Are You “Bypassing” in Recovery?

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Jonah Anderson

I watched a video recently where I heard a term I had never heard before, “spiritual bypassing,” which the video defined as using spiritual practices to bypass feeling one’s emotions. The concept made perfect sense to me, and I realized I have done this myself.

That said, it wasn’t until a recent men’s therapy group that I run that the concept of “bypassing” really hit home. A client had just suffered a relapse and stated with a vengeance all the things he was going to do to make up for what he did. As I listened to him, something felt off.

Initially, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that felt off. It certainly wasn’t the steps he was planning to take to fix things. Those were all excellent recovery strategies and techniques. But then, about 10 or 15 minutes later, another member of the group said something that reminded me of spiritual bypassing. At that point, I made a connection to recovery. The man who’d just relapsed was essentially “recovery bypassing.” In other words, he was using his fervor for recovery to bypass his deeper feelings.

That’s when the bypassing concept really hit home, mostly because I have done the exact same thing more times than I can remember. After any type of struggle, I frantically try to do as many things as possible to rectify the mistake I made. In doing this, however, I now realize I’m making a bit of a mistake. I am focusing on the surface-level solution and not the root cause of my behavior.

The root cause of the mistakes that recovering addicts make is the underlying shame, pain, and hurt that create our “need” to emotionally escape through addiction. It is now clear to me that we can do the exact same thing with our recovery. When we react as the client in my men’s group did, we compartmentalize and fail to address the root causes of our problems. We become entirely focused on the action steps we’re going to take, and we forget that part of the healing process is sitting with and processing our pain.

In this way, we never actually address what is causing our distress in the first place: the emptiness, shame, and loneliness that create the void we all seek to fill. No matter how much we try to fill that void, we will not fill it until we learn to sit with and work through our pain, anger, and discomfort. 

Too often when we have a slip or relapse we immediately focus on what we will do to solve the problem. We do this to show our partner, our 12-step group, our therapy group, our family, and our friends that we have a plan and we are doing something positive and productive. We may also be doing this to run away from our feelings. 

The moment I made that connection, I felt like I had been punched. I took the opportunity to suggest to my client that his action steps to fix things didn’t mention anything about dealing with the root causes of his acting out. I suggested to him that in addition to taking the action steps he’d outlined, I wanted him to sit with his feelings. I wanted him to fully feel and experience the shame, disgust, and frustration he’d expressed, plus any other unpleasant feelings that wanted to come and say hi. 

If we don’t face what is in ourselves, nothing we do will make the underlying causes of our pain go away, and we will always need a distraction to keep the pain at bay. As part of recovery, we need to do ourselves a favor and slow down our attempts to fix everything through actions long enough to feel and process our unpleasant feelings. For better or worse, these feelings are part of us, and we have to learn how to live with them and accept the whole of who we are, even while we stop trying to be what we aren’t. 


Jonah Anderson has spent his life as a counselor using the skills, knowledge, and experiences he has gained throughout the course of his life to help people find their path in life. He understands each person has a different path in life and he strives to meet them where they are when they begin their journey toward recovery. He originally wanted to pursue career counseling, but soon found a calling in working with people struggling with sex addiction. He also specializes in the treatment of video game addiction. He received his undergraduate education in Psychology and Communication Studies from the Marquette School of Professional Studies. He later attended Argosy University in Chicago, where he received a master’s degree in counseling. He was trained by the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals for the treatment of sex addiction.