One of the tenets of Buddhism I have found most useful over the past few years is learning how to let go. That’s a fairly trendy (and very old) notion that finds itself most at home all over the ‘gram and Pinterest with attractive backgrounds and nice font. But detaching oneself emotionally from people and pursuits we’ve invested in always seems easier said than done—particularly if you have a background of codependency (being raised by or surrounded by folks who attach a point system to devotion). Shaking free of the mental carousel of caring what others think is very difficult in American culture because it’s a narcissistic culture. There are plenty of resources out there that detail the increase in narcissistic behavior and worldview by young people in the U.S., because wounded people wound people. Heritable memory is not just relegated to physical traits. If someone raises you to feel like you have to look for validation outside of yourself re: your sense of self worth, guess what? You’re going to project that mentality onto others, constantly comparing yourself to your friends, your partners, all of the Internet, then constantly juggling what you “should” be doing versus what you’re actually doing, and then beating yourself up constantly because even you are not able to live up to your own standards of achievement which in actuality are not your own. Round and round the mulberry bush, anyone?
You guys might check out the Secular Buddhism podcast series by Noah Rasheta. He’s got an excellent episode (#57) on “what should be” versus “what could be” and the relation to all-pervasive suffering. I would also recommend Louise Glück’s treatise on the matter in her collection of essays, American Originality. The first two essays I’ve found particularly useful if you work in a creative field. You could also just enter ‘narcissist’ in the search bar on YouTube and watch your computer screen explode with all of the lettered and unlettered opinions about narcissism. This one is my favorite and one of the most succinct by Derrick Jaxn. Another really succinct crash-course article is from Psychology Today.
I spend a lot of time wondering about what motivates narcs because there have been so many in my own life of all varieties, most recently, the covert narcissist (usually the ones you least expect…a loner type who wears her or his self-deprecation like a badge of honor but who makes you feel special because you make them feel special—not all loner types are narcs, and of course, we all have some gradation of ego/narcissism to work with just because of the culture we’re in), but spoiler alert, the narc cycle of love-bombing and discard, the hiding away of the True Self, the lack of empathy—that doesn’t change with a covert narc. It’s just harder to detect at first). I’m like a walking salt lick for deer when it comes to attracting them. The reason why is a much longer story than I have time for at the moment, but I’ve become much better at protecting my own interests, shall we say, by hoarding all my effs.
Hey man, the older you get, the fewer effs you get rationed anyway. I can’t just pass them out willy-nilly anymore, so I’ve become very astute at budgeting my effs for reciprocal partnerships and pastimes. Which, going back to my original point, means I’ve had to learn how to not detach from people so much as the shame, fear, and guilt that comes with walking away from people. It’s a process, for sure. Especially when most folks around me seems to really, really care about what other people think. But like any narcissist, American culture keeps moving the goal posts and gaslighting its victims. It’s why you can go through a decade of grad school, painstakingly work your way up like an indentured servant for a company or institution, turn around, and some girl from high-school now has 300K followers on IG and gets free swag for endorsing it as an “influencer.” She lives out of a van and travels from festival to festival for a living, posing in dramatic sunsets the entire way. Riddle me how that’s fair, Batman. Well. To detach means you’re gonna have to figure out how not to give your effs so freely to that girl’s experience either.
Detached is such a well-trod out buzz word at the moment, I glaze over when I hear it now. Being a wordsmith, and as you are now probably aware, being a fan of pop culture and slang, I have come to prefer the word “unbothered.” It’s so much muchier. Lemme put it like this. To be detached is like the Borg. To be unbothered is like a Vulcan. Vulcans have feels—they’re distant relations to Klingons and Romulans, remember? They feel all the feels that we do. It’s just, after thousands of years of mindfulness meditation, they’re unbothered by them. To be detached to me, feels like just unplugging your emotions altogether. Moriarty on Sherlock was detached.
But here’s the kicker. I can’t tell you how to be unbothered. I can only tell you how freeing it is to be increasingly unbothered over the course of one’s life. I’m still deeply empathetic towards others’ struggles, but I don’t let their struggles become my own to the point where it derails not just my whole day, but my whole outlook on all of it. Ever notice that? That one friend who never has anything positive to say? They stay complaining and worrying about something and before you know it, you’re doing it too? Man, I gotta work to keep this piece of mind (pun intended). All anxiety about something outside of my control (like all of it) has gotten me is chronic gastritis. And anxiety essentially stems from me wanting something I can’t have but think that I should because someone convinced me to want it. But I don’t have it yet, so how do I know that I do? If I don’t even know what I want, why should I let someone else to tell me? What right do they have? How have they earned it? Are their motives in my best interest or just to make themselves feel better about where they are? As you can see, I am made of existential questions now when someone tells me what I should be doing. I quite frequently verbalize these questions, and before long, I usually make someone else very bothered—because then they don’t know what they want something that badly either.
What I like best about being unbothered is that as I continue to allow myself to feel no guilt or shame for walking away from pathological thought patterns built to reinforce suffering through a poverty consciousness or a mentality of lack, it makes it glaringly clear who and what in my life can stay and who and what’s gotta go. The most difficult part about becoming unbothered though, is radical self-acceptance. I can’t figure that part out for you. I wish I could. The most I can do is to encourage you to pursue becoming unbothered in bothersome situations when other peoples’ success surpasses your own or people talk about you or criticize you or when everyone at work or among your friends is freaking out and tossing all their effs into the burning barn that is mass hysteria, not realizing they’re actually fanning the flames—well. All I can say that to be unbothered, even some of the time, is worth the price of admission. Spoiler alert—it’s free.