A brief glossary of toxic spirituality 

Far from being a walk in the park, spirituality is a path strewn with obstacles of which we can be both the agents and victims. 'Spiritual bypass,' 'spiritual materialism,' 'spiritual narcissism,' and 'spiritual gaslight' are likely expressions you've already come across. Here, we offer non-exhaustive insights into some terms of 'toxic spirituality,' in contrast to a 'healthy' and liberating spirituality (with no one claiming to be a model here), using concrete examples and suggestions for gaining perspective. Often, these concepts resemble, overlap, merge, and accumulate."

Spiritual bypassing (by John Welwood, 1984) .

Spiritual bypassing refers to the use of spiritual explanations or practices to avoid confronting unresolved emotional and psychological issues. Spiritual theories and practices are employed to circumvent or sidestep a problem rather than addressing it directly. 

Examples: Excessive positivity (toxic positivity) and the denial of negative emotions. Avoiding conflict, turning a blind eye to discomfort or anger, and relying on concepts from spirituality (yoga, meditation, Buddhism, etc.) to justify the suppression of negativity. This often goes hand in hand with confusing equanimity with indifference, detachment with repression, compassion with disinterest, and letting go with fatalism. Additionally, practicing detachment without accompanying it with compassion, believing that negative situations necessarily lead to positive outcomes.

Someone close to you suddenly pass away? They are probably better off up there/it was meant to happen this way. You experienced a painful offense? It was for your own good/something better awaits you. A friend makes a comment that bothers you? They must work on themselves more (and emulate your example)/learn to see the positive instead of criticizing everything. Believing that one is above their emotions, suppressing or ignoring someone else's pain or anger because it bothers us, thinking that we are a good person because we meditate or do yoga, and that practicing is enough to accumulate wisdom points and that "the universe takes care" of solving our problems. 

Phrases :  "Everything happens for a reason," "Stay positive," "Good vibes only," "Everything is always for the best," "Look on the bright side of things," "Just be kind," "Love and Light," "The universe has a plan," "Everything is perfect." All the vocabulary of high vibrations (hello New Age and the law of attraction, for example) and spiritually tinged language used in a superficial or artificial manner. . .

Why is this problematic? Spiritual bypassing uses spirituality not to accept reality as it is but to escape it, to avoid it; not to go through and overcome challenges but to sweep the dust under the rug, thinking it will magically disappear when, in fact, it accumulates. One may believe they are making progress when, in reality, they are sinking into denial. Simultaneously, there's a self-congratulation for being on the spiritual path (potentially moralizing others in the process, cf. spiritual ego), all the while losing touch with the real world. Spirituality then serves as an ego boost rather than a tool to diminish it. We see ourselves as we would like to appear rather than as we truly are. Instead of illuminating reality, spirituality adds a filter to it (leading us to the next term: spiritual materialism). 

What can I do instead? Instead of spiritual bypassing, consider understanding that spiritual practices don't necessarily only bring about positivity. Working on oneself also involves shining a light on one's shadow side and embracing negative emotions (such as anger, sadness, shame) to understand their origins rather than ignoring them, thinking they will disappear on their own. Use meditation to observe your emotions rather than replacing them with others. Practice yoga not to forget something painful or become a better person, but as a laboratory to observe your psychosomatic vehicle. Observe if there are specific emotions you seem never to feel or have aversions towards. In your relationships, observe how your own behaviors can affect others. Embrace imperfection and allow yourself to make mistakes. Be more tolerant towards others and yourself (self-flagellation serves no purpose and implicitly reinforces ego mechanisms). Experience forgiveness, compassion, and empathy not as floating intellectual concepts but as deep heart-centered experiences.

Spiritual materialism(by the controversial Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa, 1970s

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When the ego inflates or distorts spiritual practice. This includes all the ego's tricks (conscious or unconscious) to strengthen itself, under the guise of spiritual discourse. At the extreme end of the spectrum, spiritual practice (yoga, meditation, prayer, etc.) becomes a commodity, and the practitioner becomes a consumer. 

Examples: Being fascinated by one's own practice (watching oneself practice, not fully engaging in the practice, identifying with one's achievements or physical and mental limitations), adopting an attitude of imitation, practicing rigorously but making no changes to one's lifestyle, way of thinking, or way of acting in the world, spiritual perfectionism (the perfect posture, the optimal practice time), expecting benefits from one's practice (liberation/salvation, happiness, relaxation, getting a flat stomach...). Attachment to the results of our actions in general and our practice in particular (hello to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which likely warned against the pitfalls of spiritual materialism ahead of its time). Also, spiritual marketing (brands, products that commercialize spirituality...). Belief in "abundance theories" that suggest we inevitably reap what we sow, prompting us to act for a result while investing in ourselves as if we were a stock expected to gain value on the market.

Signs The need for immediacy in our practice (if I do this much, I should receive this much/succeed in this), the search for exoticism and escape through practice (read here about Orientalism), the need for accumulation (often accompanied by material spending) to feel better or legitimate (another outfit, accessory, retreat, workshop, method, technique), the fear of boredom in practice/difficulty facing oneself that needs to be compensated for with something else (movement, appearance, speed, likes...), a vision of practice as an ever-increasing curve. More generally, the signs of the "white supremacy culture" as defined by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones in their eponymous article (elements of which you can find here): individualism, emphasis on progress, perfectionism, haste...... .

Why is this problematic? These mechanisms are problematic because they reinforce a materialistic culture instead of helping us move away from it. They divert traditions into consumer goods, contribute to elevating capitalism to the status of a religion, and colonize "Eastern" beliefs. Spirituality loses its essence as it is commodified to serve philosophically, politically, and economically oriented discourses. In their study titled Selling Spirituality, The Silent Takeover of Religion (2005), philosophy of religion professors Jeremy Carette and Richard King criticize the "business of spirituality" as a capitalist hijacking that spans from Feng Shui to holistic medicines, aromatherapy candles, and yoga weekends. Within this context, spirituality becomes a ready-to-consume (and disposable) culture, in contrast to the philosophies it claims to reflect. .

What can I do instead? ? Instead of falling into these problematic patterns, consider understanding that spiritual techniques are a means and not an end, and that spiritual "goods" are neither to be consumed nor possessed. Reflect on your need for immediacy, results (such as "succeeding" in a posture), and comfort (the "good vibes only" of spiritual bypassing); confront your boredom rather than fleeing from it. Avoid the overconsumption, multiplication, and escalation of practices to feel better (such as the "snacking" encouraged by platforms like Classpass , or the FOMO of workshops and training): opt for doing less but doing it better. Question the importance you attach to your own image and that of others. Consider what significance you attribute to the "value" of a practice, what makes a practice "good," and what makes a practitioner "good." I often suggest this personal observation exercise: Would you attend that class, participate in that workshop, or practice this morning if you had to keep that moment to yourself without publicizing it on social media, listing it on your CV, talking about it with others, or deriving a benefit related to your image, ego, or commercial gain? 

Spiritual narcissism

Narcissistic personality’s traits are expressing and reinforcing themselves through a deceptive use of spiritual practice. In essence, it involves thinking that one practices better than others, that one is "more advanced" in the chosen spiritual or religious domain. The practitioner then mistakes their superiority complex for humility.

Examples: include thinking that one's own spiritual practice or path is superior to that of others, believing there is nothing to learn from others, showcasing (even indirectly) one's practice, progress, efforts, accomplishments, or knowledge (whether in postural yoga, prayer, meditation, or the study of sacred texts). It involves thinking that practicing for a longer duration automatically equates to superior knowledge (the idea that more practice yields more wisdom). There's also the implicit hierarchy of practices and practitioners based on their supposed spiritual progress (glorifying some while condescending towards others), boasting about one's own greatness and humility simultaneously. It includes identifying oneself completely with one's practice, believing that our practice reflects our core identity, and confusing the ego with the Self.

Signs include the “guru” or “neo-convert syndrome” (wanting to guide the unbelievers and the blinded, even converting them), believing one knows better than others what is good for them based on personal judgment. Conversely, it involves completely relying on a supposedly superior figure to evade personal responsibility. The “authenticity or tradition syndrome” entails thinking that the path or school one follows is closest to the Truth or the "origins" or the Good. It involves a sense of dualism rather than unity with others (thinking oneself superior/better). Typical character traits include fantasies of spiritual grandeur, a need for attention, to be knighted, listened to, revered in this field, believing one is right and rejecting criticism (thinking there is only one right way, our way, that "we know," that we are "right"), wanting to outdo others as if spirituality were a competition, and thinking one is self-sufficient.

Why is this problematic? When spiritual practices become a yardstick for self-worth, the worth of others, and the world, we become our own obstacle to personal development and fulfillment. Our relationships with others become biased, as does our self-image. Instead of understanding the reality of things, beings, and the world, we slide into interpretation, judgment, and error, moving away from reality. There's a risk of living in a dangerous bubble, isolated from the world—not through virtuous asceticism but due to emotional inadaptability.

What can I do instead? Learn to identify the mechanisms of your ego and your wounds. Learn to love yourself, be vulnerable, tolerant, show compassion, accept uncomfortable sensations, seek advice from others, listen to others, accept being wrong and questioning yourself. If you find yourself as a victim, distance yourself from this type of profile if you can identify its traits. Trying to discuss or convince is often futile because narcissists often don't acknowledge their faults. Take significant distance from them and those who seem to play into their dynamics.

Spiritual gaslight

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Spiritual gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation carried out by an individual, often a charismatic authority figure, who uses information, beliefs, spiritual or religious doctrines to invalidate the spiritual experience and the victim's perception of reality. Similar to classic gaslighting, it is a form of abuse where the manipulated person begins to mistrust or doubt their own feelings, memories, perceptions, intuitions, judgments, and even their psychological well-being. The aggressor exploits concepts such as sacred scriptures or spiritual techniques to challenge the other person's spiritual journey, aiming to submit or completely control them, thereby filling their own narcissistic void, potentially exploiting them, or extracting money. 

Examples: In this specific context, the aggressors will manipulate spiritual notions such as sacred scriptures or religious/spiritual concepts improperly (such as spiritual bypass) to make you doubt what you feel, to shame you, to make you feel guilty, or to invalidate your experience. You're not healing? It's because "you're not spiritual enough", or "you don't practice well" or "often enough." Sense of guilt: you are responsible for your pains and traumas (using the words "karma" or "universe" to justify your suffering and urging you to "purify" yourself even more through constantly new "initiations"). Infantilization: you are too attached to your ego, not patient enough, not "detached" enough in general, "not enough in the heart," "too much in the mind," "not letting go enough," "stuck in your lower chakras," "thinking too much."

Signs and vocabulary The exercise of critical thinking is condemned as negative judgment, submission is glorified as letting go, awakening is equated with brainwashing or fanaticism, passive-aggressiveness is labeled as "non-violent communication," your reflection and free will are confused with ego (which you should get rid of), comparison is often used to belittle you or present a virtuous counter-model. The term "healing" is used excessively, almost obsessively, as a goal. You're told that you practice poorly or that you must practice more to approach the Truth, healing. Spirituality becomes an accumulation of performative consumeristic techniques (spiritual materialism) rather than a privileged space for healthy introspection: you're "advised" to attend yet another workshop, training, healing ceremony, treatment x or y. Isolation with an individual or a group: those outside are seen as less spiritual or less evolved individuals who cannot understand your evolution or "life path." The relationship with money is ambiguous: you must "invest" in your healing (spend without counting) or you'll be offered "prices" or "flash deals" that you can't refuse, creating a sense of obligation or entering into a network marketing or pyramid scheme that is difficult to escape.

Why is this problematic? Individuals engaging in gaslighting often suffer from personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder (spiritual ego) or antisocial personality disorder and lack empathy. They are not concerned with helping others but seek to be revered figures to fill their narcissistic void (and incidentally, fill their wallets). They frequently use criticism and lies, refuse to take any responsibility for their words and actions (under the guise of "spiritual detachment"), distort reality by misusing philosophical concepts, minimize others' feelings by infantilizing them, undermine the trust and mental health of their victims (sometimes under the guise of "humor"). This has dramatic consequences on the mental health of victims: loss of self-esteem, confusion, shame or guilt, disconnection from reality, irritability, overall loss of faith, isolation, and various forms of abuse. There is a high risk of sectarian deviations: the other is not liberated but instead becomes chained like a slave. 

What can I do? Ask yourself: do you feel liberated or trapped? Do you feel like you're perpetually in a fog, needing to accumulate (in vain) new techniques and practices to find clarity? Do you feel alone and uneasy within a practice group? If so, reconnect as much as possible with reality outside of the influence of this person or the structure within which you are experiencing such control, whether it's a spiritual organization, a group of practitioners, an intimate relationship, etc. Escape (physically, and if not possible, at least virtually, through social media, for example)! Associate with people completely outside of this environment. Discuss your experience with people who operate in fields unrelated to spirituality to keep your feet on the ground. Take note of factual elements that stand out, bother you, or make you uncomfortable. Trust yourself. If you don't feel psychologically safe, you don't have to force yourself. Enlightenment does not come through brainwashing, constant self-doubt, or blind submission to external prescriptions.

Also read : When Instagram helps us uncover "spiritual bullshit."

6 responses to “A brief glossary of toxic spirituality ”

  1. ALEXA ANDRE avatar

    Merci beaucoup Jeanne pour cet édifiant glossaire de la nature humaine assaisonnée à la sauce spirituelle.

    Ça coupe un peu l’appétit 😉 !!!

    Bravo à vous et Zineb 🙏 pour la qualité de votre travail et votre générosité à le partager autour de vous.


  2. Mieke avatar

    Merci beaucoup pour votre analyse « mettre les pendules à l’heure ». Très utile et très intéressant.

  3. Claire avatar

    Un article très pertinent qui permet de prévenir les dérives d’ego, ou pire sectaires… Le problème avec la spiritualité, c’est ce côté immatériel qui peut être détourné en faisant d’un ressenti une vérité. Et on a vite fait de s’enorgueillir de sa pratique, d’une belle posture, surtout à l’ère des réseaux sociaux. C’est donc important de rester vigilant, notamment en tant qu’enseignant à se cantonner à son rôle et savoir rediriger les élèves vers d’autres professionnels qualifiés comme des médecins pour des questions de santé par exemple.

  4. Gaëlle avatar

    Merci Jeanne pour ce super article très détaillé. C’est très intéressant et cela permet de vraiment comprendre certaines dérives (et ça fait aussi super peur en fait).

  5. Delia Visan avatar

    Bonjour, merci pour cette analyse éclairée et d’avoir mis des références bibliographiques dans le texte, en avez-vous d’autres (références bibliothèques ?!). Merci.
    Delia Visan

  6. Jean Caulier avatar

    Merci Jeanne pour cet article. Un regard toujours aussi pertinent et synchrone avec le réel. C’est un véritable souci et presque une épidémie. Des personnes de bonne foi s’égarent. Celles de mauvaise foi utilisent l »outil » séduisant d’une « spiritualité » vaporeuse et confuse afin d’assouvir les besoins frustrés de leur ego. Les temps sont à la confusion. Je ne vois pas pour l’instant ce qui pourrait nous sortir de là. Le yoga ou plutôt un « certain yoga » en percolant dans nos sociétés repues a cassé sa boussole. Il a perdu le nord et vire vent debout à l’ouest.
    Merci de nous en prévenir.

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