Emotional detachment, in psychology, can mean two different things. In the first meaning, it refers to an "inability to connect" with others emotionally, as well as a means of dealing with anxiety by preventing certain situations that trigger it; it is often described as "emotional numbing" or dissociation, depersonalization or in its chronic form depersonalization disorder. In the second sense, it is a decision to avoid engaging emotional connections, rather than an inability to do so, typically for personal, social, or other reasons. In this sense it can allow people to maintain boundaries, psychic integrity and avoid undesired impact by or upon others, related to emotional demands.
First sense: inability to connect
Emotional detachment in the first sense above often arises from psychological trauma and is a component in many anxiety and stress disorders. The person, while physically present, moves elsewhere in the mind, and in a sense is "not entirely present", making them sometimes appear preoccupied or distracted. In other cases, the person may seem fully present but operate merely intellectually when emotional connection would be appropriate. This may present an extreme difficulty in giving or receiving empathy and can be related to the spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder.
Thus, such detachment is often not as outwardly obvious as other psychiatric symptoms; people with this problem often have emotional systems that are in overdrive. They have a hard time being a loving family member. They avoid activities, places, and people associated with any traumatic events they have experienced. The dissociation can also lead to lack of attention and, hence, to memory problems and in extreme cases, amnesia.
A fictional description of the experience of emotional detachment in the first sense was given by Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway. In that novel the multifaceted sufferings of a war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, with post-traumatic stress disorder (as this condition was later named) including dissociation, are elaborated in detail. One clinician has called some passages from the novel "classic" portrayals of the symptoms.
Second sense: decision to not connect emotionally
Emotional detachment in the second sense above is a decision to avoid engaging emotional connections, rather than an inability or difficulty in doing so, typically for personal, social, or other reasons. In this sense it can allow people to maintain boundaries, psychic integrity and avoid undesired impact by or upon others, related to emotional demands. As such it is a deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others.
This detachment does not necessarily mean avoiding empathy; rather it allows the person space needed to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings. Examples where this is used in a positive sense might include emotional boundary management, where a person avoids emotional levels of engagement related to people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding, such as difficult co-workers or relatives, or is adopted to aid the person in helping others such as a person who trains himself to ignore the "pleading" food requests of a dieting spouse, or indifference by parents towards a child's begging.
Emotional detachment also allows acts of extreme cruelty, such as torture and abuse, supported by the decision to not connect emphatically with the person concerned. Social ostracism, such as shunning and parental alienation, are other examples where decisions to shut out a person creates a psychological trauma for the shunned party. As a result, the decision as to whether emotional detachment in any given set of circumstances is considered to be a positive or negative mental attitude is a subjective one, and therefore a decision on which different people may not agree.
- Johnson, Stephen M (1987), Humanizing the Narcissistic Style, NY: Norton and Co., p. 125, ISBN 0-393-70037-2
- Herman, Judith Lewis, MD (1992), Trauma and Recovery, New York, NY: Basic Books, pp. 49, 52
- Williams, Kipling D.; Nida, Steve A. (2011), Ostracism, Consequences and Coping, West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University