By Steve K.
While I’m committed to the practise of spiritual principles as a part of my recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction, the emphasis within Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) on being accepting, compassionate, tolerant, unselfish and loving etc, and of “practising these principles in all our affairs”, combined with literal interpretation of fellowship literature, can lead to unrealistic expectations of ourselves and potentially harmful consequences.
The inventory Steps require taking personal responsibility for our feelings and behaviour, encouraging us to look at “our part” in things. In general, this is a good practice and I personally find it helpful in my day to day recovery. However, balance can get lost in this process and we can be persuaded to deny legitimate hurt and angry feelings in response to other’s behaviour, past wounds, or adverse circumstances.
Through the emphasis upon practising spiritual principles we can be encouraged to dismiss our darker feelings which can lead to unhealthy repression. We often need to experience and work through a natural process of “negative feelings” before reaching more positive states of being, such as acceptance and forgiveness.
The following quotes from the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, are examples of AA literature which encourage the denial of our anger etc, or for us to feel defective for having these type of feelings…
“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are angry, we are in the wrong also.”
“It is pointless to become angry, or to get hurt by people who, like us, are suffering from the pains of growing up.”
pp. 92 & 95.
Anyone familiar with these passages from this well-known AA spiritually based book should be mindful of their encouragement to practise “spiritual bypassing”. This involves denying or avoiding our darker or “shadow” feelings and instincts and disingenuously responding to all things in life with acceptance and compassion. So called “negative” and painful feelings need to be experienced as well as our more positive and enjoyable feelings in order to be fully human. Repressing painful feelings can lead us to self-destructive behaviour.
Robert Masters describes spiritual bypassing in the following way…
“Spiritual bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, manifesting in many ways, often without being acknowledged as such. Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.” (1)
We need to feel and experience, and discharge in healthy ways, all aspects of our human being, and not incongruously try and be some spiritual ideal.
The 12 & 12 spiritual axiom quote assumes that whenever we are disturbed, angry, upset etc, no matter what the cause, there’s something wrong with us. There’s nothing wrong with having normal human emotions. You’ll always be aiming too high spiritually by denying them. I’m not advocating dwelling upon blaming others, but being authentic and owning all our feelings, not just the positive ones.
AA literature assumes that all alcoholics are excessive in relation to their natural instincts and negative feelings, and therefore aren’t competent to handle feeling hurt or angry etc, no matter what the reason. Although there maybe some validity in this presumption, it’s an unhealthy message in general and can be damaging to vulnerable individuals. It’s natural to feel hurt if we’ve been hurt and we need to experience and express the associated feelings. However, it’s important that we discharge our feelings healthily and we can all learn to experience and express them in a mature and constructive manner, which takes responsibility and ownership of them, and does no harm to others.
It’s the absolutism (applied by some), in relation to spiritual principles and practices that can be damaging in my opinion. It can lead to sponsors in 12 Step fellowships suggesting to sponsees “to look at their part” in examples of abuse etc. This is clearly inappropriate and a misguided and harmful application of the inventory process.
In order to become whole and healthy in our recovery we must face and experience all parts of our human nature, both dark and light, and not try and avoid unpleasant feelings through a spiritual quick fix. This strategy to make ourselves feel better is no different than addictively using substances in an effort to avoid the pain of life. True spirituality embraces all aspects of our humanness and by doing so we grow and fulfil our potential as the thinking, feeling, moral and spiritual creatures that we are…
“In the facing and outgrowing of spiritual bypassing, we enter a deeper life—a life of full-blooded integrity, depth, love, and sanity; a life of authenticity on every level; a life in which the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal are all honored and lived to the fullest.” (2)
Spiritual Bypassing – Avoidance in Holy Drag. By Robert Augustus Masters, PhD.
4 thoughts on “Recovery and Spiritual Bypassing”
Thank you for your inciteful comment. I am not an alcoholic but have been in recovery for many years in a few other programs. I had an older female sponsor/mentor for many years that had been sober in AA for decades. I met her through our mutual involvement in Primal Therapy, something we learned to do on our own. A ‘primal’ is a spontaneous, full body connection with early, buried trauma feelings/pain, and allowing those feelings their natural truthful expression (in a safe way and setting), and allowing the feeling to flow to resolution. It is the opposite of bypass, or you might say a direct cure for spiritual (emotional) bypass.
Spiritual bypass, as I see it (may also be a common definition) is using a spiritual concept, or a concept considered ‘spiritual’ to bypass real, painful human feelings and instead ‘transcend’ them in a way that leads to denial and/or dissociation. Premature forgiveness is something that is promoted a lot in spiritual circles (including AA, and other 12 step programs) with the idea that you should ignore/avoid the so called ‘negative’ feelings like anger, betrayal, rage and find a quick fix in forgiveness, because forgiveness is always a good thing at any time, and is the end goal, so why not just jump to the ‘spiritual’ goal, and skip all that messy, painful ‘unspiritual’ stuff. But it doesn’t really work, and can backfire in the long run with disastrous consequences (except maybe for minor offenses).
My sponsor had me read AA lit like the BIg Book and 12 & 12, and I found a lot of truth there, but also came across statements like the one mentioned, and saw the same problem with making someone ‘wrong’ for being disturbed (having real human feelings) about someone else’s hurtful behavior acted out on us. A friend even quoted it recently (uncritically) in a local ACA Facebook group. I didn’t try to bring up the problem with the statement, but do occasionally when things are posted that are very bypassy in content. I don’t think many people get it because bypass type spirituality gives some false sense of comfort and refuge, because, who wants to acknowledge painful feelings?
But to ACA’s credit, their BRB (Big Red Book, the primary text, like the AA Big Book) has a section on Spiritual Bypass, what it is, and how it doesn’t work.
Thought I edited ‘inciteful’ to ‘insightful’. Different meaning, but inciteful could apply, as in ‘inciting’ controversy, or …a riot? (joking)
Brilliant article. Just exactly what I’ve worked through in therapy. Really important to own your feelings and work through them. Repressing them has done me more damage than actually accepting my feelings and sitting with them.
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You have fully and accurately described what has been nagging me in my recovery in AA. Thank you for this thoughtful read. I believe in AA as a personal program of recovery, not a dictated path. Fortunately, my sponsor feels the same. I am going to share this article with him.