Recovery and Spiritual Bypassing

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 types 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 may be 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 fulfill 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)

  1. Spiritual Bypassing – Avoidance in Holy Drag.By Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D.
  2. ibid. 

About the Author

Steve K. lives in Cheshire, which is in the Northwest region of England, and describes himself as an agnostic who is open to spirituality. He has been a member of AA since 1991 and his home group is the Macclesfield Saturday Morning AA Group. Steve is the author of The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K. The paperback version is available on Amazon, or you can download the pdf. version for free here.

You may also like to check out Steve’s well-received recovery site, 12stepphilosophy.org.

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John Runnion
John Runnion
20 days ago

If you’re interested, I have my own video story of this phenomenon here.
John Welwood also wrote about Spiritual Bypassing in his book. I think we all do bypassing of one sort or another at various times. Seeing it, and then learning how to go beyond it, are what I would call a “spiritual” journey. Thinking of spiritual nowadays as “of the breath,” and that which is meaningful and non-material in our lives. Not connected to any paranormal, omniscient, or transcendent exercise of entity.

Gerald
Gerald
21 days ago

Yes, these are very good points that also are part of my personal recovery message that I carry in AA (and ACA.) The context of the AA program is ‘assholism;’ A.A. very well could stand for “Assholes Anonymous.” The AA program was designed by egomaniacs and for egomaniacs. The authors of the Big Book confounded issues of alcoholism and issues of assholism. Indeed, they were such egomaniacs that they were unaware of the existence of alcoholics who are not egomaniacs, ha ha 🙂 We must also keep in mind that the context of the AA program is early sobriety. The… Read more »

Maureen Hirthler
Maureen Hirthler
22 days ago

“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.”

This type of thinking has caused irreparable harm to so many.

Kenny Glassman
Kenny Glassman
22 days ago

Only if it’s completely misunderstood. In cases of abuse or any other clear wrongdoing or others, it’s still MY emotional handling of the situation that I need to look at – that’s rlly still causing the pain, that I can really do anything about. in these cases “my part” is simply looking at my part of the equation in the whole affair – which might only be in how I’m now responding to the wrongdoing. What IN ME is causing the pain (in reaction to others’ terrible behavior)? I get robbed, not my fault at all, where I was, what… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
21 days ago
Reply to  Kenny Glassman

Hi Kenny. I think that you make a valid distinction between how an individual felt at the time the wrong/abuse/trauma happened to them (legitimately hurt, angry, fearful, overwhelmed etc) and how these feelings are now manifesting in the present – which can be in an unhealthy, harmful or destructive way for the abused and those around them. Supporting someone through this process of self-enquiry requires great skill, sensitivity and compassion best employed by a trained professional in most cases. Unfortunately, AA sponsors often don’t have these required skills and personal qualities (although many do) and can do more harm than… Read more »

Joe C
Joe C
22 days ago

Like Anne, I embrace the concept and wonder if it’s label does it justice. I can bypass in as far as being imbalanced in my cognitive, emotional, and mental states. For me, there is nothing about the experience that screams “spiritual”. I see where this is common in religious zealotry but the same is true any tribe, liberals, conservatives, NAs, ACAs, CAs, FAAS, AAs. It’s a big hint that I am suffering from tribalism when I think I am more enlightened than the other savages. Whatever we call it, it’s a recognizable coping mechanism featuring the distorted perception of reality… Read more »

Anne Johnson
Anne Johnson
22 days ago

This all makes much sense. My only real problem is that by using the word spiritual it becomes a “religious” definition and a must in traditional AA. It somehow negates our emotions and promotes dogma. It seems even secular AA loves this word instead of using perhaps “ethical principles” which removes the supernatural connotations. My anger can be justified and the idea that I should be only be into ‘OM’ produces more ‘Ohms’.

Steve K
Steve K
22 days ago
Reply to  Anne Johnson

There is a long tradition of naturalistic spirituality, which doesn’t have anything to do with supernatuaralism or religion. I’ve just posted an article on this subject by an ethical humanist called Hugh Taft-Morales. Check it out… https://12stepphilosophy.org/2020/09/27/naturalistic-spirituality-a-spirituality-of-the-actual-possible-and-of-action/

Lisa M
Lisa M
22 days ago
Reply to  Steve K

Hello Steve. It was an interesting article. After reading all of this good literature I decided I just do not like the word “spirituality” in any context because in my mind it is too linked with religion. So even though there can be many appropriate uses of the word in a non religious context, for me, it is “not good” for lack of another term and I just have to use something out. I think of it like “do you like brocolli or don’t you”. It is perfectly ok to have a yes or no response and not up to… Read more »