HEALTHHow to Straddle the Detachment Line

How to Straddle the Detachment Line

By: Dr. Kristen Wheldon

It’s common to think that being detached is a bad thing. Detached people are considered cold, aloof, and indifferent. We make assumptions that if a person is detached, they must be disconnected from their work, family, spirituality, or other important elements of being human. 

The truth is, as long as we’re not globally and consistently detached, it can be healthy to disconnect from the things we invest in. For example, if you’re trying to get a job or a promotion, you could allow yourself to be engulfed by this pursuit to the detriment of other important things in your life. That can be problematic. 

However, research suggests that incorporating periods of psychological detachment may increase productivity and success in the activities you’ve detached from.

As firefighters, you may describe your work as a calling. This has the potential to consume your identity and leave no room for personal development, relationship enhancement or spiritual journeys. If you organize your life this way, when you retire you could be left feeling empty and without an identity. 

Psychological detachment can allow you to engage when you’re on the job but disengage when you are off duty — and invest in other things, allowing your life to become more complete, full of different but meaningful elements. 

To detach, establish boundaries around your time outside the firehouse. Engage with friends and family who are not specifically related to the fire service. Decide that the fire service is a part of your life, but not the complete picture. 

The Differences

The relationship between psychological detachment and emotional connection in patient care isn’t often talked about. For example, when you’re providing emergency medical services, you must draw a fine line between showing healthy compassion for a patient and simultaneously maintaining the detachment necessary to avoid being consumed by someone else’s situation. 

One of the major symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is reliving a trauma. Providers may personalize a patient’s traumatic experience as if it were “the way the world is.” Firefighters and EMS providers may respond to several critical incidents during a shift, whereas the average adult might be exposed to one or two of these events in an entire lifetime. Providers may, therefore, perceive these situations to be more common than they are because of their frequent exposure. 

If, for example, a provider’s parent died of congestive heart failure and they respond to a patient with CHF, the caregiver may feel more personally affected by the call. Healthy detachment allows the individual to provide compassion while also recognizing that the patient is not their parent. 

Why We Should Remain Detached

Similarly, therapists and even peer support team members need to remain detached when connecting with individuals who report suicidal ideation. We can serve individuals who are suicidal and provide the best resources and standards of care, but the possibility remains that they might still decide to end their lives. It is not helpful for the therapist or peer support team member to take on the responsibility for someone else’s decision. We are in the business of support and influence. We are not in control. 

There is a difference between healthy detachment and complete disconnection. If we find that we no longer have the capacity to care about the people we work with, that’s an indication that we may be losing our effectiveness and have the potential to cause harm. Our disconnection may have risen to the level where we need to shift our focus to investing in ourselves and getting support. 

Compassion Fatigue

Psychologists call this disconnection compassion fatigue. And as with any fatigue, rest is what’s needed. If you find yourself losing your appreciation for other humans, if you begin to have a polarized view of the people you’re working with, or if you become less responsive to the emotional experiences of the people you care about, these may be the warning signs of compassion fatigue, and not just healthy psychological detachment. 

When you can go on a call with someone who experienced a tragedy and show up with empathy and compassion, you’ve done your job. If you can go home and understand that the human experience is a combination of good and bad elements, and your life is not a reflection of the pain of others, you have done a good job of detachment.

It may be a fine line, but a crucial one when it comes to having a healthy attitude to your career — and your life. 

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