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Spiritualizing: An Unhelpful Defense Mechanism

LukeNotes, Spring 2022

One might politely assume that a faithful Christian finds support in the spiritual life for any healing process, whether it involves a physical, psychological, or spiritual problem. In fact, clinicians are ethically bound to respect a person’s religious beliefs. However, spirituality can also be misunderstood and misused as a defense mechanism, thereby interfering with the healing process. An important goal of the integrated treatment program at Saint Luke Institute is to distinguish spiritual issues from psychological ones, so that both resources can be used effectively.

Psychology’s view of religion and spirituality is distinct from the Christian faith perspective, and growing religious diversity in the United States has resulted in greater disagreement about the meaning of religiousness and spirituality. Social scientists refer to religion as a specific set of organized beliefs and practices shared by a community or group and to spirituality as an individual practice leading to a sense of peace and purpose, affecting the meaning of life and connection with others.

However, the Christian understanding of religion and spirituality flows from revelation, i.e., God, who truly exists, articulates faith. Christ, the Word of God made flesh, is not simply an originator of a religious community nor a source of meaning, but the very presence of God.

Understanding Defense Mechanisms

Before addressing how spirituality can be misunderstood and misused, serving as a “spiritualizing” defense mechanism, it is important to explain the nature of a psychological defense mechanism. When a painful thought or feeling in the unconscious threatens to rear its ugly head, a defense mechanism channels the unconscious to express itself indirectly, in a disguised form. Some people will deny or repress a feeling, as if it did not exist. A person may project a feeling onto an authority figure or act in a passive aggressive manner. There are a variety of defensive options: intellectualization, dissociation, displacement, humor, sublimation, and suppression.

Defense mechanisms are necessary. Without them, people can become overwhelmed and decompensate. They vary in usefulness and are healthiest when flexible, i.e., providing sufficient protection to an individual ego while remaining open to the healing process.

“Spiritualizing” closely resembles the defense mechanism of intellectualization, which uses reason to avoid an unconscious conflict and associated emotional stress. One concentrates on the intellectual components of the situation to create distance from anxiety-provoking emotions. Thus, it effectively removes oneself, emotionally, from a stressful event.

Intellectualization hides emotions behind big words and an almost scientific focus on the facts. For example, a wife whose husband is dying may try to learn everything about his disease, its prognosis, and treatment options. She may talk about it in scientific terms, analyzing and describing the medical facts about his condition. Doing so may help her not to feel all the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions provoked by the imminent death of her beloved.

Identifying Spiritual Bypass

“Spiritualizing” occurs when people of faith use their spirituality to avoid dealing with threatening personal issues. Contemporary scholarship refers to this as spiritual bypass: a defensive psychological posture cultivated by a tendency to privilege or exaggerate spiritual beliefs, emotions, or experiences over and against psychological needs to avoid or bypass difficult emotions or experiences.

John Welwood first introduced this term in 1984 to address the tendency of using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. Spiritual bypass helps one avoid working on mental health issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and addiction, and ultimately results in a stagnated level of personal development that is less sophisticated than what spiritual practice is intended to create. Ultimately, spiritual bypass corrupts the true nature of spiritual practice, and spirituality becomes just another way of rejecting one’s experience.

Spiritual bypass can be separated into two areas: psychological avoidance and spiritualizing. Psychological avoidance is the process of sidestepping or avoiding difficult emotions, experiences, or circumstances by focusing on spiritual beliefs or assumptions. Spiritualizing is the exaggeration of the spiritual significance of an event or issue.

Thomas Aquinas offers a succinct principle that explains why spiritual bypass is problematic: “Grace does not destroy nature but fulfills its potential.” Simply stated, when a person assumes a defensive psychological posture, it is more difficult for the grace of God to function. This implies no limitation on the part of God, but a lack of cooperation on the part of the person.

Researchers have developed a useful instrument, the Spiritual Bypass Scale – 13, which rates the level of spiritual bypass utilized by a client. Such information could be presented to clients to help them move from resistance to change, appropriately engaging the psychological change process and focusing on the spiritual life in a manner consistent with mature faith. Clients might begin to explore how their spiritual life has helped them compartmentalize, disown, and avoid their unfinished psychological work.

Once psychological issues are addressed appropriately, the client is free to work on both spiritual and psychological fronts and engage in an integrated process of healing.

Bibliography

Fox, J., Cashwell, C. S., & Picciotto, G. (2017). The opiate of the masses: Measuring spiritual bypass and its relationship to spirituality, religion, mindfulness, psychological distress, and personality. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4, 274-287.

Piedmont, R. L. (1999). Does spirituality represent the sixth factor of personality? Spiritual transcendence and the Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality, 67, 985–1013.

Welwood, J. (1984). Principles of inner work: Psychological and spiritual. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16, 63–73.

Reverend David Songy, OFM Cap., S.T.D., Psy.D., is president and CEO of Saint Luke Institute.