This post, written by Erin Jantz, originally was published on March 17, 2017, on the ICTG blog.
A favorite story around my house is “The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Throughout the book the main characters are regularly faced with a choice between two paths. Inevitably, though both are difficult, one path is more obviously dangerous, and the second path seems easier and more inviting in the short term. Often the choice of the seemingly easier path results in the protagonists having to circle around and revisit choices where they end up taking the dangerous path anyway. However, it is on these more dangerous paths where the characters experience the most growth and gain a deeper understanding of their purpose. These dark places prove themselves to be necessary crucibles in the journey to wholeness. Similarly, it is no surprise to me that in Psalm 23, King David writes that he is walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Not skipping around the borders of it. It is in the journey through this valley that he learns he is not alone, that he need not fear, and where he eventually finds rest. This intentional entering into darkness feels counterintuitive to us. Especially when trauma has come upon us, the idea of facing the experiences of fear sounds like heaping salt into a wound, but healing is a journey through, not around.
Most spiritual directors are familiar with the experience of meeting with a directee who is in denial or confused about the reality of their relationship with God. These people are often confused about how to connect with the Divine or may unconsciously hold conflicting beliefs that cause anxiety in prayer or daily life (for example: God will punish me if I make a mistake AND God loves me even when I make mistakes). Exploring these paths and walking with people as they work through these challenging conflicts to come to a more coherent and integrated faith is one of the great joys of being a director. However, an issue all directors need to be aware of, especially when working with trauma survivors, is the discerning of whether the directee is working through normal spiritual developmental phases, or is engaging in spiritual bypass.
“Spiritual Bypass” is a term coined by psychologist John Welwood in 1984 to describe the use of spirituality (beliefs or practices) as an avoidance tool. Spiritual bypass is when a person of faith uses their spirituality to avoid dealing with painful feelings, developmental tasks, or lingering wounds. Similar to substance abuse or other self-harming behaviors, survivors of trauma may turn to religious practices as a way to numb themselves to the painful realities or questions inherent in their journey. Spiritual bypass goes beyond turning to the Divine, or to tried and true practices, as a place of support and healing and instead creating habits that fill empty, painful spaces with spiritual noise that drowns out the parts of the soul still suffering.
This may look like the directee making statements like, “Whenever I feel sad or overwhelmed, I turn to my scriptures and feel better in no time! I’m so thankful for the encouragement from God!” Or perhaps this is the first-time directee who has suddenly decided that spiritual direction is just the thing to help them “get over” what happened. Normally, these statements about seeking and finding are music in a director’s ear, and I am certainly not advocating suspicion of every step forward or every refreshing practice a directee may share with us. Most of these steps are in fact helpful and healing for survivors, but attention must be paid to the whole of someone’s journey toward healing. If significant steps or phases of healing seem to have been skipped (thorough grieving, for example) then it is worth exploring with the directee whether any newfound relief is the deep, long-lasting relief associated with healing, or the temporary relief of avoiding.
Discerning whether a directee is being helped or hurt by their practices and beliefs is difficult and a director should tread carefully when challenging and testing areas that are being associated with hope. This is why ongoing training and supervision are so important for each director. This is also why it is helpful for trauma survivors to have a team of helpers surrounding them--psychologists, doctors, coaches, and directors--each of whom can bring their own expertise to bear on the journey of healing. Directors are of invaluable help to trauma survivors who are people of faith. Directors can create a more holistic healing experience for trauma survivors by serving as a companion, guiding them through difficult experiences and questions of how grief, anger, justice, and faith intertwine. A safe space to sort through unconscious, and or, unhelpful beliefs allows survivors to walk out into an expansive and freeing connection with God. Like our heroes in “The Lord of the Rings,” going around a problem often means that we end up facing it twice. Directors owe it to themselves and their directees to be educated in the nuances of traumatized spirituality so that they can be adequately prepared to walk with survivors through the valley to help them find comfort and healing.
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From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.