The problem with emotional bypassing

spiritual advice

Recently I came across the term “spiritual bypassing,” which is a tendency to bypass negative feelings or life problems by focusing on only positive and uplifting spiritual ideas. For example a person with cancer might focus on getting better, faith healing, going to church and praying with friends rather than contemplating or responding to their illness. The problem with this of course is that they may miss real and practical ways to deal with their problems or else suppress their fears which may resurface in future with greater intensity.

Spirituality aside I think this concept can apply to emotions generally (even for atheists) and for the sake of this post I’ll call this “emotional bypassing”. This is a tendency to bypass negative feelings in attempt to feel better, more positive and rational about life. It’s the habit of “thinking your way out of feeling bad”, to a a degree which might be counter productive.

Everyone thinks their way out of feeling bad at some stage or other. This is a fairly normal response to unwanted experiences. You’ve heard it before, your friend says his job is dull and boring but “it pays the bills and puts food on the table.” However it can be problematic when it is overly relied upon at the expense of just feeling what you feel.

Emotions are there for a reason. They are a guidance system, a message, a signal to reflect or do something differently. Maybe it’s time your mate looked for a new position or is in need of a holiday. Maybe he needs to explore dullness and boredom through mindfulness and learn to accept those feeling as part of the diverse contrast of their day to day lives.

Something I’ve found with myself is that thinking my way out of feeling bad can be superficial and fail to address core beliefs. These core beliefs can be subconscious or hidden and sometimes those beliefs just want the opportunity to be heard and validated before anything can be done about them. I also find emotional bypassing a good excuse to avoid taking action towards my goals. In other words if you ignore your emotions you can remain stuck.

We live in a culture that values a positive attitude. I often see this reflected in employment adds, “looking for positive vibrant sales person with a can-do attitude.”  We make an assumption that being positive is actually a superior way to be. Yet allowing our fears, being careful, cautious and at times negative are some of the qualities that have made civilisations thrive. Take for example farmers preparing for the worst case scenario of a crop failure. Storing up reserves and salting foods for long term preservation. We can see many examples of ancient civilizations who carked it because they got to cocky.

Having said that being cocky has it’s place. The saying fake it till you make it exists for a reason. But it’s all about balance and finding the right middle ground for you.

Also you don’t have to be anything. You can be a chronically miserable person if you want to be. There’s comedian called Doug Stanhope who has some hilarious comedy skits built on his self professed depressive state. “I’m Doug Stanhope, and that’s why I drink” he says, whilst holding a beer and smoking on stage.

There’s no right way to be. It’s just the diversity of life and what you aspire to that matters. Allowance and authenticity are powerful forces for change. It’s ironic how they work.

I would challenge employers to consider different ads. “Looking for an anxious hyper vigilant person to write occupational health and safety policy. Must have the ability to notice potential hazards that could result in workplace accidents.”



5 thoughts on “The problem with emotional bypassing

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post and wondered whether cultivating emotional honesty is more desirable than trying to force a mood you don’t feel. Not to judge as “positive” or “negative” the emotions but to recognize them as generally transient reactions to thoughts or events and valid in their own right.

    Strong emotions of any variety hold a lot of energy, and finding the way to use that energy constructively can alleviate depression or anxiety, I believe. If I’m depressed, I do something I don’t want to do, like clean a bathroom, as a way of wallowing in the mood and ultimately feeling better.

    Liked by 1 person

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