Detachment, Dissociation, and other “D” words

I always thought of detachment as a negative, it implied an inability to connect or a barrier to relationships. In my world, pre-boundaries, when you loved someone you blended together. Their problems were mine, and my problems… well, that’s the funny thing, my problems just kind of got shoved in a corner and forgotten about.

I was F-I-N-E.

Well, outwardly I guess I was fine.

My mask was good, I convinced the people closest to me that I didn’t need their emotional support or help. Hell, I wore it so long I even fooled myself. I thought I was bulletproof and, I kid you not, even joked that I must be a cyborg. People described me as strong, independent, high-functioning, intelligent and together. Nothing would crack me and I’d rather kill myself trying than ask for help. Challenges in my path were minor bumps unless someone else was reacting to them. That’s how I lived, desperate for connection but with no idea how to go about it without sacrificing myself. I wore my strong mask and pushed clumsily forward.

I’ve discovered that those things we bury don’t ever really go away, they just fester below the surface. All those needs I told myself weren’t important and those things I put off doing for myself just reinforced my low self-esteem. Over time it impacted my relationship with myself, with others, and how I cope with life in general.

I believe the correct psychological terminology is “dissociation from the self”. Thankfully a mild case in the spectrum of this condition, a coping mechanism in which I could avoid my painful inner dialog of self-doubt and worthlessness.

In hindsight, it’s no shock that I ended up in the relationships I did. People with codependent traits are subconsciously looking for validation, someone to sacrifice themselves for to give us a sense of value.  We are also often disconnected (or “dissociated”) from their own needs and feelings. We are primed and ready for dysfunctional connections.

“Is someone else’s problem your problem? If, like so many others, you’ve lost sight of your own life in the drama of tending to someone else’s, you may be codependent.” – Melody Beattie

There are those that would argue that this is passion. Throwing ourselves into what is important, sacrificing, putting ourselves at risk for what matters most. Maybe it is, but the impractical side of unhealthy passion is that eventually even the strongest fold; there is a point of burnout, because what we are trying to do is control someone that has their own entitlement and free will to make choices. Not consciously, not maliciously, but trying to influence their path and it isn’t ours to control.

Ultimately my sense of self was tied to an outcome I couldn’t possibly force and if you have any experience with addiction you know there are a lot of days that are total uncontrollable fails.

The real cosmic joke of the addict-codependent dynamic is that in trying to save the addict, the codependent actually contributes to the evolution of their disease. The addict is looking for validation too; and by saving them from the consequences of their actions, the codependent unwittingly sends the message that their behaviour is acceptable as they remove the addict’s incentive to examine their choices and consider another path. They are justified, or at least excused, to continue using.

Consider a classic example of enabling: the addict blasts through their paycheck and can’t afford rent. Enter the codependent, desperate to save their loved one from the loss of their apartment, to give them the money they are missing. As counterintuitive as it seems (to a codependent anyway), the right action here is also the one that on the surface is allowing the addict to fail, letting them figure out the solution to the money problem themselves and hopefully *eventually* realizing that their life would be easier without their addiction. It also allows the loved one to maintain some quality in their own life rather than surviving in the centre of a tornado of chaos.

I am not suggesting that passion is always a bad thing. There is an element of risk and sacrifice to anything worth having in life but the difference between healthy and unhealthy passion is detachment. It is accepting that sometimes you need to let go of the things that matter to you to in order to get to the best place. It is understanding that unhealthy attachment is living in fear that what you want will not come and that this fear creates a trap where un-fulfillment is accepted because the alternative is the loss of the person’s misplaced sense of self.

This can be especially confusing in relationships where “love” is incorrectly labeled as holding on to someone and caring for them in all ways possible. We know that detachment is necessary in relationships; it is what stops us from taking everything personally because ultimately you can’t control everything your loved one does. It is understanding that love is about acceptance, not control. It is about both people having enough room to grow, hopefully together.

Need more reasons why detachment is a good thing? It is required not to over-generalize our experiences and carry them around with us like overstuffed emotional baggage. It allows us to learn from those experiences and leave them behind. It is important because it allows us to take a step back from ourselves so we don’t confuse our thoughts and feelings and act impulsively; it allows us not to disassociate but to understand that sometimes thoughts are just that, they are not absolute truths.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

I went through a period in my mid 20s where I was driven to exercise. I got a personal trainer, showed up at the gym at the crack of dawn every weekday and watched what I ate. At that time my sole motivation was vanity. I had no self-esteem and was convinced if I overhauled my physique men would like me and I guess by proxy I would like me.

Remembering this time is maddening for me now. Looking back at pictures, there was nothing wrong with how I looked. If anything turned off interest it’s that they could smell my insecurity and desperation for approval. I’m embarassed how much I cared.

Part way into this gym obsession a funny thing happened. I stopped caring so much, I just kind of naturally felt better about me. I stood up taller, I smiled more and before I even had any significant results people were attracted to me. I had a few of the best organically social years of my life. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was the most relaxed I’d ever been.

I didn’t put two and two together, but I see the same phenomenon at work now in my recovery.

A few months ago I started going to the gym again 5 days a week. Mostly classes, a lot of yoga. I notice on the days that I attend my brain gives me a break: I let go a little easier and lean into moments a little more fully.

I think I’m more aware this time because I started working on my mental fitness before I started back at the gym. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty open-minded when it comes to treatment of mental health issues (for others) but truthfully I was never all that willing to consider it for myself. However, after I bottomed out on codependency I knew I needed help and found a therapist. Having experienced it now, I would encourage anyone who is curious to at least try it. It’s awkward at times, hard, and emotional, but it’s worth it. With her gentle guidance I finally think I’m starting to understand what shaped me and what behaviours aren’t serving me anymore. I’m also starting to understand that vulnerability can be done in a safe way that doesn’t have to lead to more pain.

Something that comes up in sessions is that she asks me to describe a feeling physically. Now, before you laugh, think about it. Describe where you feel sadness in your body. Is it in your chest? Your stomach? Does it feel like pain? What kind? Now describe that. Is it like a hand squeezing you? Are you being crushed by a heavy weight?

You get the idea.

Maybe this comes easily for you, but it’s a truly alien concept for me. I’ve come to realize that my brain and body do not communicate very well and I have little emotional intelligence. I suppose that makes sense; if you are going to live a life where you need to ignore your instincts and trust people who don’t have your best interests in mind you can’t be connected to your body or your feelings. I’ve spent most of my life running from feeling and shunning any ideas of self compassion. I shrug off any discomfort in my body and pretend it’s not happening. The truly tragic thing about this is you can’t just numb the bad, it takes the joy with it. Regret is a fruitless exercise, but I can’t help but wonder how many happy feelings I’ve missed in my efforts to run from potential (not even realized) pain.

That’s why exercise, especially the kind that teaches awareness of the body and mind as a cooperative, is helpful for people in recovery. By design it rebuilds those weak synapses and recharges those connections. With practice you start hearing your warning bells. You recognize when you need to rethink your actions or detach from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You start to understand that your body is just trying to give you a heads up about what your brain hasn’t figured out yet. You feel everything more fully, the bad and the good, and over time develop calmness, awareness, and acceptance. You don’t need to numb, you understand that feeling is normal, it’s valid, and it passes in the fullness of time with or without your intervention. And without even trying others will intuitively notice this shift and relationships will also become easier.  I know it sounds like mojo, but I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

A year ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a yoga studio or a meditation class. I probably would have made fun of such an idea and anyone enjoying it. A year ago I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do something so vulnerable, let alone do it as a group. I just didn’t get it. Both yoga and meditation can be very personal practices, helping you feel grounded to the earth. Over the last few months I’ve started to prefer practicing in a group because in addition to feeling grounded I feel connected to the others in the space. It can be calming, energizing, and eliminates some of the social anxiety I sometimes feel making small talk with strangers. There’s no need to discuss personal details, you can just breathe and lean into the poses together.

I’m drafting this from deep outside my comfort zone. I went alone to a 2 day yoga retreat in the woods. This may not seem like a big thing, but for me it’s a huge deal. Since I was a child I have avoided trying new things that I wasn’t certain I would be good at or that would have put me in the position of being judged. I certainly would not have dreamed to take this sort of risk without the safety net of going with someone else. At least then I would be able to use inside jokes to hide my insecurity.

You know what? I’m actually having a good time. I tried snowshoeing for the first time, participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes with gusto, and feel the value of experience that isn’t numbed in any of the creative ways I’ve tried in the past. The people are lovely, the cabin is adorable, and the grounds are breathtaking. I even bought their vegetarian cookbook, the food is that good! I’m not even vegetarian.

I’m glad that rediscovering exercise has brought such unexpected gifts and adventure. I’m glad I know I can do things I want to do without waiting for someone to be available to join me. I’m grateful that I am getting the opportunity to retrain my brain to listen to my body, to relax, slow down, and understand that I don’t need to be perfect. It’s worth taking risks and being vulnerable for growth.

I’m grateful I finally understand the value of both my mind and body working together as allies and not adversaries.

A bit more about the benefits of yoga and meditation to recovery: Yoga for Addiction Recovery (Yoga Journal)

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Just ’cause, 10 years later this is still my favourite workout track. Outside of the yoga studio, of course.