By: Ketam Hamdan, Ph.D.
“For 15 years, I thought I had the happiest marriage. I believed I was one of the lucky ones, but then I found out he was having an affair. It devastated me! It was like waking up to a nightmare from a fairy tale…I know Allah tests those he loves, but I couldn’t handle it.
My husband and I owned a few businesses. I used to manage most of the work, which allowed him the freedom to explore other ventures. I thought I was helping “us”, but in reality, I was just making it easier for him to have an affair. I felt betrayed and used. . . . I would pray “Allah, please help me. Please. Please give me peace, make things easy for me and help me through this because no one else can. Please help me save my family.” Everyone would tell me he is a great guy, forgive him, all men cheat, it’s no big deal.”
And then I would find out something else about the affair and I would go hysterical. . . . For example, I once walked into his closet and threw all his clothes outside, then set them on fire. . . and then I felt guilty, asked Allah for forgiveness and felt better. Then a week later, I discovered something else about the affair and went into the garage and reverse his car into the pole on the street, damaging it so he couldn’t drive it.”
“She did not recognize herself and knew that her behavior went against her beliefs.”
Sara is a 40-year-old, Muslim American woman of Pakistani heritage. She has been married for 15 years and has three children. She is a pharmacist and considers herself a devout Muslim, wears hijab, and is actively involved in the local Islamic community center. Four years ago, she shockingly discovered that her husband had an affair. This stripped her of all sense of security, triggering a number of issues that Sara had suppressed over the year and had justified through her interpretation of what it meant to be a good Muslim wife. She found herself acting impulsively and destructively, setting her husband’s clothes on fire, crashing his car, crying hysterically, and lashing out repeatedly at her husband and children. Sara did not recognize herself and knew that her behavior went against her beliefs. She experienced a roller coaster of emotions.
“I felt like a crazy person. One minute I am rationalizing to myself that this happened by the will of Allah and that I need to accept it, but the next minute I am crying because I can’t believe he did this to me. . . . I was a mess. I cried a lot, isolated myself from the community and just tried to pray more.”
A trusted friend referred Sara to come see me for therapy to help her process her pain and to help her engage in healthier behavior in alignment with her Islamic values.
“For many individuals, there is confusion between the role of religion and psychology. Most people are taught that if his or her faith is strong then he or she would not engage in negative behavior.”
Sara consistently participated in therapy for almost a year, which helped her make the connection with how the ritual practices of her faith had helped her avoid or bypass her psychological pain. This is known as “spiritual bypassing”. For many individuals, there is confusion between the role of religion and psychology. Most people are taught that if his or her faith is strong then he or she would not engage in negative behavior. In Sara’s case, therapy helped her recognize that avoiding her psychological issues was only hindering her from practicing her Islamic values in a healthy way.
“Therapy was not what I expected. It felt safe to talk to someone who wouldn’t judge me and helped me make sense of what I was going through. The most important thing I learned is to honor my feelings, especially my negative ones. I also became aware of my insecurities that allowed me to ignore all the warning signs. I kept putting up with husband’s negative behavior because I believed Islam tells you to not argue and make the home a peaceful place. I thought this would help save my marriage, but I learned not honoring myself or my rights was just helping my husband to dishonor me. I had to learn to honor myself, so he could honor me.
In the past, whenever something bothered me I would usually talk myself out of it or pretend it didn’t bother me. Therapy made me aware that my devastation from the affair brought to surface all those things that I had ignored or stayed quiet about for years. I become more self-aware of my insecurities and learned to express my needs.”
The phenomenon of spiritual bypassing has come to light quite recently. The term was first coined by John Welwood. When I came across this concept , I realized that many Muslims engaged in spiritual bypassing, including myself. Thus, my personal experience and struggles with overcoming spiritual bypassing fueled my passion to research this topic for my Ph.D. I wanted to raise consciousness about a complex problem that many experience at some point during their spiritual journey and are often unaware of.
*For the purpose of this article, the term spirituality is defined as the perpetual pain of the soul that craves for a connection with a higher force that may or may not come from organized religion. It is important however to note that Islamic spirituality is holistic. It has always incorporated not only ritual practice and nurturing a relationship with the divine, but also the development of healthy interpersonal relationships. Thus spiritual bypassing is essentially a departure from authentic Islamic spirituality.
My Personal Journey
“I was unconsciously using my Islamic practices to avoid or bypass my pathologic psychological issues and emotional unfinished business.”
As a female Muslim American, I grew up believing it was culturally taboo to seek help from mental-health professionals or to discuss personal problems with family or strangers. Growing up, I witnessed my mother turning to ritual prayer and reading the Qur’an whenever she experienced some type of problem in her life. Therefore, whenever I experienced problems or internal distress, I noticed that I mirrored my mother and turned to prayer and the Qur’an.
However, I noticed that my personal relationships would continuously provoke and surface my insecurities, which made me realize that no matter how much I increased my ritual Islamic practices, it was not enough to resolve or improve my deeply-rooted psychological problems. Over time I eventually realized that I was engaging in “spiritual bypassing,” which meant I was unconsciously using my Islamic practices to avoid or bypass my pathologic psychological issues and emotional unfinished business.
“For many Muslims, when a major life crisis happens, an increase in religious practice is often seen as the only choice for healing because psychotherapy has a negative stigma and is associated with cultural taboos.”
How was I able to notice this? My interpersonal relationships were a crucial platform to increase my awareness of unresolved psychological issues that my ritual spiritual practices did not seem to resolve. For instance, in close relationships I would remain guarded and had a difficult time trusting others. These defense mechanisms were meant to protect me from getting hurt; however, they ultimately inhibited me from being compassionate and nonjudgmental toward others, which are key Islamic values. I eventually engaged in therapy to complement my spiritual work and noticed a significant difference in who I was and how I felt. I became more self-aware and learned how to better manage my insecurities for healthier relationships.
For many Muslims, when a major life crisis happens (such as a breakup, divorce, loss of a loved one, infidelity, etc.), an increase in religious practice is often seen as the only choice for healing because psychotherapy has a negative stigma and is associated with cultural taboos. I did exactly this. When my engagement was broken off, I turned to God to feel better and to heal my broken heart. For a short time, it helped. However, as the years went by I found myself closed off from the thought of another relationship. Friends and family would try to introduce me to other marriage prospects and I found it hard to open up to them. I was guarded and stand- offish. I found it much easier to delve deep into my ritual practices such as praying more, reading the Qur’an, and performing more frequent dhikr (God-remembrance). Deep down I knew I had issues I needed to confront, but I was completely unaware of what to do about it. So, I just numbed my issues by ignoring them and increased my religious practices to temporarily find some internal peace. Eventually, I became more and more unhappy. I did not like the person I was becoming and started reading self-help books to understand myself. I embarked on a long journey of personal healing and growth, which led me to change my career and become a psychologist to first and foremost heal myself. My professors and mentors labelled me the “wounded healer”.
I became passionate about increasing awareness that spirituality sometimes serves as a mechanism to avoid or escape the reality of one’s pain. From personal experience, I have learned that one of the primary ways for a person to become more aware of psychological issues is to examine his or her interpersonal relationships, such as those with a close partner, spouse, sibling, or close colleague at work. Interpersonal relationships often trigger repressed emotions that manifest in destructive defense mechanisms, such as withdrawal, anger, and criticism. Relationship with a teacher, guide, or even a therapist can serve a critical role in helping a person become more self-aware of psychological issues masked by spiritual bypassing.
Different types of Spiritual Bypassing
In researching the concept of spiritual bypassing, I noticed three types of people: The Good Servant, Turn the Other Cheek, and I Have a Gift.
- The Good Servant: This type of person is someone who spends an extensive amount of time and energy volunteering and participating in spiritual events and activities, while close intimate relationships often are neglected and suffer. This person tends to exhibit traits of compulsive goodness.
- Turn-the-Other-Cheek: This type of person does not confront or deal with his or her negative feelings, such as anger. Instead, this person is likely to swallow his or her anger, which is something that he or she probably learned early in life. Often these individuals are known to be acquiescent and over time, become passive-aggressive
- I Have a Gift: This type of person believes that he or she has God-given talents. Such a person also believes that he or she does not exhibit any inappropriate behavior and does not need training to increase his or her healthy spiritual practices.
For the purposes of this article, it is difficult to dive deeper into each of these types and discuss the remedies for them. It is more important that therapists become aware of this phenomenon and help clients make the connection of how spirituality and psychology can work hand in hand for healthier development and healing. Furthermore, if someone is engaged in ritual practices and still feels unhappy or dissatisfied with his or her life, then a helpful starting point is to examine their personal relationships to become more self-aware. How can one do this? Simply by being curious and genuinely asking themself some key questions, such as: What issues do I struggle with in my relationships? Why do I become angry so quickly? Or Why do I stay quiet about things that hurt me? Do I tend to make a big deal over small things? Do I get anxious or worried that my partner is going to leave me? How do I deal with things when I am upset? Do I withdraw? Why do I ignore my feelings and just forgive the person to keep the peace?
Implications for Therapists
“The therapist’s role is instrumental in the healing process, and mental-health professionals have the ability to develop secure attachment bonds with clients.”
Historically, therapy did not integrate spirituality as part of the healing process. However, the growing practice of incorporating spirituality in therapy presents both opportunities for better healing and potential threats of helping clients bypass psychological issues. The therapist’s role is instrumental in the healing process, and mental-health professionals have the ability to develop secure attachment bonds with clients. These secure relationships are essential in helping clients open up and tackle difficult emotions repressed in their unconscious mind. Clients advanced in their spiritual practices may attempt to bypass emotional discomforts and prefer to work at the spiritual level. One key thing a therapist can do is help his or her client examine close relationships and notice any unhealthy or destructive patterns. The therapist can help him or her gain knowledge and personal insight to assume more responsibility for one’s issues, rather than continuing to blame others. In addition, the comprehension of spiritual bypassing may assist in inspiring more developmental growth, especially after a relationship problem, break-up, divorce, or some other type of life crisis.
For many of my clients, turning to religion is culturally conditioned and necessary at the time of crisis for emotional stabilization. One of the key findings of my research is that spiritual bypassing is not necessarily a “bad thing.” Increasing one’s religious practices may not only be a destructive defense mechanism or a detour from the pain, but rather an essential part of the emotional grieving process. Not being able to turn to religion would have most likely created additional internal disarray. Thus, at the time of crisis a person may need to turn to religious practice as a healthy coping mechanism. However, eventually it is imperative that individuals recognize that their ritual practices can be supplemented with mental health services in an effort to help heal past issues that lead to mental health pathology. The only way is through the pain, not around it.
About the Author:
Dr. Ketam Hamdan holds a Ph.D. in Psychology and is a licensed therapist. She also holds a Masters in Theological Studies in religion and psychology from Harvard University, as well as a Master’s of Science from Columbia University.
Recently, Dr. Hamdan helped launch Sakina Center, a non-profit Muslim mental health center in the Houston Community. She continuously gives mental health presentations on a variety of topics and leads development workshops. She specializes in transformative self-development and in relationships. She is a clinically certified Imago Therapist, developed by Harville Hendrix, author of the best-selling book, Getting the Love You Want, as seen on Oprah. As well as a Gottman trained therapist. Dr. Hamdan does not see educating and helping people as a profession, she sees it as her life work.