We all know people in our lives who are detached. They tend to have trouble accessing or experiencing emotions. Some of the character traits present in such a person are emphasis on independence, the fear of joining or being part of groups, aversion towards intimate relationships or the displaying of a “soft underbelly” that such a relationship entails.
Someone who is emotionally detached will usually bounce from one relationship to the next, invariably distancing himself when threatened with increasing emotional closeness from his partner. Although we usually tend to think of males as those who have trouble accessing their emotions, the underlying character structure that leads to psychological detachment can manifest itself just as easily in females.
In order to understand the underlying causes of a detached personality it is useful to employ concepts from psychoanalytic thought. Psychoanalysis was pioneered by Sigmund Freud. Although his theoretical conceptualizations still carry weight within the psychological community and act as a sort of bedrock for psychological thought, great psychologists over the last few centuries have taken his ideas and tweaked them in new and exciting ways.
One of my favorite psychologists is the renowned Karen Horney, whose optimistic view on human potentiality and growth profoundly shaped the development of the third force in psychology, which is the humanistic/existential movement. I concur with Horney that an emotionally detached personality is indicative of an underlying neurotic personality structure.
My goal in this article is to summarize some of the factors that go into the creation of a neurotic personality structure, specifically the emotionally detached type, and to provide a few useful analogies to help flesh out the ideas.
In order to understand a neurosis, we need to go back to formative experiences in the life of the client. One thing that holds true in pretty much all of the variations in psychoanalytic thought is the emphasis placed upon early experiences, especially relationships with caregivers. One of the key difference amongst the variations lies in how a clinician relates those early experiences to the present life of the client. In my professional opinion, content brought into a session needs to be related to a client’s present circumstances and the way he lives his life or that content loses all of its vitality and truth. In other words, talking about your past is worthwhile, but focusing on the past without relating it to the present is really just escapism and a way to talk about something instead of experience it. Incidentally, the emotionally detached personality type has a vested interest in keeping the conversation at the about level, since the core of his issue is not being able to experience anything fully. So although early childhood exploration in such a case is of paramount importance, the emphasis needs to be placed on relating those early experiences to current functioning.
Let’s define neurosis in general terms. Horney, in addition to being a brilliant psychologist in her own right, wrote about neurosis more than any psychologist I have read, so I feel comfortable working with her definition. She sees neurosis as the result of unconscious inner conflicts that drive a person in equally compelling opposite directions. Neurosis is a matter of degree. All of us are confronted with times in our lives when we have to choose amongst possibilities that seem compelling. Should I accept a job offer in a new city or stay put? Should I marry the person I am with or is there someone better for me? We are confronted with the need to make decisions amongst various choices every day of our lives. What distinguishes neurosis from what we would term “normal” is that the compelling forces for the neurotic are largely unconscious, compulsive, and undesirable for the person. The neurotic is trapped in an untenable position because he does not truly want any of the options he believes available to him but has no frame of reference for how to avoid them. He is therefore pulled in all directions simultaneously. Such a situation is impossible for anyone to live with for long, which leads to attempts to solve it. Neurosis, of which there are numerous types, is the end result of attempts to solve warring unconscious conflicts that began in early childhood. Current clinical psychologists most often refer to such neurotic character structures as personality disorders.
A feature central to all neuroses, regardless of type, is that they are static and compulsive. Spontaneity, the ability to act, feel, and think differently based on circumstances, is blunted. Other features include idealized self image and externalization, two concepts we will discuss in detail in later articles. I cannot possibly hope to present in this article the multitude of possible conflicts, their manifestations, or the character structures that form as a result. For a comprehensive view of these variables I would highly suggest Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth or Our Inner Conflicts. Both books are classics and provide vivid examples of how competing conflicts operate as well as the neuroses that develop from them.
What is important to keep in mind is that these conflicts are central to how a person experiences himself as a person; they are not symptoms but form the bedrock of a personality. One of the monumental mistakes many clinicians today make is to focus their work on the symptoms without exploring the deeper issues that led to the creation of those symptoms. I think part of this is due to the prevalence of a scientific mode of thought in our culture where quantitative analysis seems to take precedence over a qualitative outlook. Psychologists want to be able to have physical evidence to work with, which means of course working with that which is the most visible. However, such an approach is as ridiculous as trying to keep a plant alive by watering its leaves. At first it will seem like you are succeeding as the leaves flourish but before long the plant will die since the roots below the surface are actually responsible for the plant’s leaves in the first place. Let’s imagine that a client’s symptom is depression. Therapist and client work during sessions using behavioral strategies and before long the depression has disappeared. The clinician walks away feeling great about his work and the client feels he has been cured. A few months later the client begins feeling back pain, or anxiety, or panic attacks, or any number of other symptoms. Of course what happened is that the conditions that led to his depression were never adequately confronted so new manifestations of those deeper conflicts have arisen.
Let’s quickly look at a case in order to give an example of unconscious warring conflicts and the neurotic personality structure that develops as a result. Let’s take Tim, a highly successful business person who is the CEO of a large corporation. Tim admits that to attain his position he has been deceptive at times and also derailed many colleagues’ careers. Tim is also a devout Christian, attends church regularly, and often donates money to charitable causes. Now, when we bring up the obvious discrepancy of Tim being ruthless on one hand and benevolent and charitable on the other, he does not see any inherent contradiction in these two ways of being nor is he even willing to discuss the subject further. Intractability and refusal to explore a subject are red flags for a clinician that he has stumbled upon neurotic personality traits. So Tim has two warring conflicts, one telling him to be benevolent and the other to be ruthless. He solves this dilemma by developing static character attributes that shield him from having to deal with the basic dilemma. The structure Tim chooses will probably be what Horney refers to as “moving against people”(Horney, 63, Our Inner Conflicts). He will take it for granted that “everyone is hostile, and refuses to admit that they are not. To him life is a struggle of all against all, and the devil take the hindmost…a desire to make others believe he is a good fellow may be combined with a certain amount of actual benevolence as long as there is no question in anybody’s mind that he himself is in command”(Horney, 63).
And so we discover Tim’s solution. He externalizes character traits he does not like in himself such as ruthlessness, cruelty, and desire for self-advancement and believes those traits exist in everyone around him while he himself is a paragon of virtue. He does some charitable acts in order to fool himself into believing that the previous statement is true.
So, let’s return to the proposition of this article, which is to discuss the neurotic character traits present in a person who is emotionally detached. What can we surmise about the early childhood experiences he went through? In my work with clients several salient features emerge. He will almost certainly have grown up in a restrictive environment where absolute control was important to the caregiver. He will have been alternately showered with praise (sometimes more than he deserved given the circumstances) and punished for his shortcomings (also more than the situation warranted). In other words, his relationship towards his primary caregiver will have been characterized by emotions that alternated between the poles of security and emotional abandonment. Indeed, threats of abandonment or being disowned are quite common. There were probably not clearly defined rules, meaning that the caretaker was in a position to find fault with almost any behavior, seemingly at random. A behavior that on one day elicited no response whatsoever would on a subsequent day be grounds for punishment and verbal or physical abuse.
The child learns, among other things, that his emotions are not valid and even dangerous since he cannot predict when his feelings of comfort, security, and love will be shattered and replaced by ones of fear, despair, and worthlessness. There is really only one solution available to a child in such a situation, and that solution is to distance himself from his emotions. If we look at the child’s conflict at the deepest level, I believe the central component is the gap between his caregiver’s profession of love towards him and the child’s secret, usually unspoken belief that his caregiver does not love him. And so the child solves this conflict with the only means available to him. He refuses to engage in the harmful cycle of emotional abuse, and in the process stops feeling any of his emotions deeply.
Upon this foundation the neurotic detached personality structure is built. Just as a lie tends to propagate more lies, his personality structure is built upon an unexamined inner conflict and therefore creates more conflicts in his life. He becomes less spontaneous, more dogmatic, his behaviors and relationships towards others crystallize, and he experiences everything in his life from a distance. His idealized self-image will probably be one of the rational philosopher who has little need for what he sees as trifling emotions. He will value his freedom and independence and use all manner of arguments to prove their necessity in anyone’s life. He will scorn others for their inability to control their emotions while secretly admiring them for their ability to feel deeply. When the emotional thermostat begins to turn up in romantic or friendly relationships he will distance himself, often to the frustration and confusion of his partners. Many of course get married or stay in long term relationships but an emotional chasm always exists between them and their partners. They might be able to feel emotions due to a song, work of art, or movie but prefer to keep these feelings private and maintain an inner sanctum. It is as if they have constructed a castle where inside emotions can be accessed in peace because they are completely safe. Of course, this means not being able to share emotions with another person or connect with that person in any meaningful way.
You have probably gone back to a place from your childhood and noted in wonderment how small it seems. The experience can be jolting. Everything seems bigger when we are children, not only because we are small, but because it is all we know. When you think about it, why would the psychic processes not operate in a similar fashion? To take the analogy one step further, It is not until we go back and see the place from our childhood with our own eyes that we are able to put it into a new context. Up until that moment the image in your mind remained static. And of course it is not the yard, house, or swing set that changed but your perception of these things. So until you are able to see the unconscious conflicts operating that have led to your personality disturbance you will have no way to compare them and decide upon an alternate style of living.
I want to use the analogy of a blackjack game in order to present why detachment is a viable solution for someone whose early relationships are stormy and conflicted. Imagine that you sit down to the table and are given a stack of chips. Each of these chips represents an emotional unit. The more you have, the more safe, content, happy, and fulfilled you will feel. Now imagine you find out that although the chips are yours you have no control over whether to play them or not. Someone you are told you can trust is given absolute control about when you will bet and how much. He or she decides to bet all your chips, and although you fight against it your pleas are not heard. You lose the hand. Imagine this cycle playing itself out over and over. The moment you stockpile chips using whatever means available to you they are bet without your consent and you lose. At some point you will realize that they are your chips, and that only you have the ability to bet them. But you have lost every time they have been played up to this point. What would you do with your chips? The obvious answer is not play the game. So we see that emotional detachment is a viable solution in that it guarantees not getting hurt because you are not risking anything.
Of course, such a strategy ends in monumental failure. It solves inner conflicts by not having to deal with them, but at a terrible price. The end result is a life not worth living. Imagine the world in shades of gray. Nothing really gets you up or down. You can view just about everything objectively, but take no real interest in anything. You do not have any close friendships, intimate relationships, or feelings of love towards anyone. Any time you do start to get close to someone you feel a sense of unease and break it off or distance yourself. The sad paradox is that in order to avoid getting hurt the emotionally detached person hurts himself more deeply than anyone else possibly could.
Another way to picture the dilemma is to consider your sense of smell. Imagine the worst smells you can think of. Maybe it is sewage, or a dump, or a rotting corpse. You can probably think of a few you have experienced without too much trouble. If those smells were all you have ever known then sense of smell would not seem all that desirable would it? However, if you could get some perspective and realize that you do not have to live next to a garbage dump, you could begin to search out and enjoy pleasant aromas like a flower, rosemary, or baking bread. The point is that there is no middle ground. You can either destroy your sense of smell completely, or accept that having that sense of smell entails experiencing a wide range of odors both pleasant and unpleasant.
So it is with human connections and their resulting emotions. Connecting with another always constitutes a risk since we cannot possibly predict how it will play out. However, staying on the sidelines constitutes an even greater risk and guarantees a life without meaning.