Here's What Not to Do When Giving Spiritual Advice

Kerry Kerr McAvoy

Sometimes we only make things worse

Photo by Baylee Gramling/Unsplash

I pulled up my Twitter feed and saw that one of my favorite religious authors had just posted an encouraging statement. She wrote, “Fear begs us to focus on our problems more than God’s promises.”

Her tweet had hit too close to home. One of my family members is sick. We’ve been waiting on the results of the latest medical tests. The past couple of mornings I’ve been near tears, fearful of the outside that what they are struggling with is very serious. Maybe even life-threatening.

An old familiar feeling of anger stirred within me, as I thought, What?? Is feeling fear wrong? Does that mean I’m not a good person if I have that kind of emotional reaction?

I couldn’t resist hitting the comment button and writing a quick response. I tweeted, “I see fear as an indication of where I’m unsure of life and my higher power. Where I’m insecure in my relationship with God or my higher power. I see it as a conversation starter rather than something to be avoided.”

A few days later, I saw several people had left other comments, all in praise of her post, whereas there had been no response to my push-back.


Spiritual Bypassing

I know that spiritual blogger hadn't meant to be hurtful. She did a common practice. Though well-meaning it negated or minimized others' feelings of pain or hurt. It's all too common. Loved one and friends have done the same thing. Unintentionally they caused more pain, instead of helping to alleviate it.

Until recently I didn't have a name for what was happening. Lacking language to describe something makes it difficult to identify and change.

It wasn't until I listened to a recent podcast that introduced a new term that I understood what had been bothering me about the blogger’s seemingly sweet tweet.

It's called spiritual bypassing.

What this well-meaning blogger had done was to spiritual bypass common emotional responses to life's unpleasantness.

Spiritual bypassing was introduced in 1980 by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. 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.” It’s a type of defense mechanism commonly used in religious circles.

That’s was it! Intentionally or unintentionally, the author’s posted comment encouraged her audience to circumvent their emotional experience instead of doing the harder work of processing it. Of course, it also implied those who continued to feel negative emotions, such as fear, are failing to trust in God or our higher power enough. That we are weak to worry in a needless way.

Spiritual Bypassing: a Frequent Substitution for Real Support

Unfortunately, this kind of advice is all too common within many religious circles. I’m ashamed to admit that at one point in time, I’ve been guilty of it as well. It’s easier to label someone as spiritually or emotionally immature than to come alongside them during a difficult time. We slap on spiritual advice and think we’ve done our job of being a good friend.

The truth of the matter, however, is when we do this, we have failed them. We’ve used a compassionate-sounding statement that insinuates hurting people lack faith. Inadvertently we’ve abandoned them just when they need us the most.

Spiritual Bypassing Occurs Too Often

I hung up the phone a few minutes ago after talking to my dear friend for an hour. She shared she’d received a note from her long-standing church group asking her to take a break from attending their meetings. An email from the small group leader explained that her needs were exceeding their abilities.

Hurt and angry, she asked if she’d done something wrong. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so transparent about the illnesses in her family, she wondered.

Shame and rage tinged the conversation. Confused, my friend shared how hard it had been to trust this group. After four years of building a relationship with these Christian women, she thought she’d found a safe place. Now, she’d discovered that that wasn’t so.

She’d been spiritually bypassed.

It's a Dangerous Practice

Spiritual bypassing is dangerous. It leaves those of us who use it feeling superior and smug as if we’ve contributed or helped out. It does neither. It is just a fancy way of washing our hands of the situation while maintaining our pride.

Dr. Ingrid Clayton, in Psychology Today, writes, “Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in — and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”


Real Support Requires More than Words

If we want to help, we need to step into the trenches and sit with our loved ones who are suffering. We need to remember that if something we are thinking to say sounds cliche and glib, then it probably is. This is especially likely if our comment is wrapped in spirituality.

We often don't know what to say in response to someone else's suffering. We feel helpless, maybe even stupid or useless. Offering a glib or sweet spiritual saying often is an indication of emotional avoidance on our part. We are doing the harder work of staying present with our hurting loved ones. We throw out a sweet comment, think we’ve done the necessary work of helping them, and then leave them in even worse shape than before.

Real support is often messy, painstakingly long, and complicated. It requires us to tolerate what often is uncomfortable.

We are loved, especially when we are fearful, broken, and at our worst. Real compassion requires us to accept each other as we are: mess and all.

We aren't helpful or kind when we use spiritual bypassing as a form of encouragement. Sitting in silence with our arm around our friend or holding his or her hand sometimes is the best and only response this individual needs.

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Psychologist, Kerry Kerr McAvoy, Ph.D. writes about dating, healthy relationships, narcissism, and various other mental health-related issues. She is a mom to three grown sons. Loves to swim, snorkel, and read, and enjoys traveling. She lived in the Caribbean for two years. For her monthly letter or to listen to her podcast

Austin, TX

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