“Attachment is the source of all suffering.” Buddha
I have been talking with a friend who is experiencing massive and confusing feelings that all stem from heartache. The pain brings on unusual emotions for her. There is anger, frustration, fear, malice, jealousy, and a troubling amount of victim conversation. When we are under this type of self-generated, circumstantial pressure, it is easy for our “shadow qualities” to come out to play. The shadow qualities that we’ll touch on the most here will deal mainly with love versus attachment.
Throughout this message, I may use the words “right” or “wrong” occasionally, but please know that I mean “effective” and “ineffective”. This is a method of transformational vocabulary that I will talk about in a separate post. With that said, let’s talk about some of the ways attachment does not serve you.
I think we know that when our true selves are swallowed up by overwhelming emotion, we are innately aware of the fact that some of our feelings can be validated while some cannot. Now, I know that there is a saying in the mental health community that’s been going around that says, “ALL FEELINGS ARE VALID.” However, if a person decides that they must kill their spouse in order to be happy, I could never get behind that; I couldn’t validate that person’s feelings or reasoning. So, we have established that not all feelings are supportive for your emotional well-being (therefore unable to be validated), but that even if they don’t serve us, they are not considered “wrong.”
The most important lesson to learn about attachment is how and when it can happen. It can really sneak up on you if you aren’t aware of it. Some people go through a great, big chunk of their lives never experiencing circumstances in which these types of feelings pop up. Furthermore, this is not JUST an issue with those who are experiencing heartache. Attachment happens when we take a part of our identity and place it in something outside of ourselves. At the time, it may seem like the right thing to do, but it doesn’t serve you, your partner/partners, or the relationship/relationships as a whole.
e.g. A professional football player will sometimes make football the biggest thing in their world. It won’t only be something they love but something that is a part of them…too big a part of them. The trouble is that you can only play pro ball for a maximum of 25-35 years, and we live much longer than that. Whenever the player retires, there is nothing for them afterwards. They experience existential crisis, emptiness, and severe depression. It’s as if their life has lost its meaning entirely. They have essentially misplaced their identity. Many cases like this end in suicide, which is why I believe it gets to be talked about. Learning how to keep your identity as your own and making YOU the biggest thing in your world could save your or a loved one’s life.
The potentially fatal mistake in romantic relationships is one partner placing their happiness (their identity) in the hands of another. They may be independent in many ways, but they are emotionally dependent on another person/persons for their overall joy. This type of approach to a relationship is wildly unhealthy, and it can produce some wicked insecurities or “stories” about who you are. The main issue is that when a scenario like this occurs between two people, the dependent one will feel as though they have “lost” their happiness. When, in fact, they never truly had their own happiness in the first place. These people experience the worst flavor of heartache because even the happiness they thought they had during the relationship was a sort of “pseudo-happiness.”
Some of the stories people tend to create about themselves are: -“I’m not good enough to…” -“I’m unworthy of…” -“Without my partner, I am nothing, and my life has no meaning.” -“I cannot be amicable because I am only capable of showing this person romantic love or hate.”
None of these things are true. Your life does have meaning, you are capable, you are good enough, and you are WORTHY.
Amicability typically goes out the window in these situations. How can you expect to generate a new friendship out of an old romantic connection if you don’t love yourself? Now, I know many people see loving yourself as going to exercise, eating healthy, or treating yourself to a certain experience. BUT the biggest way for you to love yourself is purely psychological. The love that you have for yourself gets to be an unconditional love that transcends all the circumstances of your life. Your mood can be made of soft putty which can be molded and shaped by outside forces, but your self-love gets to be made of carbonized tungsten that is unwavering and strong.
I don’t feel comfortable moving on without doing my best to state the actual difference between these two ideas. It is quite difficult for me to do without using analogies. So, let’s see what Webster has to say about it:
love – strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties attachment – the state of being personally attached
Okay, so Webster didn’t have much to say on attachment, but I’m about to do my best to simplify these ideas within the context of this writing. When you love someone in a romantic way, you WANT them. When you are attached not only to the person but also the outcomes of interactions between the two of you, it is felt as a NEED.
These things are more different than you might think. This is the part where I throw as many analogies at you as I can. You can be a child and love watching television, but if you have SDD (Screen Dependency Disorder), it is quite different. If a parent turns off the television and the child freaks out and throws a tantrum, then it’s a need. One is healthy, the other unhealthy. If you like collecting a certain thing, then that’s a great hobby that you get to enjoy. If you find yourself on an episode of HOARDERS, then you have crossed the line from want to need, love to attachment, and healthy to unhealthy. I hope you can begin to see the difference between placing value in something/someone and creating an unhealthy “addiction” to something/someone.
All of the information thus far has been from the perspective of preventing this type of behavior within a romantic connection. However, many of the people interested in reading this are probably looking for answers that can get them out of this very situation. They are likely stuck in a whirlwind of emotion that brings them through a vicious circle of negative feelings toward either the person they love or themselves. It is somewhere in this circle that we tend to write the stories about ourselves that make having a happy relationship in the future difficult or even impossible.
So, how do you know if you are one of these people? How can you tell if this is what you are experiencing? Well, an easy way would be to remember back to where I said that you were capable, good enough, and worthy. Did you feel anything come up for you like disbelief or disagreement? Did you roll your eyes and decide that you would read on because you are that “finisher” type of person? If any of these feelings popped up for you, then I can say definitively that you have some due attention to be given to your self-esteem, self-love, and the insecurities (stories) that affect them so much.
What do you do to regain your identity after feeling like you lost it? Well, if you are an actionable person who prefers to have a game plan, I can suggest a few action steps you can take on a daily basis that will support you in a powerful way. The first is to recite affirmations that are personal to you. They can be anything from a daily mantra to a simple statement designed to influence your subconscious mind. Here are some examples I’ve come across and some I use myself: “There is much good to come (this would be the mantra-style example).” ‘There’s greatness within you (this would be the simple statement example).’ ‘I’ll one day be among the greatest speakers in the world (this is an example of specificity).’ You can have as many of these as you want, but they get to be tailored to your particular circumstances and able to be memorized.
I simply won’t allow myself to mention daily affirmations without shedding light on a specific exercise that I picked up from the health documentary, Forks Over Knives. One of the interviewees in the documentary said that this daily action step will be a major catalyst in the development of one’s love toward the self. What you do is step in front of the same mirror every day be it your bathroom, bedroom, or whichever mirror you can see yourself and your body. Look yourself over real good, and then stare yourself in the eyes for a moment. Finally, say to yourself,”I love myself unconditionally right now.” After that, just sit with yourself while maintaining eye contact with yourself as long as it takes. For what, you ask? The voices that swoop in to ruin that moment. You need to know that they are going to come. Voices that say things like,”Yeah right, how could you love yourself with thighs like that,” or “No one loves you, so you shouldn’t either.” These voices will come to you if your subconscious mind doesn’t believe your verbal words. Do this every morning, and you will notice that the voices get softer and softer, weaker and weaker, and smaller by the day until you no longer hear them. It is then that you will be ready to start growing a healthy amount of self-love for yourself.
Moving forward to other action steps, I would suggest meditation. This is something that was quite “woo woo” for many years, but science has come a long way. Meditation is a solid way to supercharge your brain for physical and mental cleaning. The physical part is the cleansing of the protein buildup called, BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This is the protein responsible for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. The mental side of it is allowing your brain to stay focused on what you want to focus on while being less disturbed by thoughts that pop up throughout the day. If I were to be asked, I would say that this is the most actionable way to process emotions that don’t serve you. I use the Headspace Plus app. It gives you guided meditations making the idea less intimidating for people who’ve never tried it before.
Self-awareness will be my final suggestion here. This is easier said than done. I don’t know if anyone can be 100% self-aware 100% of the time. There are always sneaky little insecurities that slip into our day that tend to throw us off in big ways. It happens to everyone I know, including myself. However, when you are dealing with attachment, the insecurities are not small. They are big, and you get to battle it out within yourself more times than with the support of a councilor or therapist. This is why it is so important to catch these insecurities while they are saplings rather than avoiding the issue until it is a great Oak. A high level of self-awareness will allow you to do this. You’ll be able to catch them faster and faster over time. It’s all in identifying the point of trigger. When you have something come up for you, step outside of yourself and question it. Ask yourself why it is you are feeling the way you are. If you can answer that question, then you can craft your response in a way that you desire with a clear, thoughtful decision. If you can’t answer it, then it is still a win because you have taken enough time to think about the emotion from outside yourself. This provides you the opportunity to respond to it in a peaceful, supportive way regardless of whether it is directed toward yourself or someone else. Keep this in mind…regardless of the feeling be it sadness, anger, worthlessness, or jealousy, you have a choice. You can let this “flare-up” of emotion affect you like a freight train smashing into your body, or you can let it affect you like a small house fly landing on your arm. At first, they may all be pretty freight train-y, but with your practice of self-awareness, you can turn that freight train to a fly.
We know ourselves better than anyone else. We know our mind, and we know our body. I always go back to the Buddhist teaching of being unattached. Saying that you are committed to being unattached is positive as opposed to the idea of being attached and then letting go. Practicing unattachment (to the outcomes) primes us for situations in the future into which we would typically throw our identity. If we get ourselves into a situation like this with our partner and realize it, it’s important that we are open and honest about where we stand with this. If we find ourselves in a position of identity crisis post-break-up, we must not get caught up in the vicious circle that has raised the divorce rate for so many years.