Lurking in the Shadows: Harmful Interpersonal Patterns in Spiritual Communities
Numerous spiritual gurus and teachers have been guilty of abusing their students, but damaging behavior also takes place in peer-led spiritual communities. Behind it is almost always trauma, yet some circles’ obsession with trauma healing can also go awry.
Communities with a spiritual or self-improvement bent are teeming with scarred and wounded people. People generally turn to these pursuits because they’ve had turbulent life. They may struggle with heavy trauma and mental illness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — those with poor mental health are often kind and lovely people with a lot of wisdom to offer to others.
On the other hand, most dysfunctional behaviors and interpersonal patterns are caused by trauma, and many of these traumatic patterns can play into each other. Spiritual communities tend to attract both people with significant problems and people looking to rescue others, people with parental vibes and those looking to be parented (not always a problematic dynamic, but can be), as well as people who manipulate and control others, but also insecure and highly suggestible individuals who are easy to manipulate.
Unfortunately, spiritual practices can, and often do, make these problems worse. Depending on the community, I’ve seen the whole gamut of reactions to such adverse effects, from “meditation/our technique can’t possibly do harm” to “almost everyone develops psychosis from meditation at some point, so there’s no need to worry” to “it’s normal to believe you have God-like spiritual powers and can change the destiny of the whole humankind, it’s not related to mental health”.
In the world of spirituality and self-development, people also tend to assume that they and their peers are unusually mature, deep thinkers and capable of powerful self-reflection. This may often even be true, but it is a low bar, especially among young people — my communities have had a lot of people in their 20s who can be marvelous, but a thoughtful and mature 25-year-old is still likely to overestimate their emotional skills. Many spiritual seekers believe, and can fool others into believing, that because they can converse eloquently using Sanskrit, Western psychology or neuroscience concepts, they are much farther along than they really are. The implicit assumption is too often “I would know if I behaved in problematic ways and as a group, we are above such mundane issues.”
Originally coined in 1984 by psychotherapist John Welwood, the term spiritual bypassing refers to using spiritual practice to avoid normal emotions and human experiences. A typical form of bypassing is the idea that spiritual practice makes other types of psychological work unnecessary. (Of course, most of Buddhism would also fit under this umbrella, as it’s based on the idea that once you get rid of that pesky, illusionary self, all suffering ceases.)
Robert Masters put it like this: “Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”
Then there’s of course toxic positivity, which can include accusing people of having “negative energy/vibrations” or “manifesting negative things”, a convenient way to blame and shame those with any criticism into silence. I also find the ubiquitous spiritual idea that the universe is benevolent and everything happens “as a part of a bigger plan” (something Western psychology generally views as pathological magical thinking, characterizing both psychotic-type conditions and narcissism) a problematic form of bypassing.
John Welwood had numerous good insights about bypassing and how it relates to more general avoidant patterns in this interview. “Avoidant types tend to be dismissive of other people’s needs because, guess what, they’re dismissive of their own needs. What happens is that people feel justified in not respecting each other’s feelings and needs. Not surprisingly, “need” becomes a dirty word in many spiritual communities. […] If I’m not able to own my own needs, then I will tend to dismiss others’ needs and see them as a threat because their neediness subconsciously reminds me of my own denied needs. And I will judge others and use some kind of “dharma logic” to make them wrong or make myself superior.”
There is also formal psychological research being conducted on spiritual bypassing, including a research scale titled Spiritual Bypass Scale-13 for measuring it. That same scientific paper lists, citing other authors, quite a shopping list of possible harms of spiritual bypassing, such as “need to control others and self, dichotomous thinking, shame, spiritual obsession, fear, emotional confusion, addiction, high tolerance for inappropriate behavior, codependence, compulsive goodness, narcissism or ego inflation, obsession or addiction, blind belief in charismatic teachers, spiritual materialism, developmental arrest, and abdication of personal responsibility”. I was going to add emphasis to the items that feel relevant to this article, but realized that would cover most of the list.
One nefarious form of spiritual bypassing can happen when people attain a permanent state of nonduality or get glimpses of it, and become convinced that problems (intrapersonal, interpersonal or more pressing societal issues) in the real world do not need to be tackled, since on the absolute level, everything is already perfect. I’ve called this confusion of relative and absolute levels “toxic enlightenment”, an intentionally provocative term that hasn’t appealed to everyone. Meditation teacher Michael Taft calls a similar issue “nondual fundamentalism”.
Especially Neo-Advaita teachings may encourage these sort of ideas about nonduality (which do not originate from the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, but its modern, mostly secular interpretations), luckily usually as a temporary stage. Those who attain nondual realizations from Buddhist teachings seem much less likely to have this issue. Some people on the /r/nonduality Reddit even argue that spiritual bypassing doesn’t exist, it’s just these lower-level human beings trying to ruin your perfect enlightenment. Of course.
“I Told You I Was Hardcore” and Obsession with Healing
Religions generally don’t recognize the concept of trauma, yet some New Age communities are form around trauma healing. This may seem like the opposite of spiritual bypassing: working with emotions instead of ignoring them. In practice it often becomes a model fixated on healing, “cleaning” and integration to the point where people’s lives revolve around it — so it can actually become bypassing as other aspects of life are neglected — and the deeper you throw yourself into it, the cooler and more spiritual you are. And when you’re very cool and spiritual, it can be tempting to start advising others and insisting they copy your exact approach.
“Shadow” is an originally Jungian idea that there are large aspects of ourselves that we have pushed away and repressed, when it would be wiser to face them and integrate them. Nowadays it’s a very popular term in the spiritual/New Age scene. Shadow is an easily understandable and down-to-earth concept that isn’t problematic in itself, but it can become damaging when people start submitting constant “bug reports” of their friends’ “shadow sides” or “blind spots”, which in some circles is common and even encouraged. As the concept hints at, it’s much more appealing to debug others’ shadows than your own.
Being nudged toward noticing something in yourself that was clear to others but outside your own awareness can be very useful, or it can be misguided and hurtful, a form of control and asserting superiority. Generally, the more eager people are to point out such things, the less accurate they tend to be and more likely to be projecting their own issues on you — and less keen to accept they could be wrong.
There is a reason why mental health professionals study psychology and psychiatric conditions for years (people often feel like even this knowledge is sorely lacking, but that’s another issue altogether). Concepts like shadow and energy blockages aren’t enough to deal with actual serious trauma. Especially severe childhood trauma is almost always accompanied by dissociation, which can lead to all sorts of bizarre behavior. Of the general population, nearly 10% struggles with severe dissociation (in spiritual circles likely a larger percentage) and in such cases e.g. meditation may not even be appropriate (see e.g. David Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness).
Carelessly thrusting dissociating people onto a supercharged healing or spiritual path can be immensely destabilizing for them, which others may shrug off as “everyone goes through dark nights”. This is not the same thing at all! Extreme but still normal effects of spiritual practice can be difficult to tell apart from serious mental health conditions like mania and psychosis, but ignoring potentially alarming behavior and mental health crises can be very risky.
Many spiritual people will tell you that feeling into an unpleasant emotion deeply enough will make it heal, similar to the core Buddhist idea that suffering only arises from resisting unpleasantness. Without resistance, there can be no suffering. This idea has a lot of truth to it, but reality is much more complex than that. It can be frustrating to attempt to discuss your problems with a person who is convinced everything can be solved like this. Here healing again crosses over to bypassing.
Related problematic ideas include everyone being responsible for their own stuff, possibly including just their internal emotional landscape, but sometimes external circumstances too, and that psychological pain is always beneficial, as it leads to more healing. These forms of spiritual bypassing often find their way into hurtful gaslighting. Especially combined with the magical thinking of “everything happens as a part of your story”, they can even be used to argue that if someone hurt you, they were actually doing you a favor. This not only enables abuse to happen, it’s victim blaming — a term that would be hushed away in many spiritual circles.
Both Western psychologists and healing-obsessed mystics struggle to tell apart two very different issues: past trauma and current hostile conditions. Living in major, long-term hardship is also known as continuous traumatic stress (CTS) in trauma literature. CTS should not be confused with things like complex PTSD, which refers to unsafety of the past, while e.g. poverty, illness or living in a dangerous environment may take place in the now. The suffering caused by them can be compounded by past trauma, but the unsafety of the present won’t go away by “feeling deeply into it” or “letting go of resistance” (or getting enlightened, sorry).
Hierarchy and Control
Hierarchies easily form even in communities with no official leadership. People who have practiced for longer than others or gone on more retreats may appoint themselves as leaders and teachers. Believing in a larger range of “woo” ideas also tends to increase their sense of superiority and they frequently accuse more skeptical people of being on an energetically lower level or otherwise stunted. “More” always seems better than moderation. And people tend to reject criticism from those perceived to be below them — how could they know anything better?
I believe that most people display at least some controlling behaviors. There is a lot of discussion about controlling parents and dominance in romantic relationships, but much less about friendships. Almost all friendships, even if otherwise healthy and nourishing, have some uneven power dynamics with one or both people exhibiting controlling patterns at least occasionally. Even insecure and/or submissive individuals commonly have such patterns and they can be much harder to spot.
The way spiritual friendships tend to dive right in at the deep end can encourage unhealthy patterns. Sometimes it takes the form of something similar to lovebombing. I’ve also had people trying to manage my life decisions within a couple of weeks of (barely) knowing me. These issues appear somewhat contagious: if you see those around you controlling others and no one bats an eye, it is easy to adopt such patterns.
Some types of manipulation are much easier to pull off in communities where it’s normalized to use spiritual and psychological jargon to explain one’s and others’ behavior, while in most circles this would come off as a major red flag in itself. One abusive person tried to convince me she wasn’t acting in a controlling way, I was merely projecting the behavior of others in the group on her, while several people have tried to blame some of their issues on my “blind spots”.
One rarely discussed factor is suggestibility. Of course, a skeptical view is that almost all spiritual experiences are based on suggestion and altered states, but it can also go much deeper than this. Suggestible individuals may absorb pack leaders’ opinions by osmosis or appear to change their world-view or guru du jour with every new YouTube video. They may even start mimicking the descriptions of others’ spiritual experiences. Many suggestible people are also alexithymic (both traits tend to correlate with dissociation), which means they may not be aware of how they feel inside, allowing others to talk for them.
Spiritual prescriptivism can be a major issue with controlling types. Only their way of practice is right, either because their guru said so or because they just decided it themselves. They push their gurus’ teachings (which might be an eclectic mix of e.g. Buddhist, Hindu and New Age teachers, but everyone else besides this bunch is wrong), and try to make you feel obliged to watch three-hour dharma talks you’d really rather skip. I used to be a member of an extremely toxic sangha where someone tried to dictate “rules” such as “Everyone should meditate for at least three hours per day and never take less than five grams of shrooms at once — less of either would be worthless.”
It’s peculiar how insistently some people have shoved their views on me even in groups that on paper didn’t adhere to any fixed ideology. It feels like Human Interaction 101 that others’ world-views should be respected and aggressively trying to override them isn’t okay. Certain perspectives become so ingrained in the collective New Age psyche that people push their ideas of how the world works without even realizing they are doing that, as to them it is not a belief, but obvious truth. Outside of Christian communities, someone continually insisting that Jesus solves all problems would come off as rather weird and unpleasant and would almost certainly be called out, yet more palatable attempts at conversion are widespread.
Controlling traits can manifest in seemingly benign or positive ways, such as what I call rescue parts. These are parts of the psyche that want to fix others, e.g. their practical problems, health issues or (perceived) spiritual stagnation. Rescue parts feel like you are just a very compassionate person burning to help others. This can be true, too, but deep down these parts’ motivations are not about altruism but control. Someone offering a hand can be great, yet if the offer is coming from rescue parts, it can quickly turn sour — the helper gets offended if their solution isn’t considered beneficial or suddenly sets conditions for receiving the help. I talk more about rescue parts in another article.
Dark Triad Behaviors
The dark triad is a concept in mainstream psychology referring to personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism, which may exist together or separately. Sometimes sadism is added for “dark tetrad”. Narcissist traits in particular are very common in spiritual communities. The web is full of articles on the subject of spiritual narcissism, though most I didn’t find particularly compelling. There is, however, actual research on the topic, as well. This article in Scientific American is well worth reading. It cites several studies, such as one that found that yoga and meditation boosted the trait of self-centrality, instead of reducing it.
Narcissistic people are drawn to dominant roles. They tend to be charismatic, dominant, edgy and widely liked (but sometimes controversial) teachers or self-appointed sages with wild stories of travel to every astral realm and their generally shocking and extraordinary spiritual journeys.
“Our results illustrate that the self-enhancement motive is powerful and deeply ingrained so that it can hijack methods intended to transcend the ego and instead, adopt them to its own service… The road to spiritual enlightenment may yield the exact same mundane distortions that are all too familiar in social psychology, such as self-enhancement, illusory superiority, closed-mindedness, and hedonism (clinging to positive experiences) under the guise of alleged ‘higher’ values.” (source)
Most spiritual communities have a surprisingly high tolerance for dark triad patterns, such as judgmental, manipulative, controlling and self-elevating behavior and plotting people against each other. People with narcissist traits may gloss over the stunts of other narcissists, and narcissists also tend to ramp up their level of disagreeability slowly with time, making it harder to spot. Still, it’s peculiar how claims like “I’m a deeply compassionate person as shown by the fact that I do five minutes of loving-kindness meditation every day” are often taken at face value over the person’s actual conduct.
The media depiction of narcissists and psychopaths tends to be extreme and highly problematic. Many websites (including one maintained by a narcissist!) paint narcissists as beings so emotionally undeveloped that they are barely even human. The definition of psychopathy has been based on the inability to feel empathy, though some research has suggested it’s not about lacking the capacity, but turning it off. Narcissists are also believed to not experience empathy or only low levels, but studies have shown that this is untrue, and they may also be turning this capacity off at will.
I’ve had several close spiritual friends with authentic deep compassion and care yet also some disturbing dark tetrad traits (which some of them have freely admitted to). This would fit with a concept called dark empath, a term sometimes used for people with high cognitive empathy who use their interpersonal skills for manipulation. Originally, however, it referred to individuals with dark triad traits who are also high in both cognitive and affective empathy and also tend to be highly extroverted and fairly self-critical. In the original dark empath study, 20% of the study sample fit this classification, so this is no marginal group of people.
There are several different ways to classify narcissists, which can get a bit confusing. The most common one is grandiose vs. vulnerable narcissists (though both sides can coexist in the same person) or overt and covert narcissists — so no, many of them are nothing like Trump. A classical idea associated with narcissists is that after a possible honeymoon period of flattery, they are constantly elevating themselves at the expense of others. Communal narcissists, however, may be keen on uplifting people in the same community, sometimes in idolizing ways, as their core belief is that they are unusually helpful.
Closet narcissists (sometimes treated as a synonym for covert narcissists while other authors see them as separate things) are also described as “being afraid that other people will see all their flaws. Instead they find ways to attach themselves to people, causes, religions, and other things that they admire and consider special. They then feel special by association.”
People are of course very multifaceted, with much more complexity and nuance than psychology research tends to suggest. Possessing dark triad traits doesn’t invalidate someone’s spiritual progress or mean they can’t be genuinely kind and helpful. Narcissism is one way childhood trauma can manifest and interact with the rest of the personality. Real empathy and contrived, socially sanctioned niceness may coexist, and likely do in most of us. While most abuse relates to dark triad traits, not everyone with narcissistic traits is abusive. It does mean that some things they boast about in themselves (or others) may not be fully true, a helpful thing to keep in mind in social interaction in general.
Oppression vs. Radical inclusivity
Spiritual communities often perpetuate oppression, such as racism/white supremacy, ableism and queerphobia. I’m a white disabled queer person, so I’m focusing on the latter two here, which is not to be taken as minimizing racism. This dynamic of oppression has been called “structural spiritual bypassing”. “A core assumption of Structural Spiritual Bypassing in the mindfulness movement is that sociocultural power differentials are irrelevant, or even an illusion. This silences any acknowledgement [sic] of privilege, which becomes veiled in spirituality, denying the often obvious but sometimes subtle dynamics of power and privilege in our world”. Just like with other damaging behaviors, people may feel like they are too kind, wise or self-aware to be acting in discriminatory ways.
The combination of spiritual bypassing plus the obsession with healing is often taken to mean that the universe is perfect (nothing to fix there), while simultaneously we are all imperfect versions of ourselves to be fixed. This can get particularly toxic when things like sexual orientation, gender identity, asexuality, neurodivergence and chronic illness are viewed as “attachment to body/identity” or “things just waiting to be healed”.
In general, even if there is no overt discrimination, the vast majority of spiritual communities fall into a huge spiritual bypass trap and fail to consider how to make different groups of people feel welcome. Every community obviously doesn’t need to cater to every demographic, but diversity also brings in a wider spectrum of perspectives and excluding large swathes of the population because of ignorance doesn’t seem very spiritual. When you’re boasting that you work “for the benefit of all beings”, are you really only considering beings similar to you?
Homophobia and especially transphobia are sadly rampant in spiritual circles. Besides “healing damaged masculinity/femininity”, ideas of masculine and feminine energies as two opposites (e.g. by interpreting Jungian psychology) can lead to narratives very hostile to LGBTIQ people. Discussion about gendered energies isn’t inherently heteronormative or transphobic, but very often it veers into this territory. I find it particularly sad considering how many spiritual cultures have celebrated gender variance in concepts like two-spirit (a Western label for many different indigenous genders) and even seen it as divine, e.g. in nonbinary deities.
Have You Tried Yoga?
Ableism (discrimination against disabled people), especially focused on chronic illness, is not hard to find in the spiritual scene. I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve been told that my life-threatening chronic illnesses can be healed with meditation, magick, manifestation, ayahuasca, trauma work or energy healing — implicitly and often also explicitly telling me I’m practicing wrong since I’m not cured. This ties to the Just World Hypothesis, a pervasive form of magical thinking also behind a lot of non-spiritual ableism: if only we do things right, we are protected from nasty things such as illness.
As a result of this, chronically ill people tend to deeply distrust the whole scene. E.g. a common joke in chronic illness circles is “Have you tried yoga?” When I mention my meditation practice, many disabled people flinch, as they wonder if I’ll start preaching about mindfulness and crystals. This experience has been deeply alienating — it’s hard to find a spiritual home where I feel welcome instead of a problem to be fixed, but I feel too far out for most disabled communities too.
When multiple spiritual friends insist you should stop taking your meds, without which you would rapidly and inevitably perish, and to “trust magic” or “trust the universe” instead, it’s easy to grow disillusioned with the whole scene. This is too far out. It is New Age guilt, essentially the same thing as “If you had prayed more, your cancer would be cured”. It is curious though, considering that even the Buddha himself had chronic pain and many revered contemporary teachers suffer from chronic illness or died from it, but somehow I’m expected to get well.
There are different interpretations of the concept of karma, so not everyone who believes in karma holds this (unfortunately quite traditional) view, but telling someone they’re chronically ill (or e.g. LGBTIQ) because of something they did in their current or past life is abusive. The same goes for touting narratives where someone “chose” a disability or was “given” it before birth, so they could “learn a lesson”, as well as some world-class bypasses claiming that illness doesn’t even exist — honestly I shouldn’t need to say any of this. This is just as problematic as a “Christian” telling someone they’re going to Hell.
The most shocking example of ableism I’ve encountered was when someone actually started voicing support for eugenics. I asked abled people to stand up for me and condemn this view, but I was faced with silence. Imagine touting your infinite compassion and then shutting up when actual genocide is brought up.
How to Deal With These Issues
So how do we go about tackling these issues? I’d start with looking inside and asking if you’re contributing to any of these patterns yourself. As for others, issues should be called out in an appropriate way if it feels safe for you to do. This does not have to mean a punitive approach, but “Are you okay?” or “Are you and person Y cool or is something wrong?”.
If you’re founding a spiritual community, 1) set rules/terms/code of conduct for the members and hold to them, 2) consider how to make different groups of people feel more welcome, 3) make it easy to report misconduct or issues and 4) again, if you’re unsure if there is a problem, don’t assume there isn’t.
Many communities lack any sort of official rules. In my experience, one important reason you need them is that when someone starts misbehaving, it’s often a person you know and like, so you are tempted to let it slide. This has been a major issue in my past sanghas. People are also more likely to bring up abuse (especially discrimination) if it is explicitly labeled as unacceptable. If you’re a man, you might want to announce a non-male person to whom members can report issues and concerns.
I believe it can be very helpful to have some idea of what things like psychosis, bipolar manic episodes, structural dissociation and narcissistic manipulation are and how they might manifest in a group setting. Such issues will almost certainly materialize in your community at some point, if they haven’t already. This may seem like a tall order — if you are not a mental health professional, obviously Google University can’t make you one nor should you start diagnosing people. This is a complicated issue, but I also firmly believe it’s an important one. Setting up a spiritual community is much more than just opening a Facebook group or booking a real-life space. It comes with a large responsibility.
Recently, a puzzle game I’ve been playing for a couple of years introduced a groups feature. I set up a new group named “Metta”. It’s been nice to finally chat with people who’ve quietly been on my friend list for a long time. The conversation is superficial fluff, but there is something really lovely about that, too. We can have a good vibes-only group without having to bypass anything. They will not try to fix me or suggest I’m living my life wrong. Someone might recognize the word “metta” refers to Buddhist loving-kindness, but they aren’t going to demand details on my practice only to mock it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have such a guarantee in spiritual communities, as well.
This article also appears in modified form in my free book Loving Awakening: A Practical Guide to Embodied Spirituality and Healing with Metta, IFS, the Imaginal and Community, which also discusses interpersonal issues and spirituality in a wider context.