When I first heard the phrase “let it go,” I thought I understood what it meant. I was familiar with the concept of detaching, and I knew how to detach when I needed to. What I didn’t understand was that there are different methods of detaching. The one I used most often was definitely not a form of “loving” detachment. I still had a lot to learn.
Detaching with love?
There are several theories about the different kinds of detachment-styles. I admit it, “detachment” sounds negative. And how can detaching from someone be “loving“? If you’re confused, I can help.So, what is “loving detachment?”
When we emotionally distance ourselves from a situation and it’s consequences, with the understanding that the person is entitled to make their own choices and deal with the consequences, we’re lovingly detaching. Using loving detachment, we take the focus off the other person and put it on ourselves. We feel compassion for the person, but the focus is on us; our lives, our choices, our thoughts and behavior. Not theirs. And we feel at peace about whatever happens next.
What loving detachment is not
Loving detachment isn’t mean or selfish. It’s not an “either/or” experience; it’s not yes, we’re doing it today, and no, we’re not doing it tomorrow. It’s not something that we turn on and off. It isn’t aggressive; rather, it’s compassionate and kind.
Loving detachment is a way of respecting other’s boundaries, and a type of healthy boundary for ourselves. It’s a constant. It’s a way of living and “being.”
Loving detachment means “caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes.” It also means being responsible for our own welfare and making decisions without ulterior motives or the desire to control others. When we stop trying to control a person or the outcomes connected with their behavior, we’re affirming that the person has the right to make their own choices and mistakes. We step back and allow them the dignity to learn unique life-lessons and experience hard-earned personal growth. This frees us, and it frees them too.
First, let’s talk about some different ways of detaching and figure out which one(s) we might already be using.
Personally, I wasn’t able to lovingly detach until I learned about the role that setting healthy boundaries plays in codependent behavior. Even then, exercising loving detachment was anxiety-provoking. When I first learned how to detach with love, I was outside of my comfort zone. I was used to using apathetic detachment. I decided that I needed to get comfortable with this other kind, and I took any appropriate opportunity to lovingly detach when one presented itself. Eventually, I became comfortable using loving detachment as a way of respecting other’s boundaries, and as a boundary for myself and a form of self-care.
Types of detachment styles
The kinds of detachment I’ve outlined here are taken directly from conversations, reading and research. This is not an exhaustive list.
- Numbing detachment
- Angry detachment
- Apathetic detachment
- Loving detachment
When we numb ourselves to avoid feeling pain, we usually do it by using something to assist us in “shutting down” emotionally. “Numbing” includes “escapism” and using avoidance-behaviors. Numbing ourselves involves distracting with activities like cleaning, reading, social media, binge-watching TV, or immersing ourselves in church, school, eating, drinking, shopping, or community activites.
None of these are wrong or hurtful, yet they can be used maladaptively. When we use numbing behaviors, we’re not intentionally trying to be mean or hurtful, but it can happen. Numbing is all about protecting ourselves, but if we’re not careful, it could hurt others.
Pretty much any activity can be used to distract, escape, avoid, and numb. When we want to immerse ourselves in an activity, let’s remember to take a look at our motives and see if we’re actually avoiding or numbing. Is the activity a way for us to evade a person, a painful circumstance, or memory?
It’s important to understand that anger is a secondary emotion. There’s always a primary emotion felt before the anger is felt, and that first emotion triggers the anger. It’s so fleeting that frequently we don’t even notice that first emotion. For example, if I suddenly become angry at someone because I feel they’ve disrespected me, more than likely, my anger was triggered by a primary feeling of unimportance. The feeling of unimportance is the emotional “trigger.”
So angry detachment is a reaction to a trigger. When we detach in anger, we often feel like saying something nasty or hurtful, or we feel like doing something destructive or vengeful. Sometimes we actually take those actions rather than just letting ourselves feel them.
Angry detaching is an attempt to control. It feels like it’s the “last straw,” when we realize that our former attempts at controlling or manipulating aren’t working.
Angry detaching has a punishing vibe to it. “We’ll show THEM!” Outwardly we give the appearance of being emotionally detached because we make ourselves unavailable; we physically or emotionally “walk away”; we don’t take their calls or respond to texts. We may even actively ignore the person when they’re around.
But inwardly, we continue worrying, thinking, and obsessing about them or their behavior. We know what’s going on in their lives because we talk to others who know them, or we see it on social media. We haven’t really detached. Instead, we’re punishing and manipulating them with our anger and silence, but because we’re not interacting with them, it feels like detachment.
“We can allow others the dignity of making their own (good or bad) decisions and then letting them experience the consequences of their choices. When we mind our own business, we are free from the responsibility of rescuing other people.”
So angry detachment is actually a reaction. When we detach because we’re angry, we often feel like saying something nasty or hurtful, or doing something destructive or vengeful. Sometimes we actually take those actions rather than just feel them!
This way of detaching feels like an attempt at controlling. It feels like this is the “last straw,” as in when we realize our former attempts at controlling or manipulating aren’t working.
Angry detachment feels like we’re punishing the person. “We’ll show THEM!” We give the appearance of emotionally detaching by becoming unavailable; we physically or emotionally “walk away,” we don’t take the calls or respond to the texts. We may actively ignore the person when they’re around.
But we continue to worry, think, and obsess about them or their behavior. We know what’s going on with them because we talk to others who know them or we stalk social media. We haven’t really detached! We’re punishing them with our silence, but because we haven’t interacted with them, it feels like detachment when it’s not.
Apathy (or indifference) involves suppressing all feelings of interest or concern, and it takes the idea of detachment to the extreme. When we’ve detached with apathy, we no longer acknowledge the person. It’s as if they don’t exist! We couldn’t care less about them, and we don’t want to hear about or have anything to do with them.
A therapist friend once asked me, “what is the opposite of love?” and I responded, “hate.” He replied, “most people would agree with you, but no. The opposite of love is indifference.”
Using apathy or indifference as a way of detaching is maladaptive. It can cause irreparable damage to a relationship. Research shows that the degree to which indifference exists in a marriage can accurately predict the probability of divorce!
Loving detachment is judgment-free, and it allows us to intellectually, emotionally, and compassionately separate the person from their behavior. It means that we understand that the person and the behavior are two separate things. We can choose to love the person and feel compassion for them while simultaneously despising their behavior. We emotionally or physically distance ourselves from their behavior not to punish or control them but as a demonstration of love for them and self-care for ourselves.
As with boundary-setting, there is no need to discuss your intent to detach or to get permission.
Lovingly detaching means choosing to distance yourself emotionally from a situation and its’ consequences. We take the focus off of the other person and put it squarely on ourselves. We understand that the other person is entitled to make their own choices, including the choice to hurt us. They’re also entitled to deal with the results of those choices. So while we feel compassion for them, we focus on ourselves, and we feel at peace about whatever happens next.
But why do I need to be the one to detach? Why can’t THEY just change or shape-up or get-their-act-together? Well that would be great, wouldn’t it? If they would just change their behavior and do what we want or expect, our lives would be so much better, wouldn’t they?
But, as we’ve learned, that’s not the way it works.We can’t control other people. The way their behavior affects us isn’t about THEM. It’s about US. Take a pause and think about that for a minute. Let that sink in. This is about us, and about controlling our choices.
When I feel the need to detach, I find it necessary to first accept and validate my thoughts and my feelings. Next, I commit to maintaining my focus and productivity by not concentrating on others. Doing these things puts me in the right frame of mind to detach with love. There’s no anger, no fear, no need to go numb or to be indifferent. It’s like what my teacher-friends say to their students: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” I commit to keeping my eyes on my own needs, life, and work.
When we view loving-detachment from this perspective, we can clearly see that it’s not “running away.” Loving detachment is “running toward” ourselves.This healthy form of detachment reminds us that we’re a separate person in our own right, with our own likes, needs and goals and that we have choices and consequences of our own. It helps us remember that we’re not responsible for fixing another persons feelings or problems.
In each of the above detachment scenarios, the end result is always the same for us: we emotionally or physically “walked away” and took ourselves out of the situation.The difference between these scenarios is how we feel after we walk. Of the four, loving detachment is the only one that leaves us feeling at peace no matter what the other person is feeling or doing, no matter what happens next.
Detaching in this way allows us to drop our need to control the outcome. Shifting the focus to our own lives allows us to focus on own needs, wants and goals, and allows the other person to focus on theirs. (See codependency)
When we lovingly detach from our mothers, we stop focusing on her, and we don’t take responsibility for her actions, or the consequences of those actions, any longer. Detaching this way allows us to drop our need to control the outcome. Shifting the attention to our own lives allows us to focus on our needs, wants, feelings, and goals while providing that same opportunity to her. We begin to heal.
DO THE WORK.
Learn how to set boundaries
Take “a pause” and think. In other words, don’t respond immediately. This is a very powerful tool!
Respond rather than react. (Homework: look up the difference and try responding instead of reacting the next time you have the opportunity. See how it feels)
Look at the bigger picture. How important is this thing really? A shift in perspective can determine what’s most valuable so we won’t get upset over things that aren’t as important.
Identify your codependent thoughts and behaviors
Drop your end of the tug-of-war rope. Stop playing the game. There’s no tug-of-war if there isn’t someone pulling on the other end.
Use your voice. Choose your words wisely, be mindful of timing, then say what you mean and mean what you say.
Know when something is your responsibility & when it’s not. Say it nicely, say it with firmness. “No, that’s actually something you should be doing for yourself”
Remind yourself that you’re worthy of setting that boundary and that you’re worthy of being fair to yourself.
Remember- I’m in control of me: we can choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our thoughts, actions, and behavior. We can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or to meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
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More resources for healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect:
Books by Diane Metcalf-Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, the Lemon Moms Companion Workbook, and Lemon Moms: Life Altering Affirmations, Change Your Self-talk, Change YourSELF. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, paperback, audiobook.)
About the author
Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.
She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.