Avoiding vs. detaching

~~~ christmas tree2In group.  “So the bad news is I still hate them, and they’re coming for Christmas,” says Dennis. “But the good news is, this year I think I can detach.  I think I can step back and not let them bother me.”

“Wow,” someone says.

“Not me,” says Emma. “I hate my inlaws too, and they’re coming.  But I can’t detach. The best I can do is hate them secretly. You know, bite my tongue and avoid conflict.”

The group looks sympathetic.

“What’s the difference?” asks Frank.   “Steve, what’s the difference between detaching and just avoiding conflict?”

“What do you think?” I ask the group.

They frown a collective frown.

“Dennis, what does detaching feel like to you?”

He thinks.  “Calm,” he says finally.  “Relieved.  Like the problem has stopped being a problem.”

“And Emma, when you’re avoiding conflict, how do you feel?”

“Awful,” she says.  “Inside I’m scared, angry, self-conscious, confused.”

“Not relieved?”

“Not at all.”

“So there’s one difference,” I say.  “Detachment lowers anxiety.  Avoiding conflict tends to raise it.”

“But why?” Frank asks.

“Well, controlling behavior usually raises anxiety, and that’s what conflict avoidance is — manipulation, a kind of secret controlling.  You can’t see Emma doing it, but inside she’s controlling like crazy: watching, worrying, stuffing her feelings and waiting for something bad to happen.  Right?” Emma nods glumly.  “Whereas detaching avoids all that internal mess.”

“I’m still confused,” Frank says.  “How do I know when I’m doing one or the other?”

“There are two ways,” I say. 

“The first is to ask yourself, Where’s my attention?  Control addicts focus outside, on the people/places/things they want to control.  But to detach is to turn inward, shift attention to our own feelings and needs.  It’s like taking our energy back.”

“That’s true,” Dennis says.  “When I’m controlling I’m edgy and tired.  When I detach I feel relaxed and strong.”

“And the second way?” Frank asks.

“That’s more subtle.  Ask yourself, How old do I feel?”

“How old?”

“Right.  Remember, control is what kids do.  Kids have no power.  Kids can’t take care of themselves, can’t even stand up for themselves most of the time.  So they have to manipulate the big people around them.  But real adults can stop controlling and act in service of their own needs. That’s what I mean by power.

“So if you find yourself feeling powerful, like the grownup you are, you’re detaching.  And if you feel like the scared kid you used to be, you’re probably still controlling the way kids do.”

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