The Spiritual Bypass -- and Other Articles

Sandra Michaelson (1944-1999), author and psychotherapist, wrote material on spirituality, health, and psychology just before her death from breast cancer. This new material was not included in her three books, two of which dealt with relationships and one with codependency. This new material is being published here.

The Spiritual Bypass: Ways We Sabotage Our Spiritual Growth

by Sandra Michaelson
A commercial industry has sprung up to assist us in improving ourselves and developing our spiritual nature. Such commercialization, along with other influences, often foster what I call the spiritual bypass whereby we fail to discriminate between pseudo-spirituality and true inner transformation.

We have become adept at playing a game of personal growth. We assume that inner transformation will flower from reading books, attending workshops, doing repetitive practices, reciting magical incantations, and expressing the appropriate platitudes. Are we really transforming ourselves or are we merely creating a new fiction about who we are?

I remember as a child going to church and trying very hard to feel something appropriate to the occasion, such as deeper understanding, joy, or love. On these occasions, it seemed to me that others were easily experiencing such pleasant feelings. All I felt was boredom. My parents warned that church attendance was required to avoid damnation. And I was supposed to feel something appropriate--maybe it was gratitude that God was sparing me. All I knew was that my actual feelings--doubt, confusion, and boredom--were wrong or not good enough.

Though I didn't know it at the time, my true spiritual experiences consisted of hanging out in trees, admiring and picking flowers, enjoying nature walks, and collecting rocks and stones. I kept this intimate relationship with nature a secret from my family--feeling sure they would not understand and perhaps even disapprove. I kept my real feelings private, separate from others. Thus, I separated myself into two parts, one the outer person who conformed with what was expected of her, and the other a secretive, reticent, yet more spontaneous and feeling person who I kept hidden.

I wasn't the only person divided against herself. Many of us lose touch with that spontaneous, curious child we once were and immerse ourselves in performance and compliance to others' expectations. Certainly, that's what wins the most approval. It is this pattern of performance and compliance that reinforces our existing defenses and represents one of the biggest impediments to the attainment of true spiritual qualities.

Compulsive Goodness--Performing Your Life. An aspect of the spiritual bypass is compulsive goodness. This form of goodness is a learned, conditioned habit of parroting perfection in order to whitewash our passive compliance to the words, attitudes, and expectations of others. This behavior and mentality also compensate for inner feelings of worthlessness. We act good in this way because we have difficulty standing up for ourselves and respecting our own intuitive knowing and feeling. We are good in this compulsive manner because we cannot express anger, ask for what we want, refuse what is requested of us, speak up for ourselves, know what it is we want, trust in our own perceptions, or express any other form of self-interest.

Such goodness is motivated by a fear that we will be criticized and disliked. It covers up an unconscious inclination for self-rejection and self-neglect, and it represents a fear of connecting to ourselves, along with a resistance to being ourselves.

Discriminating Against Negative Feelings. We also take a spiritual bypass when we overlook or spurn the need to work out negative attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. Many of us associate spirituality with the repression all that is wrong or negative in us, in the hope of developing what is positive and right. Hate, anger, and selfishness are denied in favor of love and compassion. We embark on a program to cultivate the appropriate positive behaviors. If negative emotions do come up, we feel contaminated by them. We try frantically to fix them, banish them, or pretend they are non-existent and not a real problem.

When we censor our negative emotions and try to act good, our underlying negativity does not go away. We feel anxious that these "bad" feelings or thoughts will resurface, and consequently we live in fear of our feelings. We create a greater division within ourselves, a division between the "right" part and the "wrong" part. Those parts will be in conflict with each other, creating tension, anxiety, and distrust of our perceptions.

When we act and sound spiritual according to someone else's specifications, we hand over our power to others in the same manner in which we adopted our parents' conditioning as our own. We thereby squelch the truth of our feelings and abort the prospect of becoming more aware. For the negative elements inside us represent our growing edge, the underworld through which we must journey to get to our authentic self. Rather than running from our feelings and self-defeating behaviors, we need to acknowledge them, discover where they come from, and learn the meaning behind them.

Obsessed with Doing. Often, the more we accomplish in life, including spiritual practice, the more validation we feel. Many of us attempt to manipulate the external experience to defend our self-image, increasing our dependency on something outside to orient or know ourself, rather than facing the internal issues that run our emotional lives. It is the path of greatest resistance to face who we are, know what we are feeling, and understand why we react the way we do.

Seeking Enlightenment for the Wrong Reasons. What is the intention behind our quest for spiritual growth? Do we unconsciously desire the recognition, the power, the security that we are failing to provide for ourselves through inner connection? Many of us seek bliss or spiritual powers to enhance our egocentricity, not to overcome it. We regard spiritual attainment as a way to fill an emotional vacuum, escape from our internal conflicts, and avoid the challenges and realities of everyday life, such as building a career, establishing a relationship, or raising a family.

Emotional Resistance to Physical Health

by Sandra Michaelson 
We know that stress can cause disease and that suppressed anger or fear can make us sick. Negative thoughts and emotions depress us and affect our immune system.

So pain or illness can be seen as the manifestation of an embedded emotional conflict. We can respond to illness or use illness either to mobilize ourselves for further psychological growth and enhanced physical health or to mire ourselves more deeply into disease and a victim position.

Health problems most often are an indication of a needed change in our attitude towards ourselves and our lives. Illness can be a physical representation of forces in all of us that oppose our wholeness, victimize us, stop our progress, and render us powerless.

For example, the disease herpes can represent a part of ourselves that is entrenched in feeling defective, contaminated, unwanted, unlovable, and rejected. This disease often represents an expression of unconscious sexual conflicts and feelings of shame and lack of forgiveness pertaining to our sexual conduct and our sexual identity.

All of us in varying degrees have an unconscious resistance to growth. Emotionally, growth can even feel like loss, not gain. If we become healthy, there will be nothing left for which to struggle. Many of us are addicted to struggle or to feeling drained or pressured. I knew a lawyer who would always manage to become ill just before an important trial. His courtroom trial was turned into a major inner trial that was suffused with the prospect of looking bad and being seen as ineffective.

This unconscious compulsion to sabotage ourselves often stems from a buried inner conviction that we really don't deserve health, success, or happiness. Health and happiness feel foreign to us because they do not correspond with our expectations or with who we think we are. Loss, deprivation, and feelings of neglect are more familiar to us than prosperity or feeling loved. Even the good in our lives causes anxiety in some of us because we expect it will be lost or taken away. Not succeeding helps us to avoid the expectation of a painful loss.

Sickness is an indicator of the depth and magnitude of our self-hatred, self-negation, guilt, and lack of forgiveness towards ourselves and others. Here are some of the ways our negative emotions can be acted out through illness.

1) Sickness as a way to connect with others. The major attention I received from my mother came in the form of discussions about my problems, particularly my physical problems. Getting sick as a child is one way to get our parents' attention. It becomes a way to feel close to others. For some, being healthy brings up emotional associations with feeling alone and abandoned.

2) Sickness to get back at a parent or spouse. I had a client who exhausted herself to the point of serious illness by overworking and striving for accomplishment in her field. We discovered she was acting out anger towards her husband and her mother. Her motivation was fueled by this hidden feeling: "Okay mother, you insist that I work hard and succeed. I'll do what you want, but I'll kill myself in the process and then you'll see what you've done." Her sickness was an attempt to induce guilt in her mother and husband for how she felt they treated her. But, in effect her illness became a way to maintain the feeling of being victimized and enslaved by her mother's and husband's control.

3) Sickness to be a victim of neglectful people. Some people, especially codependents or what I call emotional caterers, go out of their way, to the detriment of their own health, to satisfy the needs of others. In turn, they intensify the feeling of being neglected or not supported when they get sick themselves. Their unconscious protest is: "You see how far I go to help you. I'm willing to sacrifice myself, even my health, to show you how much I care. If only you gave me one-tenth of the support I give you!" Illness makes them even more a victim of uncaring people.

They use sickness as a way to feel let down and disappointed when others do not cater to them or take care of them according to their high expectations. Through illness they try to put the other person in the role of neglectful parent, recreating their childhood experience of feeling hurt when others (parents) did not respond to them as expected.

4) Sickness as retaliation against someone close to you. If you feel neglected or hurt by a spouse or partner, you can retaliate by becoming sick and thus unavailable to them. This is particularly common among partners of alcoholics or drug addicts. Getting sick is also a common response to feelings of powerlessness against the behaviors or attitudes of some family members.

5) Sickness as a way to resist the control of others. The person who is sick is able to reverse a situation in which he feels controlled or helpless, and thereby place others at the mercy of the conditions or requirements of his sickness. Developing food disorders is an example.

6) Sickness as a way to express dependency. Here an individual shifts responsibility for himself onto others. Such individuals include chronic "dependees" who often rely on guilt to get others to do things for them. Through their illness, they set others up to be pseudo-parents.

7) Sickness as one's identity. Some people become heavily invested in their disease as the primary way in which they know and experience themselves. One of my clients had a mother who was perpetually sick. The mother told her, "Nobody knows what it feels like to be sick like I am." She was invested in having the greatest pain and being the sickest person around, which gave her a strange form of comfort because it was the only way she knew to get attention or validation from others.

8) Sickness as a way to avoid commitment. How many of us have used sickness as a way of getting out of something we really don't want to do? If we are incapacitated in some way, the belief goes, others will not expect anything from us. Some people even feel that if they become healthy or successful, others will make more demands on them. If we are healthy, it is felt, we have more obligations to fulfill and more people to take care of. So illness can be a way of saying no or a way of isolating.

Basic Requirements for Genuine Spiritual Transformation
by Sandra Michaelson
Spirituality is not separate from our everyday lives. It does no good to try to saturate oneself in feelings of oneness or develop psychic powers if one's life is full of conflict and turmoil. The practice of spirituality requires that we deal with the realities of our life, which include our feelings, thoughts, and self-limiting behaviors.
Selflessness versus Individual Expression. Spirituality involves a harmonious balance between the expression of self-interest and concern for the whole. It means the adoption of an attitude called appropriate selfishness. This refers to the ability to care about yourself, how you are treated, and what happens to you. Many of us act in a selfless manner out of the desire to impress others or to feel needed by others. Or we act selfishly out of fear and ignorance.
Authenticity--Dropping the Compulsion to be Positive. The spiritual way expresses the truth of your experience rather than some moral pattern you learned in childhood. If anger is present, feel it, but learn why it is present. Authentic anger is better than pretended serentiy. If depression is present, acknowledge it and learn where it comes from. Your feelings or thoughts are not good or bad, they simply are. Adopt an attitude of curiosity about your negative feelings. If you cannot be authentic with your negativity, then you cannot be authentic with the positive.

Self-Acceptance. What does it mean to accept yourself fully? Self-acceptance involves the ability to own and accept whatever you are experiencing or feeling, including negative feelings, without shame, judgment, or self-condemnation, and without holding others responsible. Self-acceptance means accepting our mistakes, negative traits, and quirks, as well as acknowledging and giving ourselves credit for our positive traits and accomplishments. It means exploring the reasons why we do not accept ourselves and owning our resistance to accepting ourselves.
Be Your Own Authority. Becoming your own authority first involves seeing the extent to which you have relinquished your authority. To become your own authority, you have to recognize the precise ways you allow others to control or influence you. It also means valuing yourself, believing in yourself, and trusting your own opinions and perceptions. Why is it so hard to value ourselves? Mainly because as children we felt that our genuine self-expression was not valued by our parents. What we felt and thought, it seemed, didn't matter to them. It was more important to please them. We now fall into the habit of devaluing ourselves in the same manner in which we felt devalued as children. This means we can't access the truth and the authority that come from our own being.

Becoming a Non-Judgmental Observer of Yourself. Spiritual growth is an emotional experience (not an intellectual exercise) in which you come to know yourself intimately--your positive and negative traits, thoughts, and feelings. It requires a spontaneous non-judgmental way of relating to yourself and the world.

As an exercise, become for one day a non-judgmental observer of yourself. Observe your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and interactions with others. Try to discern precisely what you are feeling or interpreting and where that feeling comes from in your past. Watch how you categorize people and evaluate them. Notice how you regard others, checking out their possessions or seeing them as being better or less than you. Notice your readiness to blame others or an outside situation for your reactions or behaviors and how caught up you get in the other person's behavior.
Notice how much time you spend on a) concerns about others, b) feeling bad about yourself, c) bemoaning what you are not getting, d) feeling controlled or trapped, e) experiencing rejection and criticism, f) wallowing in past grievances or emotional injuries, g) fantasizing the future h) worrying and imagining catastrophes, i) focusing on lists and chores.
It is challenging to accept whatever is happening without censoring or editing our thoughts and feelings. Eventually, with practice, we will observe how we interpret what is going on around us.
Overcoming Past Conditioning. We get to know ourselves intimately by understanding how we see the world, ourselves and others through the lens of our past conditioning. Overcoming this conditioning means understanding how our ideas, points of view, and rules are heavily influenced by our past. It requires an emotional correlation along with cognitive awareness of our present-day feelings and expectations with our past childhood reactions and experiences.
Shifting Into Neutral. When you no longer personalize your environment, you automatically shift into neutral. When you watch your behaviors, feelings, and interpretations, and understand where they come from and how you have been holding onto them, a detachment results. Things will happen before you, in front of you, but not to you. Distance gives you the ability to perceive more objectively. You move through your life in a state of alert awareness and accept whatever life brings. You have no rules to follow, no rules to oppose; nothing to fight for, nothing to fight against.

Now, if you decide to become involved, say, in some good cause, you can do so with a detachment, objectivity, and wisdom that makes you more effective as a fighter for truth or justice.

A liberated person has moved past seeing himself or herself as the innocent victim of parents and family dynamics. This person accepts both his strengths and weaknesses. He becomes honest not because someone told him he should be honest, but because honesty happens on its own accord. The person becomes curious about things, curious about how others feel, and why they respond the way they do.
The person is able spontaneously, without fear, to generate love and express that love to others. These qualities are not pretended or performed. They evolve naturally from within.
Basic Assumptions of Transformation. (1) You have all the resources and wisdom you need to resolve your issues. (2) Habits or patterns are not fixed, the future is open to change. Personality and character are fluid rather than fixed structures. (3) Present obstacles are opportunities for new insights and creative forms of self-expression. (4) Each of us is author of our own interpretations and responses to daily circumstances. What matters is what you do with what happens to you. (5) Feelings are not problems to be fixed or gotten rid of. Feelings are to be understood and acknowledged with compassion. (6) There is no good or bad, no right or wrong. Our experience of ourselves and who we are just is. As detached observers of ourselves, we see situations and events as neutral.
My Favorite Negative Affirmations. To balance out the misplaced faith in positive affirmations, here are some of my favorite negative affirmations. These are intended ironically, of course. But listen closely and you will learn something important about yourself.

Rule No. 1: Never be happy or satisfied with what you have; Always remember that others have more than you; Be sure to discount the nice things that do exist in your life; Get into the habit of feeling gypped, short-changed, and treated unfairly; Write a list of all the things you are missing out on, as well as the needs that are never met; Compose a poem entitled, "Never enough."
Rule No. 2: Always expect others to see you as bad or inadequate; Look into the faces of others only to see what nasty things they are thinking about you; Look at others with the same judgmental attitude with which you are sure they look back at you; Beat others to the punch by disliking them first.
Rule No. 3: Take any disagreement from others as a personal rejection of you; Be aware that others are deliberately out to get you or ruin your life; Each week collect as many feelings of rejection as you can, and stash them in your grudge file drawer; Keep score of all the people who offend you and keep records on how others let you down; Discount any praise you receive; Worry daily on whether or not you are measuring up.
Rule No. 4: Fantasize on all your worst-possible disaster scenarios; Worry daily about them coming to pass; As often as possible, make mountains out of molehills; Revel now in the possibilities of loss, shame, failure, or destruction; Reaffirm your belief that the world is going to hell and others are sick.
Rule No. 5: Feel guilty for the slightest misdemeanor; Feel shame for the smallest misdeed; Believe what others say to be Gospel Truth; See and do things their way; Never speak your own mind; Don't even know your own mind, then accuse others of controlling you; Finally, trust everyone but yourself.
Rule No. 6: Stay wrapped up in your own little world; Feel that things aren't supposed to work out; If some good happens, worry that something will soon come along and take it away; Believe that you'll never get any better; Or be convinced you are already perfect--It's others who need help; Believe there is no such thing as happiness.
The nice thing about these rules is that you don't have to follow them--they follow you. They won't allow themselves to be forgotten until you become more aware. 

The Emotional Aspects of One Type of Cancer-Prone Personality
by Sandra Michaelson
On the surface, these individuals can appear cheerful, competent, helpful to others, and loved by others. But in their own estimation they may feel inadequate, helpless, and out of control. Their superficial cheerfulness masks an underlying entrenchment in feeling helpless or hopeless.
Such individuals are likely to be non-accepting or critical of themselves and to belittle their accomplishments. They may have a hard time accepting favors or believing that others love them. While they are sympathetic and helpful to others, they find it hard to express anger.
Though they appear happy, outgoing, and confident, their negativity resides in their willingness to sacrifice their needs for others. Pleasing others becomes the primary motive in their lives, though they are often unconscious of this motive. Though these individuals can be extremely sensitive to the needs of others, they may be totally insensitive to their own. They often emphasize their weak points, play down their strengths, and discount praise. Years of living and reacting in this manner rob such people of their confidence, lead to an obsession with imagined failures, and make them incapable of accepting the love of others.
In their relationships, these cancer-prone individuals either feel insecure in their partner's love or drained by their partner's weaknesses (which they feel responsible for). Separations are often difficult and frightening. They are often preoccupied with worries about losing their loved ones. Feeling that others do not value them or acknowledge their worth, they become convinced they aren't lovable or desirable.
Such individuals feel the need to accomplish a lot in order to be loved, please others, or win recognition. They view life situations as report cards of their worth. If they fail or perceive that they have failed, it feels to them that they cannot be loved. They are intolerant with themselves and have a fear of people finding out what they secretly believe about themselves--that they are insignificant and unworthy. Their desire to succeed is based on their need for approval or praise--which never feels like enough.
Trapped in this psychological prison, such a person feels he cannot allow himself to be ordinary, make mistakes, or be himself. On an emotional, unconscious level, he may feel: "If I am not exceptional and cannot fulfill the expectations of others, I do not deserve to live."
The need to avert negative evaluation by others results in harsh self-criticism. But fear of doing something wrong causes this individual to think of himself in terms of being wrong. He or she often feels unable to influence the immediate environment through direct action. For example, if situations are not to the person’s liking, he feels he has to make concessions. He gives up what he wants to appease others. He is afraid to ask for help because he expects to be refused and, consequently, embarrassed. He does not want to look grasping, nor does he know how to make his needs known. He has a fear that others will be angry, disappointed, or rejecting if he pursues his goals or becomes successful.
Such individuals look for the right person or an accomplishment that they feel will bestow on them the self-esteem and autonomy they lack. Their life's meaning comes from people and things outside of themselves. They are fearful of expressing justifiable anger at those who hurt them, and are reluctant to express a contrary opinion for fear of disapproval or rejection. They develop unrealistic goals that they are convinced will bring them happiness, yet when they experience a hindrance or obstacle they are apt to despair and abandon their goals. Such people live under a fear of self-disintegration that is rooted in a deficient sense of self and an inability to see themselves as independent from others.
This shriveling sense of self, eroded by self-negation and self-rejection, corresponds to the image of cancer that turns on its own cells and destroys them.

Six Steps to Discover the Meaning of Your Illness

by Sandra Michaelson
First Step -- Express your intention to explore and transform the attitudes and behaviors that are contributing to your illness. This means engaging your illness directly and exploring its psychological meaning. Examine the feelings, thoughts, and actions that were part of your life before you became ill and that may have prompted your health problems.

Second -- Call up an image in your imagination that represents your illness or pain. What does this image say to you? It might say, for instance, "I'm the part of you that feels responsible for everyone and everything." Continue to dialogue with this image. Ask: "In what specific ways am I feeling overly responsible? How have I acted out this feeling or pattern in my life? Where does this feeling come from in my past? Is there a specific person or situation that triggers this feeling or pattern?"

Third -- Express in detail how your pain or illness causes you feel. For example, "My stiff neck makes me feel choked and strangled, unable to express what I truly feel." Ask yourself, "How am I strangling myself or squelching myself, preventing the expression of the truth of my being?" Answers might include: "My feelings are stupid; my ideas will never be taken seriously; I'll be hated if I express my truth." Also ask, "How am I allowing myself to be strangled by others? How am I setting myself up to act out being strangled in my life?"

Fourth -- Answer the following questions: What effect does this illness have on your life and on your relationships with others? How do you perceive that others are affected by your illness? For example, you may feel they don't care about it, and you may thereby be acting out some old emotional attachment to the feeling of being neglected or not valued. Do you have a hidden agenda for your illness? You may feel your illness provides you with the only way you can get a reaction from others. Also ask yourself, "What do I have to face (or not have to face) by being sick? Check to see if your illness represents retaliation or a way of getting attention from those you love.

Fifth -- Pursue the meaning behind your illness with more penetrating reflections. Are you holding any old or present-day grievances with others? What feelings do these grievances bring up in you? How did you feel you were treated by these individuals? Observe the attachment to the feeling of being a victim. Explore your role in how you may have allowed or unconsciously assisted in what happened.

Then take these feelings back to your relationship with yourself and ask: "How do I treat myself in the same manner? Am I regarding myself in the same way I see them?" List all the grievances and guilt you are holding against yourself. Does your guilt pertain to childhood rules or attitudes that may no longer be serving you? Are you holding yourself responsible for actions or circumstances that were beyond your awareness or control? Feel your unwillingness to express compassion and understanding for yourself. Feel your resistance to forgiving yourself.

Sixth -- Answer honestly the following question: "If I become healthy, happy, or successful, what will happen? For example, "Others will ignore me," or "Nothing that good could ever possibly happen to me." Or, “I will lose my sense of who I am.”