Detachment As An Interpersonal Skill
Learn how to put offensive people in perspective. Set aside your feelings and observe.
I’m a father of two girls. I’ve been married for 13 years. I’ve been growing up, not just because I wanted to, but because not growing up has made me tired. So tired. I grew up faster in relationships than in isolation. I grew up faster as a father than a man married without kids. In the process of growing up, I learned to observe other people when they are offensive and set aside my feelings to observe.
I went out camping with family and friends last weekend, and although I enjoyed being closer to nature, I was with other people. And those other people have their problems. And those problems were exposed for all to see. I saw a teenage boy have a meltdown. I saw him take his mother down to the ground. I don’t know all of the details because I didn’t hear or see everything, and much of the verbal exchange was in Vietnamese.
This is what I do know. The teenage boy had been playing with sticks around the fire. He had been waving a smoldering stick at everyone around him. He had thrown a stick in the fire pit at our campsite, and my daughter suffered a slight burn when an ember that had flown from the fire pit landed on her foot that was covered with a sock.
In retaliation, the boy’s mother touched a burning stick to his leg, and he proceeded to force her down to the ground, she was OK and got up. He did not strike her, and he didn’t want to hurt her, but he did wrestle her to the ground and got up to continue arguing. He said many offensive things. He still had a stick in his hand, and he was bigger and stronger than his dad. His dad either could not or was afraid to take the stick away. There was real fear in the father’s eyes.
Then things began to settle down. We decided to leave early. We started to decamp. I knew him as a friend, so I gently interrogated the boy. I learned a few things about what happened, as described above. His mother was unhurt. Everyone was OK eventually. What I took from that moment was what happens when people refuse to deescalate. At some point, force meets force and then de-escalation seems like a good idea.
I was an observer the whole time. I took no offense, and cast no judgment on anyone, even when I saw my younger daughter, tears streaming down her face, as we tended to the slight burn on her foot. I had to set aside my emotions to see where the danger was. I had to set aside my emotions to tend to anyone who needed help. I had to set aside my feelings to fully understand what was going on. I was detached.
I saw my wife cry. I saw my daughter cry. I saw the parents of the boy feeling kind of helpless, not really knowing what to do about a 14-year-old boy who was bigger and taller than his father. I thought of the elder abuse stories that I had read about in the past. I noted that I was seeing firsthand, the results of kids raised on authoritarian parenting.
I talked about the events of the day, later, with my wife, in our bedroom while she was folding laundry. I could see that she was still offended. I could also see that she did not have the capacity to see the other side. She could not see that a teenage boy acting out at the campground learned that behavior from someone. She was sure that the boy had learned such behavior from someone at school. A boy doesn’t learn to wrestle his mother to the ground from school. That kind of behavior is learned from the parents.
I also know that the country of Vietnam has been and still is an authoritarian culture. I know that there is a growing awareness in Vietnam that there are real consequences to authoritarian parenting, one of them being an authoritarian government. But I also know that the boy’s parents immigrated here almost 2 decades ago, and they brought their culture here, thinking that they wanted freedom. They may have wanted freedom, but they appear to be unaware that it’s hard to run a democracy when you’ve been raised by an authoritarian family.
While I was talking with my wife, I could only hear how she wanted to punish the boy. I was listening to her, but I was also thinking about how to help the boy. He was 14 years old, so he’s almost a man, but still a kid. He didn’t have the experience needed to set aside his own feelings and understand what was happening with him. His parents could not set aside their feelings to observe, either.
Last Sunday, I saw a small group of people who could not detach from the events that unfolded that morning. They could only see a boy who should be punished, not a boy who was only a reflection of their cultural attitudes. I wanted to help in any way I could. But they could not understand why I didn’t express some kind of outrage. For what purpose would I express outrage?
This is the problem we all must face. When I see an argument escalating as it did that day, I chose not to get angry. I know from personal experience what happens to my mind in rage. A mind in rage cannot think. A mind in rage cannot anticipate consequences. A mind in rage can only take actions that would lead to more danger. A mind in a rage has no compassion. A mind in rage isn’t thinking about safety, it is only thinking about vengeance. I was not of that mind.
I kept a cool head through the entire stream of events. I did not allow myself to feel offended for the simple reason that I’ve done that before. I know how that feels. I also know that going down that rabbit hole will result in the loss of time better spent tending to people who need help, and restoring calm. I am calm to model calm to the people around me so that they can calm down, too. I don’t just do this with family and friends, I do this with everyone.
I can frame human behavior in the context of skills and capacities. Once I begin to see people through a lens of skills and capacities, then there is no need to judge anyone. No need for rage, anger, reprisal, or escalation. Through that lens, I can begin to see the problems that must be solved that gave rise to challenging behavior presented by anyone to me.
Through more than 2 decades of introspection, therapy, meetings, and reading many books, I have come to a place in my life where I can observe someone having a meltdown and have compassion for them at the same time. I can detach from that experience because I’m not the one having a bad day. They are. My job at that moment is to be the rock that they can hold onto in the sea of emotions. When other people are angry, my job as a husband and father and friend is to take note of the danger if there is any and protect people from danger.
Ther is another element in this mix. I’m hard of hearing and I am blind in one eye. And I have tinnitus. Therefore, if I’m in a rage, it’s easy for me to make a mistake, to hurt someone I didn’t intend to hurt. So I underestimate my skill. I err on the side of caution. I err on the side of peace. I have found that when I err on the side of peace, I tend to have better outcomes. I am mindful of all of this in the heat of the moment.
I learned to be detached while watching my wife have her meltdowns. I learned to be detached while watching my kids have their meltdowns. I have learned that the people around me need me to be calm for a reason. When I’m calm, I can show people to safety, attend to their needs, and monitor any potential sources of danger.
I am here today, the way that I am because I submitted myself to professional counseling, 12-step meetings, and a rigorous examination of myself. I am here today because I have learned to avoid blaming or judging other people, focusing instead on my part in it, and what I can do to avoid uncomfortable situations going forward.
I have found anger when I am attached to outcomes. I have found peace in detachment from outcomes. Detachment is an element of faith, for when I’m detached from outcomes, I am reserving judgment, waiting to see what the outcome is rather than holding onto expectations. If you want to be disappointed, have expectations.
Faith is not a belief, it is a reservation of judgment about people, places, and things, for they are all beyond my control. When I let the feelings pass, I can see what happens without expectations, without disappointment. Therefore, detachment from outcomes with people is an act of love.
I am writing this today out of compassion for the people in my life who don’t know any better. I am writing this for the boy who was so unhappy last Sunday, and for everyone around him trying to comprehend what happened. I am writing this today to say, there is is a better way to resolve our conflicts. We can deescalate. We can detach. We can observe. We can err on the side of peace.