Attachment essentially is:
If it doesn’t happen my way, I won’t be happy about it
What are you attached to? Attachments are more than just preferences or desires; they are bindings of one’s happiness to specific, fixed outcomes. They eschew all other options in favor of a single demand: “I need (blank) to be happy”. When met with resistance, attachments may bring up fear, anger, and anxiety, and steer us away from compassion, connection, and curiosity. This section on attachment considers how attachment appears in our lives, how we can express preference without attachment, and the relationship between attachment and love.
Consider the following anecdotes. Each provides an example of attachment in a different aspect of one’s life. Do any of them sound familiar?
Romantic Partner – It started out great. I found myself excited to see them, excited for the uniqueness, and generally excited by their excitement. After a little while though, little quips snuck into our relationship. Certain particulars stuck out to me. The way they left the water running, didn’t turn off the lights, got so dramatic about sex, didn’t like reading, still ate food I ate as a middle schooler, etc. It took the shimmer away from the relationship; they weren’t an exciting person anymore; they were annoying!
Family Member – They’ve always been different from me, and that’s okay. I don’t really want to be like them either. Yetthey look at me, wanting me to be different – expecting me to be different. They got to make their own choices in life,and they don’t get to make all of mine. I wish they’d ask me what I want and why! If theyaren’t able to accept me for who I am, I don’t think we’ll ever get along. If we don’t get along, why keep the relationship?
Ideologies – (in words or in our internal thoughts) I can’t believe you supported President Trump/Clinton! They’re an asshole, bigot, hypocrite, liar, and general monster. They don’t reflect American values. By supporting them, you’re supporting inequality and the continued failure of our government! I’ve lost all respect for you.
If they aren’t’ going to do things my way, then I’ll be critical of their choices. If they don’t like what I like, then I’ll be scared of our incompatibility”
“If they want me to be different, then I’ll be angry and resentful If they offer me strategies, then I’ll protest for my freedom”
“If they don’t agree with me, then I’ll hold onto my enemy (image)If they talk about opposing opinions, then I’ll resent them and protest”
Consider the values behind the attachments
- Romance – It’s not about staying together; it’s about being, and perhaps parting, with care and kindness.
- Family – It’s not about life path or the nature of their requests; it’s about seeing one another as whole and cared for.
- Ideologies – It’s not about the ideological differences; it’s about living our values and allowing others to live theirs, with mutual understanding, curiosity, and compassion.
The above examples are far from the only ways attachment appears in our lives. Consider the list below; do you feel attachment to these outcomes?
- To winning a game
- To your work/creation turning out the way you want it to (cooking, art, work)
- To tasks or chores being done a certain way
- Parents/partner/friends being a certain way
- To your preferred level of cleanliness
- To being seen as pretty, kind, smart, fun, superior, etc.
- To our ideas, morals, or beliefs (Right/Wrong, Politics, Social Issues, etc.)
None of these scenarios ARE or AREN’T attachment; they are offered as common scenarios of attachment. These same scenarios can be experienced with attachment or without. This begs the question: how can we express our wishes without being attached to them?
Attachment vs. Preference
When we express our wishes without attachment, we are expressing a preference. The key difference between the two is openness; where attachment has bound itself to a single outcome, preference has a preferred result while remaining open to discussion, resistance, and new information. Consider these examples of the difference between attachment and preference:
- a mentality that binds one to a person, thing, cause, ideal, or the like, and excludes others
- the static perception of a strategy being the ‘best’, and a clinging to that ‘best’ in a way that limits new information
- reactive brain is triggered when met with a ‘no’
- a greater liking or favor for one alternative over another or others
- the perception of a strategy being the ‘best’ based on what is currently known, with the openness that ‘best’ might change with new information
- maintains creative brain when met with a ‘no’
tightness, fear, anxiety, or self-judgment
I feel to the other (person/thing)…
combative, defensive, threatened, angry, or judgemental
out of desperation and should; I ‘need’ x or else
relaxed, safe, peaceful, loose and energized
I feel to the other (person/thing)…
curious, hopeful, accepting, compassionate, loving, and connected
the needs of all, interdependence, myself as the cause of my reality, that many possible win-win strategies exist
out of inspiration and intention rather than should, out of a natural desire to give/contribute
Essentially: Triggered, Fear/Threat, Strategy level
Essentially: Relaxed, Curious/Creative, Needs Level
How do you respond while attached to a strategy? How do you respond while preferring a strategy? Which makes your desired outcome more likely?
Unattached and Detaching
Preference and Attachment both hold a sense of a strategy that is ‘best’ and ask us to consider how to approach it. Consider also two more relationships with attachment:
No current sense of a best. No preference. Completely open to perspective. (e.g., “In getting Mexican or Thai food, I feel personally unattached”). Note that this may change with more information (e.g., “Oh, actually I don’t want to drive an hour away”)
Shifting focus towards emphasizing/prioritizing one’s own needs and values. Disconnecting from an external dependence. (e.g., “I’m going to get Mexican food tonight. You can come if you want.”).
Consider these scenarios illustrating the differences between Attachment, Preference, Non-Attachment, and Detaching. Note that none of these approaches works in every situation or for every person. The key is to consider your relationship with attachment in each situation and act accordingly.
Scenario: Choosing where to go out to dinner
- Attachment: “My happiness depends on [Mexican food]”
- Preference: “I’m leaning towards Mexican food; what do you think?”
- Non-Attachment: “In going out for Mexican or Thai food, I feel personally unattached”
- Detaching: “I’m going to get Mexican food. You’re welcome to join”
Scenario: Choosing how to spend a day off
- Attachment: “We’re going on a hike, we need to get out into nature more”
- Preference: “I’m excited about going on a hike, how does that sound to you?”
- Non-Attachment: “I’m open to doing anything today”
- Detaching: “I’m going on a hike, you can join me if you want”
Your Turn: Think of a personal scenario. What do each of the four look like?
Ultimately, you decide if it is more serving to your goals and values to continue putting the energy into influencing someone, or if it is better to detach and find peace in that moment. What do you really want in life? And how can you joyfully move towards that?
Detachment has its own potential to lead us astray if it isn’t done mindfully. Consider the examples given below; detachment can be done from a place of power and awareness, or fear and reluctance.
Disempowered Detaching: AVOIDANCE
Detaching in order to avoid discomfort or vulnerability is a matter of avoidance. This is an attempt to push things away from us rather than examine what we believe to be true about them. Consider the classic “I don’t care,” in which we actually do care and are dirty communicating. We tend to feel neither satisfied nor free; there is often a sense of defensiveness, irritability, frustration, hurt, sadness, victim identity or self-righteousness. In other words, this is most often detaching from the circumstances but staying attached to the underlying beliefs/judgments/demand.
E.g.) You see your partner ‘flirting’ with someone else. Jealousy arises. Later, your partner asks how you’re doing and if you want to hang out later with both of them. You mention that you’re fine, and say you’d rather take some alone time, even though you don’t have plans and are saying no because of what happened earlier.
Empowered Detaching: INDEPENDENCE
When we detach in order to maintain integrity, agency, and compassion, we are practicing independence. In this, there is no sting or judgment towards others. There may, however, be an experience of sadness or mourning.
E.g.) In the same scenario as above, you still say you want some alone time, yet with the intention to self soothe and approach the conversation later. When approaching the conversation later, your partner discloses that they do have feelings for the other person, and are unsure how to handle it. After both have shared and expressed, you decide that you are hoping for different things from the relationship at this point, and decide to break your commitment to partnership.
What’s in it for Me?
Once we understand attachment, we can notice the multitude of ways it brings stress into our lives. Attachment to a specific outcome is a nucleus around which tension, animosity, and anger can grow; it sets us up for a negative response to anything but our chosen result. By considering what we are attached to, and choosing whether to express preference, practice non-attachment, or detach, we can better express our true wishes while decreasing suffering in our lives.
You’re Attached! Now What?
You have energy around your opinion! Heart races, focus, adrenaline. Neutrally, your body is in an arousal/excited state; The next thing your body does is story that energy with an emotion (e.g. “I’m pissed,” “I’m nervous,” “I’m in love,” etc.). The energy is neutral until we think it otherwise.
In Psychology, this storying/labeling of our sensations is called appraisal; our body interpreting our sensations. For example, think of standing in line for a rollercoaster, some label the energy as fear (“I’m unsafe”) and others as excitement(“this is going to be safe yet adrenaline-packed”). The same is true for competitions, karaoke, public speaking, etc. To let go of attachment, we are flipping from reactive brain (bodily fear response) to creative brain (conscious response). What works for you?
Strategies for Letting Go
- Open up your body posture
- Stand up and move around
- Breathe deeply
- Self-soothing (take time and space)
- Mindfulness – Label your sensations/thoughts
- Acceptance! Accept it. Accept it as it is. Let it go.
- Emotional Reappraisal: Say “I’m excited” rather than “I’m scared/angry” (re-storying the neutral energy)
- Answer the question: ‘What are you grateful for?’ Or ‘What is the opportunity here?’
- Self-Empathy: connect to the Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests.
“Become aware of the wanting inside your own mind by noticing […] the discomfort of desire, the cost of pursuing things you crave, the ways that all pleasant experiences end.” –Rick Hanson Ph. D.
Now Imagine a World of Inspired Non-attachment
Preferences still exist – and even passionate and strong ones – and yet there remains an openness to accept influence, dialogue, explore the needs of all, and collaborate. We live – increasingly more often – in a creative brain state. How would these ideas and ways of being impact the world? What would exist more or less of and why? And, specifically, how might this affect:
- Family Dynamics
- Mentorship and education
- Work communities
- Neighborhood communities
- Individual and collective well-being