Emotional detachment

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In psychology, emotional detachment is the inability to connect to others on an emotional level, as well as a means of coping with anxiety by avoiding certain situations that trigger it.[1] It refers to the evasion of emotional connections. It may be a temporary reaction to highly emotional circumstances or a chronic condition such as a depersonalization disorder.

Emotional detachment can be a positive behavior which allows a person to react calmly to highly emotional circumstances. Emotional detachment in this sense 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 to achieve the 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 can also be "emotional numbing", "emotional blunting", i.e., dissociation, depersonalization or in its chronic form depersonalization disorder. This type of emotional numbing or blunting is a disconnection from emotion, it is frequently used as a coping survival skill during traumatic childhood events such as abuse or severe neglect. Over time and with much use, this can become second nature when dealing with day to day stressors.

Emotional detachment may allow acts of extreme cruelty, such as torture and abuse, supported by the decision to not connect empathically 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.[2]


Emotional detachment often arises from psychological trauma in early years, such as children that raised in strict households or were abused more commonly have the disorder[3], and is a component in many anxiety and stress disorders. The person moves elsewhere in the mind, and in a sense is "not entirely present", making them sometimes appear preoccupied. Also, threats of abandonment or some minor infractions could result in a child being abuse of punished by a parent, leading the child into believing it was their fault.

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 may have a hard time being a loving family member. They may 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.

It is known that SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants, after taken for a while or taken one after another (if the doctor is trying to see what works), can cause what is called "emotional blunting"[4]. In this instance, the individual in question is often unable to cry, even if he or she wants to. 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.[5]



The most common symptom of emotional detachment is the inability to express emotion or share empathy with others. However, there are other symptoms of this disorder such as the inability to maintain personal relationship due to the lack of a powerful emotional connection.

In fiction[edit]

An instance whereby a perfect fictional example of the what people who are suffering from emotional detachment disorder go through was portrayed by Virginia Woolf in her literary text, Mrs Dalloway. Woolf expounded on the complex psychology sufferings that one of her characters Septimus Warren Smith,a war veteran experienced due to the fact that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation.Woolf was so detailed in her accounts that she managed to aptly capture the classic symptoms of these disorders.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Emotional detachment". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2019-06-21.
  2. ^ Williams, Kipling D.; Nida, Steve A. (2011), Ostracism, Consequences and Coping, West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University
  3. ^ Staff, ThriveTalk (2018-06-04). "Emotional Detachment: The Pros and Cons". Thrivetalk. Retrieved 2019-06-21.
  4. ^ McCabe, Ciara; Mishor, Zevic; Cowen, Philip J.; Harmer, Catherine J. (2010). "Diminished Neural Processing of Aversive and Rewarding Stimuli During Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Treatment". Biological Psychiatry. 67 (5): 439–445. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.11.001.
  5. ^ Johnson, Stephen M (1987), Humanizing the Narcissistic Style, NY: Norton and Co., p. 125, ISBN 0-393-70037-2
  6. ^ "What Is Depersonalization Disorder?". WebMD. Retrieved 2019-06-24.