Strike up a conversation with any ten people. Ask if they have heard of the law of attraction (LOA) or the power of positive thinking. At least four (maybe more) of them will say, YES.
Today, the word spirituality is a buzz word rather than a niche topic reserved for spiritual adepts. Despite religious affiliation, millions subscribe to some of today’s most popularized spiritual teachings.
So how do those teachings become toxic? To unpack this question, we begin with the evolution of our understanding of spirituality.
Spirituality’s Many Faces
Merriam-Webster’s first listed definition of spirituality is “something that in ecclesiastical law belongs to the church or to a cleric as such.” It’s fourth definition reads: “the quality or state of being spiritual.”
But ask Google, and you will find this definition: “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Already, you may notice the stark difference in how spirituality is defined by each source.
In modern day interpretations, spirituality actually has much to do with material and physical things. It has become a hashtag, a trend, a craze and, at times, a product. It is a container littered with alluring teachings on ways to use your mind to get what you want. And FAST!
But what happens when getting what you want threatens what you most need?
The Dark Side of Spirituality
We live in an age where everything from financial prosperity to fitness goals are expected to be delivered (or achieved) overnight with minimal investment of time, energy and attention. Yet, if we study the spiritual masters of old, spirituality was always a dynamic set of teachings and practices that provided insight into life’s inner workings.
The greater the dedication, the deeper the understanding. And none of it happened overnight. And while everyday people didn’t undergo the rigors of spiritual adepts such as shamans, priestesses, saints or mystics, there was an understanding that spirituality supported one through life’s challenges. It was never intended to eradicate them.
But what happens to a mind inundated with Instagram feeds and YouTube algorithms of testimonies from spiritual coaches and everyday people guaranteeing overnight success using tools that don’t always work the same for others?
What happens when you start believing that anything other than positive emotion is detrimental? What happens when the vast world of spirituality is reduced to a list of “life hacks” condensed to 60-second TikTok videos rather than taught as lifelong skills that must be cultivated to support you in doing “the work” life requires?
Well … that’s when spirituality can become toxic.
Something becomes toxic when it has an overall detrimental effect on you. Let me be clear: the actual substance does not have to be toxic for it to have a toxic effect on you.
The problem with popular spiritual teachings is not in the teachings themselves; rather, it is the application and interpretation of those teachings in the minds, hands and hearts of the listeners. It is akin to the reason sodium is more harmful than salt.
The former is an extraction of the whole natural compound. Our bodies are no more equipped to process such extractions (ask your liver) any more than our psyches are built for overdoses of positive thinking as an antidote to healing trauma (ask your subconscious).
When spirituality becomes a coping mechanism rather than an instrument of healing, significant harm can be done. And when practices are pushed like pills without the full contexts from which they were derived, well, toxicity is more than possible—it’s imminent.
Modern Day Evangelicals & Cult Followings
A majority of social media spiritual coaches with large followings are modern day evangelicals. I find it fascinating how as humans we often think we are so unique and we’ve cracked the code to life when in reality, many people have just fallen prey to an organized religion theology that is not only thousands of years old but also, in many ways, toxic.
Many of these virtual communities resemble cults, demanding loyalty and oftentimes leading followers away from their families, friends and communities.
Symptoms of Toxic Spirituality
You may be wondering, How will I know if my practice of spirituality is toxic? Below are four examples of toxic spirituality and how they could show up in everyday life.
The Dark Side of LOA
With the growing popularity of the law of attraction, many are fixated on using their thoughts and emotions to get things or create experiences. However, if this strategy does not work and you feel ashamed (or shame others), this could become toxic.
If the popular perspective of “abundance consciousness” leaves you feeling inferior, erased, devoiced, depressed, perpetually frustrated or inadequate, it could be toxic. The perceived inability to attain one’s goals employing overly-simplified techniques can foster and feed a host of fallacies that hinder inner peace and lasting fulfillment.
Remember, mastering the mind and emotions is a lifelong practice, which is why spiritual adepts often devoted their lives to it.
Spiritual bypassing is a broader term that encompasses any practice of using certain “spiritual” beliefs to repress feelings. If you find yourself blanketing the complexity of your (or another’s) life experiences with statements such as “I just have to be positive,” “You created that experience in your life,” or “everything happens for a reason,” then you could be spiritually bypassing.
The danger with this practice is that valid emotions are discounted or unallowed. And you cannot heal what you are unwilling to feel or face. This level of repression wreaks havoc on the heart, mind, body and soul.
Toxic positivity is a well-known spiritual bypassing practice that blankets any situation with “just be positive.” It negates very real (and healthy) feelings that, when felt, can lead to deep healing, breakthroughs and sustainable wellbeing.
In nature, positive and negative ions are equally vital. Light casts a shadow. And every sunrise has a sunset.
Life is whole. You are too. However, if you fear or repress any thought or feeling that isn’t of a “high vibration,” you may have subscribed to toxic positivity.
Spiritual coaches guide others along their journey of understanding and mastering spiritual principles. However, if you become dependent on these individuals or find yourself investing loads of money without experiencing transformation, this could be toxic.
A spiritual coach, at their best will never foster dependency. They will support you in trusting your innate knowing. They do not lord teachings over you or exploit a moment of desperation. Rather, they encourage you to do the inner work of seeking within, taking your time and applying what you have learned.