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Healthy detachment - when it's too much

Hey folks,

so after struggling with the idea of "detachment" for a while, and after reading some of the new articles, especially "the golden ratio" ones, I had some thoughts that I would like to share:

emotional detachment - what is the healthiest, mist effective way to cultivate it?


I would argue that first we need to define what is it exactly, and what we want to achieve by that.

for me, and I might do that incorrectly, detachment is both separation between the "me" and the thoughts/feelings, and also disconnection between them.

I might sense and recognize these emotions and thoughts floating around me, but I'm not engaging with them. Which give me superior control over them.


the issue for me starts when we "need" to have emotions, not even for healthy happy close relationships but for effective social life, sometimes the most effective thing is to feel others and with others.

what is the golden ratio for you here? And more importantly, your goal and how you use detachment to reach it, for me, as mentioned above, I'm quite confused, and it might be there is no perfect answer or well-defined one, as anything relating emotions.

Lucio Buffalmano, John Freeman and 3 other users have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoJohn FreemanKavalierZathrianBel

Great question, The Ducas.

I'm no expert in detachment.

So my answer will be less on "detachment between thought and feelings" -the higher level- and mostly concern the lower level of detachment from:

  • Past behavior VS "you": not the same, since you can own, apologize, make amends and "be good again"
  • Habits / patterns of behavior VS "you": not the same since you can recognize "less than ideal" habits and replace them with better ones

I believe this "lower level" has a stronger and faster impact on power dynamics / people skills / life effectiveness / social life and strategies.

I think that one of the core issues in the exchanges we've seen recently in the feedbacks and clarifications thread was due to not enough detachment.

Not enough detachment results in taking feedback too personally.

That means not being able to use that feedback for personal development.

Mentally, it results in a lot of mental gymnastics aimed at rejecting or dancing around the feedback and looking for self-justification.
And socially, it results in public behavior that does not allow for owning "not-so cool behavior" and apologizing -since that would mean "being bad" to the person who is not detached enough, and he cannot accept that-.

That comes across as sneaky and crooked, not straight.

Happy to read more thoughts on this.

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TheDucasJohn FreemanTransitionedKavalierBel
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I think it's truly impossible to separate emotions from thoughts, that is, to have purely rational thoughts.

And it's also probably undesirable, since emotions have the precise function of orienting thoughts better than "rationality alone" may do.

Emotions/feelings have a healthy function

Emotions are more "primordial" in our brains: they evolved before the ability to have rational thinking. They thus are more "effective" (if free from abuse and distortions) in protecting oneself and orienting personal choices. And they often are on point even in situations where one cannot (yet) explain why. So they should really be listened to.

Emotions can be distorted or work badly

The issue is that emotions may be distorted by situations or patterns that alter them and make them function in distorted ways.

Mental injury due to abuse comes to mind as one possible cause, another being personality-disordered thinking.

These situations distort emotions. For example, in the case of abuse, emotions are usually deliberately repressed, or distorted to serve the abuser at the expense of the abused.

In personality-disordered thinking, emotions are distorted to serve oneself at the expense of others: for instance by repressing guilt, shame, etc. and projecting them onto others.

I'm sure there may be other possible causes of distorted emotions, for instance certain illnesses, traumas.

Maybe emotions also need to be "trained" in one's life, both in the sense of processing past trauma to get rid of it, and in the sense of learning to read them for their real function.

Detachment as a way to address "distored or untrained emotions" situations

To me the reason to practice detachment is precisely to take into account that one's emotions may be (temporarily) distorted or not yet "trained".

Because, if one was perfectly healthy, why not integrate fully emotions and thoughts so that one may function at his or her best?

My personal foremost ways to practice detachment have been:

  • Present situation vs future outcome

Being able to keep in mind that any present suffering or uncertainty or bad situation in general is not going to be permanent, and that one can, by working at it, alter the situation for good allows one to endure even the worst days.

  • Immediate outcome vs ultimate outcome

One may be really the worst at something new he or she tries doing. But if he sticks to it, he'll probably become very good.

  • Consequences vs shame

Everyone pays the price for bad deeds and mistakes. Every single time. And that needs to be accepted. And sometimes the price is very high.

But mistakes are not indicative of a personal "shameful nature" (exception being dark triads and malevolent people - who in any case are not going to think they are shameful).

  • Waiting before responding

It might make sense to wait before responding to allow distorted or untrained emotions to "settle" before deciding what to do.

Lucio Buffalmano, TheDucas and 3 other users have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoTheDucasJohn FreemanTransitionedKavalier

I totally agree with Lucio as I have been guilty of it and experienced first-hand the consequences he's talking about.

It's quite a challenge to define detachment as there are many ramifications to it. However, we can still do our best to see more clearly. I think detachment is an action: we can detach so it means that we can control it to a certain extent. I agree with Bel and I think the last point "Waiting before responding" goes into the "how to detach".

What is detachment

Here is what I would add. The definition from the Oxford dictionary can help:

1. The state of not being involved in something in an emotional or personal way

  • He answered with an air of detachment.
  • She felt a sense of detachment from what was going on.

2. The state of not being influenced by other people or by your own feelings

  • In judging these issues a degree of critical detachment is required.
  • The judges show impartiality and detachment.

My first encounter with detachment was from the buddhist point of view, from wikipedia:

Regarding the concept of detachment, or non-attachment, Buddhist texts in Pali mention nekkhamma, a word generally translated as "renunciation". This word also conveys more specifically the meaning of "giving up the world and leading a holy life" or "freedom from lust, craving and desires."

The writings of Milarepa are canonical Mahayana Buddhist texts that emphasize the temporary nature of the physical body and the need for non-attachment.

Detachment is a central concept in Zen Buddhist philosophy. One of the most important technical Chinese terms for detachment is "wú niàn" (無念), which literally means "no thought." This does not signify the literal absence of thought, but rather the state of being "unstained" (bù rán 不染) by thought. Therefore, "detachment" is being detached from one's thoughts. It is to separate oneself from one's own thoughts and opinions in detail as to not be harmed mentally and emotionally by them,

Buddhist point of view: freeing oneself from desires. When I first encountered many years ago it I thought it was so cool. And then I "experienced" what it is to have no desires. I put quotes because it's impossible. However I did my best. What happened is that I actually felt isolated from other people. It made me feel morally superior as I was not "as much slave to my desires as other people". It was also helpful to experience that something that we think are part of us or that we "need" are actually a choice. I stopped to do it after a few months: while I recognized the value of it, I moved on since this attitude was taking more than giving me. I saw it as an extreme way of living and I still think it is. I still thought about this idea for a few years and came across the evolutionary psychology, which contradicts in my mind the buddhist POV. Now this is how I view it: It's not the same to free oneself from desires than to be detached from our desires.

  1. Free oneself from desires: this is impossible, we are living beings and desire is the drive that nature built into us to keep us alive. However, it's good for a religion (as an organized belief system) since it's unattainable: you're never good enough. I'm not criticizing buddhism as a religion here, I'm dissecting the consequences of a religion suggesting a behaviour that is not feasible: it keeps people trying.
  2. Detach from one's desires: this is feasible. In this case what happens is that one is the observer from his desires. Than means that one is aware of the desire and not a slave to it. He won't be free of it but is aware and can make another choice: follow the desire or not. I think this is actionable and useful.

It comes from the "4 noble truths". In buddhism, it is about suffering, from here:

The first is the Noble Truth of Suffering: humans are born into a world of suffering. Birth is suffering. Disease, old age, decay, and death are suffering. Life is full of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Not getting what one desires is suffering. Being exposed to unpleasantness is suffering. Being cut off from desired objects and pleasures is suffering, making us sometimes wish we had not been born.

The Second Noble Truth is the Cause of Suffering, which is Craving: the root of suffering is craving the delights and pleasures of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. Where such cravings arise and take root, there will be suffering. Craving for delight and pleasure of the mind also causes suffering. Craving eternal existence, higher forms of existence, continued existence, immaterial existence, and craving the continued existence of the self all bring suffering. Craving the cessation of pain also brings suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is the Cessation of Suffering: what may bring about the extinction of suffering? The complete fading away and extinction of craving. Liberation and detachment from craving, that craving may vanish and be extinguished. The forsaking of desire for delightful and pleasurable things. Breaking free of the cankers of attachment and seeing the things of this world as impermanent, miserable, transitory, and elusive will bring about the annihilation of sorrow. Freedom from desire will bring about the extinction of suffering.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. It is the Middle Way that avoids the two extremes of the base, vulgar, unholy, unprofitable path of sensual pleasure in opposition to the painful, unpleasant, unholy, unprofitable path of self-mortification. It is the Middle Way beyond those two extremes that leads to liberation, peace, discernment, enlightenment, and nibbana.

Reading this now, I think the reasoning is not logical. Basically, Buddha wanted to be free from his living animalistic nature, which is impossible.

In all I wrote above, it's important to say that I did not study deeply buddhism and that translation issues might come in. This is my understanding from reading, thinking and experimenting.

Additionally to all you guys said, what is detachment:

A defense mechanism: when I'm exhausted I automatically (and I think we all do) in this mode in order to conserve energy. That is I don't feel emotions as strongly and I don't express them as often/strongly.

A state (Oxford above): not being involved emotionally.

A cognitive process (the action of detaching, Oxford 2 above): not being influenced by other people or by your own feelings.

So it all depends which one are we talking about and for what use.

In the case Lucio is talking about, it's about being too attached to one's ego I think. That is too attached to one's self-image. The person (me in this case) will fight to preserve their self-image, not only to the World but first and foremost to themselves. Any perceived threat to that self-image triggers defensive behaviors.


So there are many different scenarios, situations and definitions. I'm realizing it probably is an umbrella term.

Also one could be very attached to one thing and not so much to other things. One could be attached to one's car but not to one's family.

That also evokes the question: what is attachment? Without using definitions from the Internet, being attached in my mind can be 2 things:

  1. Having our ego (as in sense of self here not self-image) fused with the thing. That is the thing is perceived as part of us and any perceived threat or compliment to the thing is a threat or compliment to us. Example: parents with their children.
  2. Care too much about something: that goes back to the buddhist definition about desire and suffering. Example: being attached to an outcome: we really want to "get" this girl so when we don't we suffer. We had a future mental projection that failed.

How to detach

As a skill to take perspective/distance on anything, it can be trained. I found meditation to be the most useful. Then it's about practicing detachment when it's necessary depending on your situation. If one notices that one tends to care too much about something, then one can take more distance the next time this occurs.

So as we can see, it is a huge topic worth exploring I think.

In short, attachment causes (unnecessary) suffering (example per Lucio) so we want to minimize it. It's good and useful to be attached to certain things: our family, friends, children and pets but not to other things: our (self-)image, money, etc. However attachment can be a tool as if you're attached to something, you will care more for it (money for instance and then you will have more of it). So it's about choosing what you want to be attached to and this we have the choice: I'm not attached to my coworkers, but I'm attached to my nephews, as a choice. In the past due to boundaries problems I was attached to way too many people and suffered a lot because of it.

Also, this goes back to Mark Manson's ideas about values: certain values (internal) are superior to others (external) in terms of happiness/contentment/inner peace (hypothesized by me as desirable by all humans) as we control the internal ones and don't control the external ones. So I think this is worth considering when choosing what to be attached to.

I will compare with comparison (no pun intended). If one compares oneself to everyone it is destructive as feelings of inferiority/superiority will flucutate inside of us and we will not be content. However, if one compares oneself strategically and punctually with certain people in certain situations, it can be full of teachings and actionable decisions. So I think detachment like comparison is a tool that must be strategically used and practiced in order to make the best out of it.

Edit: In fine, I think we can get attached to/detach from 3 categories:

  1. Our emotions
  2. Our thoughts
  3. External things: self-image, money, status, people, etc.

So I think it's on a case-by-case basis how to react to it. It depends what we're attached to and how much suffering it is causing.

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