It (detachment) is not detaching from the person whom we care about, but from the agony of involvement. -Al-Anon member
When I was trying to choose the topic for the first chapter in this section of the book, many subjects competed for first place. I chose detachment not because it is significantly more important than the other concepts. I selected it because it is an underlying concept. It is something we need to do frequently, as we strive to live happy lives. It is the goal of most recovery programs for codependents. And, it is also something we must do first-before we can do the other things we need to do. We cannot begin to work on ourselves, to live our own lives, feel our own feelings, and solve our own problems until we have detached from the object of our obsession. From my experiences (and those of others), it appears that even our Higher Power can’t do much with us until we have detached.
When a codependent says, “I think I’m getting attached to you,” look out! He or she probably means it. Most codependents are attached to the people and problems in their environments. By “attachment,” I don’t mean normal feelings of liking people, being concerned about problems, or feeling connected to the world. Attachment is becoming overly-involved, sometimes hopelessly entangled.
Attachment can take several forms:
- We may become excessively worried about, and preoccupied with, a problem or person (our mental energy is attached).
- Or, we may graduate to becoming obsessed with and controlling of the people and problems in our environment (our mental, physical, and emotional energy is directed at the object of our obsession).
- We may become reactionaries, instead of acting authentically of our own volition (our mental, emotional, and physical energy is attached).
- We may become emotionally dependent on the people around us (now we’re really attached).
- We may become caretakers (rescuers, enablers) to the people around us (firmly attaching ourselves to their need for us).
The problems with attachment are many. (In this chapter I will focus on worry and obsession. In following chapters I will cover the other forms of attachment.)
Overinvolvement of any sort can keep us in a state of chaos; it can keep the people around us in a state of chaos. If we’re focusing all our energies on people and problems, we have little left for the business of living our own lives. And, there is just so much worry and responsibility in the air. If we take it all on ourselves, there is none left for the people around us. It overworks us and underworks them. Furthermore, worrying about people and problems doesn’t help. It doesn’t solve problems, it doesn’t help other people, and it doesn’t help us. It is wasted energy.
Worrying and obsessing keep us so tangled in our heads we can’t solve our problems. Whenever we become attached in these ways to someone or something, we become detached from ourselves. We lose touch with ourselves. We forfeit our power and ability to think, feel, act, and take care of ourselves. We lose control.
Obsession with another human being, or a problem, is an awful thing to be caught up in. Have you ever seen someone who is obsessed with someone or something? That person can talk about nothing else, can think of nothing else. Even if he appears to be listening when you talk, you know that person doesn’t hear you. His mind is tossing and turning, crashing and banging, around and around on an endless race- track of compulsive thought. He is preoccupied. He relates whatever you say, no matter how unrelated it actually is, to the object of his obsession. He says the same things, over and over, sometimes changing the wording slightly, sometimes using the same words. Nothing you say makes any difference. Even telling him to stop doesn’t help. He probably would if he could. The problem is he can’t (at that moment). He is bursting with the jarring energy that obsession is made of. He has a problem or a concern that is not only bothering him-it is controlling him.
Many of the people I’ve worked with in family groups have been that obsessed with people they care about. When I asked them what they were feeling, they told me what the other person was feeling. When I asked what they did, they told me what the other person had done. Their entire focus was on someone or something other than themselves. Some of them had spent years of their lives doing this-worrying about, reacting to, and trying to control other human beings. They were shells, some- times almost invisible shells, of people. Their energy was depleted- directed at someone else. They couldn’t tell me what they were feeling and thinking because they didn’t know. Their focus was not on themselves.
Maybe you’ve been obsessed with someone or something. Someone does or says something. A thought occurs to you. Something reminds you of a past event. A problem enters your awareness. Something happens or doesn’t happen. Or you sense something’s happening, but you’re not sure what. He doesn’t call, and he usually calls by now. He doesn’t answer the phone, and he should. It’s payday. In the past he always got drunk on payday. He’s only been sober three months. Will it happen again today? You may not know what, you may not know why, and you’re not sure when, but you know something bad-something terrible-has happened, is happening, or is about to happen.
It hits you in the stomach. The feeling fills you up-that gut-twisting, hand wringing anxiety that is so familiar to codependents. It is what causes us to do much of what we do that hurts ourselves; it is the substance worry and obsession feed upon. It is fear at its worst. Fear usually comes and goes, leaving us in flight, ready to fight, or just temporarily frightened. But anxiety hangs in there. It grips the mind, paralyzing it for all but its own purposes-an endless rehashing of the same useless thoughts. It is the fuel that propels us into controlling behaviors of all sorts. We can think of nothing but keeping a lid on things, controlling the problem, and making it go away; it is the stuff codependency is made of.
When you’re obsessed, you can’t get your mind off that person or that problem. You don’t know what you are feeling. You didn’t know what you were thinking. You’re not even sure what you should do, but by God, you should do something! And fast!
Worrying, obsessing, and controlling are illusions. They are tricks we play on ourselves. We feel like we are doing something to solve our problems, but we’re not. Many of us have reacted this way with justifiably good reason. We may have lived with serious, complicated problems that have disrupted our lives, and they would provoke any normal person to become anxious, upset, worried, and obsessed. We may love someone who is in trouble-someone who’s out of control. His or her problem may be alcoholism, an eating disorder, gambling, a mental or emotional problem, or any combination of these.
Some of us may be living with less serious problems, but they concern us anyway. People we love or care about may have mood swings. They may do things we wish they wouldn’t do. We may think he or she should do things differently, a better way, a way that we believe wouldn’t cause so many problems.
Out of habit, some of us may have developed an attitude of attachment-of worrying, reacting, and obsessively trying to control. Maybe we have lived with people and through events that were out of control.
Maybe obsessing and controlling is the way we kept things in balance or temporarily kept things from getting worse. And then we just kept on doing it. Maybe we’re afraid to let go, because when we let go in the past, terrible, hurtful things happened.
Maybe we’ve been attached to people-living their lives for and through them-for so long that we don’t have any life of our own left to live. It’s safer to stay attached. At least we know we’re alive if we’re reacting. At least we’ve got something to do if we’re obsessing or controlling.
For various reasons codependents tend to attach themselves to problems and people. Never mind that worrying isn’t solving anything. Never mind that those problems rarely have solutions. Never mind that they’re so obsessed they can’t read a book, watch television, or go for a walk. Never mind that their emotions are constantly in turmoil over what she said or didn’t say, what she did or didn’t do, or what she will do next. Never mind that the things we’re doing aren’t helping anyone! No matter what the cost, we will hang on.
We will grit our teeth, clutch the rope, and grab more tightly than ever.
Some of us may not even be aware we’ve been holding on so tightly. Some of us may have convinced ourselves we have to hang on this tightly. We believe there is simply no other choice but to react to this particular problem or person in this obsessive manner. Frequently, when I suggest to people that they detach from a person or problem, they recoil in horror. “Oh, no!” they say. “I could never do that. I love him, or her, too much. I care too much to do that. This problem or person is too important to me. I have to stay attached!”
My answer to that is, “WHO SAYS YOU HAVE TO?”
I’ve got news-good news. We don’t “have to.” There’s a better way. It’s called “detachment.” It may be scary at first, but it will ultimately work better for everyone involved.
Exactly what is detachment? What am I asking of you? (The term, as you may have guessed, is more jargon.)
First, let’s discuss what detachment isn’t. Detachment is not a cold, hostile withdrawal; a resigned, despairing acceptance of anything life and people throw our way; a robotical walk through life oblivious to, and totally unaffected by people and problems; a Pollyanna-like ignorant bliss; a shirking of our true responsibilities to ourselves and others; a severing of our relationships. Nor is it a removal of our love and concern, although sometimes these ways of detaching might be the best we can do, for the moment.
Ideally, detachment is releasing, or detaching from, a person or problem in love. We mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically disengage ourselves from unhealthy (and frequently painful) entanglements with another person’s life and responsibilities, and from problems we cannot solve, according to a handout, entitled “Detachment,” that has been passed around Al-Anon groups for years.
Detachment is based on the premises that each person is responsible for himself, that we can’t solve problems that aren’t ours to solve, and that worrying doesn’t help. We adopt a policy of keeping our hands off other people’s responsibilities and tend to our own instead. If people have created some disasters for themselves, we allow them to face their own proverbial music. We allow people to be who they are. We give them the freedom to be responsible and to grow. And we give ourselves that same freedom. We live our own lives to the best of our ability. We strive to ascertain what it is we can change and what we cannot change. Then we stop trying to change things we can’t. We do what we can to solve a problem, and then we stop fretting and stewing. If we cannot solve a problem and we have done what we could, we learn to live with, or in spite of, that problem. And we try to live happily-focusing heroically on what is good in our lives today, and feeling grateful for that. We learn the magical lesson that making the most of what we have turns it into more.
Detachment involves ‘present moment living”-living in the here and now. We allow life to happen instead of forcing and trying to control it. We relinquish regrets over the past and fears about the future. We make the most of each day.
Detachment also involves accepting reality-the facts. It requires faith-in ourselves, in God, in other people, and in the natural order and destiny of things in this world. We believe in the rightness and appropriateness of each moment. We release our burdens and cares, and give ourselves the freedom to enjoy life in spite of our unsolved problems. We trust that all is well in spite of the conflicts. We trust that Some- one greater than ourselves knows, has ordained, and cares about what is happening. We understand that this Someone can do much more to solve the problem than we can. So we try to stay out of His way and let Him do it. In time, we know that all is well because we see how the strangest (and sometimes most painful) things work out for the best and for the benefit of everyone.
Judi Hollis wrote of detachment in a section on codependency in her book, Fat Is a Family Affair. There she described detachment as “a healthy neutrality.”
Detaching does not mean we don’t care. It means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy. We stop creating all this chaos in our minds and environments. When we are not anxiously and compulsively thrashing about, we become able to make good decisions about how to love people, and how to solve our problems. We become free to care and to love in ways that help others and don’t hurt ourselves.
The rewards from detachment are great: serenity; a deep sense of peace; the ability to give and receive love in self-enhancing, energizing ways; and the freedom to find real solutions to our problems. We find the freedom to live our own lives without excessive feelings of guilt about, or responsibility toward others. Sometimes detachment even motivates and frees people around us to begin to solve their problems. We stop worrying about them, and they pick up the slack and finally start worrying about themselves. What a grand plan! We each mind our own business.
Earlier, I described a person caught in the entanglement of obsessions and worry. I have known many people who have had to (or have chosen to) live with serious problems such as an alcoholic spouse who never sobered up, a severely handicapped child, and a teenager he!!-bent on destroying himself through drugs and criminal behavior. These people learned to live with, and in spite of, their problems. They grieved for their losses, then found a way to live their lives not in resignation, martyrdom, and despair, but with enthusiasm, peace, and a true sense of gratitude for that which was good. They took care of their actual responsibilities. They gave to people, they helped people, and they loved people. But they also gave to and loved themselves. They held themselves in high esteem. They didn’t do these things perfectly, or without effort, or instantly. But they strived to do these things, and they learned to do them well.
I owe a debt of gratitude to these people. They taught me that detachment was possible. They showed me it could work. I would like to pass that same hope on to you. It is my wish that you will find other people to pass that hope on to, for detachment is real and thrives with reinforcement and nurturing.
Detachment is both an act and an art. It is a way of life. I believe it is also a gift. And it will be given to those who seek it.
How do we detach? How do we extricate our emotions, mind, body, and spirit from the agony of entanglement? As best we can. And, probably, a bit clumsily at first. An old A.A. and AI-Anon saying suggests a three-part formula called “HOW”: Honesty, Openness, and Willingness to try.
In the chapters ahead, I will discuss some specific concepts for detaching from certain forms of attachment. Many of the other concepts I will discuss later will lead to detachment. You will have to decide how these ideas apply to you and your particular situation and then find your own path. With a little humility, surrender, and effort on your part, I believe you can do it. I believe detachment can become a habitual response, in the same manner that obsessing, worrying, and controlling became habitual responses-by practice. You may not do it perfectly, but no one has. However, and at whatever pace, you practice detachment in your life, I believe it will be right for you. I hope you will be able to detach with love for the person or persons you are detaching from. I think it is better to do everything in an attitude of love. However, for a variety of reasons, we can’t always do that. If you can’t detach in love, it is my opinion that it is better to detach in anger rather than to stay attached. If we are detached, we are in a better position to work on (or through) our resentful emotions. If we’re attached, we probably won’t do anything other than stay upset.
When should we detach? When we can’t stop thinking, talking about, or worrying about someone or something; when our emotions are churning and boiling; when we feel like we have to do something about someone because we can’t stand it another minute; when we’re hanging on by a thread, and it feels like that single thread is frayed; and when we believe we can no longer live with the problem we’ve been trying to live with. It is time to detach! You will learn to recognize when detachment is advisable. A good rule of thumb is: You need to detach most when it seems the least likely or possible thing to do.
I’ll close this chapter with a true story. One night about midnight my telephone rang. I was in bed and wondered, as I picked up the receiver, who was calling me at that hour. I thought it had to be an emergency. In a way it was an emergency. It was a stranger. She had been calling various friends all evening, trying to find some kind of consolation. Apparently, she hadn’t been able to find it. Someone had given her someone else’s phone number, that person had given her someone else’s phone number, and the last person had suggested she call me.
Immediately upon introducing herself, the woman exploded in a tirade. Her husband used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. He had separated from her, and now he was seeing another woman because he wanted to “find himself.” Furthermore, before he left her, he had been acting really crazy and didn’t go to meetings. And she wondered, isn’t he acting crazy now by dating a woman who is that much younger than him?
I was speechless at first, then found it hard to find a chance to talk. She went on and on. Finally she asked, “Don’t you think he’s sick? Don’t you think he’s acting crazy? Don’t you think something should be done about him?”
“That could be,” I replied. “But obviously I can’t do it, and neither can you. I’m more concerned about you. What are you feeling? What do you think? What do you need to do to take care of yourself?”
I shall say the same thing to you, dear reader. I know you have problems. I understand that many of you are deeply grieved over, and concerned about, certain people in your lives. Many of them may be destroying themselves, you, and your family, right before your eyes. But I can’t do anything to control those people; and you probably can’t either. If you could, you probably would have done it by now.
Detach. Detach in love, or detach in anger, but strive for detachment. I know it’s difficult, but it will become easier with practice. If you can’t let go completely, try to “hang on loose.” Relax. Sit back. Now, take a deep breath. The focus is on you.
Stuff from the old EOR
- Ability to allow people, places, or things the freedom to be themselves.
- Holding back from the need to rescue, save, or fix another person from being sick, dysfunctional, or irrational.
- Giving another person “the space” to be him or herself.
- Disengaging from an over-enmeshed or dependent relationship with people.
- Willingness to accept that you cannot change or control a person, place or thing.
- Developing and maintaining of a safe, emotional distance from someone whom you have previously given a lot of power to affect your emotional outlook on life.
- Establishing of emotional boundaries between you and those people you have become overly enmeshed or dependent with in order that all of you might be able to develop your own sense of autonomy and independence.
- Process by which you are free to feel your own feelings when you see another person falter and fail and not be led by guilt to feel responsible for their failure or faltering.
- Ability to maintain an emotional bond of love, concern, and caring without the negative results of rescuing, enabling, fixing, or controlling.
- Placing of all things in life into a healthy, rational perspective and recognizing that there is a need to back away from the uncontrollable and unchangeable realities of life.
- Ability to exercise emotional self-protection and prevention so as not to experience greater emotional devastation from having hung on to beyond a reasonable and rational point.
- Ability to let people you love and care for accept personal responsibility for their own actions and to practice tough love and not give in when they come to you to bail them out when their actions lead to failure or trouble for them.
- Ability to allow people to be who they “really are” rather than who you “want them to be.”
- Ability to avoid being hurt, abused, taken advantage of by people who in the past have been overly dependent or enmeshed with you.
In order to become detached from a person, place, or thing you need to:
- Establish emotional boundaries between you and the person, place, or thing with whom you have become overly enmeshed or dependent on.
- Take back power over your feelings from persons, places, or things which in the past you have given power to affect your emotional well being.
- “Hand over” to your Higher Power the persons, places, and things which you would like to see changed but which you cannot change on your own.
- Make a commitment to your personal recovery and self-health by admitting to yourself and your Higher Power that there is only one person you can change and that is yourself and that for your serenity you need to let go of the “need” to fix, change, rescue, or heal other persons, places, and things.
- Recognize that it is “sick” and “unhealthy” to believe that you have the power or control enough to fix, correct, change, heal, or rescue another person, place, or thing if they do not want to get better nor see a need to change.
- Recognize that you need to be healthy yourself and be “squeaky clean” and a “role model” of health in order for another to recognize that there is something’ , wrong” with them that needs changing.
- Continue to own your feelings as your responsibility and not blame others for the way you feel.
- Accept personal responsibility for your own unhealthy actions, feelings, and thinking and cease looking for the persons, places, or things you can blame for your unhealthiness.
- Accept that addicted fixing, rescuing, enabling are’ , sick” behaviors and strive to extinguish these behaviors in your relationship to persons, places, and things.
- Accept that many people, places, and things in your past and current life are “irrational,” “unhealthy,” and “toxic” influences in your life, them honestly for what they truly are, and stop minimizing their negative impact in your life.
- Reduce the impact of guilt and other irrational beliefs which impede your ability to develop detachment in your life.
- Practice “letting go” of the need to correct, fix, or make better the persons, places and things in life over which you have no control or power to change.