“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached. ” – Simone Weil
Humans are thinking, reasoning, and reacting beings that navigate through life through a complex interaction of reality, internal dialogue, and situational interpretation. We have emotional existence far more complicated than that of other living creatures. We remember, we interpret, and we reminisce. We live our lives with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, often misinterpreting and making poor decisions in the present moment because of something that happened before, or something that we think may happen in the future. We miss a lot of enjoyment and pleasure because we are not focused on what is happening in the present. Most of us believe that we are somewhat clairvoyant, relying on feelings more than facts, and, since we are human, we are often wrong.
Emotional attachments to people, places, things, and events often get in the way of our acting in our best interests. We bring all of our previous experiences and our emotions into every decision that we make. This is unavoidable. Part of the nature of being human is having an ability to interpret, plan, and evaluate. With many things that we do, we evaluate our performance in the moment with a kind of “how am I doing?” mindset. We tend to over analyze, overthink, and misinterpret a lot of critical and often life shaping events. Then, with the rational separation of time and emotional distance, we sometimes find ourselves looking back at those moments with some regret and pain. We find ourselves longing for “the good old days,” those lost opportunities, and turns in the road of life that we wish we had taken. Why were they not taken? Quite possibly, if you’re honest, your emotions got in the way. You didn’t see the bigger picture as you were unable to separate your rational mind from your emotional mind.
As a practicing psychotherapist for the last 20 years, I’ve seen countless people come to me to try to obtain clarity between their emotional and their rational interpretation of some life event. More often than not, they are more focused on their emotions and feelings than what is actually happening. As they begin to speak out loud about this internal conflict, they often get clarity about what is the best course of action to take, if in fact one exists. As a person explains a complicated situation to an unbiased and neutral human being, their rational mind kicks in. It has to, as conversation cannot reflect a person’s internal turmoil. This is why all of us feel better after “talking it out, getting it off my chest, or speaking our piece.” This is the essence of rational detachment.
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty.” – Anonymous
If you have ever spoiled a child, enabled a significant other, played it safe with finances or a job, or hung in with a bad relationship, then you know what it’s like to let your emotions run your life. On some level you knew that you were making a mistake, but you were so focused on the moment and how you felt at the time that you made a poor choice. This is the reason that the old adage rings true: hindsight is 20/20. Too bad you couldn’t have seen it then. Most people chalk it up to an “I didn’t know then what I know now” rationalization and move on-and make similar mistakes over and over again. It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are two concepts when utilizing rational detachment:
The word rational is defined as having a sound mind possessing a capacity to reason and think logically. Naturally, most intelligent human beings are rational people. The problem is that, when emotionally stressed, emotion gets in the way, clouds judgment, and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture options that might be available to us. Our emotions do not give us permission to do what our rational minds would tell us, if they could. People often know at the time that what they’re doing is probably not the best thing, but somehow it seems to be the safest and least stressful path to choose. We seek to spoil that child, enable that family member, avoid confrontation, prevent an awkward moment, or not take that risk. We will avoid some pain, for a while, but a bigger problem will more than likely result down the road. The avoidance of pain is one of the most motivating factors for any living thing, but especially human beings. While other creatures are motivated to avoid only physical pain, humans are motivated to avoid emotional, imagined, and potential future pain as well. These are factors that can impede a rational mind and create a lot of bad decisions.
Detachment is a state of being objective, almost to the point of aloofness. The goal of being detached in using the rational detachment strategy is not to be uncaring or cold, rather it is to be stone cold objective. Remember, it is the emotional interpretation of what is happening, could happen, or you believe will happen when confronted with a challenging situation. Detachment is the 20/20 hindsight experienced in the present moment. We all have this ability, we are just not aware of how to use it for our own benefit.
For example, you probably have friends that you’ve given advice to, and, the advice was probably pretty sound. You gave your best friend advice about that terrible relationship they were in, advised your child about that problem at school, and you have an ability to recognize enabling behaviors in others quite clearly. You may even be the kind of person that friends gravitate to when it comes to seeking sound advice, a second opinion, or some guidance for a difficult personal matter. You give sound advice to all of them, but find it very difficult when it comes to advising yourself. Why? Why can’t you give yourself the same sound advice that you give others? The answer: you are not detached from the emotional baggage that goes into making good choices. It’s your baggage, which makes it heavy enough to cloud your judgement.
Here are some ways to rationally detach from the emotions that cloud your better judgment:
Get the story out. Usually, the emotions exist inside your mind. Clarity can best be gained by looking at the situation from an outsider’s perspective by telling the story to someone else or by writing the story out on paper. The goal of this kind of activity is to make the situation someone else’s rather than your own. Remember, if this was someone else’s problem you probably have great answers and insights to share. It doesn’t have to be any different just because the problem is yours. It’s often helpful to change the names of the characters. Substitute someone else’s name from your own and of those involved in the problem. View your “story” in the third person. This is the best way to detach from the emotions that will get in the way.
Review the story by visualizing both the potential negative outcomes and the positive outcomes. Look for patterns with past behavior is similar situations. Most people tend to make the same kind of choices when it comes to relationships, parenting, finances, and career decisions. Look for ways that you are repeating patterns that you are not okay with any longer. Reformulate the potential outcomes over and over again, detaching from the emotions by viewing the situation in the third person perspective. Visualize this as if it was a movie. Write down some note so you can literally see your story from the outside point of view.
When I deal with clients who make the same mistakes over and over again, I’ll say to them, “You’ve seen this movie before… ” Usually, they will enthusiastically responded with, “Yeah, I have!,” and we begin to look at how to change the script. The combination of writing out the story in the third person, or even verbalizing the story in the third person out loud can create motivation to take a different course of action. When combined with appropriate visualization, the results can be amazing. You’ve always known what to do. Practice rational detachment and give yourself permission to do it.
“Detachment doesn’t mean avoiding things and going to Himalayas. It means doing what is necessary without drowning in it.” – Sumit Singh
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