If you get emotionally attached to the most trivial things, then you’re probably doing something that’s not really worth pursuing. Not dreaming big enough? Your goals aren’t huge enough? Of course I wouldn’t know. And am I being harsh here? Well, don’t worry. The truth is that there are a lot of things—in each aspect of your life—you can be emotionally attached to. In this article, however, I want to talk about work.
There are two kinds of emotional detachment.
One is the pathological kind in which nature and nurture are in play. Say you’ve been raised in a tough environment that required you to suppress whatever emotions you were having. This condition has developed over a long period of time and is only a consequence of living or being maltreated that way.
The other one is the stoic and calm kind in that whatever you do, whoever you’re with (hopefully only temporarily, though), and wherever you are, you still get to do what you have to do—with levelheadedness and kindness. I would even argue that this second kind could be an antidote to the first one—but this can only be developed through consistent practice.
I’ll be talking about work. When I say work, it could mean your job (whether full-time or part-time), your business, or your “passion job”—anything that involves dedication, discipline, sacrifice and all that good stuff that are part of your identity.
When it comes to work, there are two things you could get heavily emotionally involved with: the work itself, and all the other things and people revolving around the work. Now you might say these things and people should be part of the job, but I decided to separate them because they can be independent of each other, and I believe you should always look at work with this kind of perspective.
For example, you may have the dream job, but a lot of things seem to make it not your dream job. You might have to commute a very long distance (not including traffic). You might be working in a toxic environment. You might be having a health condition that’s only treatable, not curable. Plus you might be an innately angry or anxious or even depressed person to start with.
While you could say these are all just “life,” they can detrimentally affect your day-to-day state of mind. They can hold you back, instead of pushing you to grow.
And then you’ll think you made a huge mistake in choosing that kind of career.
You can also get too emotionally attached to your job in that you might be thinking you’re already a master in it, that you’ve got everything figured out after having worked there for at least a decade—only to have everybody else find out that your life revolves only around your job, and that you take any criticism or feedback that comes your way too personally.
These are two sides of the same coin. If you look deeper, there’s only one underlying thing that fuels all your actions: emotions. Whether you’re too obsessed with your job or being too sensitive because of people or circumstances, you’re bearing emotions that could trigger actions with negative consequences.
This is one reason you need to emotionally detach yourself from your work. Even if it’s your dream job, you have to operate with a clear mind, being able to think critically in all your waking hours. Emotional detachment is a kind of emotional management. Just imagine all the wreck and regret that could result if every action you take is based on emotions first before calm and detached thinking.
In 2014 a study showed that even though participants with a positive mood outperformed those with a negative one, both were outperformed by those with a neutral mood. I think about the bright side of a fight-or-flight situation, but being in a neutral mood—presumably a mood you can control—speaks a lot about living a better life.
And then you burn out…
World Health Organization declares burnout as an official occupational phenomenon. It is an effect of workplace stress and of course, the inability to cope with such stress.
Studies reflect a sad reality that’s been plaguing us all when it comes to work:
- In one generation, the number of hours worked increased by 8% to an average of 47 hours per week.
- More than a third of workers (35%) say their jobs are harming their physical or emotional health.
- Of those surveyed, 38% say they are feeling more pressure at work this year than the year before.
- Job pressures interfere with personal relationships for 42% of workers.
- Nearly 50% of workers say they need help learning how to manage stress.
- 40% of workers report their job as being very or extremely stressful.
- 75% of employees believe on-the-job stress is much higher than it was a generation ago.
Workplace stress creates a death cycle that might be impossible to escape from, especially if it’s the only job you can secure. You’re burning out but you decide to stay anyway because you just cannot burn out. It’s not a choice. You have to get by.
We burn out when stress overpowers our coping mechanisms, and we all know stress is inevitable. Remember that even though I’m focusing on work, you’re also being exposed to different stressors outside of work, and you could be carrying all of them in the workplace, where you are required to just do your job, regardless of what’s happening in your private life.
Emotional detachment is a powerful skill you must hone. I’m not asking you to become a sociopath, or to drop empathy. I’m asking you to be selfish in the name of your sanity and wellbeing.
Having said that, Mind Tools talks about the common negative emotions we experience at work.
You can experience these emotions towards your boss, colleagues, spouse, housemates, traffic, the weather. Towards anyone or anything, really. No matter what you do for a living, you experience these emotions in one way or another.
Why You Need Emotional Detachment
Remez Sasson from Success Consciousness lists seven of these reasons, which I fully agree on.
- It helps you stop taking things personally.
- With its help, you stop worrying about what people think and say about you.
- It does not allow other people’s problems, words and stress to affect your state of mind.
- It helps you stop dwelling on past negative memories and experiences and enables you to let go of them.
- When experiencing disturbing emotions, stress, and irritating situations, emotional detachment would help you rise above them, remain calm, and handle any situation wisely and calmly.
- Emotional detachment allows you to remain unbiased and use your common sense when dealing with difficult or unpleasant people.
- It helps you protect yourself from being drained out and exhausted when in the company of stressful people.
When you choose to emotionally detach, you’ll sometimes feel like you’re working like a robot: devoid of feelings, devoid of care for others, and being in your own robotic little world.
I say carry on, no matter what others think about you, even if these people are close to you. I can attest that even though you look like you “don’t care about others,” it certainly could be very wrong. You’re only minding your own business, taking care of your limited energy to deal with most of the bullshit out there. And how can you genuinely care for others if you don’t care for yourself first? I’ve found this to be true—in all aspects of life, not just work.
5 Ways to Emotionally Detach from Work
1. Manage your energy, not your time.
An article on Harvard Business Review goes deep into this idea, and I love it. Even though we’re in the “fast economy” in which high output is expected in a low amount of time, time becomes a by-product of how we manage our energies (physical, mental, emotional, etc.).
Here are some questions you could use:
- How long do you finish a task?
- Do you do them first thing when your energies are high and fresh?
- How do you maintain that level of energy throughout the day?
Apparently this is how I’ve been seeing time. I must be in a state of okay energies before I tackle something big for the day. That means doing all the prerequisites before I work: enough sleep, regular exercise, veggies, meditation, leisure time, and all that.
You have to be prepared—and consistently so—before you step into the battlefield. Preparations could be easily neglected, but you have to work on them if you want to avoid burnout.
2. Give up complaining already.
There’s only one reason to complain—when you want a solution to materialize and the only way it’s happening is through complaining.
You might think you can only complain with another person (like your boss or friend), but you might not notice that you’re already and always complaining in your head.
Of course in extreme cases you could just resign or start with something new. But even if you’re in a job or career you’ve chosen for whatever personal reasons (say, it’s the dream job), you’ll always find something frustrating and complaining will be very tempting.
For example, you now work from home because apparently you’re most productive at home and you’ve found that you just couldn’t live the “regular job” lifestyle. You then discover that your newfound self-discipline can be very hard to summon. That the weather can be hot and you’re now responsible for your cooling systems; otherwise, you can’t think properly. That sometimes distractions at home are just impossible to live with (especially when they’re people).
But this is the path you chose. Had you chosen the corporate lifestyle, you would still find the nuisances that go with that territory. There’s always some sort of sacrifice and all the annoying things with each direction you take. The real question is which of those sacrifices and annoying little things are you willing to take for a grand goal you want to achieve?
Instead of complaining, be grateful instead. Complaining and being grateful can’t really happen simultaneously. Instead of complaining about how difficult and troublesome a direction is, be grateful that you get to do it and become a better individual.
3. You are more than your job.
Always remember that work is only a part of life, whether it’s an awesome job or that “crappy” one you have to go through.
Some people would say treating your job as if it were your life is okay, but these people are either young or highly motivated to work 100% in preparation for a succeeding chapter they want in their life. (I hope that’s really the case.) If you follow this philosophy, though, you might miss a lot of the little things that are already in front of you.
I don’t need to elaborate on this. You already know about that “successful” public official that has a daughter that doesn’t respect him. You’ve already heard about the “successful” businessman with a shitty family life. And of course the corrupt politician…always the corrupt politician.
It’s a job, but your job doesn’t define you. Instead of a job, maybe the people in your life are really the ones that define you. Maybe our real purpose in life is the relationships we cultivate after all.
Remember why you have a job, or business. Do you live for it or do you use it to be able to live the life you want? It should be clear now, that there’s more to life than just work. It will help you have that emotional distance if you bear it in mind.
4. Focus on the work.
The troubles we experience are most of the time only in the mind and not in reality. I’m quite an anxious person and one thing I’ve found is that to “disregard” the things bugging my brain, I just have to focus on something I deem is worth my time. This means I need to regularly train my mind to focus, which is why I meditate almost every day for at least ten minutes.
As I write this piece (in the afternoon), a few annoying things have already happened for the day. I’ll spare you the details but in short, they quite pissed me off and if I wasn’t being careful about my energies, then I might have postponed writing this. Instead of dwelling on those annoyances, my ass is rather down, after allowing for a few minutes to cool down, and I’m writing. My focusing here with this handy little laptop is helping tremendously in giving me that “cold turkey” approach with work and in keeping me from entertaining unnecessary negative thoughts.
If your emotions are getting erratic, try to look for a spot where you can really focus on the task at hand. You could also use some cheap tools like earplugs if you can’t help it.
5. Change your perspective.
I used to be a terrible perfectionist. (Now I can say I’m a better one.) The way I used to approach any job was that I should yield an output so polished (or so I thought) that nobody or no superior should be dissatisfied, let alone be critical of it. As you can probably guess, that approach made me miserable.
Today I look at work in a totally different light. I don’t need to be perfect. I just have to be okay. And I need to be always showing up, following a routine and arming myself with better habits. Even though I prioritize process over output now, I’ve been producing better results.
This is only one way I changed my perspective on work. I also keep in mind that it’s a journey. There are no shortcuts to excellence. To get better, I have to make mistakes. Even terrible, awful mistakes. It’s all part of it.
When you learn about all the difficulties and challenges you have to face in the direction you chose—and accept that you’ll have to go through them—you’ll realize that it’s just design. That other amazing people have gone through the very same process you’re about to embark upon. That that particular obstacle (or set of obstacles) is the only way.
How could you still be too emotional about the whole thing then? How could you not stay calm and think that by it everything will fall into place eventually?
Go ahead and work…with a purpose.
I hope I’ve cast a different light on how you view work, especially if like me, you don’t really have the luxury of getting rid of the same everyday stressors. (Life’s just not fair, but it’s not really the point now, is it?)
Maybe you only need to look for things you might be taking for granted already. A friend? A son? A nephew? Your parents? That hobby you really loved until “life” happened?
Remember it’s just work. Above your work is a more important priority—yourself. In my younger years a couple of friends of mine told me I was a selfish person. However, it was around the same time I realized I should be selfish first before I could truly give to others. I need to be whole in giving. That wholeness makes me emotionally more stable and stronger.
How do you work? Of course your life might really depend on it, but it should be an aspect that adds value to your overall growth, not something you would treat to be more meaningful than, well, your life.