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  • Douglas Zimmerman

Detachment As a Defense

Detachment from a person, place, thing, or feeling is a defense – sometimes it is the appropriate defense, but at other times it is a misused form of coping. And like most other maladaptive behaviors, it can become a bad habit – and thus in need of re-habituation. It is not just used regarding OCD (though obsessing and compulsions are forms of detachment). If someone has an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style, often detaching will be a prominent defense.

Let’s look at some examples of a way someone may detach; and then we’ll look at the course of treatment used to combat this lonely and disoriented state of mind.

There is emotional detachment. A person may consciously or unconsciously detach emotionally. If one is afraid of being rejected, usually informed by past experiences, it becomes the safer choice – “I detach because I’ve been hurt, and don’t want to experience that kind of pain again,” might be the refrain. Defenses are generally learned ways of defending a state of self that is comfortable enough. In the case of emotional detachment, though it may be painful and lonely to live alone or feel alone with a partner – but because of fear of intimacy, that person may still retreat inward. And although the reward for not retreating may be great (a heightened sense of connection, an enlivened sex life, a grounded sense of being), the price may seem too high – that “I may show my feelings and have them smashed, shamed, abandoned, so what’s the point?” one might argue. It reminds me of those that express a wish to not live, they are usually not suicidal, but they simply want the bad feelings to stop. Emotional detachment is somewhere in the middle – where one blocks out the bad feelings for a numbness in defense of having their cohesive sense of self shattered. With this it may be important to look at what one sees as “cohesive,” and perhaps there is a more, and true, cohesive self to be found.

Checking is a detachment from the here and now. One is always a step behind – did I lock the doors, is the oven off, do I feel “right,” am I complete, am I guilty, should I feel guilty? One detaches from the plot of life, the here and now, because one is not feeling safe enough, secure in their mind or body or both. Body focused behaviors or tics are often used when one needs to ground oneself. It’s a hyper focus and acts as a buffer against what is really happening. In therapy, it becomes important to understand how these beliefs were formed? Usually there is a direct relation to how we were attached to our primary caregivers. Securely attached people will have an easier time of it than insecurely attached people. But this does not mean a life of pain. New attachments can be formed. Old ones are mourned – ultimately by accepting that some bad cards may have been dealt; for this helps the person move toward better relations – with people, places, things, and feelings. Situations become less ominous. In this regard, I am talking about exposures or corrective emotional experiences. And similarly, risking the unknown is necessary.

Once again, and in conclusion, the relationship between patient and therapist is key. Trust must be gained, through the good and the bad. Through high times and ruptures. If patient and therapist can endure without annihilation, new ways of being are fostered in mind; and then, contiguously, in soul and spirit.


Douglas Zimmerman


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