Detachment is really, really hard (or I got in trouble with HR)


The concept of detachment has been a recurring them throughout this project. The Stoics were, of course, huge advocates of the concept, and every religious tradition I’ve explored since teaches some form of it.

So you would think that after 6 months or so of studying detachment in various traditions that nothing in the world can bug me.

I wish…

Yesterday I got in trouble at work.

I helped deliver a quick workshop to my co-workers about writing self-assessments (you know, those things you write about your performance for your performance review). I thought it was fine. I was unprepared, but it was fine.

A few hours later I get an e-mail from my boss saying “The HR Director and I would like to meet with you tomorrow to give you some feedback on the workshop.”

That’s never good.

I was trying to think of what I said in this workshop that could have annoyed our HR Director and I narrowed it down to one thing.

During the course I mentioned that research shows women tend to underrate themselves, while men tend to overrate themselves, and to avoid that effect, it’s important to stick to results when writing self assessments.

That must have been it! Talking about the differences between men and women, if you’re not a woman, offends the corporate moralists.

And then I got angry.

I thought about how stupid it was that someone could be offended by fairly conclusive research that is actually relevant to my coworkers’ performance review.

I then imagined storming out of the meeting in a fit of righteous anger spouting out salient and insightful points about political correctness hindering our ability to have open discussions.

I continued brooding until my meeting the next morning.

When I arrived at the meeting, my boss and HR Director acted pleasant as usual (everyone at my company is unusually pleasant, kind of like Stepford Wives).

Then they started their “feedback” session.

“Hi Dale, thanks for coming in. We’d like to talk to you about the workshop yesterday.”


“Well I received a call from Joanne [Note: Joanne is another manager at the company who was at the workshop. I changed her name for anonymity] and she said you started off the presentation by asking the participants ‘What do you all find sucky about the self-assessment process?’”


“Well we believe that was in poor form and didn’t show proper respect for the performance management process at ACME which we work really hard on and blah blah blah….”

I won’t go into the whole conversation, but basically, the HR Director didn’t want to associate the word “sucky” with the performance management process she created. Surprisingly, it wasn’t about the research I cited.

In any case, I think she and Joanne are being overly sensitive.

This seems like a fairly trivial incident at work, but in my mind, it wasn’t.

It brought up a whole range of emotions from anger, to despair (about being stuck working with idiots), and existential angst (what’s the point of working?). It forced me to contemplate the type of person I was (am I someone that does things his way or am I someone that eats shit for a paycheck?) It also made me seriously consider quitting. Like, immediately, not in the near-future.

It was the opposite of being detached, it was emotional over-attachment!

I’ve become fairly good and letting little things go. If someone cuts me off on the highway, it doesn’t bother me for that long. If my flight gets delayed, no big deal.

But occasionally something happens to you that, for some reason, cuts really deeply.

In this particular case, my HR scolding upset me not because I thought this particular incident was especially troubling, but because it was so wrapped up in my deeper attitudes towards my work and myself.

It’s no secret that I don’t like my job, so of course, this incident (in my mind) is representative of everything that’s wrong with the company.

I also (probably falsely) view myself as an independent thinker and actor, and I resent having to misrepresent the way I view things to others. I think it’s dishonest.

I also have some deep-rooted anxieties about what it means to succeed in life. If I can’t hack it at a well compensated, fairly easy gig like the one I have now, what does that say about my ability to do anything else of note? Is my brain wired incorrectly?

This incident just shows how truly difficult it is to cultivate detachment. You think you’re doing great, and then all of a sudden, you realize how much of a mess you actually are.

The upside of realizing how non-detached you are is that you learn more about yourself. You learn more about your deep-rooted beliefs about yourself and how they affect your emotions and your actions.

As we become more knowledgeable, perhaps we’ll get a little closer to understanding what the Self really is, the Self with the big S. The Self that lets us connect with others and appreciate our lives as they are.

Perhaps I’ll even learn to appreciate the oversensitive nature of my HR Director…then I’ll know I’ve truly achieved moksha.

  • Sameer

    Thanks for sharing that so openly – given that I am exposed to every detail of my own mental roller coaster, and no one else’s, it was comforting to hear.

    Detachment is definitely a practice 🙂


    • I suppose most of us have stories about irritating HR folks 😉

  • Veronica Mihai


    Reading through this articol and your experience with the HR and your job overall, it made me think about similar experience I had at my job and how I tried to use detachment. I felt the need to share with you what I discovered about detachment from Marshall Rosenberg teachings about non-violent communication. Basically what puts us out of our self is an unmet need of ours and we usually have certain strategies to meet these unmet needs and we get frustrated and angry when certain obstacles interfere with our strategies. So detachment really boils down to letting go of our strategy to meet our unmet need and having the faith that if we do this we will receive clarity and find maybe other solutions that will meet the needs of everyone or that eventually the other person we’ll see our point of view and respond positively to our request. I would like to know your opinion about non-violent communication. Have you ever experienced with it ? I find it really useful in my day to day live, but I find myself needing more support from people around me in this practice and to my disappointment it doesn’t seem to be that wide spread :).

    • That’s interesting. I’ve heard of non-violent communication before but I thought it sounded like nonsense. I like the analysis of having your strategies interrupted as being the primary cause of frustration.

      Another approach, a step beyond detachment maybe, is seeing how you can serve others needs. I find that being overly focused on myself is exhausting, and that perhaps we should try to help others.

      It’s simple, but very difficult to implement.

      • Veronica Mihai

        Hi Dale,

        Thank you for your answer. Indeed, contributing to enhancing other people’s lives is among one of our basic needs. And by being overly focused with ourselves we leave this need to help others unmet and thus the exhausion, I believe :).

  • Kevin

    Again, this sound like something out of my journal. I am eerily similar in that I’m fairly detached about most things that used to piss me off – bad drivers, always picking the wrong checkout line at the store, etc. – but when it comes to work I fall apart.

    • Work is particularly difficult as we put a lot of expectations on it. If it’s not fulfilling, we freak out and wonder if we should change jobs. It is a fairly modern phenomenon.

  • Patti

    Joanne thought you were calling HER SUCKY just like you felt she was calling you STUPID- clearly this is EGO on both sides talking talking talking just one little word change like SAD would have benefited you both. THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK most of the time we all need to shut the F !@#* Up !