How Non-Attachment Can Enrich Your Life and Ground You in the Present
Tell me… are you suffering?
You may have heard the Buddhist saying, “The root of suffering is attachment.” Or the quote, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
We suffer when we lose what we’re attached to, or from the idea of losing what we’re attached to, or in our efforts to hold onto what we’re attached to.
Fear, confusion, sadness, anger, grief, disappointment… … Pain is inevitable and often triggered by things outside our control. Suffering is not. It truly is a choice, and it comes down to attachment.
Non-attachment is a mindfulness practice I’ve been sharing, more and more, with my coaching clients to help them establish a baseline of peace, and make the conscious choice to separate suffering from pain.
What is non-attachment? In this article, we’ll explore:
- What is meant by non-attachment?
- What is the difference between detachment and non-attachment?
- What is non-attachment in relationships?
- What does non-attachment look like at work?
- How non-attachment empowers connection
- Roles, stories and non-attachment
- Non-attachment and letting go of outcomes
- What to do when pain comes in
What is Meant by Non-Attachment?
At its core, it’s about letting go of your emotional attachment to people, things, places, beliefs and situations.
This idea can be off-putting at first. Especially when talking about non-attachment in relationships, which we’ll dig into shortly.
In my experience, I’ve found that non-attachment is deeply tied to identity. To understand that, it helps to first explore what I mean by ‘attachment’. There are 3 main types of attachment:
- Material – Attachment to the things around you, such as your home, car, accessories, clothes, electronics, etc.
- Personal – Attachment to other people and relying on them for validation, approval, acceptance, or to give you a sense of purpose.
- Beliefs – Attachment to how you believe the world is, or should be, or even to who you are or who you should be.
Unhealthy attachment is when you attach your identity – your sense of self – to things, relationships and/or beliefs. Because you’ve let them define you, your fear of losing them – or drive to accumulate more – ends up dictating many of your choices.
Here’s what unhealthy attachment might look like:
- Not feeling like yourself unless you’re dressed a certain way
- Making poor financial decisions to keep up a certain lifestyle or appearance
- Working constantly to be able to afford things, but rarely getting to enjoy them because you work so much
- Worrying about what your appearance, possessions or job title say about you
- Feeling overwhelmed by clutter, but struggling to let go of things
- Feeling locked into circumstances because of your stuff
- Not having healthy boundaries
- People pleasing
- Taking on too much at work
- Not being able to say no
- Avoiding conflict at all costs
- Sacrificing your needs, wants or well-being for others’ demands
- Settling for negative or toxic relationships
- Staying in an unhealthy work environment
- Taking other people’s behaviour personally
- Holding unrealistic expectations of others and/or yourself
- Defining yourself through another person
- Feeling personally attacked if someone disagrees with you
- Avoiding experiences or interactions that might challenge your beliefs
- Refusing to consider alternatives, even when your approach clearly isn’t working
- Limiting yourself to like-minded relationships or environments
- Feeling intense anger when things happen outside your beliefs
- Feeling like you need to get other people on your side, or turn them to your way of thinking
- Holding onto stories of disempowerment
The more of these unhealthy attachments you have, the more you feel you have to lose. That’s when fear and defensiveness set in, and you end up making decisions that are driven by external circumstances, rather than your inner leader and core values.
How do you get to non-attachment? It’s a journey of letting go of who you are in relation to things outside yourself. It’s about coming back to YOU.
There’s a beautiful quote from the late spiritual leader, Sri Chinmoy:
“If we fearfully cling
To what we have,
We will never be able to discover
Who we really are.”
The core non-attachment meaning is not to detach yourself from the world, but to detach yourself from the notion that the world defines you. You define your world. That means you have to know yourself.
To bring this into your life, you can try non-attachment meditation, non-attachment yoga, or even simply taking conscious moments throughout the day to notice when and where you are defining yourself through something or someone else. As you begin to consciously let go of external identifiers, your inner barriers will start to clear, and your true self will be empowered to emerge and develop.
What is the Difference Between Detachment and Non-Attachment?
I used the word “detach” above. There’s a very important distinction between emotional detachment, and the practice of non-attachment.
Emotional detachment is to completely lose interest in the world around you. It is isolation. Isolation from people, experiences and emotions.
Non-attachment is deep curiosity about the world around you, without attaching your sense of self or self-worth to it. Non-attachment empowers deeper connections. It brings you closer to your emotions, allowing you to develop greater clarity into your inner and outer experience. It is almost the opposite of detachment, in that the outcome is greater connection, rather than less.
What is Non-Attachment in Relationships?
Although personal attachment is just one form, it’s one that many people struggle with. After all, if you care about someone, shouldn’t you be attached to them?
Loving someone is wonderful. Welcome those feelings into your experience. Even difficult feelings. Feelings are teachers that help us better understand ourselves, and help us deepen our connection to others. Embrace all of it, and cherish the beautiful relationships that you have with your loved ones.
In terms of practicing non-attachment, come back to that concept of identity. Practice letting go of any emotional attachment to who you are in relation to the other person. You’re not letting go of the relationship, or your feelings for the other person. Love deeply AND love as you. A fully defined, complete human being, lovingly connected to others, but not defined by them.
Being non-attached in a relationship means you don’t rely on the other person for validation, acceptance or approval. With non-attachment, your acceptance comes from within, empowering you to be more open with others, to share yourself authentically, and to embrace authenticity in others with compassion and curiosity.
Let’s say you have a friend you care deeply about. You might say to yourself, “I care deeply about my friend.” What you want to detach yourself from, is self-identifying thoughts like, “I am a great friend to this person.” Let go of that role; that identity.
Defining yourself in relation to another closes you off to truly knowing yourself. It also leaves you vulnerable to things outside your control. What if your friend decides not to be your friend anymore? Or moves away? Or your relationship changes? It will hurt. You may grieve. You may take time to deal with your feelings. That pain is human and inevitable. But, if you have defined yourself through the relationship, you may feel absolutely devastated – shaken to your core – because your very identity has been threatened. You will suffer.
With non-attachment, you understand that other people’s choices don’t define you. You are you. You are worthy. Your worth is intrinsic and cannot be chipped away by anyone or anything outside of you.
Non-attachment even extends to our children. To build and maintain a healthy relationship with your children, you cannot define yourself through them. They cannot be the keepers of who you are. That isn’t fair to you, it isn’t fair to them, and your relationship will be so much richer when you can be with your children wholly as YOU.
Remember, non-attachment and detachment are different. Parenting – or any other role, for that matter – can be the most important thing in the world to you. It may even be your life purpose. But, roles and purpose can shift as you change and evolve. Those shifts will be smoother and more enriching if you don’t feel like you have to rediscover who you are each time.
What Does Non-Attachment Look Like at Work?
At work is where attachment can seem most visible, and also really hard to let go of. You are literally given a title and told that that is who you are when you’re at work. You are Team Lead. You are a Finance Director. You are Head of Marketing, and so on.
When you attach your identity and self-worth to either your title, your contribution, or both, it can be especially damaging to your well-being because now who you are is dependent on things like economic shifts, how others perform, sales results, client decisions, and so many more factors. Yes, you may have influence over (some of) these things, but you don’t actually control them.
What happens if you lose your job because of organizational cutbacks? What if a client backs out of a deal because of a financial issue on their side? What if sales take a dive because the economy is suffering and people just aren’t making purchases right now?
When you’ve tied your sense of self to your work, things like this can feel absolutely devastating. And no amount of hard work could have prevented them!
Attachment at work can also cause you to exist in a sprint-and-freeze mode where you shift from working at full tilt trying to be as worthy as possible, to absolutely freezing under the stress. This can negatively impact your productivity, your engagement, your creativity and your overall well-being when you’re at work, which can then spill over into other areas of your life.
When you practice non-attachment, however, the “hits” are far less devastating. Yes, they are often still painful. Especially when there are significant consequences involved. But your self-worth remains intact because you are not your job. You are YOU, and that is always enough.
With non-attachment, you may even find it easier to leave work… at work. When your identity is tied to what you do, of course you’ll be checking emails at all hours of the day, jumping on evening calls, checking over reports, and tightening up presentations. The stakes are so high! But, when what you do is simply what you do, you will feel so much freer to truly step away, turn your focus toward other things, and actually feel like you have some balance in your life.
How Non-Attachment Empowers Connection
Let’s say your child misbehaves. For a parent with an unhealthy attachment – a parent who defines themselves through their relationship with their child – a child misbehaving can feel like you are not a good parent. Your child’s actions have threatened your identity. You may beat yourself up. “I must be a terrible parent. A good parent doesn’t have children who behave like this.” You’re not loving yourself in that moment because the core of who you are is being shaken. When we aren’t loving ourselves, that can look a lot like conditional love to a child. We withdraw love from ourselves, and in doing so, unconsciously withdraw love from our child.
With non-attachment, however, you are not emotionally attached to an identity of “good parent” or even “parent”. You accept that who you are is not tied to your children’s behaviour. Resting in that peaceful knowledge, you’re able to meet your child with compassion and curiosity. To meet them with pure, unconditional love that deepens the relationship.
The parent-child relationship is an intense one. Let’s look at how non-attachment can empower connection in other relationship types.
Let’s say you’re leading a team. How your team performs absolutely reflects your success as a leader. However, it does not define you as a person.
If your sense of worthiness – in general, or even just at work – is tied to your identity as a “strong leader”, a team member’s poor performance can feel like personal failure. You may feel attacked, like they’ve made you look bad, or like you’re now a weak leader.
With non-attachment, your confidence in your worth and competence are unwavering. Unshaken, you have the clarity to approach the situation with curiosity and compassion, to have the difficult conversations that need to be had, and to help your team members grow and develop. That’s strong leadership in action, and empowered connection.
Roles, Stories and Non-Attachment
Our stories. Our own personal mythology. The roles we assign ourselves. They can become larger than life.
What if you were none of the things you say you are? None of the things you’ve been told you are? What if there were no roles? No personas?
So many of us attach ourselves to roles and stories before we truly know ourselves. Maybe you have a family member who is stuck in a certain memory of you, or you’ve always been told you were “the ABC of the family”, or your friends have always seen you as “the XYZ of the group”. They have you locked into a certain role or a stage of life. They just can’t seem to meet you where you are now.
When you hold onto these roles or stories, you trap yourself. You may tell a story – to yourself and/or others – of who you are that locks you in and limits your growth.
In his book, The Four Insights, Dr. Alberto Villoldo talks about his experience of being branded, “The Indiana Jones of anthropology” in a New York Times book review, and how attaching himself to that identity became limiting. It wasn’t until he let go of that attachment that his life began to open up again.
Many of us become branded in this way early in life, or in those early years of adulthood when we would serve ourselves better by continuing to explore. A few years ago, our news feeds were rocked by the revelation that the human brain isn’t fully mature until about age 25. And yet, we still try to label children, and expect young adults to choose career paths they’ll follow for life. Our society is set up this way. Should that change? I think so. But, in the meantime, we have to live in this society. That means, you may need to be intentional and take some deep dives in order to recognize and let go of any labels, roles, stories or other identifying elements you’ve held onto that don’t serve you.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to practice non-attachment:
- If anything were possible, what would I create in my life?
- What stories do I tell myself that stop me from moving forward?
- What would happen if I simply stopped telling and/or listening to that story?
- What roles do I hold in my family, extended family, workplace and/or friend circle?
- Are those roles limiting me, or holding me in status quo?
- What would become possible if I dropped that role?
As Dr. Villoldo wrote, you can unravel yourself from limiting attachments to your roles, and still be able to perform them. You can still do your job, raise your children, be a friend, do any of the things you need and want to do in life. You can even excel at those roles. You can do all of that, without limiting the enormity of who you are to a few labels.
Non-Attachment and Letting Go of Outcomes
A critical element of non-attachment is letting go of outcomes. Once you put something out into the world, it is no longer within your control. That’s a hard truth to accept.
The thing is, once you do fully accept that truth, so much weight is lifted off your shoulders. Finally, peace can set in!
Imagine being assigned the task of moving a pencil with your mind. All you have to do is move that pencil a couple milimeters to the left, and you’ll be successful. But, try as you might, you just can’t move it. Sounds silly, right? Of course you can’t move something with your mind. That’s not in your control!
And yet, we engage in that exact same effort day in, and day out.
We work really hard on a project, send it off, then continue stressing about how it will be received.
We end a conversation, then continue obsessing over what the other person thought about us, or interpreted what we said.
We post something on social media, then continue refreshing to see if anyone liked it or replied.
All that mental energy put it into things over which we have absolutely no control! Try as we might, we cannot move that pencil.
So why not… let it go?
Whatever you put out there comes from you. You can only do your best. Whatever the outcome or reaction… that doesn’t come from you. Let it go. Don’t attach yourself, your identity or your worth to it.
How other people respond is often an indicator of where they are at. For example, if a colleague comes back to you with respectful critiques, there’s nothing scary about that. If they’re disrespectful in some way, many people take it personally. Shame sets in. You might think, “I’m such an idiot, why did I think that was good enough?” or “They must think I’m terrible at my job,” or “They’re going to realize I’m not meant to be here.”
If someone is disrespectful, that’s on them. Their behaviour, their attitude, their choices… none of that defines you, or determines your worth. Let it go. Who you are is not determined by anyone else. Let go of the outcome.
If your project is a failure – let’s say you set out to increase sales, but the needle hasn’t moved yet – that doesn’t define you either. You did the best you could with the knowledge, experience and resources at hand. It didn’t pan out, and now you have new insight to work with and try again. Your effort is in your control, the outcome is not. Let it go.
Outcomes are not in our control. So why keep trying to move that pencil? Practice non-attachment. You are not defined by anything outside yourself.
What to do When Pain Comes in
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Emotional detachment isolates you from your emotional experience. We don’t want that. Non-attachment means you don’t identify yourself through things outside yourself. You still experience the emotional richness of life. That includes painful emotions.
When you experience a painful emotion – sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, grief, etc. – let the emotion in, knowing that you are not defined by the emotion.
You are not a sad person. You are a person feeling sadness.
You are not a fearful person. You are a person experiencing fear.
Even if you struggle with the same emotion again and again, remove any notion that you ARE that emotion. Anger can be a common one. You are not an angry person. You are a person struggling to manage your anger, AND a person capable of continuing to work through it.
When a painful emotion comes in, allow it in. Let yourself feel it and be curious about it, without judging it or yourself for having it. When you try to suppress difficult emotions, you create suffering. The pain doesn’t leave. It continues to exist in your body and mind, creating suffering in different areas of your life, waiting for you to notice it so that it can finally move on.
Intense emotions and persistent emotions – like the ones you may have been experiencing throughout the past 2+ years – can linger and create the notion that this is now who you are; that these emotions are now part of your identity.
This can also happen with emotions that you’ve consistently swept under the rug.
When you have an intense emotion like this, you may want to try something different like a fire ceremony or smudging to help you clear out those energies. Ceremony can be a powerful catalyst for inner shifts, empowering you to embrace non-attachment moving forward.
The Bottom Line
Nothing outside yourself has the power to define you unless you hand over that power.
Be ready to throw away what worked yesterday, in order to welcome in what will work better today.
Be curious about the people around you, and the people you love, without hinging your sense of self to that exploration.
Let emotions in – all of them – so that you can understand the messages they bring, without identifying yourself through them.
Let your beliefs be challenged, so that you can get clear on the ones that truly are YOU, and the ones that are just stories you’ve held onto.
Above all, know that you are worthy and whole, just as you are.
If you would like guidance in practicing non-attachment and letting go of what isn’t serving you, I invite you to connect with me.