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The Danger in Fake Positivity and Spiritual Bypassing

Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

Today’s spiritual (and sometimes psychology) world feels fake to me. Lots of pretty blond yogis talking about positive vibes, about not allowing negative energy or thoughts to get to you, about surrounding yourself with only supportive positive people.

Unless you live in a bubble on Mars, this is not only not realistic, but this is also a recipe for staying emotionally and psychically dwarfed, never growing or truly learning who you are.

We (myself and many other spiritually minded psychologists and teachers) call this, “spiritual bypassing.” An attempt to transcend without having to face the humanness or the negative. When, in fact, it’s the ugly parts of our humanness where the growth occurs.

“Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear…are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They’re like messengers that tell us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.” –Pema Chodron

There are many other emotions and experiences that should serve as touch points, or little flags popping up to tell us there is something to learn: Challenge, sorrow, change, uncomfortableness, conflict, hatred, depression, anxiety. These are all opportunities for growth and change, for learning about and accepting the parts of ourselves society wants us to keep tucked away. Without these, we can never grow past where we are at in this current moment, emotionally or spiritually.

A lot of the stigma around mental illness is perpetuated by this fake positivity. Telling someone who has clinical depression to not focus on the negative and only the positive does nothing to help them. It perpetuates their feelings that something is wrong with them when they cannot simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” I would actually say to someone struggling with depression that they are more tuned in to real human experience and emotion than the person pushing “positive vibes only” on them.

Clients don’t come to therapy or seek life coaching because everything is going wonderfully in their lives. It’s because they are stuck in some sort of pattern or loop, that has many of the above emotions attached to it, that they cannot seem to break or get out of on their own. It is very important sometimes that we have a non-biased third party to help us pull back and see what we are running from or challenge us to face what we are unwilling to feel. Friends and loved ones can’t do this for us. We have too many emotional ties to them, and they to us, to really ask and face the dark and dirty realities needed in order to progress and change. Does that sound scary or hard? It is. It takes real courage and hard work to stop pretending you’ve got it all together and to shake hands with deep sadness or childhood trauma. And yes, this is a plug for going to therapy (I’m a therapist, I can’t help it).

In our world of getting things done and checking things off our to-do lists, it’s also important to recognize that sometimes there is nothing to actually be done with or about these emotions. Sometimes they ask only to be acknowledged. To sit with sorrow or with resentment or with jealousy and not try to change them or pick them apart. To allow the unfolding to happen. To witness and feel the emotions flood your system, to breath into the places in your body you feel them residing or taking hold. Watching and feeling them pulse and simply allowing them to be. There is a softening that happens when we allow space for all emotions, not just the positive ones. There is great learning in witnessing as it gives the emotions space to play and a voice that asks to be heard.

If we can allow ourselves the space and acceptance to be multifaceted we are experiencing life to its fullest. Being a human means to face suffering. There is no light without dark, no happiness without sadness. Without feeling all things we would have no basis for comparison. If we run from the feelings on the other side of the spectrum through busy-ness, fake positivity, drinking (insert any 1 of 100 other defense mechanisms here) we are only living half of our existence. When we stop and honor the difficult emotions that sometimes flood our system we have the opportunity to live fully and integrate all sides of our self. These emotions will not stop tormenting us until we stop running from them; from the truth of who we are.

Next time you feel a sense of anger, fear, or sorrow, I challenge you to pause, get still and quiet. To notice the feeling in your body and take a deep breath into that space. You might even place a hand on the spot (the chest, the stomach, the throat, etc). Truly honor it and your humanness through recognition. Maybe you’ll feel a loosening or a sense of the emotion washing over you. But then it’s gone, like a wave crashing on shore and receding back into the ocean.

It’s also important to own the feeling. No one can make you feel any way. Even when it feels like someone else is triggering us, the source of discomfort is within. Blaming your anger or resentment on someone else is a very easy way to bypass the inner work.

The path of individuation asks for total integration of all facets of the self; good, bad, and ugly. Don’t get discouraged by the difficult moments and emotions, don’t push them away or diminish someone else’s experience through fake positivity. Uncovering and understanding the self is a lifelong journey that demands rejection of the conventional attitudes that most people want to live hidden behind: The mask of positivity.

“It is an easy thing to say ‘be yourself’ but quite another thing to know who you truly are. How can you be yourself if you do not know that self? Therefor, the process of individuation becomes a seeking after self-knowledge.” -June Singer

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