What Toxic Spirituality Sounds Like
By ‘manifesting’ your dreams, are you completely ignoring privilege?
Before I left my corporate career to study psychotherapy, I was a self-help devotee. I devoured every book, took every course, and attended every conference I could find on how to “manifest my dreams.” And each time, I walked away with a new rush of optimism, confident that I was now closer than ever to attaining the life I wanted.
Eventually, though, it became harder for me to ignore my own discomfort with a corner of this world, one that was becoming more and more prevalent: the conflation of self-improvement with a toxic brand of spirituality.
We seem to be in a new age of spirituality, with an explosion of influencers, celebrity life coaches, authors, athletes, and even psychologists offering up neatly packaged tools from their own “awakenings.” This Instagram-friendly version of spirituality frames it as something to tap into with an assortment of affirmations, meditation, yoga, and introspection. It’s always positioned as a solo endeavor — with the implication, never explicitly stated but baked right into the premise — that anyone who fails just isn’t trying hard enough.
I’m calling bullshit.
This type of thinking isn’t just unhelpful — it’s toxic. Here’s what it sounds like.
You are 100% responsible for your own circumstances
I can see why it feels empowering to believe that we are in full control of our own destiny. I’d love to believe that putting the right thoughts out into the universe, à la The Secret, can improve anyone’s life.
But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a society that grants different people different levels of power and privilege. Believing that all humans are equal — and equally able to change their lives — does not create a world in which that’s true. Instead, it ignores very real systems of oppression and denies the victims of those systems any validation and empathy. Spiritual and self-development leaders who focus only on individual responsibility do so because it is easy. Acknowledging our history and circumstances is a longer, messier process.
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The ego is an enemy that needs to be eliminated
In my work, I’ve seen the rise of the term “ego” as a catchall for a spectrum of defense mechanisms, emotions, felt experiences, and unmet human needs. In this context, the ego is something to be conquered — which means, by extension, that all those feelings and needs are potential failings, roadblocks on the path to a more enlightened self. You are encouraged to pit yourself against another part of yourself and overpower it.
This can be incredibly harmful, not to mention futile. A more compassionate, healthier response is to try to understand these different parts of yourself and honor them.
Reacting with anger is a sign you need to ‘do more work’
If we experience an injustice or a personal attack, it is natural to feel anger. To deny someone the right to feel angry, or to suggest that they need to look within to change something, is spiritual gaslighting. It’s often used when we challenge toxic behaviors or ideas. Rather than respond to the challenge, the recipient will turn it around, question your motives, and encourage you to doubt your reality, using your anger as their evidence.
Feeling anger is not harmful. Neither is sharing that we feel it. It may make someone feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make it wrong. We should remain curious about our anger. Anger, especially in the face of injustice, unlocks our empathy.
Meditation is a purely beneficial experience
There is no denying the many benefits of meditation. But it’s important to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for everyone and, in some cases, can cause distress. For example, asking someone who has experienced trauma to pay close, sustained attention to their internal experience may thrust them into emotional arousal and flashbacks.
The message that meditation is simply about “staying with our experience” insinuates that if you’re not finding benefits, you’re just not trying hard enough. It isn’t that simple. Staying with yourself doesn’t mean you have to suffer inner torture.
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Control your thoughts to manifest your reality
There is no doubt that positive thinking can feel empowering. I’m a great believer in visualizing my goals and becoming more conscious about working toward them. But I do wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we claim that the universe delivered. Couldn’t it have been my own grit, passion, and hard work?
I also don’t believe that it’s always feasible or even necessary to cultivate a positive mindset. If I dislike my current job, I don’t have to pretend to like it while I plan my next step. We aren’t one-dimensional — we are complex humans who are capable of existing in our current reality while making positive plans for the future.
‘Rising above’ your emotions is a sign of spiritual maturity
True spirituality doesn’t mean controlling our internal experience. It means experiencing the world around us and having more questions than answers.
For me, it means freedom. Freedom from my inner critic and from outer pressures. Freedom to feel what I feel and to be my authentic self. Freedom to believe in something bigger without torturing myself when existing is hard.
We don’t have to deny parts of ourselves to be spiritual, and we don’t have to blame ourselves for being human. In fact, embracing our spiritual sides means embracing our humanity in all its messy complexity.