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  • Annelisa MacBean

Discriminating Defenses

There are times when psychologically defending against certain feelings can be the most skillful way to handle our lives. For example, if I use certain meditative practices, affirmations, chants or breath exercises to reduce anxiety so that I can attend to my job, take care of household demands, etc. - is this avoidance? . . . denial? . . ."spiritual bypassing?"


This is fairly nuanced and subtle territory, really; and I have to be careful not to use compelling and potentially diminishing phrases like “spiritual bypassing” to attack parts of myself and perpetuate the very old strategy of splitting and self-abandonment at the root of the very anxiety I need to address! In the psychodynamic work I do with clients, and in my own process both professionally and personally, working with the ways we have all organized our defenses requires discriminating awareness, skill, insight, compassion, and a developed capacity for self-reflection. I have to remember and hold in mind that defense mechanisms are helpers on this journey; guides, not obstacles.


Training myself to understand and see how I might be using spirituality to avoid certain aspects of my experience, to hide out from intimacy and relationship, to keep certain emotions and feelings dissociated or outside awareness, and as a way to avoid developmental maturing is crucial.


At the same time, noticing with kindness and compassion that spiritual bypass is/was an effective strategy I learned to take care of myself, to protect myself, to honor the delicate nature of a traumatized nervous system, or to prevent too much conscious awareness from emerging too quickly, overwhelming me with repressed self-experience, is also crucial. While bypassing is not a resolution or a fix I want to sustain, it is important to approach the positive intent of all such protective strategies with love, rather than crashing through the wall of these defenses with judgment and shame. That said, I also have to remember that more spiritual practice is not always the most wise, skillful, or loving container for working with developmental trauma and other types of wounding, or the right medicine in any given moment of activation. In fact, it can overwhelm and retraumatize the body and nervous system. More meditation, more resting in the present moment, more forgiving, and more accepting are not always the right prescription in a particular life at a particular time. Finding the balance is an area of inner work and self-knowing that is unique for each individual, and what is needed in each person’s system can shift from moment to moment. I am finding that bringing attention to the inclination to bypass, opening up to an inner inquiry with curiosity and receptivity reveals what the body already knows: It’s ALL a spiritual journey and the path is everywhere.


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