How To Tell If Someone Is Using Spirituality As An Avoidance Mechanism

In a world leaning more and more into spirituality, awareness about spiritual bypassing becomes critical.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 25, 2023

Have you ever met someone whose solution to any and every problem you might bring up to them is "pray on it?" How about someone who always forces you to look for the silver lining, even before you have had any time to process your feelings? Or someone who refuses to acknowledge that they might be hurting because everything is happening according to "God"s plan?"

If you have, then you might be in the company of a spiritual bypasser. Coined in the 1980s, the term spiritual bypassing is used to refer to the "tendency of using spiritual practices and ideas to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks."

Contrary to what the purpose of spirituality might be in a person"s life, like personal growth or gaining emotional and spiritual strength, spiritual bypassing often stunts certain parts of a person"s psyche as it functions primarily, and often unconsciously, as an avoidance mechanism.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Spirituality in Psychology looked into the causes and symptoms of spiritual bypassing by conducting eight semi-structured interviews with people who had identified as spiritual bypassers in the past.

The study distilled a number of interesting insights about spiritual bypassing. Here is a rundown of everything you need to know about the phenomenon.

What Pushes Someone To Use Spirituality As An Avoidance Mechanism?

According to the answers collected in the interviews, four distinct causes emerged for spiritual bypassing:

  1. Escape. People used spiritual bypassing as a mechanism to escape their reality and add meaning to their lives. Everyday life can sometimes be filled with ordinary, run-of-the-mill experiences which can seem meaningless, but not when someone views them through a "divinity" filter.
  2. Avoiding pain. The study cited that people with an overall lower tolerance for pain usually resorted to spiritual bypassing to justify their actions (or inactions).
  3. Social context. Spiritual bypassing was also used as a coping mechanism by people who grew up in difficult familial environments or other problematic social contexts.
  4. Spiritual or religious leaders and communities. People misled by negligent spiritual leaders or communities can exercise spiritual bypassing as a learned behavior.

What Does Spiritual Bypassing Look Like?

Spiritual bypassing manifests in different ways in different people. However, some common symptoms the study identified are:

  • Isolation
  • Avoidance of "unspiritual" or "spiritually disruptive" people
  • Unrealistic views about relationships (like idealizing the self as above the basic human need of relationships or believing that relationships are only possible with spiritual people)
  • Avoiding conflict to avoid disappointing others
  • Spiritual narcissism or superiority
  • Blindly following an ideology or leader
  • Unrealistic living (like refusing to seriously engage in a professional career or making any long-term financial plan)
  • Emotional dissociation
  • Anger-phobia
  • Exaggerated optimism
  • Ignoring your shadow self or the darker parts of your personality
  • Rationalization
  • A lack of bodily grounding

Why Does Spiritual Bypassing Hurt You Even Though It"s Meant To Avoid Hurt?

The participants, when describing how much their phase of spiritual bypassing cost them, came up with six negative consequences:

  1. Arrested development. The participants reported a general sense of stagnation or regression resulting from a life of hyper-fixation on spirituality.
  2. Not being able to fulfill familial obligations. Participants also mentioned that they were, in some cases, not able to earn enough money to support their families or effectively perform the role of a good parent or spouse.
  3. Depression and anxiety. Spiritual bypassers also reported pathological consequences of constantly avoiding emotionally important moments of their life, including depression and anxiety.
  4. Emotional blindness. Spiritual bypassing was characterized by a loss of psychological vision and an inability to connect to or "see" one"s own emotional world.
  5. Social disconnection. They also faced difficulties in connecting or empathizing with people around them, especially with those who were different or unspiritual.
  6. Loss of self-love. An overarching theme that emerged from the interviews was an overly critical view of oneself accompanied by a severe lack of self-compassion.


As with any other psychological problem, in the case of spiritual bypassing, knowledge is power. Learning to identify when spirituality turns into an avoidance mechanism can spare you, as the study suggests, from pain and trauma. When it comes to preventing spiritual bypassing in your life, make sure that you receive psychological support, either through loved ones or qualified practitioners, to help you empathize with human beings from all walks of life. Above all, make sure that the community around you is diverse, inclusive, supportive, and empathetic.