Emotional Detachment 

What is Emotional Detachment 

Emotions are the things that make us feel human and connect us to friends and loved ones. But some people avoid these feeling altogether or are unable to feel them. People with emotional detachment disorder avoid emotional connections, usually as a way to cope with past trauma.

Emotional detachment disorder actually means two things. The first is the inability to connect with other people on an emotional level. This is a way to avoid situations that create anxiety. It is referred to as disassociation or numbing.

The second meaning is an assertiveness that allows people to set boundaries against the emotional demands of others. This is a healthy kind of emotional detachment.

On the unhealthy side of emotional detachment disorder a person using it as a defense mechanism. It is a way to stay outside of most problems and never really get involved. A person with emotional detachment may not have any close friends and may choose to spend most of their time alone.

Emotional detachment disorder forms in children that were victims of both physical and emotional abuse. It also can go hand in hand with post-traumatic stress disorder, as these people search for a way to cope.

Detachment Definition 

Detachment is a state of being objective. It is a way to stay neutral and impartial.

You can see how this would be both a positive and negative thing to employ in your own life. On the one hand, when faced with dramatic situations it is important to not always respond emotionally, this is healthy.

But, when using detachment as a way to avoid feeling uncomfortable or anxious, this becomes unhealthy. When it is severe the detachment can ver into disassociation. At this level, a person becomes so detached they can’t connect with anyone.

Emotional Detachment Symptoms 

The symptoms of emotional detachment disorder are easier to spot in yourself than in others since they are so personal. Not feeling emotions at all or turning them off at will is a sign that something isn’t right. Some other symptoms of emotional detachment syndrome are:

  • Being over rational
  • Inability to identify your own emotions
  • Inability to express emotions
  • Being unable to show empathy to others
  • Feeling numb
  • Unsuccessful relationships due to lack of connection
  • Feeling awkward when someone tells you their feelings
  • Withholding from others

Let’s dive a little deeper into some common emotional detachment symptoms and how they can affect your life.

Emotional Numbness or Lack of Emotion

Lack of emotion or emotional numbness can manifest in many ways. You can be watching a sad movie in a theatre full of people, really want to cry, but be unable. You may be in the middle of a heated argument with a loved one and feel nothing.

This symptom is easily spotted if you experience it. Some form of numbness, if it happens on very rare occasions, is normal. Sometimes, when things get to be too much, your brain may step in and detach a little. This is not what emotional detachment disorder is.

But, a general numbness throughout your whole life and a lack of emotion can be a very difficult way to live.

Inability to show empathy

People with emotional detachment disorder won’t be able to show empathy to others. Because they view emotions as something to be avoided, when a person comes to them full of emotion it can overwhelm them. This overwhelm will make it impossible for the person to empathize.

Feeling awkward when someone tells you their feelings

This is similar to not being able to show empathy but it differs slightly. Even if a person with emotional detachment wants to connect, they find they don’t know how.

A person may share feeling with them or cry on their shoulder and a person with emotional detachment disorder may freeze. They don’t know how to help or what to say.

Being overly rational

A person with emotional detachment disorder will be overly rational. As a way to avoid emotion they will rationalize everything and attempt to use logic. This defense mechanism makes close relationships with other people difficult.

Withholding from others

Emotionally detached people don’t just hide their emotions from others. In fact, you can also withhold your day to day life from others. People with emotional detachment don’t want to let anyone get close to them so they shut everyone out.

Something simple, like describing what you did with your day is difficult for an emotionally detached person. Letting someone else into your life, even a little bit, makes the defenses go up.

What Causes Emotional Detachment Disorder 

Emotional detachment disorder is a response to severe emotional trauma or psychological trauma.

Sometimes, this can be a result of abuse as children. The power imbalance between a child and an adult is so vast that a child has no way to escape the trauma. In order to deal with abuse, a child develops coping strategies. One of these is the ability to emotional detach.

When it stems from emotional trauma, it’s almost as if there’s a compartment of the brain a child can go into to shut out the trauma. If the abuse is extremely severe, multiple personality disorder can form as a coping strategy.

Another, less severe way emotional detachment disorder can form in childhood is if a child is raised to always suppress emotion.

Many people with emotional detachment disorder were raised by parents that were restrictive and controlling. A parent may threaten a child or inflict abuse when a child is showing emotion. This punishment would teach a child their emotions are unsafe.

All of these things lead a child to develop ways of dealing with emotion that are unhealthy. They may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to suppress the emotions they have been taught are bad.

Negative effects of emotional detachment

Obviously, there are many negative ways emotional detachment disorder can effect your life. As stated above, drug or alcohol dependency as a means of escape can form.

Another negative effect is the inability to connect to others. If you can’t emotionally connect or relate to others it’s impossible to form relationships. Because of this, a person with emotional detachment disorder struggles with forming friendships or romantic relationships.

Learning to detach from emotional trauma as a child becomes a problem once you are in a healthy relationship. A person with emotional detachment disorder will have a general mistrust and may shut down at a small argument or a hint of rejection. They can become cold and unable to communicate.

These things that protected them when they were in an abusing setting become major road blocks when in a healthy relationship.

Positive effects of emotional detachment

The positive effects of emotional detachment have to do with the second definition I mentioned. This is more akin to putting up boundaries when you have an unhealthy amount of emotion coming at you.

I don’t mean completely withdrawing, as a person with emotional detachment disorder may. But, being able to distance yourself from some who takes from you emotionally is a healthy thing to be able to do.

Traits of people with emotional detachment

People with emotional detachment disorder share some of the same traits. They tend to be a bit neurotic and strongly independent. They view emotions as not valuable and dislike any public emotional displays.

If they have relationships, they will withhold from their partner as a way to protect themselves.

These people seem aloof and uncaring. They are can be very lonely but unsure of how to fix it.

Also, a person with emotional detachment may be drawn to pass times like art or spending time in nature. They do these things in an attempt to feel more emotion then they currently do. Unfortunately, without proper counseling these things won’t make much of a change.

What to Do if You’re Emotionally Detached 

If you think you are emotionally detached the first step is getting counseling. Especially if your emotional detachment is caused by psychological trauma, you will need professional help. Counseling helps to identify emotions and learn how to express them.

Emotional detachment disorder can be overcome because emotional detachment was never your default setting. It is a learned response and it can also be unlearned. You can learn positive ways to deal with emotion and relate to others through counseling.

As you can see, the reasons emotional detachment disorder form make sense. With no power and no other way to cope a child does what is best for them at the time. Unfortunately, this can have life long consequences. Although so much was taken from you, you can get it back.

Feeling emotions may be scary at first but it makes life more fulfilling. Being able to connect to others and feel the depths of that connection is an important part of being human. Emotional detachment is not your default state. You can always be yourself and the version of you you were meant to be.


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Emotional detachment disorder

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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