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Inside Therapy: The Problem With Detachment

Monday, August 13, 2012


While the roots of detachment lie in a rigorous practice of letting go of preconceived notions and expectations, it's now become an attempted shortcut to happiness. Photo: Kashirin Nickolai/flickr.

Human beings hate to suffer. Much of our behavior is geared toward avoiding it, and when we can’t manage to avoid it we spend our time trying to rid ourselves of it. One of our most basic biological instincts is to evade pain—physical and emotional.

But why is it there in the first place? From a psychological perspective, what causes suffering?

The pains of attachment

One answer has to do with attachment. As soon as we become attached to someone or something—even to an image of ourselves or an outcome—we’re bound to suffer because that person or image will at some point disappoint us. And when that happens, we’ll experience pain.

It follows, then, that if you want to avoid getting hurt, you have to avoid getting attached.

But you’ve probably noticed that this is easier said than done. To begin with, we all come into the world already attached—literally, umbilically. And as soon as that life-sustaining physical connection is severed, our instincts drive us to begin the lifelong process of establishing connections with the people around us so that we get the nourishment we need to survive. It’s hard-wired.

You can begin to see the dilemma: other people are—at one and the same time—the source of our greatest comfort and our greatest pain.

So what’s to be done?

One popular prescription for this conundrum comes from an ancient notion that’s made a triumphant comeback: “non-attachment.”

Originally, non-attachment was rooted in Buddhist psychology, a highly sophisticated understanding of the way the mind works, which 2,500 years ago described in intricate detail cognitive processes that contemporary neuroscience continues to verify. This ancient philosophy suggested practical ways of training the mind which promised to lead to the cessation of suffering through developing the skill of non-attachment.

The purpose of these training practices was not, however, to help people “detach” from other one another, or from communal life. The purpose was to help people let go of their attachments to the way they thought life (and other people) ought to be. And the training itself demanded considerable rigor and discipline.

Detachment for Dummies

Today, however, many self-help authors, yoga instructors, meditation teachers, and psychotherapists have repackaged non-attachment for a consumer culture filled with over-stressed people who are eager for something they can fit it in between dinner and Mad Men. The subtlety, nuance, and complexity inherent in the original ideas and practices have been hopelessly watered down.

Of course, this abridged version of the philosophy is doing more harm than good. First and foremost, because it’s futile. People who have learned to “let go” of negative thoughts and feelings are sure to discover plenty of new ones with time. That’s part of the nervous system’s job. Experiencing negative emotions isn’t a sign that something’s wrong, it’s a sign that you’re alive.

And second, by understanding “freedom from attachments” to mean “freedom from disappointment", we’re helping create a culture in which people shy away from connecting with one another. In doing so, we weaken our friendships and fragment our families. We contribute to the breakdown of community that is likely the largest component of our modern malaise.

Why attachment isn't a bad thing

Instead of a co-opted and compromised version of “non-attachment,” we psychotherapists would better serve our clients and communities by confronting the facts with them. Yes, attachment leads to suffering, but first it leads to other things: excitement, joy, passion, love, community. And you cant have the good parts without the bad. “Suffering” is the price you pay for the things that make life worth living.

Reminding people that great pain is an inevitable part of life won’t sell many books. Anxious mothers and fathers will not flock to your yoga studio or psychotherapy office if you assure them that—no matter what they do—they can be certain there will be more suffering to come. But what it might do is encourage people to reach out for the most powerful antidote to suffering that Mother Nature ever developed: another human being.

We all want to avoid pain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly, the ability to detach—to “let go” from time to time—is an important psychological skill: it can help us move forward after a break-up, or leave a horrendous job interview in the past. But it’s not a permanent solution to suffering. When it comes to the painful feelings we experience in life, there’s only one permanent solution, and that one comes at the end.

By all means, go to yoga. Learn meditation. Use therapy if it helps you. All these things can be great balms, and can provide necessary support during times of great distress.

Just don’t fool yourself. There’s no escape from suffering. The idea is to learn how to work with it more skillfully. And yes—suffering starts with attachment. But so do the best things in life.

Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence. www.archieroberts.net

For more coverage of relationships, don't miss Archie Roberts on GoLocalTV, fresh every day at 4pm and on demand 24/7, here.


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