I bravely walked into the church in November 2016 and tried to put on a happy face. I had spent the last month recovering from stillbirth and subsequent emergency surgery for an infection. I still looked pregnant, despite having barely eaten or slept for the past few weeks. I wasn’t sure I ever would recover from losing our son. One minute everything was fine, and the next we were delivering him and planning his funeral. I walked into the church, hoping to go unnoticed. I was standing in the foyer and a woman walked up to me and asked if I was having a boy or a girl. Obviously, she didn’t get the memo on what had happened. I politely said, trying to hold back my emotion, that I had lost the baby. She then said, ” God must have needed another angel in heaven”, and walked away. I was glad she walked away because my urge was to slap her. She didn’t know what to say, so she said something that sounded good but it made me feel like my feelings weren’t valid. That is spiritual bypassing when you say or do something that negates what emotions people may be feeling in a spiritual way. Another definition; is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
Other common phrases that can be used as a spiritual bypass are:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “You create your own happiness.”
- “It was for the best.”
- “It was a blessing in disguise.”
- “Good vibes only!”
- “Thoughts and prayers!”
We have all done this at one time or another. I don’t think we realize how hurtful it is until we experience it. So why do we do it? Generally, because we are uncomfortable with pain. We don’t like to experience emotional pain and we also don’t like to be around people who are in emotional pain. My tendency is to want to fix the situation. When a friend called me recently with a parenting problem with their child, my first instinct was to suggest ways she might fix the situation. That’s not what she called me for. She called me wanting someone to listen and to empathize. I’ve been practicing shutting my mouth and listening, and not automatically offering suggestions unless they ask. Let me tell you, it’s not comfortable. Sitting with someone in pain is in and of itself painful. To be able to empathize we must allow ourselves to experience some of their pain. That is difficult. But that is what we all need.
When I lost my son and I sat in bed for a week recovering physically, but also trying desperately to drag myself out of the dark emotional pit I was in, my son Luke taught me an important lesson in comforting people who are mourning. He was almost 2 years old and he would sit in bed with me for hours and not say anything. Every once in a while he would reach up and softly touch my face and I would cry and he would sit there with me silently. That is what people in pain need. They need someone to sit in silence with them. They need physical touch. In my work in prayer ministry at church, I have learned that I could pray the most eloquent prayers and say the most inspiring things, but instead, I just hug people. It really breaks through to something deeper when I do that. I grab people and hug them for an uncomfortable amount of time tightly, and most of the time they just sob. It does more healing than anything I could ever say. I learned that the hard way though, after years of spiritual bypassing. I’ve said so many things to hurting people I wish I could take back.
Do you spiritually bypass people? Do you spiritually bypass yourself? Sometimes we can say these things to ourselves so as to not deal with our own difficult emotions. In many Christian circles, this is considered a positive thing, emotions are not to be felt or dealt with in any way because they are not to be trusted. I think that leaves many people wanting more. People need others to tell them “you are heard and seen in your pain and are loved”. “Weep with those who weep”. Jesus showed a range of emotions in his time on earth and I think it was for us to see that emotions are not bad. We must feel our emotions in order to heal and part of that healing comes from others honestly acknowledging our felt experiences.