Some time ago I was working with my friend and mentor, Terri. I was bitterly complaining about my ex-wife and two kids. They weren’t speaking to me and it was killing me. I was going on about the impossibility of the situation and how much pain I was in and how it could never be repaired and how awful a person I was for letting things get the way they were. Terri was listening patiently and making rational comments about the whole deal. She was calm and positive, and seemingly unaffected by my stream of awfulness.
Finally, we got out of my car and walked toward her house. “How can you be so calm and rational about this?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I’m not emotionally attached to it.”
There are moments in recovery where someone says something that sets me on a path to discovery. This was one of those moments.
My immediate response was along the lines of, “Yeah, okay. Right.” But I also began to realize I didn’t fully understand the implications of what emotional attachment meant. As I have many other times in my recovery, I set about spending the next couple of weeks exploring its meaning.
I realize I am highly sensitive and I am finally beginning to recognize this as a gift. Most of my life, however, I’ve considered it an insult when someone would say, “You’re SO sensitive!” But now my sensitivity, coupled with a new and productive sense of purpose and direction, allows me an extraordinary capacity for empathy and intuition, it enhances my creativity, and allows me to work well with others who are suffering and in need of direction. My sensitivity has finally become my ally.
My ego and my stomach share a lot in common. Both are constantly looking to be full. When one starts feeling empty, my wonderfully crafted body sends a signal to my brain that presents me with a ping of anxiety and prompts me to do something about it. My ego is constantly monitoring my sense of validity among my peers, and when it interprets signals indicating I am invalid in some way, I get a ping of anxiousness that prompts me to react. In my old ways of thinking, I responded by taking actions such as buying a new car, or nicer clothes, or consuming a mood-altering substance that bypassed the normal pathways of my neural circuitry and gave me a feeling of relief. Meanwhile, the issue wasn’t resolved, I just temporarily felt better.
For me, I’ve come to think of emotional attachment as allowing a person or thing to define me in some way. That’s not to say emotional attachment is a bad thing, it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself – it’s how we work with it that becomes tricky.
With my high degree of sensitivity, my emotional attachments can be healthy, or severe and sometimes disabling. I’ve discovered a tandem characteristic to attachments: my ability to reason becomes severely hampered and my emotional responses can go “off the charts.” I can experience overwhelming love or, unfortunately, I can really get hurt and experience great pain. Basically, when I become emotionally attached to something or someone, my reasoning goes out the window – “See ya! Bye bye.” I’ve lost it.
Part of my recovery has been finding ways to understand attachments, recognize when I am involved with an attachment, and make sure I am applying a reasonable, productive approach to the situation. But how? I’ve just stated my ability to reason vacates the premises! If I have interpreted the attachment as hurtful or negative, I also get a visit from my “awfulizer”gene. This gene sequence guarantees everything I ponder is somehow awful, my past is now awful – there are lots of negatives and they, of course, are all my fault – and it has an enhanced “time-machine” feature which allows me to project into the future so that I may prepare myself for all the awful things that are positively, one-hundred percent about to happen. Things will never get better. The awfulizer gene also has the inherent capability to turn all thoughts into absolute facts. Do not dispute these facts; my awfulizer gene guarantees them!
So, again, what do I do about this?
Interestingly, I go back to the beginning of this post where I discussed my friend Terri sitting patiently, listening to my awfulizing about my ex-wife and estranged kids, and responding rationally and positively. She was not emotionally attached and her brain was clear of the swirling cloud of angst afflicting my reasoning. Not only was she able to be free of the brain-clutter, but she was also able to show me an example of how to help others do the same – that is, she might say, “Tom, here are the facts, okay? And this stuff over here is stuff you’re currently making up right now because you are hurting, and I’m sorry you’re hurting. When you hurt, you tend to awfulize, ya know? I mean, maybe they were really emotionally caught up in the thing and each of them really identified with each other. Who knows? People aren’t always beacons of good mental health.”
She’s teaching me this process. It’s not all that easy for me, but it’s helping me learn to look outside of myself. And this process is teaching me how to help others who are in need, like I am when I get lost in emotional attachments.
There’s a passage in some of the recovery literature I read frequently. The first time I read it, it struck me like a palm to the forehead. “Finally, we begin to see that all people, including ourselves, are to some extent emotionally ill as well as frequently wrong, and then we approach true tolerance and see what real love for our fellows actually means. It will become more and more evident as we go forward that it is pointless to become angry, or to get hurt by people who, like us, are suffering from the pains of growing up.” Wow. Other people are suffering too.
It goes on to say, “Learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these flaws is the essence of character-building and good living. An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we will seek.”
Geez. You know, I write about this like it’s a simple process. But it’s not! I think about my early recovery and I realize it was pure hell. It’s taken so much time to start to grasp this. It has taken me experiencing the process time and time again for it to start to sink in; a track record of living through it, practicing these new approaches, experiencing the value of observing myself work through it, looking back on my meager successes, having someone experienced and skilled enough to hold my hand and give me confidence, exposing myself over and over again to new principles, learning from the examples of others, and a host of other recovery insights I haven’t even covered yet.
“Time takes time,” I’d hear them say. I hated that statement. I modified it to, “It requires a period of acclimation.” Somehow I find that more palatable.
An early counselor in my recovery said, “Tom, the most important thing you can do for your recovery is to become a self-advocate. Ask for what you need. Go after it. You deserve it.”