Why Learning to Detach Is Vital for Your Work,
and Your Wellbeing
By Sonia Hickey
Life is too short not to do work you love, and there’s something thrilling about finding yourself in a career you’re passionate about. Every day is exciting, stimulating, challenging... You reach the ‘zone’ and you could work for hours. And hours.
And so, I hate to break to it you, but in spite of the joy and contentment this may produce, it is actually bad for you. Over time, not ‘switching off’ occasionally takes a heavy toll on our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Even the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs and world leaders, learn to tune out.
Learning to tune out is not easy. Our brains have minds of their own! And when they’re over-stimulated it becomes increasingly difficult to stop the ‘noise’. And yet out brains, like all of our muscles, need a regular break.
Our inherent attachment to our jobs – the feeling of satisfaction, the hunger for new goals, the drive to achieve, can become addictive. And this too, eventually produces negative side-effects.
In a world where people are increasingly stressed, depressed and unhappy, there’s a resounding case for balance wouldn’t you say?
Everything I needed to know about detachment, I learned from a lawyer
Achieving balance is something most of us struggle with, myself included. But I learned a valuable lesson recently when I came across an article by one of my colleagues, entitled “How can you defend a person like that?”
Curiosity drove me to read the article. It’s a question I’ve pondered and certainly wanted to ask from time to time. Criminal lawyers have an incredibly difficult job. Criminal law tends to be messy, dirty, violent, traumatic. It exposes the very worst of humanity.
So, how is it possible to be able to defend someone you know is guilty? Or someone who has been accused of committing heinous crimes, with the evidence stacked against them?
The article was written by a lawyer explaining his role in defending a man who had pleaded guilty to murdering a two-year old, at the same time as working on a case involving a client charged with four counts of assault (domestic violence related), who was also facing several additional charges including ‘stalk and intimidate’. The man had a history of aggressive behaviour and a string of previous offences.
So, under these circumstances, how do you go to work every day, apply the very best of your knowledge and ability, and not suffer some kind of emotional consequences?
Very simply: You don’t get personally involved.
This is not to suggest for one second that lawyers are devoid of emotion. In fact, most of them care very strongly, about justice, and about the overall well-being of society.
But most criminal lawyers, through experience and the need to keep their sanity, have developed, and regularly practice, the art of detachment.
And here’s why it can benefit you too.
The Law of Detachment is a Buddhist principle. At its core are two fundamental ideas. The first idea is that we learn to ‘let go’ in situations where our emotions are running high.
In practice, at these times, the aim of ‘letting go’ means to become ‘observers’ of what’s happening around us, and compartmentalise our emotions – that is, put aside our need to cast judgement or get ‘involved’ in any way.
This has the benefit of allowing us to focus single-mindedly on what’s at hand, without distraction. For me, the popular jargon “It is what it is,” has almost become a mantra.
At those highly-charged times, this helps me to detangle my emotions, step back, view objectively and let circumstances unfold.
To paraphrase what my colleague wrote – ‘it is not the role of lawyers to be moral arbiters. It is the role of the lawyer to defend the client to the best of his/her ability and ensure that in court, clients are adequately represented … Because the justice system wouldn’t work any other way.’
I want to draw your attention in particular to the last sentence. It encapsulates the second idea embedded in the law of detachment – faith in a higher ideal.
By way of explanation, the lawyer is just one part of the justice system. Ultimately, a jury and a judge, guided by the principles of the law, will determine the outcome of any trial or case hearing.
Therefore, for the lawyer, getting attached to an outcome is in many respects, futile, particularly when there are other uncontrollable factors that will determine the accused person’s fate. While striving for the best possible outcome, we each need to understand there are always external factors at play, which we have no command of.
But the very important consideration here, is that my colleague was able to defend two men, one accused of a despicable act, the other guilty by his own admission, because his own personal moral compass remained firmly in place. He had confidence in the role he had to play to serve his higher ideal – his overriding belief that justice would indeed prevail.
Detachment can help us to set boundaries, and create healthier relationships
It’s obvious, using the example of a criminal lawyer, to see how detachment can be highly beneficial in the workplace. But detachment is a skill we can all learn to harness, and benefit from.
Research has found significant positive associations between psychological detachment and well-being. Because when we care too much, we put it all on the line, and this quickly leads to burnout and dissatisfaction.
Detachment enables us to find clarity, and be practical and logical, all valuable skills when it comes to the managing workloads and deadlines and making sound decisions.
Detachment builds resilience. And resilience is vital for bouncing back from disappointment when things don’t go according to plan.
Detachment can help us to set healthy boundaries.
Detachment also helps us to disassociate from our jobs. Because we’re more than just what we do for a living (no matter how passionate we are about it).
Detachment helps us preserve healthy emotional responses
Above all, it’s important to remember that detachment is not disconnection. In fact, detachment can greatly benefit our connection to ourselves, and the world around us, helping us to honour who we are, and what we stand for.
We are each complex, multi-faceted beings. Our ability to understand, feel and express emotion is a wonderful part of the human existence. And so, in order to protect our emotions and ensure they remain healthy and stable, detachment can also be an act of self-preservation in situations and exchanges that have the potential to harm us by damaging and desensitising us.
In pressured jobs, many people turn to alcohol, drugs, and other vices, to mask feelings. To cope. But the fact of the matter is that all of us will face moments in life that affect us deeply. How we deal with these is the difference between personal growth or stagnation.
Learning the ability to detach is a great tool to have in the armoury against the everyday pressures we face, because it is our personal responsibility, and ours alone, to self-regulate – to manage life’s highs and the lows, and to find peace within ourselves.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.