"The truth is that we will never transcend the human condition, and we need a spirituality that can cope with that reality."

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Episode 100 -- March 29, 2021

No Spiritual Shortcuts: The Only Way Forward is Through

For millions of people, healthy spirituality is the solid backbone to their recovery. Like all good things, though, spiritual ideas and practices can also be used badly and in ways that damage our sanity and complicate sobriety with unrealistic expectations.

In her book, Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice, Dr. Ingrid Mathieu explores the spiritual aspects of Twelve Step recovery—including how the language of the program can stall recovery and limit vision. In this excerpt, Dr. Mathieu describes "Spiritual Bypass" — the natural impulse to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep our own unfinished emotional business. She offers a vision for spirituality not as a method for controlling outcomes but as a powerful way to cope with whatever life gives us.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

I believe that many of us are truly yearning for a spiritual path that allows us to be whole human beings—with faults and assets, troubles and triumphs—because the truth is that we will never transcend the human condition, and we need a spirituality that can cope with that reality.

It turns out there is a concept that captures the phenomenon I've described. It is called spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism by which we use spiritual practices or beliefs to avoid our emotional wounds, unwanted thoughts or impulses, or threats to our self-esteem. A simple example of this defense is when we believe that if we pray hard enough, or in the right manner, we can escape our painful feelings. We are experiencing spiritual bypass when we expect our spiritual practices to "fix" our problems, rather than to be with us in the midst of them.

When I realized there was language for this experience, I could not stop thinking about it. I was both curious about and dumbfounded by the fact that so many of us have been trying to walk a spiritual path—whatever that means to each of us, whether religious or not religious—only to get tangled up in the illusion that spirituality is a method for controlling obstacles and outcomes. We were earnestly and openly doing our spiritual work without realizing that the ways in which we were using the tools were actually in service of perpetuating our shortcomings. Consciously, we wanted to evolve. Unconsciously, we wanted to stay comfortable and in control.

Addicts tend to have an expectation that they should feel good all the time. When someone with this belief reads The Promises (found in Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 83-84), they are offered assurance that feeling good all the time is achievable. This, of course, is not the case—which could prove confusing at best when it comes to interpreting The Promises:

"If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them."

The Promises paint a solely positive picture of recovery, even going so far as to say they will "always materialize" if one works for them. This can lead a person in recovery to feel as though he is doing something wrong if he is not experiencing every promise. In other words, if someone is feeling sad or angry, he might believe that he is not working a successful program. He could mistake the absence of "happy, joyous, and free" feelings as evidence that he is missing something vital in his recovery. If someone is afraid, he might think he isn't "turning it over" enough. The truth is that we are meant to know and experience the full range of human emotions. Sadness and fear are healthy expressions and essential guideposts for what we are going through. Experiencing these feelings is just as much a "gift" of the program as "happy, joyous, and free"—because sobriety gives people the opportunity to experience all of their feelings and to make choices about how they wish to navigate life with an abundant consciousness. Most recovering alcoholics drank with an underlying desire to mask their feelings, so the opportunity to experience the broad spectrum of human emotions can be perceived as one of the most valuable aspects of sobriety.

In addition to the Big Book passages that can be read as endorsing spiritual bypass, some sections in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions can be misconstrued. In particular, Step Ten—"Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it"—contains language that might support one's rejection of his emotions. In an effort to encourage people in recovery to take regular inventory, and to highlight what can happen when one is unaware of what he is feeling and how it is operating, Step Ten comes across as rather rigid about what are acceptable and unacceptable emotions. Anger is discussed as a "luxury of more balanced people" that will certainly lead to a bender for the alcoholic. Jealousy, envy, and pride are considered "disturbances" rather than feelings and are considered equal predictors of relapse.

Of course, the idea embedded in Step Ten is that resentments can—and do—lead to relapse. What the reading does not address is that people will never be free of their feelings. Inventory can reveal what a person feels, as well as his "part" in the matter. Occasionally, such understanding will eliminate the fear or anger altogether. Other times, inventory will reveal both a person's feelings and her part, and it does not diminish the situation or the feelings that coincide as much as one hopes or believes that it will. In this case, the recovering person need not beat up himself for having a human experience. He can learn to tolerate his feelings, make sane and healthy choices about how to navigate them, and find ways to not drink or use no matter what.

The idea of long-term sobriety is to wear life like a loose-fitting garment, not to strip away the garment or to wear it like a straitjacket! In this we can be comforted by the program's tenet of "Progress, not perfection." One of the advantages of long-term sobriety is the experience of having moved through a host of thoughts and feelings that eventually came to pass. Although the program occurs "one day at a time," it is the culmination of time that enables a person to withstand and accept sadness, anger, fear, humiliation, and other difficult emotions as transient, temporary, and human. The adage "This too shall pass" is just as appropriate for experiencing The Promises as it is for experiencing their absence.

We cannot decide to keep a lid on certain emotions while we freely feel and express others. We are not capable of that sort of precision. To have access to all of our feelings, we need to give all of them the attention they deserve. Recovery does not afford alcoholics the ability to disassociate from their feelings but rather the ability to feel and express feelings appropriately and compassionately.

About the Author:
INGRID MATHIEU holds a master's degree in transpersonal psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California. As a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, she specializes in treating individuals who are in recovery.

© 2011 by Ingrid Mathieu, PhD
All rights reserved