In Part 1 of this 3 part goal setting series, we discussed the importance of realizing that you can be happy, and at peace with yourself -NOW- without achieving another darn thing. In Part 2, we went through the detailed process of setting effective SMART goals. The last part of this trilogy will discuss letting go of unhelpful attachments to a specific outcome; this is how you bring balance to the yin and the yang of parts 1 and 2.
Goal Setting Part 3: Letting Go of Unhelpful Attachments
Have you ever had someone tell you to “let go of attachment to the outcome”? I have. Many, many times. And my reaction was usually something like, “Argh, what does that even mean?!” I was confused because I felt like they were telling me that the only way to get what I want was to stop wanting it, which made absolutely no sense to me.
No time was this more true than when I was in hyper seeking-for-my-soulmate mode. During this time, I consistently took action and worked the 5 steps to success, and refused to stop until my Mr. Right was in my life; many, many people around me told me, “It’s never going to happen as long as you stay so attached to it.” About 7 months later, my amazing fiance asked me out on our first date. Ha! I thought. So much for ‘It won’t happen,’ try ‘It took only 7 months from goal set to goal achieved!’ Going after goals – 1, Zen BS about attachments – 0.
Well, even though “It will only happen when you stop looking” is a dating myth, it turns out there actually is some wisdom to the idea of letting go of attachments, and during my “Go for it at full force till it happens” phase, I let go of quite a few. I just didn’t realize it, because I didn’t actually understand what an attachment is, or what to do with it.
So maybe you’ve never heard of this attachment thingy before, and you’re curious why it’s such an important part of getting your goals, or maybe you have and, like me, you’ve been frustrated and thought, “Argh, what does that even mean?!” Either way, it’s time to clear a few things up about attachments, and what it takes to truly let go of the crap you don’t need anymore. Dealing with your attachments is actually a central part of steps 3 and 4 in the 5 steps to success — 5 steps to achieve any goal you want, so it’s really important to understand what attachments actually are, which ones to let go of, and which ones to keep around.
Let’s start by going over what attachments are NOT. Attachments are not:
- Physical “forms” that attach themselves to you and mess with your qi (I personally don’t believe such a thing even exists; if you do believe in such entities, note that this is not what’s being discussed in this article).
- Strong emotions
- Desires, and/or the motivation to obtain those things that you desire
That last one is huge, because I’ve had many people hear me speak of a desire for something and quickly snap back, “Oh, Liz, you are way too attached to that thing.”
My response was, “Oh, well, you’re way too attached to the idea of attachments.” No, not really. I don’t usually think of the good snappy comebacks until it’s too late. :-/
But it’s what I would’ve said…
Anyway, point being, a desire–even a burning passion– for something is not quite what an attachment is, which only means that if you let go of an attachment, you will NOT all at once lose your desire, passion, fire, or motivation. Actually, in my experience, those things usually strengthen once you let go of your negative attachments.
When I was in my late teens, I had a martial arts sensei who taught our class that all emotions can be boiled down into either fear, or love. He went on to say that if you love someone, and you have a fear that you will lose them, or they will leave you, that percentage of fear eats into the percentage of love you can feel for them. Well, attachments are a form of fear. Desires, and passions, are a form of love–not necessarily love for another person, but love nonetheless. Therefore, the more attachments you let go of, the more love/desire you can feel towards what you want, without those pesky fears and anxieties about it getting in the way.
So what is an attachment? The way I understand it, an attachment is when you attach meaning to something.
For example, a man might desire to have sex with a woman he’s on a date with. That’s a desire. It becomes an attachment when he attaches some meaning to either having sex, or not having sex with her, or both. For example,
“If I have sex with her, that means I’m ‘the man!’”
“If I don’t have sex with her tonight, that means she must not be that attracted to me.”
“If I have sex with her tonight, that means I will have a good night.”
“If we don’t have sex tonight, that means this date was a waste of time.”
Another great example of this is a kind of “skinny girl myth,” where an overweight woman pictures herself as being more outgoing, successful, interesting, intelligent, and worldly as a skinny person. Then, when she loses the weight, she realizes that she is still herself, living her same, mundane life only in a slimmer body.
Most stress and strife that we experience is brought on by our attachments. Again, attachment is attaching meaning to something that is often arbitrary, unrealistic, and unscientifically objective (even though we SWEAR it is based on logic and reason!).
This is why I love the TV show Mythbusters. Their love of the scientific method is evident, and they get excited whatever the outcome of an experiment is. Case and point:
Truly logic based, scientific thinking is based on observing what is happening alone. The minute you attach your own meaning to it, it becomes subjective. Again, to use the example above, a scientist would simply observe, “When I did these things on this date, this woman did not have sex with me.”
Most people think they are being scientists when they are really being subjective. They think their conclusion is “so obvious” when, in reality, it is only one arbitrary opinion of many possible opinions. True scientific thinking eliminates other possible variables before coming to a conclusion.
If our guy says, “well, obviously she didn’t sleep with me because I’m unattractive!” that is not at all a scientific statement, because it’s unlikely that he took the time to really eliminate all the other variables before concluding that. Other variables could include (but certainly aren’t limited to!): What if she ate some bad seafood at dinner and was too embarrassed to tell him she wasn’t feeling well? What if she was incredibly attracted to him, and has a boyfriend that she didn’t tell him about, and now because she feels guilty about being so turned on that she wants to go home before things go too far? What if she has an attachment of her own where she thinks that sleeping with a man she’s known for less than a month means she is a dirty slut?
In other words, attachments prevent you from being open to other possibilities, or ways of doing things. The less open you are to different ways of doing things, the less able you are to achieve your goals.
Keep in mind that most attachments are happening at a very unconscious level, and might even contradict what you consciously think you believe: the man in our example above may not consciously think he is insecure about his sexual attractiveness; the belief might be in his unconscious, and he is only aware of some feelings of anxiety or insecurity during the date, but most stress–maybe all stress, with the exception of actual life and death situations–is created by negative attachments.
As I mentioned in Part 1, advertisers prey on our ability to create deep-seated attachments. That whole industry exists because of how well they can make us form unconscious attachments like X product means I will be cool, which means I will be loved more, or Y product means I will have more free time, which means I will be more relaxed. Love and relaxation are available like the air we breathe, but we have so many rules (attachments) for how, when, and in what way they can happen, that we have lost sight of just how random these rules are, and how needlessly confining they can be.
Oh man, did I used to have a long list of impossible criteria before I would allow myself to fall in love with a man. He had to be perfect…if my fiance forgot to do the dishes, I would question whether he was worthy of my love, attention, and sexual pleasure. This is a miserable, miserable life, and it makes anyone who does this the worst kind of prostitute.
So if you don’t like the way something makes you feel, consider: what meaning are you attaching to the outcome, and is it really necessary?
Here are a few other definitions to help clarify. Please note that these are my definitions and others may have a slightly different understanding of what these terms mean.
Detachment: This is when someone detaches from their current experience. This is usually the result of trying to be unattached, or as I like to put it, being attached to the idea of having no attachments (by the way, all attachments are not a problem). Detachment is an unhealthy repression of emotions. In one of my previous articles, this video was left in the comment section; it is a beautiful illustration of how silly and ineffective detachment is.
Desire: Wanting something, simple as that. Letting go of attachments will NOT eliminate your desires, unless they really weren’t your desires to begin with. For example, if a woman desires to go to medical school because she hopes to gain her father’s approval, if she lets go of the attachment to daddy’s approval, she might discover that she doesn’t really want to go to medical school. Or she might discover that she does want to go to medical school–now more than ever–because even without her daddy’s approval, she still wants to be a doctor.
Desires to create, contribute, make connections, and for biological needs (including sex), tend to stick around no matter what. If someone says otherwise, 9 times out of 10 they are trying to be detached, because they are confusing a desire with an attachment. Again, usually your desires will become stronger, and at the same time, they will not control you anymore, once you let go of attachments. This is an awesome place to be.
Repulsion: The seeming opposite of an attachment, this is when you DON’T want something, and your negative feelings about it are very strong. This is still an attachment to an outcome.
External Validation: Many people in the personal development world demonize all external validation seeking, and act as if all good feelings and thoughts should come from some internal fountain of positivity that is untouched by the outside world. This is not very realistic; and actually, different personality types are more internally or externally oriented when it comes to seeking validation, much the way people can be more introverted or extraverted.
The difference between a person who is simply more externally oriented, and a bitter, cynical cranky-pants, is that the former will not only actively seek positive external validation, they will easily be able to find it: when someone pays them a compliment, they let it matter, when they read an encouraging quote they are encouraged by it. The latter, however, will argue with all available positive external validation to the bitter end, dismissing it as hippy woo-woo, positive thinking crappity-crap.
When I write something like, “You are beautiful, wonderful, and perfect, just as you are,” that counts as external validation–it is a positive thought, coming from a source that is external to you; how much you choose to believe it, and internalize it, depends on, you guessed it, the meaning you attach to it.
Phew, there certainly are a lot of ideas attached to the idea of attachments!
By the way, I still get attached to things. I have had many attachments about how my wedding will happen. I have some pretty strong attachments to living in California. Hell, I once started crying in the middle of an Olive Garden because they were out of my favorite kind of salad (In my defense, it had been a very long day!).
What I’m saying is, this is a lifelong journey. Have some patience with yourself and don’t get too attached to the idea of not having attachments. 😉
Also remember that not ALL attachments are bad, and not all of them need to be eliminated; only the unhelpful, damaging attachments need to go, and in their place, you can start creating attachments that further your progress and make it easier for you to maintain a positive state.
For example, if someone turns you down for a date, rather than attaching a meaning to that event like “I must be undesirable,” attach a meaning like, “They must not be the right person for me, so it’s good they let me know quickly so I didn’t waste too much time and heartache over it.” The first meaning can make you feel pretty bad, whereas the second meaning will allow you to stay in a more positive, upbeat state, even in the face of rejection.
Those who actually enjoy dating do so because of the positive meanings they attach to the experience, and it’s because they are enjoying it that they are successful with it; not vice versa: there is no better dating technique than having fun!!!
So as you go after your goals, remember, those who live a successful, enjoyable life do so because of their positive attachments, not because of their positive achievements.