This Emotional Coping Mechanism Is Super Common — But Can Be Very Unhealthy

August 15, 2022 — 11:04 AM

Your co-worker cries about a draining day at work, but instead of feeling empathy, you feel a little uncomfortable being the shoulder they always cry on. Or maybe your partner still wants to process a recent fight, but you mentally check out whenever they vent to you.

It’s not like you don’t want to be there for them, but you sometimes find it tough to connect with others. It’s not easy to access the inner workings of your emotional world—in those moments, you instead tend to shut down and disengage.

If these situations sound familiar, you may be experiencing emotional detachment. 

What is emotional detachment?

Emotional detachment is a form of dissociation and disconnection from the self and others, describes Katie Ziskind, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling. Even though you may physically be in the room, you’re mentally detached from people and their emotions.

Emotional detachment can be a normal, voluntary strategy to set clear boundaries. Like most things in life, balance and moderation are key. However, it can evolve into a negative response if the continual disengagement prevents you from being able to meaningfully share space and connect with others. 

If you struggle with emotional detachment, it’s likely you have difficulty maintaining relationships in your life. Being unable to openly express empathy and the full context of your emotions may prove to be an ongoing theme in your life. Ziskind notes people with emotional detachment often blame themselves for their inability to authentically connect with others, but it’s often not their fault. When used in unhealthy ways, emotional detachment is at its core a coping mechanism designed to keep people at a distance so you feel safe—even at the cost of being numb.

According to Ziskind, emotional detachment may manifest itself as a survival mechanism to protect yourself from potential stress, overwhelm, and anxiety. If you grew up in an environment where showing the true breadth of your emotions was threatening or shameful in some way (such as a toxic family dynamic), over time you might have learned how to shut off your feelings until it became an automatic, unconscious reflex.

“I see this often in clients with a history of trauma and neglect,” trauma therapist and licensed clinical social worker Canh Tran, LICSW, tells mbg. “You learn to dissociate or disconnect from your feelings and bodies to survive these adverse and traumatic experiences—because it would have been too painful to experience them.”

In the face of ongoing neglect, stress, or abuse, emotional detachment can correspond to attachment disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), or past instances of trauma. Although it’s not listed in the DSM, emotional detachment can also reveal itself as a symptom of a mental health condition or from the use of certain medications like antidepressants. 

Common signs of emotional detachment.

Here are a few examples of emotional detachment and how it may show up in your life, according to Tran and Ziskind: 

1. People don’t see you as empathetic. 

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Your friends and family may share deeply personal stories about what they’re going through. You can feel what they’re going through, but you’re unable to summon the appropriate response to meet them in a heart-opening place. Since you find it hard to be affectionate and listen to their emotions, they may perceive you as being rude or uncaring.

2. You disconnect in the face of conflict or social situations.

When people are crying, you may find yourself reaching for your phone. It’s hard for you to keep up with friends and a bustling social calendar because you think people want too much from you that you’re unsure you can give. Another tell is you might find yourself laughing at painful stories and experiences, says Tran.

3. In general, you lack relationship skills. 

Forming significant bonds with people means you have to show you care. Because you’re not able or willing to connect with all of your emotions, let alone other people’s emotions, it can come across like you’re neutral toward your loved ones—or worse, like you’re stonewalling them. For some, being around your loved ones may not feel enjoyable sometimes because you believe you’re not a good communicator in certain situations or because you just don’t want to go in too deep with them. 

4. You have difficulty identifying feelings.

When you’re in a situation where you have to label your own feelings, it may not be easy to parse through what’s happening internally. You only know your emotions feel unpleasant and uncomfortable. You’re not able to differentiate between your emotions as they come up and properly sort them into categories like grief, anger, or fear. 

5. It’s not easy to share what you’re going through.

When your loved ones want to hear about your struggles, you resort to emotional suppression and downplaying what you’re going through—even the good experiences. Even when you’re alone, you’re still emotionally unavailable to yourself. You would rather distract, intellectualize, and stay clear of them.

6. Not feeling real is a common occurrence. 

Depersonalization is when there’s a persistent feeling that you or your surroundings aren’t real. People, events, and things may seem foggy and removed. It doesn’t seem like you really feel anything at all. Because you are so detached from what’s happening, you feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

7. You have difficulty naming your needs and wants.

When your partner asks you about your needs and wants in the relationship, your mind is a total blank. It’s not so simple for you to understand what you’re feeling in the moment, much less reveal things that could open you up to shame or hurt you later on. Because you blunt out emotions so much, it’s hard to communicate your expectations and yearnings because you’re too busy evading them. 

8. Boundary-setting is hard.

If you strive to be a people-pleaser instead of setting boundaries, Ziskind says the inability to practice good self-care could, in fact, be a sign of emotional detachment. Not being able to advocate for yourself means you’re often denying your own needs and, subsequently, your own emotional desires. 

9. You’re critical toward yourself.

Ziskind says emotional detachment can contribute toward a large inner critic and a lack of motivation to complete tasks. Being hypercritical leads to perfectionistic tendencies and a distorted belief that you are not good enough. 

10. You don’t like taking compliments and praise. 

Being able to sincerely receive praise from others means you’re able to accept the positives in yourself. But for people who experience emotional detachment, you might feel awkward or tense expressing happiness with the compliment. Instead, it may be easier to sidestep the comment and deflect. 

Overcoming emotional detachment.

Overcoming emotional detachment can’t happen until you can identify your emotions. Tran advises to start off slow. It’ll be a gradual process to embrace emotions previously seen as intolerable. “Just as trauma and neglect changes us, we can also change and grow from adverse experiences,” he says. “Learn to identify sensations in the body when feelings arise, find words to feelings, learn healthy boundaries like how to say no, and [allow yourself] to be witnessed by someone who can offer validation when feeling a wide range of emotions.” 

Ziskind recommends working on self-care activities and self-love skills, which can help address emotional detachment and rebuild a strong relationship where it matters the most: with yourself. This can happen with yoga, painting, art therapy, and animal therapy. Leaning on these practices helps facilitate a connection to your sense of self and helps you grow conscious of the triggers that cause detachment in the first place. For insight into your emotional detachment, understanding these pain points is crucial so you can choose a healthier response that serves you better and increases vulnerability.

Once you’re able to let in your emotions, Ziskind says the next step is to do a grounding technique to bring your mind and body back to the present moment. This can come in the form of positive affirmations such as I am safe in this moment. “Retraining your body and brain to feel safe in the world is a key part in healing trauma and becoming more emotionally connected to the world,” she says.

Lastly, if you suffer from emotional detachment, you don’t have to do it alone—after all, isolation is a hallmark of this behavior. Ziskind and Tran emphasize the importance of sharing your feelings with the people you trust such as your partner, family, friends, or a trauma-informed therapist. It’ll help co-create fulfilling relationships where you both feel seen, heard, and understood. 

Emotional detachment prevents you from getting closer to people, but it doesn’t have to continue to be a psychological barrier. Acknowledging your feelings and all of your beautiful complexities can be the beginning of re-meeting yourself and others entirely with unconditional love and grace. 

Take it from Tran: “Consistency, practice, patience, and compassion are all necessary on the journey of healing. While healing oftentimes can be painful and uncomfortable because it requires confronting what we’ve been avoiding, on the other side can be joy, freedom, peace, and more connection to ourselves and others we care about.”