I heard a “new” phrase today - as in, new to me - that I just love; so I’m going to throw it out here in case it might help someone else - “warm detachment.” I think I’m going to grow more and more in love with this concept.
Before I explain it, let me share how I came to be introduced to it. Over the last few months, the biggest, heaviest, most nearly unbearable stressors in my life have been situations that I had absolutely nothing to do with creating and about which I can do absolutely nothing. Sound familiar? In the interest of preserving close personal relationships that I value, I will not going into detail, here. Let’s just say that the subject of this blog is setting and maintaining solid emotional boundaries as a form of self-care. And the take-away thought is: Do it.
Let me be clear - I have no problem with friends and family reaching out to me for a listening ear, or advice (if I’m qualified to offer any), or a shoulder to cry on. I think probably everyone needs that now and then. And just so I’m very clear - I am not referring, here, to parishioners who reach out when they feel I can offer useful counsel or prayer or insight into something they are going through. It is a part of my vocation and an honor to offer what I can in those situations.
I am talking about those folks who want to drag us, sometimes kicking and silently screaming inside, through a blow-by-blow account of an ongoing ordeal into which they have gotten themselves, while they refuse to do whatever is clearly necessary to get themselves out of it. I find that, depending on who it is and the severity of their situation, I have a tendency to absorb their stress and anxiety like a sponge. Believe it or not, I think I believed (on some unconscious level, of course) that the stress and anxiety that I absorbed was, somehow, “taken” from them. I was carrying that portion of the weight so that they wouldn’t have to. (For the record, I do recognize that that would be problematic even if it worked. But that’s another subject. For now, the point is that it doesn’t work that way.)
Well, that landed me right back into therapy. And it was my therapist who introduced me to the phrase, “warm detachment.” I’m putting her explanation into my own words here. Many people are raised to know only two modes of close relationship - divorced or enmeshed. Either we have nothing much to do with a person or we’re all up in their business and they are all up in ours. But there are other options and warm detachment is one of them.
One of the great things about warm detachment is that it can take on a variety of forms, depending on the circumstances and our needs. In the context of my recent stressors, the needs I’ve identified are setting emotional boundaries and setting limits on the time and mental space I will give to burdens that are not mine to bear. I’m still working this out, in my mind, but I think the key to setting emotional boundaries is to let go of the outcomes of my loved ones’ situations. This is not the same thing as ceasing to care. Of course, I care and I will care about the well-being of people I love. Letting go of the outcome is simply about accepting 1) that I have no control over it; and 2) that they can be well, whether their situations resolve as we hope they will or in some other way. Whether they actually will be well - even with an outcome that we might consider to be unfavorable - is mostly up to them. It’s that thing about the quality of our lives, being less about what happens to us than about how we respond to it. Unfavorable outcomes offer opportunities for choices to be re-evaluated, for lessons to be learned, and for decisions to be made that will produce better outcomes in the future. Sometimes that’s the route people have to take to get to where they need to be.
Setting limits on the time and mental space I give to the problems of my loved ones may be a bit more “mechanical” and straightforward. I don’t have to answer the telephone every time it rings. Or I can say something like, “You know I love you, and I want to support you. And I also have to guard against anxiety (or anger or sadness) over this becoming overwhelming to me and consuming more time, energy, and head space than I can give to it and remain healthy, happy, and well-functioning. So please don’t give me daily updates anymore. And, maybe, spare me some of the details that are just more examples of aspects of this that I already know. Just catch me up on any important, new developments once a week or so.” It felt good to write that just now, and imagine myself saying it. But I think I would feel compelled to add, “The exception is if something happens that throws you into a real crisis state, I want you to feel free to call me right then.”
I think that is okay. I think it strikes a balance between my loving concern for others and my need to avoid taking on their “stuff” in ways that aren’t good for me.