How Detachment Can Be Loving for All
By Wayland Myers, Ph.D.
Many years ago, I heard a drug rehab counselor say, "Detachment is a means whereby we allow others the opportunity to learn how to care for themselves better.” I felt confused and disturbed. I was a parent. My teenage child’s life and our family were being ravaged by her struggle with drug and alcohol use. Was I being told I shouldn’t try to stop her from using drugs and alcohol? That I shouldn’t try to protect her from herself or try to control her recovery? I had heard about this “loving detachment” before and it sounded like a self-protective form of abandonment. But, this counselor made it sound like a gift. How could that be?
Over time, I began to understand what the counselor meant. I slowly discovered a number of mutual benefits that derived from practicing loving detachment when trying to support someone struggling with addiction. Then I came to see that these benefits could be realized in other situations I found challenging. Like when I was relating to someone who had a chronic illness that required wise self-care to be practiced over a long periods of time and I thought they were failing to do that. Depression, diabetes, attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia came to mind. Then I thought; what about people who are struggling to learn complex life skills like effective study habits, finding a job, managing their personal finances, handling friendships and love affairs? My interventions in those learning processes sometimes caused more troubles than they solved. Maybe loving detachment would be helpful there as well. With these expanded visions, I became very excited about the value of learning to be supportive and lovingly detached at the same time.
I developed my first understandings of loving detachment at the same time I was developing my first understandings and skills in Nonviolent Communication. I found them to share core values and to be mutually complementary. For instance, Nonviolent Communication suggests using compassionate inspiration has a way for people to get their needs met, rather than coercion, manipulation or demands. Nonviolent Communication highly values interpersonal respect – all parties granting each other the right to be who and how they are. And, Nonviolent Communication encourages everyone to engage in good self-care. These are all parts of loving detachment. The insights and values of Nonviolent Communication have greatly enriched my understanding of how detachment can be loving for all. So, let's take a look at loving detachment.
First, a definition: Currently, I consider myself lovingly detached when:
I am willing and able to compassionately, and without judgment;
- allow others to be different from me,
- allow them to be self-directed,
- and allow them to be responsible for taking care of themselves.
When I am able to do this, what benefits have I discovered? Here are four ways that I believe detachment is loving for my loved ones, and four ways I have found it loving for me.
How detachment is loving for others:
I. Those I care for might learn to look within, and trust themselves for self-direction, including when and how to ask for help.
If I refrain from trying to manage their problematic situation, the people I are about may learn something about thinking for themselves, problem solving, and when and how to ask for help. They might learn to better listen to their feelings and intuitions, to heed those little voices we all wish we listened to more. They might learn to better recognize when they want help and how to request it in ways that leave them feeling good, rather than embarrassed or ashamed. In short, letting them manage their own affairs gives them the opportunity to draw on their own inner resources, instead of mine, and from this direct experience of their abilities, no matter how groping or uncertain, they can build competence and that often leads to confidence. For me this is the most powerful and most natural avenue for creating an increased sense of self esteem.
II. They might learn more about cause and effect.
My not intervening allows others to have an uninterrupted experience of the cause and effect relationship between their actions and the natural consequences of those actions. In this way, they have a direct encounter with their personal power to contribute to their own pleasure or pain. Allowing people to have appropriate sized, real problems, and real responsibility for working out their solutions, seems to greatly facilitate this learning.
Pleasurable and painful experiences often provide us the motivation to repeat what brought satisfaction and change what didn't. We all use this kind of emotional energy to move us forward in life. These motivating energies arise naturally within and feel much better to respond to than the attempts by others to motivate us through guilt, fear and other forms of coercion.
If I grant others the freedom to think, feel, value, perceive, etc. as they wish, and they relax because they feel respected and safe, they might discover many new things about themselves. They might discover what they really like, feel or think. They might have moments of creative insight that inspire, excite and encourage them. They might invent new, more satisfying dreams for their lives than ever would have appeared under the pressure of my controlling presence. Whenever I find myself struggling with the impulse to step-in and begin trying to manage another's life or solve his or her problems, I find it helpful to review the four points just presented. They strongly motivate me to remain lovingly detached. Now, how about the ways loving detachment benefits me?
How detachment is loving for me:
I. I am relieved of the strain of attempting the impossible.
By carefully reviewing my experiences of trying to control other people's physical behavior, sobriety, health, learning, emotions and opinions, I have come to one conclusion: The only thing I might be able to control is a person's physical behavior and that requires that I possess enough physical strength, and the opportunity and will to use it. If I accept my powerlessness to control the other things, the inner lives and wills of others, then I relieve myself of the stress and strain of attempting what cannot be done. This is a primary way for me to create more serenity in my life. In fact, if I practice this process deeply enough, I sometimes reach the point where I form no opinion about what another should do. This is a truly liberated and refreshing moment for us both.
II. What other people think of me can become none of my business.
If I am powerless to control the thoughts, perceptions, values or emotions of another, then I can liberate myself by accepting that their opinions of me are none of my business. Accepting this as fact, I not only free myself, but the other person as well, because I cease my attempts to control their inner workings.
III. My attention and energy are freed to focus on improving my own life.
I have plenty of problem areas in my own life. Obsessing about another’s life can help me avoid the pain within mine. But, the time and energy I spend obsessing about another's life I don't spend on mine. If I do this too much, my life stays at its current level of unmanageability or gets worse. Loving detachment gives me the opportunity to invest my energies in my life.
IV. I can express my love and caring in ways that bring me joy and satisfaction.
When someone I care for is struggling with a problem, or feeling some kind of pain, I usually want to be supportive or helpful. But, I want to offer the kind of help that would bring me joy to offer, and them joy to receive.
One of the ways that I have developed a picture of what this help could look like is to recall times when caring friends or others offered me assistance in ways that I enjoyed. What did they do? While showing no sign that they felt responsible for solving my problems, they offered me four things;
their compassionate, empathic understanding of how I perceived and felt about my situation,
- their experiences and learning from similar situations for my consideration,
- their genuine optimism about my abilities to work through my struggles, and
- their willingness to help, on my terms, in ways that were congruent with their needs.
To be offered understanding, companionship, encouragement and assistance, but not interference, is the most satisfying help I have known. Offering this to others increases both the joy in my life and my self-esteem.
Looking at the eight ways that I see detachment as being loving, I conclude that the most basic reason for practicing it is to provide an opportunity for both people's lives to be improved. The lives of those I love may be improved because I respect their powers of self-care enough to let them have a chance to reap the potential benefits of struggling, learning and succeeding on their own. My life is improved because I avoid unnecessary distress, retain energy I might have used otherwise, and offer caring and support in ways that bring me joy. In these ways, loving detachment plays a powerful and rewarding role in helping me to both live, and let live.
When to Help – When to Lovingly Detach?
Okay, so I think loving detachment is great for everyone involved. But, how do I decide when to do it? I lovingly detach when I conclude that it is the most helpful action I can take. There are times when I believe that actually helping a person with their problem may be the most helpful thing I can do. Then I go ahead and help. There are other times when I conclude that allowing them the opportunity to learn how to take care of themselves better may be the stronger, deeper form of love, the deeper gift. Then I detach with love and compassion. And, they are not mutually exclusive. Often, I do some of both. But, how do I figure this balance out? I ask myself questions like these:
- Which action, helping or lovingly detaching, do I believe will strengthen my loved one the most in the long run? This is my primary question. I want to contribute toward strengthening their well-being in the long run.
- Does the "help" I am thinking of providing involve me picking up a responsibility which would normally be theirs, but which they are not performing at the levels I deem best? Am I remembering for them, organizing for them, planning ahead for them, making peace for them, apologizing for them, keeping track of something for them, anticipating consequences for them? It is been my frequent experience that as long as I continue to handle jobs like these for my loved ones, their level of job performance rarely improves, and they often resent my interventions. Oh, what fun we have. But, I don't let myself complain too much about this because, after all, I am a volunteer. (A corollary question is: Are any of the helpful things I've gotten into the habit of doing for them things which it might be better for them to learn to do for themselves? Are there any jobs I'd like to retire from that would be in the natural order of life for them to learn to take care off? If so, I invite myself to retire.)
- Is the crisis I am tempted to help them with one that is a natural consequence of their choices or behaviors? Generally, I prefer to let people encounter the full force of the natural consequences of their actions because I want to allow them the maximum opportunity to learn and become motivated to change. However, I make exceptions to this preference if I believe the emotional or physical harm involved will be at a level I cannot live with in the long run. When in doubt, I always choose the action options that I believe I can live with best in the long run.
- Will the intervention I am considering create a crisis which is not in the natural order of things? If I express my hurt or disappointment concerning how they have treated me, and that creates a crisis between us, well that might be in the natural order of life, something that is natural to occur. However, if I consistently nag and pressure them, that might create a crisis that I would not label as natural because my choosing to nag is just an option in life, not a necessity.
- If I think my loved one would benefit by encountering consequences for one of their actions, are there any naturally occurring ones available that I can let do the job? I'd rather have my loved one hate the consequences, than hate me for creating them.
- With a child, how big is the exposure level to emotional or physical harm if I do not intervene? Am I reasonably confident that the pain exposure would be uncomfortable, but not harmful? My bottom-line criteria – when in doubt, choose the options I believe I can live with best in the long run. Advice from others is nice, but I have to live with myself from here on out.
I rarely try to answer these complex questions alone. I have found it very valuable and reassuring to seek the perspective, counsel and support of trusted others. And, I do so throughout the process of implementing and maintaining my lovingly detached support of my struggling other.
I hope all of these thoughts and suggestions help you figure out when, how and how much to help those you love, and to feel more at ease when you lovingly chose to abstain.
I have not found loving detachment to be painless. I often feel guilt, worry and doubt. But, my suffering is tempered when I believe that by resisting my urge to help, I may be offering the person I love the highest form of love I can. I wish you compassion, clarity and courage as you navigate your way through these complex waters.