The Crucial Difference Between Being Detached and Unattached

This is Part Two in a little series I'm doing on healthy boundaries (just in time for the holidays, yee haw. There's some affiliate links in it for things that I love and adore (wouldn't ever share anything I didn't). Enjoy!

First things first- I’m no expert, I don’t have this stuff perfected, and I’m definitely speaking from a place of trial by fire.

But I have gone through enough trauma and abuse which has led me along a path of having to consciously choose my healing every single day (sometimes moment to moment) that I feel pretty well equipped to let you in on how I make it work.

And by “it”, I mean showing up with courage in a relationship that constantly reminds me that I have no basis of comparison for healthy partnerships, mothering in the face of my own need to be mothered, long-distance parenting my oldest with self-forgiveness and grace, and chasing after my overwhelming vision and insatiable desire for beauty and wonder in my life without feeling crippled by self-doubt and worthlessness.

In other words, grappling with my triggers and issues… and winning.

{Related Post: How to Keep Your Cool When Sh*t Hits the Fan}

When I was at my lowest, right before I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave my tiny child with my ex and move out of the state, I found the work of Brene Brown. Life-changer.

I also stumbled upon the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. I’m not Buddhist but being able to lean on this simple wisdom is enough for me to move forward with clarity: attachment = suffering.

So as I learned to integrate that truth into my heart, my actions, and my life, I clung to the manta, “let it go.” Let it go, let it go, let it go.

I still suck at this.

I have to stay conscious of the fact that detaching myself, or swinging too far in the other direction, is not what letting it go means. Becoming hardened, ambivalent, and distanced didn’t do me any favors. I found that in order to avoid allowing my identity to become entangled with my experiences (partner speaking rudely to me, a patient not wanting to talk, receiving criticism from a professor or boss, etc.), I would numb.

Which is exactly what I would do to cope through the years of abuse.

I found that if I wanted to thrive and not just survive, I would have to find a third way of being (another Buddhist principle). And then through some grace I discovered the concept of becoming unattached to the outcome but committed to the process. I stopped allowing my identity to become affected by how things played out, but I still stayed aware, alert, and deeply committed to showing up for the experience. I wouldn’t attach myself to what I thought should happen; I would just stay open-minded.

{Related Post: The Art of Not Taking Anything Personally}

I’m still practicing this and the more that I do, the more it rocks my world. A few years later, what I’m finding is that when I stay open to the outcome, new ones arise that I could never have imagined on my own. So now, I’m committing to the highest possible good as the desired outcome. And getting my ego, my identity, out of the way.

NOT detaching myself (because then how can I get to enjoy or find the lesson in what shows up?) but staying present, grounded, and open.

The crucial difference between being detached and unattached is the way it feels. When I started, I had to identify how it feels in my body when I check out- I glass over, I leave my body, I feel hollow and hardened and I have decreased perception. When I practice non-attachment, I feel expanded, aware, and a sense of ease in my body, even in the face of fear or adversity.

{Related Post: What is Embodiment?}

I've noticed that when people attach their self-worth to the way things are in the moment, it can be really limiting. This is how internalized oppression works- we start to believe the negative identities and stories that have been handed out to us. It's a pattern of abuse that fosters our detachment- numbing out- so that we can survive.

But detaching from the moment isn't the answer- there is no showing up for our stories later. But showing up fully while maintaining our center, not giving our power away by being easily swayed by forces we can't control (and that have nothing to do with us), and staying curious is HARD WORK. It can be really tempting to allow our circumstances to become the story we tell ourselves, and even more tempting to give ourselves a break from writing any story at all.

There is no showing up for our stories later.
There is no showing up for our stories later.

It can be terrifying, triggering, and painful to stay in the moment in the face of discomfort. Especially when we're exhausted.

But facing our triggers from a place of inquiry- curiosity and compassion towards ourselves, curiosity and compassion towards the people around us- is where healing and change occur.

For ourselves as well as the world.

Now it's your turn. Tell me where you are in this process- the mess you're in, the one you just got out of, the one you just avoided by staying aware and in your power about it. Has it helped you hold other people accountable in any way? Have your boundaries changed because of it? Or how do you think you would benefit from shifting into a different perspective on showing up? This is the backbone of what I get the pleasure of coaching on - share in the comments and I'll send you some of my love.