Spiritual bypassing was my coping strategy of choice for half a dozen years.
I didn’t have a name for it back in the day, but I was absolutely doing it, and doing it well. In fact, the first self-help book I ever read, Loving What Is by Byron Katie, basically equipped me with a spiritual bypassing toolkit, which I then used in a wholehearted, desperate, years-long attempt to rebuild my messy, falling-apart life.
The premise of Katie’s work (which she calls The Work), is that our suffering is a result of our thoughts about our lives, not our circumstances.
“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.”
When I read that back in 2008, I was struggling hard in my marriage and life. Most every day felt stressful and overwhelming, I felt unseen and starved for emotional intimacy. Resentment had begun to build in me no matter how hard I tried to be more tolerant, forgiving, and understanding.
But as a super dedicated stay-home mom of four who hadn’t built a career before having babies (and thus was dependent on my husband financially), who had no idea what healthy boundaries looked or felt like, who’d built a high tolerance for chaos and discomfort given the circumstances I was living under, and whose caring heart was all kinds of codependent, I felt totally stuck. Also, I couldn’t fathom transferring the stress I was living under, to my kids, by leaving.
So basically, I was perfectly positioned to be cult-level influenced by Katie’s philosophy. The idea that inner peace might be possible for me without having to make heartbreaking, scary changes, was the most alluring idea I’d heard in…maybe ever.
The first thought I put to the test once I’d read her book, and my turnaround after I answered her four questions, just kills me:
Initial thought: “One of my husband’s choices is slowly destroying our family.”
After doing The Work: “My thoughts about my husband’s choice are slowly destroying our family.”
Boy does my blood boil when I look back on that now. Now that I understand the trauma responses I was operating from. Now that I understand hyperarousal and fawning and the way family systems function around addiction. Now that I’ve done a shit ton of codependency work. And now that I’ve been out of that marriage for six years and discovered what I actually needed in order to feel free.
Though I see The Work as potentially deeply damaging and even traumatizing (or retraumatizing) as a standalone tool, I don’t discredit it entirely. In fact, I still use it from time to time, kind of like I use screwdrivers from time to time, though not when a hammer or sandpaper or a washing machine would do the job better.
I bust it out when I need a quick story check, but not when my body is signaling a lack of safety. I use it when I recognize the presence of a shitty first draft and want to deconstruct it quickly, but never when a younger part of me is needing to be seen or held or have her feelings validated.
Looking back, that six-year stretch of Katie-quoting, reality oversimplifying, spiritual bypassing taught me some important lessons:
The question I come back to time and again when I’m wondering if checking my thoughts is sufficient or only part of what’s needed, is this…
“If one of my daughters were in my shoes right now, would I advise her merely to check her thoughts or would I remind her that she’s worthy of more life-giving circumstances?”
That usually takes me to the answer I need in no time.
I’m all for positive thinking and optimism and finding the beauty in as many moments as I possibly can. But I’m also all for justice and healing and the rising of women and the radical transformation of our wounded world, and those things require a certain amount of discomfort, courage, rage, brokenheartedness, grief, and seeing ourselves as worthy of a more beautiful, equitable world.
Changing our thoughts isn’t always the right tool.
May your healing lighten your load and sweeten your stories,