Don't Make This ONE Painful Mistake When It Comes To Emotional Detachment

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how to emotionally detach with love

“I know what he should do! He should definitely stop drinking a Big Gulp of tequila in bed every night after losing all of his paycheck playing online Bingo, which was supposed to be spent on paying off our second mortgage.” — Anyone who has loved an addict or an asshat

Man, the people we love can really be a big mess we have to clean up. Except for the fact we have absolutely no power to clean up anyone’s act but our own. And part of cleaning up our own act is learning how to emotionally detach with love from the addicts, asshats — or perhaps we should simply call them the SPIRITUAL TEACHERS in our lives.

This doesn’t mean we stick out a thumb and catch the next Greyhound to Memphis wearing nothing but a rhinestone tiara and a smile. What it means is that we take the important step in reclaiming our own lives and sanity, by allowing our spiritual teachers to solve their own problems, and by learning how to emotionally detach with love.

The Al-Anon 12-step recovery groups — helping the family members of alcoholics — first coined the term “detach with love,” but it can be applied to anybody dealing with a spiritual teacher.

  • A recent client, Ted, struggled to navigate his relationship with an adult daughter addicted to methamphetamine. Ted often bribed his daughter to go to recovery with money, cars, and baubles. He made excuses to her boss for her absences. He cleaned her house. Retrieved her mail. Basically, he tried to knock the edge off life that might drive her to abuse drugs, not realizing he was powerless to stop her.
  • Charlotte’s mother dated physically abusive men. Charlotte confronted men on her mother’s behalf, trying to get them to leave. Often putting herself at peril.
  • She spent her own meager funds trying to get her mother psychological help, which her mother promptly dropped.
  • Joanne’s ex-husband was a flake with their shared daughters. Not picking them up when he was supposed to. Forgetting gifts for birthdays or important events. Joanne made excuses for her ex to their daughters when he forgot appointments. She bought gifts for the girls “from” their father. She continued to rely on her ex to take care of the kids even though he’d let her down time and again.

These are incredibly complicated, painful situations. Circumstances where truly destructive behavior has occurred and shows no sign of stopping.

For Ted, Charlotte and Joanne, detaching in any way was terrifying. But after hitting their own rock bottoms — obsessing, controlling, kvetching, loss of money and sanity — they were willing to try.

Why Detaching May Help the Toxic Person

The core principle of detaching with love is that troubled people cannot get better if we over-protect them. That for people to have the chance to learn from their mistakes they must suffer the “natural consequences” of their behavior.

When Ted gave his daughter money and covered for her, he allowed her to continue abusing drugs with less harrowing consequences, making it more comfortable for her to keep using.

When Charlotte interfered in her mother’s life, she buffered her mom from the consequences that might lead her to take responsibility for her own life.

When Jo-Anne covered for her ex and lied to her daughters about his contributions or whereabouts, she confused them (kids smell lies like mice smell cheese) and he avoided suffering the “natural consequences” of being a deadbeat dad. When she counted on him to follow through with logistics and he didn’t, she actually put her daughters in danger.

There is one painful mistake that can be made when it comes to emotional detachment.

When we’re involved with a toxic person it’s very difficult to detach with love when we’re so hurt and angry. We’ve got to go seriously Buddha with this because detaching with resentment rarely works out. FOR US!

Detaching with resentment is usually driven by fear and anxiety. We give ultimatums, we threaten, we withdraw with anger in the hopes that hurting our spiritual teacher will get them to change.

When we learn how to emotionally detach with love, we have genuinely stopped trying to change our spiritual teacher; instead, we are focusing on taking care of and loving ourselves.

For Ted, detaching with love looked like this:

  • He stopped bailing his daughter out or covering for her anymore.
  • He told her he’s happy to see her when she’s not using and that he really hopes she gets help for her addiction.
  • Ted also gave his daughter information about recovery resources but left her to commit to recovery when and if she wanted to.

For Charlotte detaching with love looked like this:

  • She gave her mother literature and resource material for women who are in the vicious cycle of Battered Wife/Girlfriend syndrome.
  • She didn’t check up to find out if her mother had followed through.
  • She told her mother she was happy to spend time with her alone, but wouldn’t spend time with her mom and an abusive man.
  • She then focused on healing her addiction to rescuing her mother.

For Jo-Anne detaching with love looked like this:

  • She explained to her daughters that their father was struggling with commitment. That he was broken in certain ways neither she nor the girls would ever fully understand and that it wasn’t their fault.
  • She stopped relying on her ex regarding logistics with their girls. She’ll reevaluate if he can prove he’s become reliable.

Sometimes we need to get angry in order to detach. But we have to take a moment to calm ourselves and ask ourselves whether we’re detaching to hurt the toxic person in the hopes he’ll change (NO!) or to take care of our needs and ourselves (YES!).

We can still love our spiritual teachers without letting them destroy us.

This article was originally published at Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.