Detachment is a complex topic that cannot be fully grasped overnight. It is a painful experience for us, because in order to feel detachment, one must once have felt attachment, which implies love. It is an experience that leads to a whole host of unpleasant emotions. In fact, it is not uncommon to feel sorrow, anxiety, despair, anger, guilt, hostility, pity, panic, regret and so much more.
Learning to accept and manage detachment often proves beneficial for those who have learned to do so. Why? Because detachment is an inevitable experience in this world.
From the moment we enter into any type of relationship, whether platonic, romantic, familial, or professional, it is wise to keep in mind, without letting it dictate your life, that it will come to an end. This statement is a guaranteed certainty. What we don’t know, is what will happen between the beginning and the end of the relationship, such as how long it will last, if it will be a quality relationship and how it will end (a change in jobs, a move, bankruptcy, betrayal, death, a promotion, when a person stops hoping their loved one will change, etc.).
Detachment in nature, as its leaves fall from the trees, creates a beautiful landscape and an equally beautiful renewal. Emotional detachment in humans also allows for glorious renewal.
Loss is a part of our lives from the very beginning, regardless of our species. It is a rule that brings order to our world. As newborns, we experience different types of loss, such as loss of constant contact with our mother and the warmth and comfort of the placenta. As infants, we experience loss in our mother or father returning to work, in being weaned from our pacifier, etc. And so, the thread of detachment is woven throughout our lives. Of course, the items we lose may differ, but loss remains constant on our journey through life. There is no way to escape it. Even devoid of all contact, this experience takes place in the form of material or physical losses, such as the loss of one’s motor skills. In the light of this observation, it becomes obvious that understanding detachment and the host of emotions that comes with it is a gift we can give ourselves to improve our quality of life and overall well-being.
The concept of detachment is made up of various components including emotions, influential factors, types of loss, lessons learned, side effects, and most importantly, personal changes. It is important to define all of these components, as they are critical to the success of learning how to accept and manage detachment. Note that grief is part of detachment.
First of all, it is important to understand what we mean by “loss.” Loss is being deprived of something that was of value to us. This could be an emotional, monetary or other kind of loss. Losing something that matters (even a dream or hope) creates a void, an empty space, a hole. It can be called many things, but underlying all the painful emotions that arise alongside detachment is the empty space created by the loss. The more important the lost object was, the more space it occupied in our thoughts and in our lives, the easier it is to forget that our condition and our perception of this experience is temporary. We forget that the pain will eventually subside and that we can speed up the healing process.
Healing from the pain created by loss involves such key concepts as accepting the situation and one’s emotions, coming to terms with the absence, revisiting one’s perceptions and thoughts related to the event and relearning how to live without the lost item or person (or with a reality that may be quite different from the hope for change held onto for many years).
For most of us, loss means fear, stress, worry, change, instability and suffering. What often gets pushed aside when suffering from detachment are the other changes loss can bring.
The key word here is change. There can be no loss, and therefore no detachment, without it leading to change. It could be a new way of life, a move, a new career, a new husband, a new social circle, etc. No matter what, it always involves change.
Change is certainly disruptive, as involves modification of familiar routines. Of course, these new routines will eventually become comforting, but they will take some getting used to. Change can be perceived as frightening, disturbing, painful, etc. but even more so, it provides challenge, novelty, learning, evolution, discovery and an excellent opportunity for personal development.
Of course, loss can lead to changes in roles, relationships, expectations and goals for everyone. Loss frequently leads to changes in our daily habits. Often, even the simplest tasks remind us of our loss. This is why it is so important to learn to manage, tolerate and accept detachment as a skill that we possess that will eventually bring us benefits. In short, managing detachment is a path on the road to happiness.
Obviously, loss can cause a certain degree of personal suffering. The degree of pain will depend largely on factors such as the context in which the loss took place, the type of loss, the impact of the loss on my life, my personality, my coping skills, my cognitive flexibility, my past experiences, my unhealed wounds (whether completely open or just sensitive), the availability and quality of my support systems (family, friends, professional resources, spiritual resources, colleagues, etc.)
The context of the loss greatly influences one’s reaction to it. Several examples clearly show the relevance of context when learning to master detachment.
Here is an example that demonstrates the influence of context : Losing one’s driving privileges can be a terrible blow to an individual who lives in an area without access to public transportation and where public services (stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, medical clinics, etc.) are not within walking distance. The same loss, although significant, will have a different impact on someone in the opposite contextual situation, one in which all public services are within a short distance and in which excellent public transportation services are available.
There is no doubt that the context in which the loss is experienced will provoke more or less unpleasant emotions depending on the impact of the change. It is also clear that a correlation exists between detachment, emotions and change. Whether the cause of detachment is of a pleasant or unpleasant nature makes no difference to the fact that there will be losses and obligatory restructuring. Developing coping strategies is essential to a life of peace and happiness.
Nature of the relationship
The nature of the relationship is a component that strongly influences how one manages detachment. The type of relationship is one of the most influential factors when it comes to being receptive to detachment. The loss of a utilitarian relationship will likely lead to emotions of anger or disappointment. The loss of a professional relationship can have significant financial consequences that can cause worry, anxiety and stress. With the loss of a beloved pet comes feelings of sadness and helplessness. The loss of a parent, child or spouse provokes very different reactions and emotions than the loss of a friend or an acquaintance. There are many other factors that come into play regarding the nature of a relationship, such as the type of relationship, the strength of the relationship, memories (good or bad) and the type of separation.
An individual’s personality is determined by many different factors, including DNA, heredity, the sociocultural context in which they live, the education they have received, their strengths, weaknesses, compulsions, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and defence mechanisms. All of these factors are interrelated and have a major impact on how we manage our emotions. For example, if I have developed resilience (the ability to recover from difficult situations) as a defence mechanism, I will be more likely to adapt easily to any unnerving situations that may come my way. On the other hand, if I have developed internalizing behaviours (emotions are directed toward oneself, e.g., anger is reflected as anger toward oneself) as a defence mechanism, I am likely to implode when confronted with an upsetting situation such as bereavement, since this involves a number of unnerving emotions.
The following is another example that illustrates the influence that personality can have in managing emotions related to detachment. If I believe that my pain or emotional distress is tied to environmental pressures, such as work, family, intimate relationships, money, etc., and that I have no control over these circumstances, I will likely feel powerless when it comes to managing my emotions and the situation. This may lead me to become passive and a victim of my emotions. On the other hand, if I believe that I am in control of my destiny and my life, I will tend to take action and use my inner strength to manage my emotions and my life in general, which will prove an enormous help in rebuilding my future after the loss of an important object or person.
When taking the time to examine these factors, it is important to get to know ourselves better so we can evaluate ourselves accurately, i.e., in relation to ourselves rather than others. Designing a scale ranging from the best parts of yourself to the worst parts of yourself, and then placing yourself on this scale at x point in time will allow you to better determine what skills you possess that could work in your favour. Good knowledge of oneself requires objective (and therefore non-judgemental) evaluation of the way one functions, one’s beliefs (whether erroneous or constructive), one’s strengths, one’s limitations, etc.
Past experiences provide a source of information that should not be ignored, as they contain details about what was helpful or harmful in similar situations. With this information, I am able to make more informed choices about the attitude, thought or action I wish to take in the current situation I am facing, since I know the likelihood of its effectiveness.
However, in painful situations such as detachment and bereavement, past experiences often point to unhealed wounds. Painful experiences from the past are like poison to the body, because they prevent the person from functioning as the would normally, i.e., from a place of trust and love.
Thoughts focused on a painful past can be exhausting, as they drain the body of the energy it needs to function. For this reason, it is in all of our best interests to let go of the past and make peace with our wounds. In order to heal, it is to my advantage to learn to forgive myself and others, to trust in myself and in life, to focus on what I have learned through my painful experiences, to live in the present moment and to make sure that I am expending my energy in ways that are good for me.
To believe that healing and all that it implies, as described above, will be quick or instantaneous is unrealistic. A more realistic approach would be to recognize that my emotional state has taken a while to deteriorate and that I have an accumulation of events and emotions inside of me. Throughout my healing process, I will learn to see these experiences in a different light. It is important to find meaning in my experience, because it helps alleviate any feelings of heaviness, injustice, guilt, anxiety, torment, anger and many more. Finding meaning leads to acceptance, which in turn leads to peace.
In order to succeed in easing the pain caused by detachment, it is very helpful to deepen one’s intrapersonal knowledge and develop an understanding of the wide range of human emotions. Managing these types of emotions means being able to identify, recognize, name and understand them.
My support system acts as a safety net when hardships strike and threaten to drag me under. My safety net softens the blow. Having an active support system is the opposite of isolation. Isolation plunges the person deeper into their unpleasant emotions, whereas their support system helps lift them out of painful emotions to a place of peace. A good support system may include parents, spouses, friends, family, colleagues, animals (for the comfort they provide), professionals, mentors or anyone likely to provide comfort, empathy, understanding, compassion and support. Of course, the larger the support system, the more helpful it is.
However, choosing the right people for our support system is important, because not all of them will be able to offer us adequate support. For example, if I want to realize my dream of moving to Australia, it may be best to avoid consulting my overly attached friend, because she might try to influence my decision based on her own emotions. Building a support system is important, useful and helps achieve psychological balance, but it requires thought.
Types of loss
Losses are a normal part of life. They manifest themselves in different ways and arise at different points in our life journey. No one can escape loss. An individual will be confronted with different types of loss and will sometimes experience certain types of loss, such as death, more than once. This is why it is essential to master the concept of detachment. There are many types of loss, including physical, psychological, and material loss. Additional forms of loss include those related to family, freedom, social environment, animals and social roles. We will attempt to clarify each of these concepts below.
Physical loss is characterized by a significant change in a person’s body that causes some form of loss of use or function. Natural age-related changes in the body usually result in some degree of slower functioning. In addition to aging, use of one’s body may also be reduced by illness and poor lifestyle choices. Certain “unforeseen” circumstances, such as losing the use of one’s legs after an accident, can also lead to changes in a person’s daily life. If you were to find yourself in a similar situation, without a doubt, you would have some mourning to do. At the very least, over the loss of your previous lifestyle. Other examples of physical loss include loss of sight, loss of smell, paralysis of a body part, amputation of a body part, etc.
Psychological loss refers to a significant alteration in an individual’s usual functioning, due to reaction to, or development of, mental health problems. We all have episodes of mild and temporary depression or feelings of sadness after a major disappointment. Here, the notion of psychological loss refers to that of a disabling nature. For example, having a psychotic episode (delusions, hallucinations) significantly reduces a person’s ability to function “normally” in society. The person experiencing this type of episode is no longer able to go about their regular activities. They lose the use of their mental function and their social capabilities. Major depression that leaves the person in a state of complete passivity is another example of a psychological issue. This person loses use of nearly all of their capabilities.
Family loss is reflected by various types of separation. Nearly all families experience detachment. Many families have loved ones scattered across the globe. Most of us will experience the death of one or more family members, such as that of our parents and grandparents. Family loss also includes the separation of parents, a situation that means a complete change in family structure, not only for the adults involved, but also for the children who will mourn the loss of the ideal family. Another type of family loss experienced by both parent and child is the child’s departure from the family nest. Despite excitement over the child’s emerging independence, mourning will still occur on both sides, because it is still a separation. Daily life as we know it has changed forever.
Loss of freedom
Loss of freedom also includes loss of independence and loss of autonomy. This type of loss occurs when a person is in a situation where they must rely on others for personal care or in order to attend to their daily activities. It should be noted that the vast majority of individuals feel a strong need for independence. When independence is threatened or limited, the individual must be prepared to mourn the loss of their autonomy and freedom, both fundamental rights. This threat or limitation may be caused by a lack of adequate housing, serious illness, legal regulations, or a precarious financial situation. If you ask a teenager what else might infringe upon his or her freedom, they are likely to say that living in a rural area with few shops, no public transportation and few entertainment options would be a major issue for their independence. Other examples include a degenerative disease that requires hospitalization or a misdemeanour that results in jail time or probation.
Loss related to social environment
Loss related to social environment is the reduction of a person’s network. As we grow older, so do the people around us. As we age, it is not uncommon for our social network to shrink, as more people die in old age than in youth. Death is also a major cause of loss for members of gangs and drug networks. However, death is not the only reason people leave our social networks. People move, betray one another or grow apart. These are all factors that can cause people to lose sight of one another. Of course, some of these losses are more painful than others.
Material loss also includes monetary loss. Dealing with this type of loss may seem superficial, but bankruptcy creates instability in a person or family’s life, making monetary loss less of a superficial idea. Many forms of detachment can take place in this type of situation, such as having to leave the house we have lived in all our life. Losing your car may mean that your children can no longer participate in extracurricular activities, etc. Material losses affect daily life. Children experience material loss on a regular basis, such as when they lose their mittens, toys, etc. Material loss is part of life. When a parent dies, one must part with his or her possessions. This becomes a major loss, since it is all we have left of them.
Loss of a pet
For pet lovers, the loss of a pet can be just as painful as losing a family member. In fact, many pet “owners” think of their animals as members of the family. When your pet has been with you for five, ten or fifteen years, their departure can cause a lot of pain. Pets are loved ones. Some people form closer emotional bonds with their pets than they do with certain family members or friends. A pet loves its family unconditionally, which is rare among humans. It’s no wonder people get so attached to their animals.
Loss of a social role
Loss of a social role is something that affects a person’s self-identity. It forces a person to redefine themselves. Several examples can be used to demonstrate this observation. If I am the parent of an only child and they die in a car accident, will I no longer feel like a parent? If I have worked all my life, will I question my contribution to society when I retire? If I have been a student for fifteen years (Kindergarten to PhD) and I enter the workforce, my status will change. How a person defines themselves is based not only personality, but also on the different roles they play in society. Losing one’s role can affect a person’s self-esteem.
Loss of life as we know it
Loss of life as we know it is undoubtedly very unsettling, because we lose our bearings. This loss is experienced simultaneously with all the other types of loss listed so far, since every ending creates a change in our way of life. For example, we may no longer go on a Sunday visit, we may no longer have a certain person to call in times of need, we no longer have the same doctor if we have moved to another country for work, etc. What we must keep in mind is that life as we know it can change at any moment. Changes of a more positive nature include the announcement of a pregnancy, a promotion, receiving a diploma, etc. Sometimes it only takes a few seconds for our whole lives to change.
Loss of a dream
Loss of a dream can be illustrated by examples related to physical losses, such as training for the Olympics for many years and then having an accident that causes you to lose function in your legs or starting to make a name for yourself as a painter and then losing your eyesight. That’s why, if your dream is really important to you, it may be wise to make strides toward achieving it now, without jeopardizing your current situation.
Loss of an ideal
Loss of an ideal is related to the image that a person had of their life or of certain aspects of their life. For example, the parents of a child who thought his or her parents would be together forever announce their plans to divorce. Another example: Aspiring to complete many years of study in medical school and being diagnosed with a learning disability. When experiencing loss of an ideal, it is important to be as realistic as possible with ourselves. To do this, we must rely on images of the life we can create using our personal strengths and limitations.
How the loss of an ideal takes place will also influence the feelings that emerge inside us following the event.
Types of endings
Abrupt, unwanted endings are unexpected, unprovoked events. This includes accidents, sudden death from incidents like cardiac arrest, a spouse who asks for a divorce when the other partner had not seen any warning signs, etc. This type of ending is defined from the point of view of the person who suffers the unwanted ending. This type of situation will undoubtedly send the person into a state of shock, which will be the first step in the long grieving process.
Provoked endings are ones that we requested or made happen. Separation in a romantic relationship is an excellent example. This type of ending is defined from the perspective of the person who has made the choice to put an end to the relationship or situation. Another example might be a person who ends up behind bars after committing a crime despite knowing full well that there could be consequences. We can also mention individuals who commit infidelity, thus causing their relationship to end. Or take the child who constantly assaults his or her parents verbally, physically or financially, and then one day, the parents choose to end to the relationship out of self-respect. This type of situation usually creates feelings of guilt for the person who feels responsible for the pain inflicted on others and on themselves.
There is a lesson to be learned from every experience. The first time I burned myself by touching the flame of a candle, I learned that it hurt. Focusing on the lessons learned from your experiences gives meaning and purpose to life, both of which are essential to peace and happiness. One discovers unexpected strengths and abilities when dealing with loss in this way. Not only does the pain go away, but self-esteem increases.
When experiencing loss caused by death or imposed separation, it is important to identify the legacy and heritage that the person we lost has left behind. By asking ourselves, “What did this person bring to my life?”, we can learn lessons from the relationship and give meaning to this experience. We will begin to see the positive outcomes of this experience. For example, the person I loved taught me to love and laugh, rather than focus on pain and suffering. Did this person teach me how to overcome hardships? It is rare for someone to pass on despair. It is my interpretation of the events that creates the despair, which is not what the person would want for me.
Romantic relationships can provide us with other lessons as well. I may have learned to be assertive or that I no longer want to live with an angry person. I learned things that will be useful when choosing a future spouse. Any relationship, whether familial, romantic, platonic or professional, provides learning opportunities for both parties. To better understand this concept, why not start by asking those around you what they have learned from you?
Side effects and personal development
When emotions are left unmanaged, psychosomatic symptoms (physical symptoms caused by psychological stress) such as abdominal pain, migraines, stomach ulcers and back pain can appear. Be sure to take these symptoms seriously, and do not hesitate to see a doctor. These symptoms are indicators to help you understand the importance of processing your experience differently.
Grief manifests itself with varying degrees of intensity when detachment is involved. When several losses are experienced in a short period of time, the grief may be overwhelming. Sometimes this can result in depression, illness, or serious fatigue. Generally speaking, all this is temporary and we eventually recover. However, there are times when a person is unable to do so, in which case professional help will be necessary.
Individuals may develop concerns about their other relationships as well. For example, a person may be afraid that all of their loved ones will die, or that all of their future spouses will leave them. Individuals in this case must learn to differentiate.
Guilt is almost always part of the grieving process. Most people wonder : Could I have done something? Could I have avoided this tragedy? Guilt is never justified if the intention behind the situation was not to cause harm. Because guilt is a powerful poison, it is imperative to seek help in understanding the perceptions and beliefs that are causing this state. Those undergoing detachment are certainly not objective. To get a neutral reading of the situation, an outsider will be necessary.
Although the side effects of loss can be unsettling, they can also be beneficial. The forming of new relationships is a perfect example. After experiencing a loss, it is not uncommon for an individual to make changes to his or her network and environment. For example, those going through a separation may take the opportunity to make other big changes, such as going back to school. In this example, it is likely that this person will make new friends. Another illustration of a beneficial side effect is that of a couple who has lost a child to illness and joins a support group. They will undoubtedly make new connections.
A person’s physical or emotional reaction to detachment is unique to each individual. There is no right way to feel. However, certain feelings can destroy those who do not seek help when recovering from an unhappy state. It is up to each person to find their own ways of dealing with their loss. This can be done through reflection, meditation, spirituality, therapy, support groups, family, friends, etc. One thing is sure, the process of detachment will be long and hard if the person is unable to accept their pain and other emotions.
We can’t often choose our losses, but we can always choose how we process and manage them. Not harbouring false beliefs about loss, for example, “the people I love are immortal” and accepting that detachment is a part of life, will be a great help to you when the time comes. This will allow you to be better prepared when a situation involving loss arises. It will be easier for you to tap into your resources to help you in your process. Learn about the situations you are facing, because understanding what is happening can make them much less scary.
Source : Émo-Contrôle : programme de gestion des émotions, Éditons Québec-Livres, 2013, 175p.
Au revoir : apprendre à gérer la douleur du détachement, training booklet, Gabrielle Brind’Amour, 2015.