How to Detach

When a relationship or situation becomes too much for you to handle, you might need to detach from it emotionally. Emotional detachment is not done as a means of running away from your problems or tolerating abuse. Likewise, it should not be used as a weapon against others or an excuse to hate someone else. Detachment simply allows you to calm down and put your troubles into a more helpful perspective.

Part One: Set Boundaries
Know your internal boundaries. Internal boundaries are the restrictions you set on your own thoughts and behaviors in an effort to protect yourself.[1] These boundaries are personal and often form from instinct, but since they are personal boundaries, it should be easier for you to manage them. Placing restrictions on your own behavior may seem unpleasant, but it can actually be a positive thing. For instance, you can choose to avoid unnecessary abuse by deciding who among your friends and family you can talk to about various problems.

You develop most internal boundaries naturally. They can be learned from parents as you grow up, or you can acquire them by hanging around people who have their own set of healthy boundaries.

You may not recognize your internal boundaries at first. They may show themselves as a strong desire to put space between you and another person, a sudden sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, or an inexplicable and vague feeling that something isn’t right. Internal boundaries are often instinctual instead of deliberate.

Establish external boundaries. External boundaries are the boundaries you place on others. Good external boundaries will set restrictions on the behavior of others in a way meant to prevent those individuals from mistreating you.
An external boundary might be something as simple as needing a bit of alone time after an argument. On the other hand, it could be something more advanced, like refusing to allow others to degrade you or abuse you (verbally or physically).

Firmly communicate your intentions. When you need to establish external boundaries with someone, you need to make those boundaries clear to that individual. This is where emotional detachment comes in. Draw the line, then recognize that the other party’s reaction is not your choice. You can communicate boundaries verbally or non-verbally. As a simple example, when you need someone to give you space, you might stand up, look the person in the eye, and directly state, “I need some space right now.” Alternatively, you might stand up, look the person in the eye, and walk away without saying anything.

Look for results. Once you start down this path, you need to continue traveling it. Setting boundaries may help matters, or it may prove fruitless. Look at the results objectively and decide how to proceed from there. For example, if you set boundaries with an elderly parent you care for who is verbally abusive with you, your parent may stop that behavior once he or she sees that you will not tolerate it.

On the other hand, that parent may persist in the behavior. Love for your parent demands that you continue to mind his or her needs, but in a situation like this, it might be better to do so by hiring someone else to take care of your parent until both of you can calm down and reach a better understanding.[2]

Part Two: Focus on Yourself
Recognize that you are the only person you can control. You can attempt to guide the actions and reactions of the people around you, but when all is said and done, each person has to make his or her own decisions. The only person whose behavior, thinking, and feelings are within your power to control is you.
As an exercise, identify what the source of your anxiety must do to make you happy by using the following sentence: “If ____ would only ____, then I could feel ___.”[3]Remove the first part of the sentence, leaving only the, “I could feel ___.”

This remaining portion is the only undeniable truth of the sentence and the only part you have any influence over. Consider that, and try to shift your focus from the other person’s actions and back to your own thoughts and actions.

This understanding is important in personal and professional relationships alike. You have just as little control over your spouse as you have over your annoying co-worker.

Stop surrendering control of your own life. Just as you cannot control another human being, another human being cannot control you. Too often, though, it can be easy to bend to the will of others when you should stand your ground. Recognize that the only power another individual has over you is the power you give him or her.

Speak in “I” statements. Get in the habit of talking about negative circumstances from the perspective of how you feel about them. Instead of saying that someone or something has made you unhappy, phrase your complaint by saying, “I feel unhappy because…” or “This makes me feel unhappy.”
Putting things in an “I” perspective can shift your thinking, allowing you to separate yourself as an individual from the situation. This separation can actually help make you more emotionally detached from the other people involved.

This “I” language can also help defuse a tense situation because it allows you to convey your feelings and thoughts without being accusatory.

Step away. Physical detachment can trigger emotional detachment. Walk away from the person or situation causing you anxiety as soon as you can. This does not need to be a permanent separation, but the separation should last long enough for you to calm down from a state of heightened emotion. If possible, go to a spot where no one can see or hear you and vent your frustrations verbally. You could even scream into a pillow, or throw a pillow around to vent your anger physically.[4] The sooner you can release the emotions you feel, the sooner you can detach yourself from them.

Stepping back from a hectic relationship also has its benefits. If you and your significant other are constantly at odds, consider spending some time apart to heal. When tensions die down, both of you can reach a better decision about whether or not the relationship should continue.

Regularly take some time for yourself. When dealing with a troubling relationship or a situation that you are unable to end, get in the habit of routinely taking time to decompress after dealing with the source of drama. Consistently take this time for yourself even when you feel that your emotions are under control.
For example, if you need to detach yourself from emotional stress at work, take a few minutes to meditate or unwind as soon as you get home. Alternatively, take a few minutes during your lunch break to do something you really enjoy doing, like reading or taking a walk. Entering into your own private bubble, even for a few minutes, can give you the balance and steadiness you need when you return.

Learn to love yourself. You are important. You are just as important as anyone else. Reach an understanding that your needs and desires are just as important as anyone else you might deal with. You may need to compromise with others from time to time, but you also need to make sure that you are not the only one making sacrifices.
You need to love and respect yourself before others will love and respect you, as well.[5]
Part of loving yourself means taking care of your needs and goals. For example, if you have a goal that requires you to continue your education, you should take the necessary steps to do so regardless of whether those around you—your significant other, your parents—agree with your decision.

Loving yourself also means finding your own sources of happiness. You should never completely rely on any one person to make you happy.

Part Three: Live in the Present
Return to the problem after stepping away from it. When dealing with stressful circumstances, it can be easy to make decisions steeped in emotion. If you are not absolutely certain that you can look at a situation objectively, step away from it and return to the problem only after you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Talk to a third party. Call or e-mail someone who is completely unconnected to the source of your stress. Depending on the situation, you might want to consult with this objective third party for rational insight. Other times, however, you may choose to keep quiet about your troubles and simply enjoy that person’s company as a way to unwind.
Oftentimes, an unrelated party can see things in a more objective light than a party who is actively involved in the situation. Just make sure that the person you consult is someone you can trust.

Maintaining regular contact with friends and other loved ones is believed to have a dramatic effect on maintaining a sense of overall happiness and well-being. Keeping yourself healthy and emotionally balanced will make it easier to emotionally detach yourself from circumstances that would throw your balance off.

Don’t fret about the outcome. Once you make a decision about your problem, stand by it. Assure yourself that you made the best choice possible with the information you had. Acknowledge that the outcome might be unpleasant on the surface, but ultimately, the outcome is still “correct” because your decision was “correct.”

Look for the positives. Sometimes, a seemingly negative outcome is inevitable. Instead of dwelling on the bad parts of the situation and the eventual outcome, start thinking about the good that can come of it. Very few circumstances in life are covered in nothing but tragedy.
Similarly, you should also look at the positives of a person or situation before you write it off. When you are emotionally distraught, the negatives tend to seem huge. Looking at both negatives and positives can make you more objective, which makes you more detached.

Know that the pain is temporary. There are times when you will feel hurt no matter how much you try to detach yourself emotionally. Instead of trying to ignore the pain, acknowledge its presence, but assure yourself that it will not stay with you indefinitely. You may not be detached right now, but you are setting up the foundation for detachment in your near future. If you were emotionally detached and objective when making your decision, the decision was likely a good one. This is true even if the relationship ends or you lose the business deal.

When a negative outcome results from your decision, expect to feel pain again. Emotions are only natural, and completely preventing them is impossible.

Recognizing that your emotional response is temporary can help shorten its duration and return you to a detached state with less fuss.

Sources and Citations
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