Attachment, defined.

In many of my posts, I talk about not getting attached to things, because it makes it harder to let go. In my last post, I talked about trying to not get too attached to people and places, because it makes it harder when you inevitably have to say goodbye (or do you?).

But you can’t go through life not making friends or going places just because you don’t want to get hurt.

In response to my last post Debbie V said

Reading your post made me wonder if minimalism can be sometimes related to a person’s avoidance of emotional attachments to people. Just a thought. Holding on some things from the past – memories, friendships, even those mementos of very important events – is important to my sanity. These things sustain me in the rough times of the present. There’s a balance.

Thank you Debbie for your comment, I really appreciate it! I’ve wanted to clarify this point for a long time.

attachment, defined.

Attachment to something means:

  • you depend on having it to be happy
  • you never want to let it go because you think it will make you less happy

The problem with attachment is that you are depending of something outside of yourself to be happy. But we all know that nothing lasts forever. Things can break, get stolen, be misplaced, lost in a house fire, become redundant and a hundred other things. People can move on, drift away, change, fall out of love, get in an accident, move house and more. So your happiness is only temporary if you rely on them for it.

If you want to achieve stable happiness, you need to find it in yourself, not in things or other people.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have deep and lasting relationships, it just means you don’t depend on them to be happy.

For example, imagine a couple A. You have probably witnessed something like this before. They meet, they get together and ‘fall in love’. They spend all their time together. They think they’re really happy and they can’t stand to be apart.

But, after a while, they start to notice things about the other person that irks them. Eventually, they get into fights and break up. They’re used to spending all their time together, so they’re really unhappy because they’re alone. They can’t stand it, so they get back together. But all of the issues that caused them to break up in the first place come back, and they break up again. The cycle continues because they can’t stand the unhappiness that comes with being together, but they can’t stand the unhappiness that comes from being alone. They depend too much on having the other. It’s a downward spiral.

This is a typical example of an emotional dependency (attachment) to one’s partner. I know this doesn’t happen to everyone, but I know that in my experience, it does happen.

Now imagine couple B:

A couple ‘fall in love’. They spend a lot of time together, but they also spend some time apart. They miss the other person when they’re away, but they find their own life that is separate from their partner’s. They share things, and depend on the other person, but not all the time. They are independent, strong people together and on their own. They support each other and don’t hold the other back for selfish reasons. They’re not needy, suspicious or joined at the hip. Instead they’re honest, trusting, and strong. Because of this, their relationship is deep and fulfilling.

Should something bad happen to the other person, of course they would be devastated, just like anyone else. But they know that the other person would want them to find a way to move on, instead of losing their ‘life’ too.

They don’t agree on everything, and it’s not always easy for them either. But they keep an open mind, they’re willing to compromise and contribute equally to the relationship. They’ll probably live a long and happy life.

Couples A and B illustrate the difference between a relationship made of attachment and a truly loving relationship.

Yes, a part of minimalism is about avoiding attachments. But it’s not about avoiding emotions. You don’t have to be scared of meeting new people, making friends, or finding partners. If another person makes you happy, let them.

If keeping mementos from a holiday makes you happy, then keep them. Minimalists aren’t trying to avoid things because we don’t want to get emotionally attached, we try to avoid the things that can lower our happiness.

Where we can help it, I believe we can greatly contribute to our own happiness by finding it within ourselves and taking it wherever we go, instead of having to drag around another person or piles of junk with us, because let’s face it, they’re pretty heavy.

I’m really interested to know what you guys think about this topic. Let me know in the comments!

PS. If you liked this post, please help Minimal Student spread the word by sharing the love!

  • Attachment, especially to things, is an interesting topic. I’ve often wondered why I’ve held on to certain every items from my childhood.
    As my parents face the end of life, they live in a house still full of things. Dishes, furniture, pictures and keepsakes that my parents have held on to and cared for, some from the 1940’s will become my responsibility soon (I’m the only child). How I wish they had downsized years ago and only kept those things that were absolutely necessary for daily living and a few (4 or 5) keepsakes that symbolized priceless memories of their past. If you ever saw the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” there is one scene where the crazy grandmother brings out her small box of keepsakes from the old country. It’s about the size of a cigar box. That’s what I want left when I die. (If you haven’t seen that movie, don’t let the title keep you away – it’s very funny and touching)
    So. Lesson learned. I am currently going through all of the things (old letters, pictures, keepsakes and decorative items) that I own and working towards a similar goal. I have a very small handmade dresser that belonged to my grandmother that has three drawers. I am only saving what will fit in this space. As I choose I may take the items out and display them now and then, but they have to all fit in. Later I will cut that as well.
    As I work through this process of letting go, I’ve already had several “ah-hah” moments where I realize I could let go of all of it and still be okay. I want to find the balance that allows me to keep and enjoy those few mementos of past joys (as well as have a few things to hand down to my daughter).
    On the other note – I like your examples of couples A and B. Some individuals who separate after many years of marriage find themselves quite lost when it comes to knowing what they want out of life. Some choke on their bitterness and confusion, while others blossom in their newly found self-fulfillment.

  • Higb7

    It’s interesting that I came across this post. I have a top drawer of items I never use or take out, but don’t throw away. A piece of chalk I used on my first welding job, a brass tip from a welder on another job, a knife my neighbor gave me when I was a child (I’m 43 now), and so many other mementos. I was looking through photos my Mom gave me yesterday and the memories from childhood flood back to me. We didn’t have a lot of money as children and not to many pictures were taken of us kids. My Mom gave me all the pictures because as an adult I got into photography and now I have 40,000 digital pictures and several shoe boxes of 4×6’s from before I went digital. I’m a picture hoarder. I find myself holding onto more and more as I age. I just bought property 3 years ago. I got married 7 years ago. I use to go when I felt like it and did what I want when I wanted. Now I have more stress than ever especially since I bought this 5 acres of land.
    I don’t like where I am in my life and things and people are holding me back from living and doing what I want.

    I love your blog…

    • Thank you Higb7 for your comment. I totally understand what you mean by being a picture hoarder too, I have accumulated gigabytes and gigabytes of photos from my travels. Because it’s all digital there’s less incentive to pare down but this is something I’m working on and perhaps I’ll write a post about it soon 🙂

  • Krzysztof

    Don’t confuse things and human beings please.
    How much are You attached to Your blog?

  • Carolyn

    Hey Jessica,

    I’ve read this entry plenty of times before, but I always read it in the way that relates to not being attached to physical objects to make me happy. Ever since I started reading your blog in April 2012, I just focused on physical attachment to things.

    Now, over a year later, I realize I have a big problem with emotional attachment to people. I find myself relying on others to make me happy. If I want to do something, I want someone else to be there too. I rarely do anything by myself, and I always want company. I know I don’t like being alone, but most of the time I can deal with it when I’m in a good mood.

    I do have a habit of hiding my emotions, and not expressing them, but more recently, I am learning to express them instead of holding it all in.

    When i’m not in the best of moods, I overwhelm myself with thoughts of how I want someone to be there, but no one is. I’ve been single for 3 years, and it does bother me, but I can no longer hide it when I’m feeling down.

    Are there any suggestions/advice you can give to help not be so prone to being emotionally attached to others? Without needing others to be happy? When I have happy and fun moments with a person or a group of people, I always romanticize the friendships, and think we are extremely close, then I get disappointed when they show me that it’s not the same for him/her/them.

    I also often have trouble finding balance. I always go to the extreme, and I get flustered when things don’t go the way I hope it does. I don’t want to feel like this because it’s a terrible feeling. Is there anything you can advise me with? I’d love to hear what you have to say. Your blog has really guided me to a better lifestyle, needless to say, you’ve deeply impacted my life. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Carolyn, thanks for your comment. I spent a while thinking about how I would answer your question. There isn’t a clear answer that I can give you, it’s up to you to find the right way to deal with your feelings, but I can give you some of my thoughts on the matter.

      To me, letting go of physical things was easy. The arguments against having too much stuff made so much sense to me that it seemed like a logical move. However, when it comes to people, and the emotional relationships that I had with them, things weren’t so logically clear-cut. When I was single, things were easier. I didn’t mind being on my own, even during the kind of ‘fun moments’ you mentioned. Just because I was alone, it didn’t mean I was lonely. Far from it. I had lots of friends and a loving family, I didn’t feel I was missing out at all.

      Things changed after I got into a relationship. I have noticed that I want to share moments a lot more now. For better or for worse, I feel like it’s a waste to do some things on my own – I much prefer to have somebody there to share the moment with.

      So, to be honest, I can’t give you a lot of advice on how to deal with emotional attachment, I’m still learning myself. However, I can say this. You can find balance by being mindful. Take a step back. Notice when you’re being too needy or if your expectations of others are too high. Don’t let these things happen without you realising. Don’t think you have to surround yourself with other people all of the time – you don’t. Everybody is perfectly capable of spending time on their own. If you can’t you seriously have to think about why you wouldn’t want to spend time with yourself.

      In any case, these things take time to learn how to do. Nobody has, or ever will, get things right the first time. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just make sure you learn from them. The most important thing is to stay strong.

      I hope this helps, even just a little.

      • Carolyn

        Thank you so much for your response. I didn’t get a notification about this so I just saw it now. Re-reading what I wrote and your response in retrospect and while being in a better mood, I do feel a little silly for feeling the way I did. But thank you again for taking the time to answer this for me. It will definitely be helpful for those times I fall into that mood again.

  • Basmah Khan

    I hope you are reading this Jessica. I just want to say that you are truly an inspiration and after reading your posts I am able to understand things from a good perspective and I just feel more positive when I read your posts. Now about attachment, I understand that it is a horrible thing and also I would like to share a quote.
    “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or objects.”
    Now here it defines what you are trying to say. But my point is that attachment itself is not a bad thing unless you use it for something/someone bad. We are all attached to our mothers some to their fathers, brothers and sisters. This sort of attachment is not bad because you can depend on them and they will always be there for you (at least in my case). But I agree to your point as well. Becoming too attached to someone or something can be harmful because when it is gone, it wont be easy to move on…

    • Hi Basmah, thanks for your comment! I agree, having a fulfilling goal in life is an important ingredient for happiness. However, what is even more important is having people who love and care for you to support you. It would be extremely difficult to move on if you lose them, I agree, but don’t let it stop you achieving your goals if that is what they wanted for you.