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defenses of phoebe


Spiritual practices and beliefs help us in many ways. They give us a sense of peace and solace, when times are tough. They also help us foster gratitude and guide us in our daily lives. Who would ever think that a religious or a spiritual belief or practice, could be a defense mechanism?

What is the Defense Mechanism of Spiritual Bypass?

A clinical psychologist, John Welwood coined the term Spiritual Bypass: It refers to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved emotional wounds and developmental needs.

When spirituality is used as a defense, it acts as an escape from accepting reality.

Examples of how Spiritual Bypass may be used as a defense mechanism:

  • A lady stuck in an abusive marriage says that her spiritual belief is to accept her destiny and fate. She needs to continue to serve her husband. She hides behind this belief and does not acknowledge the pain, helplessness and trauma she is undergoing.
  • A gentleman who meditates regularly and does yoga. Every time anger comes into him he represses it telling himself that one should always be compassionate and anger is not the correct response for someone who is spiritually inclined.
  • A person who has a very poor self concept, is not able to accept it and work with it. But suddenly develops delusions of being highly evolved as he or she practices certain religious rituals on a daily basis.

How does Phoebe use the Defense Mechanism of Spiritual Bypass?

Phoebe, from the popular sitcom, Friends, has had a pretty tough life: her mother committed suicide, she grew up on the streets and was even homeless for some time. She never knew her father, she and her twin sister don’t have the merriest of relationships. But despite all that she is strong, resilient and ever smiling with her new age quips and hippie wishes for world peace.

Throughout the show; Phoebe is depicted as having several spiritual beliefs which serve her a lot of good. However, she uses these beliefs sometimes to avoid facing her true feelings.

In this shot, we watch Phoebe break the news of her grandmother’s death:

If you followed the show regularly you would recall that Phoebe was extremely close to her grandmother especially after her mother committed suicide. In this clip she uses the spiritual bypass to avoid the deep sense of loss and feelings of grief that might have been under the surface. She says that she will see her grandmother again and that she will probably meet her soon, not acknowledging the fact that in real life she will be no more.

Here is another interesting clip.

Here, Phoebe is probably missing her mother and is unable to allow herself to feel these sense of missing and loss. Her mother had committed suicide when she was very young, so she probably felt very abandoned. In this video clip she assumes her mother is a cat. She also expresses a fear of the cat leaving her.

How can you tell if you’re using Spiritual Bypass as a Defense?

In his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters(North Atlantic Books, 2010), Robert Augustus Masters lists the symptoms of spiritual bypassing:

Symptoms of Spiritual Bypass:

  • 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 side,
  • devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual,
  • delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.”

Also, what does one do if this is constantly occurring? The first step would be to notice each time you are doing it. The awareness can then lead you to understand what are the emotional wounds, unmet needs or things you are trying to avoid by using the spiritual bypass. Staying with those feelings would really help. A very important aspect of any spiritual practice or ritual is integrating it into our real lives. If you catch yourself building a wall around you or disconnecting from reality, you may need to ask yourself if you are really experiencing spirituality or are you merely intellectualizing it?

And lastly, here is some advice from Thich Nacht Hanh:

“Every time you give your internal formations a bath of mindfulness, the blocks of pain in you become lighter and less dangerous. So give your anger, your despair, your sorrow a bath of mindfulness every day—that is your practice. If mindfulness is not there, it is very unpleasant to have these seeds come up. But if you know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, it is very healing to invite them up every day and embrace them. And after several days or weeks of bringing them up daily and helping them go back down again, you create good circulation in your psyche, and the symptoms of mental illness will begin to disappear.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Post Contributed by: Michelle Pereira 

Image Credit: Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions and Warner Bros. Television

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