How to let go long enough to get a grip.
Some time ago, I had a sort of epiphany. Most people think of epiphanies as this sort of quick realization that life is somehow better than it seemed before an epiphany. But I submit that most epiphanies are a result of a slow process of awareness finally coming to fruition.
My epiphany was about detachment, and it was the result of years of work, study and practice. I realized at that time, that I can detach from anything, like other people’s anger, outcomes, and mistakes.
A few years ago, one of my kids was having a meltdown. My 4-year-old and elder daughter was upset about something, I can’t remember what it was now, but for her, it was critical. I decided to just sit with her and talk with her through another one of her meltdowns like I had done so many times before. But this time, my wife would not come out to try to help. This time, it was on me.
For this particular meltdown, though, I was able to talk with my daughter to the very end, for no one else would interrupt me. All I did was talk with her for as long as it took until the meltdown was over. I knew that she could only be angry for so long, so I let her be angry. I let her scream and yell. I let her be upset.
While she was acting out, I continued to talk with her. I let her know that that thing she wanted, I could not give to her because we didn’t have it anymore. I also let her know that she could always ask for a hug. I let her know that being angry is taxing, energy intensive, and that if she continued to be angry, she would go to bed earlier than she would like just because she’d be tired. I told her that just because she is angry, doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too.
I sat there for 15–20 minutes talking it out with her. I sat there watching her, waiting for her to calm down. I modeled being calm. I modeled sanity. I modeled compassion. I reminded her several times that it’s OK to be angry. That it’s OK to cry. That it’s OK to be upset. I reminded her that I was just there to talk with her.
As I sat there on the floor with my daughter, I noticed something else. Everything I said was true. I saw a young girl so incensed, but I saw someone who lacked the skills to do better. I was able to embrace her state of being as a result of a lack of skills rather than a lack of character. I could not have done any of that had I made an assessment of her character as being good or bad, first. As soon as I made a decision to observe her behavior in the context of skills or lack thereof, I was better able to be there for her.
Detachment is often portrayed as a state of being that is not compassionate. It has been suggested that detachment is being stoic. It is not. Most parents would consider the experience of watching one of their kids yelling and screaming as painful. That kind of experience was not painful to me. I was able to see my daughter for who she was and not make any of her behavior about me. I did not pass judgment.
From there, I was able to see other people in the same light. I can recall one day when I was driving in the loop at an airport to pick someone up. The passenger to my right got very upset and raised her voice at me for missing an opportunity to make a left turn during a brief pause in traffic. In response, I said, “I love you, too.” I knew that it was beyond her skill to handle that minor lapse and I was done.
I could have shot back, with cutting words, but I did not. I was detached. When I’m detached from the behavior of other people, it’s on them, not me. When I’m detached, their behavior is not about me, it’s not my fault. And in that state of mind, I can exercise true compassion for others who are suffering before me.
Rather than try to fix them, as people often do, I remind them that I still love them, that I’m here for them, and that they just made a mistake. I let them know that they can always ask for a hug.
That’s detachment. Once I let go of any need to judge someone else, I can detach. Once I let go of any need to punish another for their misdeeds, I can detach. Once I realize that how I treat that other person, in the midst of their crisis, is how they will treat me when I’m in my own crisis, I can detach.
I have no power over people, places, and things. And since I have no power over people, places, and things, I never have to take anything personally again. I don’t have bad days. I just have difficult or challenging days. I am reminded of a great quote a good friend once shared with me:
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. — TS Eliot
So I don’t do things to make other things happen. I take action to see what will happen next. I am agnostic about everything, and that includes outcomes. A toddler rolls a ball to see what happens next, not to make something happen. My kids will experiment to see what happens next because they don’t know what will happen next. They don’t have the experience to know, and if they did, they wouldn’t bother with the experiments. But they don’t take it personally when things don’t work out the way they want and quit. They keep trying.
I use detachment as an interpersonal skill to allow me to see more clearly if my relationships are working for me. I use detachment to allow me to see more clearly if my actions are getting the desired results, to see if I’m reaching my goals. I use detachment to lower my threshold for happiness.