We’re human, so we’re flawed. By design, we go through existence by clinging to various perceptions. That’s how we make sense of the world, stacking clinging on top of clinging, forming identities and then navigating events based on those identities and values. Some of these attachments are “good”, some are “bad”, or toxic.
What makes the difference between “good” and “bad” attachments? For that, I’m afraid you will have to wait until the last part of the article – or scroll to it, if you’re impatient. Because now I will focus only on the toxic ones.
If you have enough experience with something, you can start inferring some patterns, you start observing structures. It goes without saying that, as any other human being, I had my fair share of toxic attachments – to people, beliefs or personal identities. The ordeals I’ve been through, eventually, lead to something useful – I’ve been able to come up with some sort of structure, some way to identify these attachments. I learned.
What follows is my own toxic attachments ladder, or the 6 stages we go through when we form, maintain, and, eventually, get rid of them.
It’s the “soul mate” stage in a romantic relationship. Or the overwhelming enthusiasm when we encounter a new belief that we’re starting to explore. Or the feeling of empowerment we get when we “become somebody”, like when we get a new identity for ourselves.
This stage is the one that creates all the inertia. Our feelings of extreme joy, our experience of extreme pleasure – being it derived from spending time with a partner, from mental identification with new beliefs, or from the entitlement of “being special” – this experience is tying us down. We delight in this delight, we feel like we found “the one”. Or “the real thing”. Or that we finally “made it”. And we seem we can’t get enough of it. The more we enjoy it, the deeper we tie us down.
Alas, these pleasurable feelings are seldom in sync with reality. They may trick us into believing we’re there, were we feel we are, but those places are merely hallucinations, projections or escapes from the current reality. There is no eternal “soul mate”, there is only our idea about it, and the serendipitous overlapping of someone’s features with this idea.
But, guess what, that someone has other features too, some of them blatantly out of sync with our soul mate expectations. In dating terms, we’re getting the “red flags”. We’re starting to see that our soul mate is not only just a normal human being, but, more often than not, he or she is flawed in ways that are harmful for us. And yet, we cling to it, because… well, delight.
We’re in denial. We’re rejecting reality and stick to the illusion. That’s the stage in which deep suffering begins, although we’re not yet fully exposed to it, because we still get the occasional bursts of delight.
But time is unforgiving. Sooner or later we finally realize the object of our attachment is simply not what, or who, we believed it was. It’s like light shines suddenly on a dark corner, and everything is revealed. It’s not a good feeling. We’re feeling disappointed, hurt, played out, cheated on.
We’re suffering. Big time. We feel we lost something precious. It works not only with people, but, more often than we’d like to admit, with our own identities too. We’re disappointed because we’re getting old. We’re disappointed because what we thought about the world, seen through the lenses of that belief we delightfully embraced in the beginning, turns out to be incomplete, or simply false.
And then, once we consumed disappointment, we start the disengaging process. We’re in a place where we can’t yet stop ourselves completely acting the way we did, but at least we understand now that these ways are toxic. We’re still triggered by the stimuli, but at least we now try to avoid the stimuli. We know what will happen. We understand that we’re going to get hurt again.
So we start a painful process, most of the time slow and with hiccups, of disentangling ourselves from the object of our attachment. Although it’s painful, we know we have to do it, and we do it. The hurt we’re experiencing in this stage is real, because disentangling means parting ways with parts of us. It’s like animals somehow cut lose their stuck limb, to be able to get out of the trap.
At the end of disengagement we find frustration. We’re now over the addiction, but we look back at who we were and can’t stand ourselves for what we did. We don’t recognize ourselves. A myriad of questions, all starting with “How could I…” are flying through our heads. We feel frustrated that we fell into that trap.
And, although it’s also a type of suffering, this stage is probably one of the healthiest, because it paves the way to learning. Frustration, as annoying as it is, means we’re now a new persona, we have a nw perspective, one that is out of the hooks of that type of attachment. Maybe we will get hooked to other attachments in the future, but this one, well, at least we know it now.
And that is the beginning of learning. I wish I’d say this stage is as unavoidable as all the previous five, but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Meaning that we’re not always inclined to extract some wisdom from our previous mistakes. Sometimes it takes a few identical ones to finally understand we’re hurting ourselves beyond reason.
But sometimes we do get to the learning stage and, little by little, we start to deplete the number of mistakes we can make, simply because now we know better.
The Difference Between Toxic And Non-Toxic Attachments
For starters, the non-toxic attachments don’t have that “delight” stage. In the sense that, when we do experience their joy, that joy is not overwhelming, out of balance, or out of this world. It’s more like a constant, self-contained state of peace. And because there aren’t any major differences between that state and the current reality, denial won’t happen either. We don’t get any red flags to account for, because, well, there aren’t any.
And then, there is no disappointment, specifically because we weren’t thrown off in the first stage. If we’re on a more or less constant level, and we know what to expect, disappointment simply can’t happen. We enjoy what is to be enjoyed, without any expectations.
And then the entire struggle stage, from disengagement to frustration is out of the equation. There is no major suffering inflicted.
Surprisingly, learning is more or less out of the equation too. If the attachment is already non-toxic, it means we know how to handle the interaction, and we’re just experiencing it, we’re not thrown off by it.
The lessons have been learned.