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  1. #1
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    Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Psychological Golden Mean

    Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Psychological Golden Mean
    By Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.
    January 15, 2009

    Being too detached--or not sufficiently available or responsive to others--represents one pole of the attachment continuum. Over-responsiveness (or excessive relational dependency) defines the other. Here what's impaired isn't our ability to experience the full spectrum of human emotions, but our ability to sufficiently detach from these emotions so we're not totally preoccupied, or consumed, by them. Extremely sensitive to how others see us--in fact, being held so tightly in the grip of external validation that we view ourselves mostly on the basis of how we imagine others view us--constantly threatens our mental and emotional equilibrium. Whereas being excessively detached from others hardly represents a viable solution to the "perils of engagement," at least some detachment is required for us to be firmly centered within ourselves, and so less vulnerable to others' possibly negative reaction to us.

    But if we're substantially more attached to others than to ourselves, such disequilibrium inevitably throws us off balance. In allowing others to exert primary influence on our thoughts and feelings, our emotional stability is dependent on how they treat us--or how we think they're treating us. Externally directed to a fault, we're externally controlled as well. Insecure in our all-important relationship to self and so unable to validate ourselves from within, we're too dependent on what others might say to us, or behave toward us.

    Unwittingly permitting others to dictate how we feel about ourselves, we can't help but obsess about the impression we're making on others, on how (almost moment-to-moment) they're perceiving us. Unconsciously allowing others to govern how we see ourselves, we're prone to both anxiety and depression. And our marked reactivity to others can make it exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for us to achieve any peace of mind. Our autonomy, our independence--even our integrity--is fatally compromised whenever our attachment to others becomes so dominant that how we think we're being viewed by them becomes our foremost consideration. For as long as our behaviors are literally controlled by what we think others want from us, we've forfeited the fundamental freedom to be ourselves.

    And while our feelings figure--and should figure--prominently in almost all our behaviors, if we're properly centered from within, these feelings won't overcome our better judgment. When we feel inadequate we can be led to give of ourselves indiscriminately and thus compromise our integrity. In such instances, we're liable to end up feeling victimized by those who, never really having earned our trust in the first place, take us for granted and experience not the slightest impulse to reciprocate what we've offered them. Feeling needy and insecure--and therefore anxious to ingratiate ourselves with others (since we're dependent on their validation)--we may take unjustifiable risks or in various ways overextend ourselves.

    Psychological balance, which involves identifying that level of emotional commitment to others that doesn't compromise our all-important commitment to ourselves (i.e., doesn't subvert our authenticity or genuineness), exemplifies the golden mean of attachment. Achieving this ideal means that our relationship to others complements the relationship we have with ourselves, and vice versa. As a result of such balance, we're able to have the emotional involvement in the lives of others (and they in ours) that all of us need to feel meaningfully, and rewardingly, connected to the outside world. This optimal level of attachment/detachment alone can provide us with a sense of ourselves as richly connected both to others and ourselves. Our sense of interpersonal "belonging" comforts and enriches us--yet in no way threatens our feelings of independence and self-determination. Paradoxically, we can belong simultaneously to the world outside us and also feel profoundly connected to the world within us.

    Not compelled to protect our vulnerability--either through deferring to others and ultimately losing ourselves in relationships, or through avoiding close relationships altogether--we can cultivate intimate relationships while at the same time remaining true to our core values and beliefs. Recognizing and accepting our inborn vulnerabilities, yet able to keep them from controlling our behavior, we don't experience the need to hold intimate relationships at bay to safeguard our inner security. And confident about our ability to be ourselves with others--without, that is, worrying that such spontaneity will come back to haunt us (as it may well have when we were growing up)--we're free to express ourselves without constraint.

    When we're appropriately attached to others, we respond to them with equal amounts of reason and emotion. Relational decisions (such as deciding whether to agree to a request) are based on what we (not just the other) need to feel good about ourselves. So when we're giving to another, it's not because we feel we're under the gun--that either we accommodate their desires or face rejection. It's because contributing to another's welfare or enjoyment offers us ample satisfaction as well. Put simply, it feels right to us. It's an expression of who we are. Given what in our nature is nurturing, serving others also serves ourselves. Expressing consideration and compassion enables us to fulfill something essential in us. Paradoxically, we're the ultimate beneficiaries of our kindness. And here, it might be added, the golden mean of attachment actually dovetails with the golden rule.

    If our attachments are truly to contribute to our personal contentment and well-being--if they are to address not just the needs of others but ours as well--we need to be become increasingly sensitive to what's driving our behavior. For it's only through the wisdom gained by carefully interpreting our past interactions with others that our head and heart can begin to work synergistically--and help us avoid making relational choices that might leave us feeling either alienated from ourselves or exploited by others. Again, the golden mean of attachment involves being fully (though selectively) there for others without in any way feeling somehow obliged to forsake ourselves. While we certainly need to be sensitive to others' needs, we can never afford to lose sight of our own.

    It's only when we're able to sufficiently detach from others, through first becoming whole in ourselves, that we can accurately appraise others' trustworthiness and comfortably decide how much faith to put in them. It's only when we can align our feelings with our rational faculties that we can keep our emotions under control and make decisions that will enable us to relate to others in healthy ways that fulfill our basic need for connection. Our responses may to varying degrees be "shaped" by our feelings but they still stop short of being dictated by them.

    At its best, our thinking is not unemotional . . . and our emotions are not unreasonable. And this healthy integration of thought and feeling is what optimal balance is all about. It allows us to think and feel fully--without becoming enslaved by either. On the scale of attachment/detachment, such integration encapsulates the "golden mean."
    Last edited by Daniel; January 16th, 2009 at 02:30 PM. Reason: added last fragment

  2. #2
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    Re: Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Psychological Golden Mean

    Excellent article and timely.

    After years of a good friendship with an elderly friend, she expressed an interest in computing. I tutor elderly people in computing as a volunteer and love it. In my need to give *too* much, I bombarded her, as did others, with all that she could possible need to help her succeed in her journey. I could see her retreating, hungry for attention, like a child at her own fairyland birthday as we talked about nothing being too much to help her. Seeing her reaction should have warned me. Instead, I took the obvious sign of her growing emotional dependence on that attention as being sign that she deserved more of it, and devoted many hours each weekend with her. I even compiled a very long book of notes for her to follow in simple steps, on how to her newly acquired computer - a gift from someone else.

    Then the bolt came down from the sky to knock my from my seat. In all innocence, I remarked that I was about to start helping someone else with their computing Cautious at first in the way that she expressed herself, she started to explain that she felt "uncomfortable" about my helping this other person, who “didn't really have as much need for that help”, was “less deserving of that help” than she. I was at first confused by her reaction, then - suddenly awake - I asked her if she had expected that I would only be helping her - give all my time to her? Coyly, she started to say “Yes” until she realized that her words sounded astoundingly selfish.. “Oh, I’m not selfish, it is just that ....”

    I couldn’t believe it! I had given so much of my time out of my own need to give that I had created in her a total dependence on me for that and, furthermore, an unalloyed expectation of it being forthcoming. I could see that she was *very* anxious to lose me as the provider that attention, but I would not consider not helping others in order to give all my time.

    I rang her to arrange times that I would be free to continue to help her but in her fear of being thought to be selfish, she urged me to devote all my time to my other friend and return to her when I had the time. In the same conversation, her resentment was palpable, and it never eased up, and still hasn’t now, about a year after. It caused her to hit out at me verbally, and to be nasty. Unwilling to accept that, I have now severed ties with her almost completely. I have no prospect of our friendship ever resuming.

    I’m very sorry for that. I would have liked to have continued to help her. She is a fundamentally a good person who hit something too hard to negotiate or to accept. While I sympathize with her dilemma, I’m not willing to be treated in a vengeful and surreptitious way designed to help her retain a feeling of personal power. Very early, in a moment of fear and self-awareness, she asked me not to tell others of her conduct. I have since learned that she has cautioned mutual friends against accepting my help, painting herself as having been a victim because I stopped helping her.

    The fall-out of my need to give overwhelmed me. Yet, I couldn’t see clearly why that was. Was she not responsible for expecting so much of me? Was I responsible for giving too much? Was I then truly responsible for her ongoing resentment? I believe that she feels too vulnerable *not* to resent - because to respond otherwise would be to face the extent of her over-reaching selfishness. But her selfishness was the product of *receiving* so much all in a short space of time. It built in her a need that can only be felt by someone somehow regressed to the feelings of a child - and I cannot blame her entirely for that. I also feel resentful now because, apart from her telling others that she has been victimized by me for stopping our sessions, shd had begun speaking to me in ways that are manipulative and disrespectful, and *clearly* designed to reclaim her feeling of power at my expense - all the while pretending that nothing has changed.

    How telling then is this article for me as I read it tonight. I’ve copied it to read several times.

  3. #3
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    Re: Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Psychological Golden Mean

    It's only when we're able to sufficiently detach from others, through first becoming whole in ourselves, that we can accurately appraise others' trustworthiness and comfortably decide how much faith to put in them. It's only when we can align our feelings with our rational faculties that we can keep our emotions under control and make decisions that will enable us to relate to others in healthy ways that fulfill our basic need for connection. Our responses may to varying degrees be "shaped" by our feelings but they still stop short of being dictated by them.

    At its best, our thinking is not unemotional . . . and our emotions are not unreasonable. And this healthy integration of thought and feeling is what optimal balance is all about. It allows us to think and feel fully--without becoming enslaved by either.
    I wonder if, often, this is the crux of the issue. I have found that many people I spoke to often said that feelings hurt and thus, it's better if they don't feel anything. Truth of the matter is that apathy brings its own torments. Not thinking about an issue also brings problems. So, to run away from unwanted feelings or thoughts won't achieve much.....except bring more problems.

    Another problem is that often, people switch from positive regard to negative, thinking it'll ease their pain and inflict pain on the person that "hurt" them. Two sides of the same coin if you ask me. I say stick with the positive...it may hurt but its much less destructive to you and those around you.

    I like having this balance of feelings and thoughts.

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