Picture this, you’re at a cafe with your friend and all he can talk about is problems with his girlfriend. He can’t talk or think about anything else. Even if it seems like he’s listening to you, you know that as you talk, he doesn’t even hear you. His mind is so preoccupied that he relates everything you say to his girlfriend. He repeats himself often, sometimes rewording the same problem over and over again. Nothing that you talk about makes any difference. Why is he so obsessed? Why can’t he put this aside for a few minutes and enjoy this moment with a friend?
Does this sound familiar? Maybe this has happened to you in the past, or perhaps this describes you now? Obsessions with other people we care about and their problems is a difficult thing to experience. It can be all-consuming, making you feel like you can’t think about or talk about anything else.
For some, this can continue for years making their lives all about someone else’s problems, feelings, and behaviours. It leads us to worry, obsess, and even attempt to control the object of our obsession making us think that we are helping when in fact, we are only causing distress in ourselves and not changing the situation for the better. This can happen when we love someone who is in trouble, someone who has an alcohol addiction, gambling problem, eating disorder, a mental or emotional problem, or any combination of issues. It may even be something less serious but we’ve still developed a habit to worry, react, and control the person or situation. How do we stop this maladaptive pattern of behaviour so that we can enjoy life more and worry less?
Learning to detach
Learning to detach yourself from people or their problems that overly preoccupy you doesn’t mean that you stop caring and completely shut yourself off. Detachment refers to mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically disengaging from another person’s life, responsibilities, and problems that we cannot solve. Expert, Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself explains that detachment is a critical step to ending your codependency on others. Beginning the detachment process can start with keeping some main principles in mind the next time you catch yourself overly preoccupied.
You may find that practicing some of these principles results in a better relationship with your loved one. If however, you are overly enmeshed in someone else’s problems, there are deeper issues that prevent you from disengaging, and these principles seem too difficult to put into place, seek professional help from a licenced therapist to help you start moving forward and help you delve deeper into the reasons for your attachment issues.
7 Principles of detachment
- People are responsible for themselves.
- Stop presuming that you can solve problems that aren’t yours to solve.
- Keep your hands off of other people’s responsibilities and tend to your own instead.
- Worrying about other people’s problems doesn’t help. If a loved one has created a major problem for themselves, then it is necessary that they solve it on their own, that they are allowed to be who they are, and have the freedom to be responsible for themselves.
- Live in the present and stop trying to control others.
- Make the most of each day and appreciate what you have right now.
- Accept your reality and have faith in yourself. If someone needs help with a problem, do what you can to solve it and then stop obsessing over it, knowing that you have done what you could.
Following these principles will leave you free to love people in a way that helps them instead of feeling pain in ourselves. It also leaves you the freedom to enjoy life, despite its problems. It is important that we trust that things will be OK in spite of the conflicts.
Source: Beattie, M. (1987). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. HarperCollins, New York, NY.
Written by: Mayte Parada, PhD
Montreal Therapy Centre