5 Things to Do to Practice Healthy Attachment

A Guide for Practicing Healthy Detachment

Most of us understand that healthy detachment plays an important role in building a healthy and harmonious relationship with ourselves and with others. However, this is often easier said than done. It can feel frustrating, as we might struggle to find the proper way to practice it.

Oftentimes, we have an idea about how to detach, but we put it aside, as we fear becoming aloof or apathetic.

In my work with clients I remind them that detachment is not about withdrawing or withholding. It simply means seeing things from a different perspective, while remaining fully involved. We still participate in the relationship, but without being entangled in fear and anxiety, or trying to control the outcome.

In truth, detachment actually means more involvement, but without being attached to the outcome. It’s like stepping outside of who we are and seeing things objectively, without projecting our desired outcome into the situation.

That said, there are four essential notions we can practice in order to internally detach, yet remain engaged. With patience and willingness, we can break our attachment to whatever is keeping us trapped—be it a person, an object, an idea, or a situation.

1. Developing an Observers Mind

In order to begin the practice of nonattachment, we have to start by developing some habits that will allow us to become more “mindful” of what we are thinking. A 1985, University of Maryland School of Medicine conducted a study that concluded that 80% of our thoughts are negative, and 95% of our thoughts are repetitive.  In 2005, the National Science Foundation published an article that stated the average person experiences between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day.  Of these, thoughts 80% are negative, and 95% are repetitive.  These studies indicate the importance of examining our thinking. 

The best way to get started is to begin with developing a practice of an “observers mind”.  The ability to observe oneself objectively and compassionately is an important skill to develop. The observer self is a frame of mind that is objective and detached and works with love and self compassion. … This is a perspective that recognizes our whole inner self and accepts everything within ourselves.  The light and the shadow.

2. Mindfulness Practices Can Help

I encourage my clients to try to start their day with a mindfulness practice of at least 10 minutes.  If you’re just starting out and feel that 10 minutes is too long, then I often ask, if you can devote 5 minutes at the beginning of your day to do a mindfulness practice.  I suggest guided practices in the beginning as it allows you to focus on the present moment, without having to worry about how much time you have left.  I think one key instruction that many people forget is, you cannot do mindfulness practices wrong.  Every single time you come back to the breath, to the present moment, you are practicing mindfulness!  Over time, as you begin to notice your thoughts, and you come back to the breath, you will begin to notice a reduction in your thoughts and you cultivate more and more mindfulness, and more focus on your breath and the present moment.  Once you’ve consistently practiced, your capacity for observing your thoughts will become stronger and you will be ready to move into the next phase of noticing the object of your attachment, observing your mind and then you can begin to discern the roots of your clinging.

If we’re attached to a person, what is this person giving us that makes them unique? What is it in them that makes us afraid to lose them? Or maybe, is there something missing within us? If we’re attached to a situation or an idea, why can’t I let go of it? Does my attachment give me a certain identity that I fear losing?  With practice, we begin to think about our thinking, and notice what we are noticing.  In most cases, what we uncover is some fear about the future that we are trying to prevent.

Recognizing the reasons for our clinging, or neediness is the first step towards ending our unhealthy attachment.  Keep in mind, this practice takes practice!  Once we start, and commit to this practice we can begin to feel some relief, and gain more capacity and confidence.

3. Observe your suffering. 

Unhealthy attachment naturally breeds suffering.  We might not like to admit it or claim that our attachment makes us miserable, but if we are honest with ourselves, we begin to recognize that our unhealthy attachment causes us to suffer.  When our partner or lover doesn’t show up for us how we expect them to, some may feel disappointed, while others become furious.  I encourage you to try and see yourself objectively.  When we discern the suffering that stems from attachment, we solve the second part of the problem.

How do you behave around your object of attachment? Do you become clingy or needy, or do you sulk or withdraw if they don’t show up for you? Are you slowly developing fear of losing that person, object, or idea? Notice how your object of attachment keeps your mind busy, and observe if you are feeling more anxious or depressed when you think about the object of your attachment.  Both anxiety and depression are good indicators and point to states of mind in order for us to examine our thinking.

4. Nature is an Excellent Teacher of Impermanence – Learn to Appreciate Nature

The notion of impermanence is one of the most helpful tools for addressing our attachment. I still believe that the one thing I can count on in life is change.  I’m at the point in my life when I not only expect it, but I welcome it.  It reminds me that I’m growing.  The truth is that most people do NOT LIKE CHANGE!  People are often terrified of change, but it is a normal part of living.  This is why I encourage people to pay attention to nature.  Nature is constantly changing, whether it’s the sky, the breeze, clouds, buds bursting to new life, and leaves falling. 

When we’re attached to someone, we’re basically attached to the image we have of them in our minds. When someone begins to change we often resist this change because we are trying to maintain the image we have of this person or idea.  When they change, or evolve, we fight to maintain the image we have of them.

Embracing impermanence helps us break our attachments to people, ideas, or beliefs. When we begin to understand that living life to the fullest means that things will change, nothing stays the way we want it to, we begin to detach.  In time, we begin to appreciate a person’s presence in our lives, for who they are, and we avoid taking them for granted.

5.  Focus on yourself. 

If we want to experience healthy detachment, then our focus should be on focusing on our attachment to ourselves.  We can work on our relationship with ourselves, and becoming who we want to be.  Rather than expecting something or someone outside of ourselves to make us feel good about ourselves, we can focus on finding out what we enjoy, and spending our time and energy on our relationship with ourselves.