The month of November in the United States brings with it the theme of gratitude, mostly as a result of the nature of Thanksgiving. Individuals, couples, and families are encouraged to foster a sense of gratitude for people who are a part of their lives; for what they have in their lives, such as health and a steady job; and for religious communities, they may feel the need to renew their gratitude towards the higher power they place their faith in.

While research on gratitude shows it to be a fundamental piece to our overall wellbeing, there’s a darker side of gratitude we don’t often explore. And that is the concept of spiritual bypassing.

Spiritual bypassing was first coined by John Welwood, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, who did a great deal to bring Eastern and Western perspectives together. He coined the term in 1984, and in a 2000 collection of essays called Toward a Psychology of Awakening, he wrote the following:

“I call this tendency [spiritual bypassing] to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.”

Spiritual bypassing is the tendency to “turn away from what is difficult or unpleasant,” such as life challenges we may face, by misusing aspects of spirituality, such as gratitude.

For example, if we think that we should not show any “emotional weakness” from life’s challenges, then we may find ways to suppress and ignore our personal feelings altogether, by telling ourselves that being grateful means we cannot show any “weakness.” Also, spiritual bypassing can be something we project onto others, in a gaslighting sort of way (i.e. by making the individual question their reality).

The following are a few examples of how people spiritually bypass others:

“There are people who have it worse off than you – you should be more grateful.”

“You know, instead of complaining, you should be grateful for what you have.”

“I know this is hard, but have you stopped to count your blessings?”

gratitude | spiritual bypassing | kiss and tell

This notion of spiritual bypassing is not only limited to faith-based communities, yet it can show up in such spaces. Gratitude is a major tenant of all world religions, often alluded to in various texts, prayers, and religious contexts. In addition, the whole field of “positive psychology” has amplified the importance of gratitude in everyday life, thanks to professionals who write books, appear on podcasts, and complete TED talks on the topic.

Yet the endless wave of “be grateful” messages often doesn’t take into consideration how complex this can be when it is misused towards others.

So, why do people spiritually bypass others?

Most of the time, it’s because of their own misunderstanding of gratitude, and how to make sense of struggle and issues we face when we’re spiritual; from their own triggered thoughts and feelings related to their own struggles; and from misunderstanding concepts such as patience and gratitude in the face of struggle. There could also be a generational misunderstanding and gap with this concept since those who are elders in the community often remind younger folks that they didn’t have the time, space, or luxury “to complain” about things. In some respects, those who share feelings of struggle and confusion may be labeled as being ungrateful and “weak in faith.”

The solution to stop this trend of spiritually bypassing ultimately lies in the problem itself.

Overall, spiritual bypassing occurs when we cannot hold multiple truths to exist at the same time. For example, most of those who spiritually bypass think that if you’re struggling, you can only be grateful, and not acknowledge the difficult feelings you’re experiencing. Or that if you’re sharing your feelings from your struggles, then you must not be grateful. Unfortunately, this narrow, “one-way street” of understanding the human condition of struggle couldn’t be far from the truth. And people who spiritually bypass others would benefit from holding multiple truths at the same time.

For example:

You can struggle with an issue, share how this is impacting you, wonder why this is happening to you, AND be grateful at the same time.

You can sit in feelings of sorrow and anger about your struggles AND be grateful for what you have.

You can be grateful to have this struggle since you’re learning so much about yourself AND you can wonder if you’ll ever get through this.

gratitude | spiritual bypassing | kiss and tell

To foster a deeper understanding of how you understand gratitude, a few reflection questions are suggested:

  • What is your understanding of gratitude, from your faith or worldview perspective? Do you see nuance and complexity in your understanding, or is it simple?
  • How does it make you feel, deep down, when someone you know shares that they’re struggling? Does this trigger your own experiences of struggle and discomfort?
  • Placing gratitude aside, how could you hold space and empathize with someone who is sharing their struggle with you? 
  • Think of a situation when you were simultaneously grateful and acknowledged feelings of anger, sorrow, anxiety, etc. If you cannot think of a example, reflect on why.

As we approach Thanksgiving and hear constant messages of “be grateful!” around us, it’s important to not forget that life can be messy and complicated. We can struggle AND be grateful at the same time. And it’s only our understanding of gratitude that potentially holds us back from embracing this simple yet powerful fact.

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