Have you ever heard the phrase “let it go?” When I first heard it, 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 ways of detaching. The one I used most often was certainly not a form of “positive” detachment. I still had a lot to learn.
Detaching with Love
I admit it, “detachment” sounds negative. And how can detaching be positive? If you’re confused, I can help. So, what is positive detachment? (Many 12-step programs call it “loving” detachment.) Well, there are several theories about the different kinds of detachment.
When we emotionally distance ourselves from a situation and its consequences, with the understanding that the other person is entitled to make their own choices and deal with the consequences of those choices, we’re positively detaching. In using positive detachment, we take the focus off the other person and put it back on ourselves. We can feel compassion for the other person, but the focus is on us; on our lives, our choices, our thoughts, and our behavior. And we feel at peace about whatever happens next.
What It Is (and Is Not)
Positive 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.
Positive detachment is a way of respecting others’ boundaries and a type of healthy boundary for ourselves. It’s a constant. It’s a way of living and “being.”
Positive 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 detach positively until I learned about the role that setting healthy boundaries plays in codependent behavior. Even then, exercising positive detachment was anxiety-provoking. When I first learned how to detach positively, I was outside of my comfort zone. I was used to using apathetic detachment. I decided that I needed to get comfortable with loving, positive detachment, and I took any appropriate opportunity to detach this way. Eventually, I became comfortable using this form of detachment as a way of respecting others’ boundaries, as a boundary for myself, and as 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
- Positive 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 distractions; using activities like cleaning, reading, social media, binge-watching TV, or immersing ourselves in church, school, eating, drinking, shopping, community activities, or anything else that suffices.
None of these activities 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 to see if we’re actually avoiding or numbing. Is the activity a way for us to evade a person, a painful circumstance, or a memory?
First, 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. This first emotion we feel is so fleeting that we don’t even notice it. 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 like doing 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. It 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,” and 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 them 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.
So angry detachment is actually a reaction.
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 in 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!
Positive 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 even 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.
Positively 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, right?
But we already know 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 first accept and validate my thoughts and feelings. Next, I commit to maintaining my focus and productivity by not concentrating on others. Doing these 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 positive detachment from this perspective, we can clearly see that it’s not “running away.” Positive 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 person’s feelings or problems.
In each of the above detachment scenarios, the end result is always the same for us: in each, we emotionally or physically “walk away” and take ourselves out of the situation. The difference between each of these scenarios is how we feel after we walk. Of the four, positive 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.
Shifting our attention to our own lives allows us to focus on our needs, wants, feelings, and goals (see if you’re codependent) while providing that same opportunity to them. 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 meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves, and no one is responsible for us but us.
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For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.