temporary relief. So this is as old as self-awareness. It goes with it.” The
second code, more prevalent in the last 50 to 75 years, defined the belief that
spiritual bypass has existed for a long time but has become more prevalent in
the last 50 or 75 years. One of the interviewees said,
I mean, first of all, we weren’t talking about spiritual bypass 50
or 75 years ago at all! It just wasn’t out there. . . . And you
know, there is kind of . . . I think we have the luxury in more
modern society of more people doing more psychological work.
Finally, the third code, more recent, reflects the view of those who believe
spiritual bypass is a more recent phenomenon, as the following quote from one
of the experts illustrates:
I think that traditional society produced much more stable lives.
. . . because the rules were so set and determined by class or sex
or ethnicity or religion. So no one is really making a lot of
choices and I think that . . . therefore there’s probably a lot of
“expectable bypass” but probably not a lot of the complexity
that leads to the “problematic bypass.” Also, there’s probably
not as many people doing intense spiritual practice and living in
the world, you know, they don’t have access to those teachings,
they were often highly guarded, people didn’t read so you
couldn’t pick up a card toll, you know, in your bookstore and
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learn some of the deepest teachings.
Discussion
The purpose of this study was to explore the perspectives of experts with a
background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical settings. In short, 63
codes in 10 categories describing spiritual bypass were identified. We will now
discuss the findings in the context of the research questions before addressing
the implications of the data. Then, some preliminary explanations and
hypotheses related to the findings will be provided.
First, we asked the sample of participants, “How do experts with a background
in spiritual bypass in clinical settings explore the beliefs and spiritual practices
of their clients?” In general, the experts used the intake to begin the exploration
of the topic through questions that allowed them to understand the role of
spiritual practices and beliefs in the client’s life or to explore such practices and
beliefs in their client’s spiritual journey. For example, some used incomplete
sentence exercises to explore the process and functions of spirituality.
According to the information obtained and the client’s interest in the subject,
the counselor might or might not ask more in-depth questions.
Next, we posed the following question: “How do the experts characterize
spiritual bypass?” From this line of questioning, we explored how the
participants defined spiritual bypass and the main symptoms and personality
traits or life experiences that would make a person more predisposed to
experience the phenomenon. Some responses were very much in line with the
existing literature, such as the view of spiritual bypass as the use of spiritual
beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with psychological issues or trauma,
relationship difficulties, emotional hassles, and developmental tasks (see
Welwood 2000), privileging the spiritual over the psychological (see Whitfield
2003), and understanding that spiritual bypass could be defined as a state in
which the person wrongly believes that they have attained a certain level of
spiritual development (i.e., premature transcendence; Harris 1994). Adding to
this body of knowledge, the most complex definition of spiritual bypass we
discovered in our findings divided the phenomenon into four distinct categories.
This definition incorporated the previous definitions but distinguished them
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according to causes and symptoms, which may help either in the identification
of the phenomenon or in providing more appropriate forms of treatment.
Another interesting aspect that emerged from our findings in this regard was
that spiritual bypass is not always something problematic but can be seen as a
natural phase of spiritual development or even as adaptive, as a coping strategy.
Regarding symptoms, the findings revealed 16 principle symptoms of the
phenomenon, adding context and nuance to the existing literature not only in
the quantity but also in the quality of the descriptions. Concerning personality
traits and life experiences that predispose people to spiritual bypass, the experts
identified five personality traits and two themes related to life experience,
which offer interesting material for a better understanding of the phenomenon
as it can help identify the predisposition for spiritual bypass and also
understand its origin.
The third research question we posed was, “In the experts’ view, what are the
main causes and consequences of spiritual bypass?” The causes experts
discussed were in line with the existing literature (Welwood 2000). From their
viewpoint, spiritual bypass arose from avoiding pain and the natural use of
defense mechanisms. However, other causes were noted that are less common in
the scholarly literature, including the influence of communities and religious
leaders, receiving strong messages about self-worth that may encourage the
development of low self-esteem, and living in environments or social contexts
that are not conducive to spiritual development. Understanding such causes may
help clinicians to more effectively address spiritual bypass. With respect to
negative consequences, the findings would indicate that spiritual bypass, in
general, can disrupt both the spiritual and psychological development of the
individual and consequently negatively affect the individual as well as people in
their social circles.
The fourth research question was, “How do experts treat spiritual bypass and
what would they consider a definition of healthy spirituality?” Regarding
treatment methods, experts noted several viable options. In general there is no
definite strategy for treating all cases of spiritual bypass; rather, the therapeutic
technique needs to be tailored to the individual client, echoing the wisdom of
Gordon Paul’s (1967) question, “What treatment, by whom, is most effective for
this individual with that specific problem, and under which set of
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circumstances?” (p. 111). Concerning the definition of healthy spirituality, the
responses were multidimensional, including paying attention to all dimensions
of one’s own being and areas of life, the possibility of contact with one’s
emotions, doing psychological work in parallel with spiritual work, being in a
place of compassion for yourself and for others, and being able to combine
three things—a set of values, standards, and belonging to a community—to
have the support of a guide or group and involvement in the real world. The
answers to this topic are interesting in the way that they enable people to seek a
balance in their spiritual lives and avoid spiritual bypassing.
Finally, the last question was, “What is the origin of spiritual bypass and its
historical evolution?” The answers to this question were the most varied. Some
of the experts believed that the phenomenon has been present for hundreds of
years; others believed that although it has been present for many years, it has
become more prevalent in the last 50 or 75 years. Some viewed it as a more
recent phenomenon.
Clinical implications
As noted earlier, counselors should be able to assess the role that spiritual
practices and beliefs have in relation to the therapeutic issues of their clients,
which includes knowing how to identify, contextualize, and treat spiritual
bypass. The current study has provided relevant information to help counselors
understand in greater depth the phenomenon of spiritual bypass, to have a better
understanding of its symptoms, causes, consequences, and forms of treatment,
presenting results that add content to the previously published literature. The
study showed that there are still no parameters for its treatment. In addition, the
creation of assessment tools for spiritual bypass would help counselors to
identify the phenomenon in their clients.
Limitations and implications for future research
The limitations of this study are threefold. All qualitative research is inherently
limited by the fact that its findings cannot be generalized to people who were
not included in the study sample. In addition, the sample was demographically
homogeneous; it only included experts living in the United States. Thus, we do
not know whether the experience of spiritual bypass is the same in the rest of
the world. In addition, the study only examined the views of experts who treat
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patients and not those who have experienced spiritual bypass themselves.
Although the study brings important content to the exploration of the
phenomenon, it is still only a partial view.
With regard to future research, we suggest that three types of studies be
considered. The first of these would be to apply similar research but with a
sample of experts with a background in working with spiritual bypass in clinical
settings living in other countries to get a more global perspective of spiritual
bypass. The second study could involve qualitatively analyzing the phenomenon
of spiritual bypass based on firsthand experience. And finally, based upon the
findings from these two lines of inquiry, it is suggested that quantitative
research be conducted to investigate the psychological development of the
individuals and the experience of spiritual bypass using variables such as
symptoms, causes, personality traits, and negative consequences of spiritual
bypass discovered in these investigations.
Conclusion
The research to date focused on the phenomenon of spiritual bypass using the
methods of the social sciences is insufficient. This study examined the
perspectives of experts with a background in working with spiritual bypass in
clinical settings and provides a good description of its phenomenology from
their perspectives. The findings obtained provided substantial answers to the
five research questions, and the study’s findings can help counselors identify
spiritual bypass in their clients, understand its implications, and develop
treatment approaches. Lastly, this investigation provides new directions for the
empirical research of spiritual bypass using qualitative and quantitative
methodologies.
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... Ironically, the hyper-spirituality of spiritual bypass may prevent people from ultimately experiencing the most benefit from their spiritual strivings. Qualitative studies have yielded similar findings from the perspective of those who have experienced spiritual bypass as well as experts who have treated it in the context of psychotherapy (Picciotto & Fox, 2018;Picciotto, Fox, & Felix, 2017). Still, spiritual bypass researchers have not yet fully addressed the various implications of this clinical phenomenon. ...
... Thus, if problems arise, the solution is thought to be spiritual and thus to require some spiritual intervention or interventionist. In the end, this psychological maneuvering makes troubled people feel spiritualized and, for a limited time, can make them feel well (Picciotto & Fox, 2018;Picciotto et al., 2017). However, it might inhibit psychological processing of the person's problems and in the long-term result in a less satisfactory psychological adjustment. ...
... Throughout this study, we found direct and indirect associations of religious commitment and spiritual variables (except for nature spirituality) with psychological help-seeking attitudes. This expands existing research (Fox & Picciotto, 2019;Picciotto & Fox, 2018;Picciotto et al., 2017) by examining religious commitment, a previously untested construct, and also by showing the importance of other types of spirituality. We also did not find that spiritual bypass moderated the relationships between either religious commitment or spirituality, and psychological help-seeking attitudes. ...
... 47 Thus, living in an environment that does not encourage personal maturation can sabotage any true spiritual development. 48 Pargament and colleagues came up with problem-solving-styles that can help us understand the causes of spiritual bypass. Among these styles of problem-solving, we find self-directing and deferring. ...
Article
Full-text available
For centuries, spiritual growth has been one of the major topics in theology. In this context, spiritual guides have attempted to help people discern between true and false paths towards God. Today, we are again witnessing a growing interest in spirituality itself and in finding means to develop the spiritual potential in human life. Because of the increasing number of people venturing into more advanced spiritual practices, spiritual bypass is appearing more frequently. Recently, this topic has become a study subject of the psychology of spirituality and religion. This article presents major findings from this research and discusses their validity for pastoral work.
... Hinzuzufügen ist zudem, dass sich das Erleben der Anwendung auch kulturell unterscheiden könnte, beispielsweise im Hinblick auf die Selbstauffassung. Während in östlichen Kulturen das Selbst tendenziell als Teil der Verbundenheit mit anderen wahrgenommen wird (Interdependenz), werden in westlichen Kulturen vor allem Unabhängigkeit, Autonomie und Einzigartigkeit betont (Independenz) (Markus & Kitayama, 1991;Triandis, 1989 (Picciotto & Fox, 2017;Welwood, 2002). Dies wird wiederum in Zusammenhang mit einer dysfunktionalen psychischen Gesundheit (Cashwell et al., 2010), der Verleugnung persönlicher Verantwortung, der Verdrängung psychischer Probleme sowie spirituellem Narzissmus diskutiert (Cashwell et al., 2007;Welwood, 2002). ...
Thesis
Untersuchung des Human Design Systems: Eine Heuristic Self-Search Inquiry Das Ziel der vorliegenden Studie besteht darin, ein Verständnis des subjektiven Erlebens der Anwendung des Human Design Systems (HDS) zu vermitteln. Da es an wissenschaftlicher Forschung zu diesem Thema mangelt, war eine vertiefende empirische Auseinandersetzung notwendig. Hierfür wurde anhand einer Heuristic Self-Search Inquiry (HSSI) das persönliche Erleben der Forschenden im Anschluss an zwei Human Design-Sitzungen innerhalb von zwei Phasen und einer Follow-up-Phase erhoben. Darauf folgten eine Auswertung der Daten anhand der Kategorien Entscheidungen, Identitätsgefühl und Emotionen mit jeweiligen Unterkategorien sowie eine kreative Verarbeitung des Erlebens im Rahmen der kreativen Synthese. Die Ergebnisse vermitteln u. a. anhand der Aspekte wahrgenommene Selbsterkenntnis, Lebenssinn, Selbstakzeptanz, erhöhtes Authentizitätserleben, Integration von Selbstaspekten sowie verstärkter emotionaler Ausdruck einen Überblick über das subjektive Erleben des HDS und geben Aufschluss über Entwicklungschancen sowie Herausforderungen, die mit der Anwendung des HDS einhergehen können. Hieraus kann ein erstes psychologisches Verständnis des HDS abgeleitet werden, das in zukünftigen Forschungen genutzt werden könnte, um die Anwendung des HDS noch engmaschiger zu untersuchen. Zudem sind weiterführende Studien mittels quantitativer Messinstrumente zur Untersuchung der subjektiven Effekte denkbar, die aus der Anwendung hervorgingen. The aim of the present study is to provide an understanding of the subjective experience of using the Human Design System (HDS). Since there is a lack of scientific research on this topic, an in-depth empirical investigation was necessary. For this purpose, a Heuristic Self-Search Inquiry (HSSI) was used to collect the personal experience of the researchers following two Human Design sessions within two phases and a follow-up phase. This was followed by an analysis of the data using the categories of decisions, sense of identity, and emotions with respective subcategories, as well as a creative processing of the experience within the creative synthesis. The results provide an overview of the subjective experience of the HDS on the basis of the aspects of perceived self-knowledge, meaning in life, self-acceptance, increased experience of authenticity, integration of self-aspects, and increased emotional expression, among others, and provide information about development opportunities as well as challenges that can accompany the application of the HDS. From this, an initial psychological understanding of the HDS can be derived, which could be used in future research to more closely examine the use of the HDS. In addition, further studies using quantitative measurement instruments to examine the subjective effects that emerged from its use are conceivable.
... We conducted a conventional content analysis using the guidelines recommended by Hsieh and Shannon (2005) and described by Picciotto and Fox (2018). The analysis of the data began with the first author reading all the qualitative data to immerse herself in the experience of the participants and to get a sense of the whole phenomenon. ...
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... Similar codes are grouped into categories, which, when contextualized and richly described, foster new understandings of the phenomenon under study (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). CCA is often used to report clinical perspectives on understudied practices (Fox et al., 2015;Picciotto & Fox, 2018), including school-based psychotherapy . ...
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