The reason why spiritual and personal growth advice sometimes feels like bullsh*t

If you’ve been following spiritual and personal growth communities, read any self-help books, or seen the millions of inspirational posts on instagram, then you’ve probably heard things like this:

“This is all a part of the plan”
“You chose this”
“You’re just telling yourself a story”
“Everything is perfect”
“Be grateful”
“Be positive”
“Just manifest it”

And you may have even said to yourself, “Well, I did what the book said, and I still feel like shit. Now what?” 

I hear you. As a coach and spiritual practitioner, I’m going to talk about about the reasons why sometimes it feels like all of the advice isn’t helping, and what to do about it.

Now, there’s actually nothing wrong with the phrases listed above. There are moments where this kind of language is really helpful in breaking old patterns and growing. Sometimes gratitude will truly get you through a painful situation, and sometimes realizing you chose something, gives you the power to choose something new and different. We often come across advice like this and find it truly valuable.

However, the important thing to understand is that these phrases (and phrases like them) are NOT the solution or the needed response to all problems. Life is more nuanced and layered than that. 

If a moment of epic positive manifestation solves one problem for you, it doesn’t mean it’s going to solve all of your problems, or the problems for the person next to you. Each situation in life typically requires a unique approach. And because we all carry our own story, culture, privilege, experiences, etc, it is truly impossible to have a one size fits all solution to anything. 

The reason why sometimes the phrases above feel like total bullshit, is because, your gut feeling was right….sometimes, they actually are! There are many times where these phrases are in fact, the completely inappropriate response to someone’s pain, experience, story, or situation (I’ll explain this more below).

I want to be super clear about this:

If we look at living, healing, growing, and learning like it belongs on some kind of spiritual standardized multiple-choice test, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. 

I do believe that if someone offers a solution that they claim, can fix ALL of your problems, you should start running in the other direction! There is no single idea, perspective, way of being, medicine, practice, or emotion that can solve all things. 

When we use statements like the ones listed above, as a response to EVERYTHING, we run into something called Spiritual Bypass. The term was coined by psychotherapist and author in the transpersonal-psychology field, John Welwood. It’s also known as, the shadow side of spirituality and personal growth. 

The Roots of Spiritual Bypass

To put it simply, spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism

Welwood defined it as using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”

Spiritual bypass is a corruption of spiritual practices. 

Instead of deeply transforming within the healing medicine of the practices (yoga, meditation, mindfulness, mantras, ceremony, etc), spiritual bypass happens when you use practices and/ or beliefs as a way to repress yourself and other people.

Your healing journey will get derailed pretty quickly when engaging in practices in order to distract yourself from reality, and escape the world and everything happening in it. Spiritual bypass is a total distraction from doing the actual healing work.

Take a look at some of the signs of spiritual bypassing that Dr. Diana Raab shared this year in Psychology Today:

  • Not focusing on the here and now; living in a spiritual realm much of the time.
  • Overemphasizing the positive and avoiding the negative.
  • Being self-righteous about the concept of enlightenment.
  • Being overly detached.
  • Being overly idealistic.
  • Having feelings of entitlement.
  • Exhibiting frequent anger.
  • Engaging in cognitive dissonance.
  • Being overly compassionate.
  • Pretending that everything is okay when it’s not.

Why is Spiritual Bypass Harmful?

Spiritual bypass is harmful because it distorts spiritual beliefs in order to avoid reality. It also promotes an impossible expectation that we should somehow feel “good”, all of the time.

If you’re seeking a permanent state of happiness, you’re actually bypassing the entire range of emotions that human beings are capable of feeling. You can take yourself off the hook RIGHT NOW if you think you’re supposed to be happy all of the time. When you hide or suppress how you truly feel, you increase your chances of burnout, lashing out, stress, anxiety, and illness.

If you’re avoiding reality through spiritual bypass, it can prevent you from doing your own healing work, and getting to the source of the pain that you actually want to heal. 

Avoiding reality can also hurt the people around you. For example, if someone decides to speak their truth and tell a story in which they experienced violence, the last thing someone should say to them is, “Well, you chose that. The universe wanted that to happen to you.” This is a harmful response to someone’s truth.

As I mentioned earlier, there are times where a phrase like this is totally inappropriate. This is one of those moments. The reason being is, it is highly disempowering to tell someone that they “chose” to be a victim of violence. The reality is, the person did not choose it at all; it was not their fault. In fact, a massive injustice and betrayal is what actually occurred. Avoiding reality and the nuanced pain connected to it, by offering a quick-fix statement like “you chose that” is not only spiritual bypass, it’s a form of serious manipulation known as gaslighting. 

How to Shift Away From Spiritual Bypass

1- Practice holding space. Hold space for your emotions, and honor them. Hold space for other peoples’ emotions and honor them. Allow yourself and others to feel fear, sadness, anger, and the entire range. Emotions are temporary, and you’ll learn a myriad of things about yourself and the world when you tap into them. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is that you are carrying within you. If you don’t have a safe space or support system to express yourself, seek out or create the space and the support that you require. Click here to learn more about holding space.

2 – With professional guidance and support, intentionally address and heal your wounds and/ or traumas. Allow your spiritual practices to compliment, and add to your healing journey, not derail it.

3 – Check in with yourself often. “How am I? Emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically?”

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Psychology Today, Ingrid Clayton
Psychology Today, Diana Raab, Ph.D.