How a Spiritual Bypass Can Derail Recovery

How a Spiritual Bypass Can Derail Recovery

There is a phrase, not often heard in the recovery world, called “spiritual bypass.”

A traditional route of recovery is one in which a person gives up their drug of choice, begins attending 12-step meetings and finds spirituality to help them on the path to recovery. But there are many paths to recovery, some easier than others.

Recovery Detours

A spiritual bypass is more like a detour on the path of recovery. The term has been written about frequently by John Welwood who is a Buddhist Teacher and Psychotherapist. This bypass refers to using spirituality to bypass actually doing the painful psychological work or unfinished business from the past (usually childhood). This work leads to emotional healing and the ability to live a life of authenticity, intimacy and vulnerability.

A person who is in a spiritual bypass has a strong spiritual practice that directs their life, but they repress their true emotions and authenticity. Their spiritual practice can be participation in a religion, a church fellowship, yoga or meditation.

With the boom of Eastern philosophies in the West over the past few years, a likely candidate for a spiritual bypass would be someone who has an active yoga and meditation practice, who is well versed in spirituality, and probably attends spiritual workshops and retreats.

When a person with these type of practices also abuses drugs and alcohol (sometimes even as a part of their spiritual practice), it becomes very easy to be in denial about addiction. It’s easy to question oneself, “how could I possibly be an alcoholic or addict with such a strong spiritual practice?” The spiritual practice itself may even be another form of addiction – if it’s being used to escape feelings and seek a higher state of being. Spirituality is not meant to be used to transcend the problems of day-to-day life. True spirituality is learning to be in the present moment and be present with what arises.

John Welwood states, “Being a good spiritual practitioner can become what I call a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficient identity, where we feel badly about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. Then, although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense. And when spiritual practice is used to bypass our real-life human issues, it becomes compartmentalized in a separate zone of our life, and remains unintegrated with our overall functioning.”

Using Spirituality as a Bypass

Once the spiritually adept addict comes out of denial and surrenders to the fact that they are in fact an addict, having a strong spiritual practice does not necessarily make recovery any easier.

A few signs that spirituality is being used as a bypass of deep psychological work, include:

  • Being in a perpetual state of optimism

    Optimism and positive thinking are an important human trait, but staying in this state without acknowledging anger, hurts, sadness and pain just becomes another form of denial. A healthy person will acknowledge their feelings, take whatever action is needed and move on, in an optimistic manner.

  • Using compassion and forgiveness as a means of avoiding conflict

    While compassion and forgiveness are critical for not holding resentments and having repressed anger, it’s even more critical to be willing to have conscious communication about conflict. Avoiding conflict by using the mask of compassion is not an authentic state, it is once again another form of denial.

  • Compulsive “Goodness”

    Acting in a compulsively “good” way to compensate for feeling unworthy or “less than” is a form of co-dependence by not having the inner strength to express our truth or trust our intuition. The “goodness” is used to avoid rejection. By doing the inner work, a person becomes “good enough” and is self-accepting.

  • Pink Cloud Syndrome

    Anyone who stays on the proverbial “pink cloud” for an extended amount of time may be in a state of spiritual bypass. It’s important to begin dealing with life on life’s terms and learning new coping skills in recovery.

The Spiritual Bypass Antidote

The antidote to the spiritual bypass in recovery is to dig in and do the psychological work. This is often done with a therapist who is adept at identifying unresolved issues and underlying developmental trauma.

12-step work through Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous with a strong sponsor is also a means of beginning to address the unfinished business. The key is to have a sponsor who is able to identify denial and repression of feelings and be willing to call the sponsee out on their patterns.

The 12-step program of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunction is a powerful program to address the underlying feelings that are being repressed. It’s not unusual for addicts to come from dysfunctional families who operate from the unspoken rules of Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel and Don’t Talk. These three dysfunctional family rules are quite often the beginning of repression and denial. Utilizing this program in addition to AA or NA can be a powerful tool to break through denial and truly integrate the lost parts of self that are keeping us from living a life of authenticity.

Doing the depth work of integrating the lost parts of self, combined with a well-developed spiritual practice, becomes the glue for a very strong recovery and is often the key to long-term recovery versus ongoing relapses.




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