Polly Chester

Attachment Is Not Love: Three Lessons Learned from 2016

Emotionally, 2016 has indeed been an annus horribilis for me, but through clear reflection, I’ve mapped out a way to move forward and to avoid a repeat in 2017.


A few months ago, a series of life events precipitated an event. In colloquial terms it could best be described as an obliterated spirit. Clinically, one could describe it as a major depressive episode. Through perseverance with treatment and thick lashings of enforced self-care, I’m pulling through, and proof of recovery lies within the fact that I’ve been able to write this article.

Forever driven by a strong desire to de-stigmatize mental illness, I’m always happy to share my experiences in recovery. The following insights are a culmination of knowledge and philosophy imbibed throughout my life, but it was only when I truly allowed myself to go to pieces that I’ve been able to draw these threads together into meaningful concepts.

Over the years I’ve developed a real knack for impressively intellectualizing and articulating my and others’ conditions of the spirit, soul, and mind. After congratulating myself on being such a touchy-feely smarty-pants, I tend to dance around the edges of my own issues, knowing full well that intellectualizing them does fuck all to sort them out. Ergo, along with the provision of my top three insights of 2016 (whittled from a list of seven), there are action plans for 2017 to go along with them.


  1. Choose Compassion over Empathy

Earlier in the year, I wrote about this when I lost my cotton candy and it rings as true now as it did then. Empathy can be such a dangerous beast. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes—feel with them as they feel—you risk losing yourself in them, especially if their intentions are unscrupulous or harmful. In relation to this, last week a dear friend of mine mused that through practicing empathy, she felt like she had lost her own shoes because she’s spent so much time walking in someone else’s. She didn’t know where her shoes were or what they looked like anymore. To practice empathy is highly valuable in contexts such as sport, sex, or playing music, when feeling with people heightens the experience for all. But in psychological and emotional exchanges, it needs to be used with the utmost care, awareness, and discretion, and only to the extent that it builds a bridge to the other’s perspective.

Action plan for 2017: Choose compassion! First of all, to delineate the difference is important. Compassion is feeling for, rather than feeling with, someone. To be compassionate is to provide love, heartfelt care, and kindness for those around you, but to also stay firmly removed from their internal worlds and within your own. Compassion versus empathy sounds like, “I can see that you are experiencing pain. I love you and I care for you, and I am here for you,” as opposed to “I understand your pain and am feeling it with you.”

How do we make the switch? First, find your own shoes and glue those fuckers back onto your feet if you have to! To wear your own shoes is to put your own interests first in order to maintain a secure sense of self, then tend to the needs of those around you with compassion.

Erecting boundaries can be done compassionately, by ensuring that you are clearly and tactfully communicating what you are doing, and why you are doing it—creating distance and taking care of yourself in order to be more present (not to be confused with “present more often”) with your loved one.

Empathy is a useful strategy to use if you actually can’t understand what the other is feeling—but feel with that person only to the point of enabling understanding, then erect your boundary. Setting boundaries often doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, but it’s necessary for survival. It might manifest in saying “no” more often; limiting contact with a person to once a day or on the weekends, or perhaps removing yourself from the relationship altogether. Erecting boundaries can be done compassionately, by ensuring that you are clearly and tactfully communicating what you are doing, and why you are doing it—creating distance and taking care of yourself in order to be more present (not to be confused with “present more often”) with your loved one. Staying psychologically present for yourself first will put you in a calmer, more rational space to be truly present with your loved one. Which brings me to …


  1. Presence over Praise

One of the most destabilizing things I experienced this year was to be almost suffocated with praise, unremitting attention, love, and promises of unconditional support, only to have all of those things whipped out from under me literally overnight. To be told that you are beautiful or intellectually gifted may give you a temporary rise in self-esteem, but it’s a double-edged sword; receiving reassurance and praise makes you crave more of it. Lavish praise ultimately creates thrilling internal feelings that are very closely connected with anxiety, because your self-worth becomes dependent upon the praise, rather than on being nurtured through effective and consistent communication. If someone is truly present with you, it’s not shown through hurricanes of effusive compliment. If they are present, they will listen attentively and ask questions, connect and engage with you, and show you that you are worthy of their thoughts and attention not through admiration, but through simply being there and interested. Presence in relationships builds important mutual understanding; the methods and manner in which we use to share and communicate are worth more than the rewards we might receive from another due to the sum of our productivity, or some biological characteristic, like attractiveness, that we can’t take responsibility for.

Action plan for 2017: Being present is all about being skilled in receiving incoming information. In 2017 I’ll have the pleasure of teaching this skill to a few hundred enrolled university students, but EVERYONE needs to work on their skills in receiving information, so, dear reader, consider this an open invitation to all of my Interpersonal Skills lectures in Trimester 1. When you are being present with someone, this involves doing your best to understand the situation that the other person is trying to communicate to you—so leave your praise and all your other opinions out of it. Once you feel you have listened or observed enough to understand what is being communicated, reiterate your understanding to the sender, who will then be able to confirm, or further educate you to deepen your understanding of the situation. Rinse and repeat until understanding is reached. This is how to holistically enhance and build enduring relationships. Presence over praise.


  1. Attachment Is Not Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between love and attachment, because they are easily conflated and it’s important to discern the difference. Love is as constant and dependable as breathing, a parasympathetic nervous system response that you don’t need to commission; you don’t need reassurance that your next breath is coming, the breath is omnipresent and it comes and goes, supporting the miracle of human existence. Attachment can feel like love, but it isn’t the same. It’s like a sympathetic nervous system response fueled by desire and reassurance, and distinguished by an ominous, almost metaphysical sense that once it disappears, you won’t survive. If you pay attention to feelings in the body, you can delineate attachment from love quite easily. Unhealthy attachment to a person is often intermingled with feelings of fight or flight. You, like many others, might have designed some internal narrative about this horrible feeling being indicative of knowing love when in fact, you have been hoodwinked by the cult of romanticism. If you think about the people who you share true love with, you might ache when they have passed or are currently at a distance from you, but there is an underlying knowledge that the omnipresent connection is dependable and characterized by trust and commitment. Those of us who know love know that it transcends human survival; it lives on irrespective of whether its inhabitants are mortal beings.

Action plan for 2017: Without commitment and trust, you don’t have a loving relationship (or any kind of relationship). So, assess your relationships and ask yourself some hard questions about them. For example, are commitment and trust present here? If the answer is no to either, you can attempt to build them, or disconnect. Due to the manifestation of my attachment style, I’m often waaaaaay too loyal in relationships, to the point of tolerating emotional abuse. So, whilst I’d ideally like to remain friends with ex-lovers, much earlier this year, I learned that if the other person’s loyalty in the relationship does not match up with mine, it’s best to completely disconnect.

During the time that follows disconnection, pain management strategies are essential. Strategies to ease disconnection from relationships are broad, and my go-to ones are patting all the dogs, eating cake, painting, very intensive HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and Crossfit, burning effigies in a tin bucket (seriously), seeing my psychologist, and for something different, lately I’ve thrown a hypnotherapist into the mix. I’ve got some useful mantras that I say to myself every time intrusive thoughts pop in, and some breathing exercises. But what I’m currently going through can’t really be described or summed up, because I’m “balls deep in the process of completely re-orienting my relationship with myself” and therefore, the ways in which I conduct my relationships with others. It’s the most courageous and painful thing I’ve ever done, yet I would urge others to embark on a similar journey. It’s not the pleasant experiences that you learn from, it’s the painful ones where you push yourself to your psychological, physical, and emotional limits.

Also on The Big Smoke

Fuck knows what 2017 will bring. Frankly I’m quite nervous, but I’m going to headbutt everything that comes my way, all the good and bad things.

I wish us all courage in the face of the adversities that are sure to arise and the strength to critically reflect upon and learn from them.

I wish you a New Year—different to the last—I daren’t tempt fate by branding it “Happy” just yet.




Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer, and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy, and psychology.

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