“Attachment is The Root of Suffering “ is a commonly cited quote from the Buddha. When the Buddha used attachment multiple times in the same composition he often substituted the word acquisition in its place.
Becoming attached the things we acquire is pretty easy to understand, especially in our materialistic culture. We often become attached to acquisitions like our money, houses, cars, degrees, titles, etc. Not only do we become attached to these material things, we judge our possessions against societal standards for money, houses, etc. It is easy to get caught up in this spiral of wanting and needing more and more in order to be happy.
This obviously isn’t something new as the Buddha warned us about it over a thousand years ago. Happiness, the Buddha taught, existed in all of us for free. We don’t have to acquire it through wealth, fame, or possessing things. In fact, one of the keys to happiness is detaching from our possessions.
The key to happiness isn’t acquiring more and more things but accepting who we are and what we already have in the world around us. In other words, happiness springs from within, not from outside.
This closely parallels what psychologists have found out about happiness and mental well-being.
Besides becoming attached to our material possessions our minds also become attached to many psychological things. We become attached to our thoughts, feelings, images of ourselves, and many different aspects of our identities. Some of these attachments are positive, other are not.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Acceptance and Commitment (AC) Coaching use the term the conceptualized self, to refer to your internalized picture of yourself. This would be the self picture you’d think of if I asked you to describe yourself to me.
Most people describe their conceptualized selves with statements that summarize and evaluate who they are and what they do.
For example, if I asked you to describe yourself, you’d probably say things such as; “I’m forty years old, and about 5’10” with an average build, I’m happily married, I’m an art history teacher, I’m honest and trustworthy,” and so forth.
These kinds of self-statements sum up who you are and how you measure up to others by comparing yourself to them based on a set of societal standards such as intelligence, income, occupation, body composition, and so on.
ACT and AC Coaching refer to this way of describing yourself as taking a self-as-content view. In other words, you see yourself as the sum total of the contents of your mind.
Your mind breaks your conceptualized self down into pieces and attaches labels to them. The labels and pieces of your conceptualized self are like scenes in a movie. In this case the movie is your life.
Each scene in your movie is accompanied by thoughts, strings of self-talk (called personal scripts in ACT and AC Coaching) feelings, and mental images. You could close your eyes and actually see yourself in the scene and hear the dialogue. Your strings of self-talk would represent the dialogue in your movie. This dialogue helps you create stereotypes, or shortcuts, to understanding your conceptualized self and explaining it to others.
Like your material possessions, you become attached to your labels and stereotypes. Some of these attachments are positive and very helpful in helping you live the life you want and deserve. Others are not so positive or helpful. You can also over-attach to some of the labels and stereotypes and have them dominate all other aspects of your conceptualized self.
For example, imagine that you enjoy running in addition to a hundred other things. Part of your conceptualized self is seeing yourself as a runner. The personal scripts and stereotypes that you have of yourself as a runner are positive and center around your love of physical activity and movement, the actual feeling of running, and the side benefits of being lean and healthy. The runner piece of your conceptualized self contributes positively to your sense of self and helps you set values-congruent health-related goals that give your life a sense of purpose and meaning.
Now imagine that you also have asthma. In addition to your runner piece, you also have strings of self-talk and stereotypes of yourself that relate to having asthma. A person with asthma is a human being who also happens to have a disease that triggers the previously mentioned symptoms.
You don’t view your asthma however in the same positive way that you do your running. The stereotypes this creates are not very helpful at all. Your over-attachment to your asthma does not contribute to you living the life you want and deserve.
Rather than viewing yourself as a person with asthma, you view and refer to yourself as an asthmatic. Being an asthmatic represents a totally different version of your conceptualized self than being a person with asthma does.
When you over-attach to this aspect of your conceptualized self and call yourself an asthmatic, you become the illness. When this happens, all of the personal scripts and stereotypes you associate with asthma (having to avoid specific situations and activities that can trigger an attack, being dependent upon long-term controlling medications and rescue inhalers, feeling self-conscious around people who are unfamiliar with the disease and so on) now substitute for you, the person, who also happens to have asthma.
Over-attachment to this, or any aspect of your conceptualized self creates a restricted way of viewing yourself and the world around. This limits your choices and options (real and imagined) because it doesn’t allow you to see the world clearly. It is as if you are viewing the world through asthma-tinted glasses.
Over-attachment contributes to psychological inflexibility and getting stuck in a rut. When you over-attach to any aspect of your conceptualized self (such as being an asthmatic) you fuse (become one) with that part of your conceptualized self. ACT and AC Coaching calls this cognitive fusion.
Often, as in the case of running, this isn’t necessarily a negative phenomenon that contributes to getting stuck. I say not necessarily because there are many runners who are so obsessive about running that it does contribute to them getting stuck in ruts (or injured, addicted, or feeling extremely guilty if they miss a workout etc.). In general, however, fusing with a positive part of your conceptualized self such as running won’t contribute to getting stuck.
However, when you become overly attached to an unhelpful aspect of your conceptualized self it limits your psychological flexibility, creates stress, and makes it easier to stay stuck and avoid new experiences and challenges. In future blogs I’ll discuss how to avoid over-attachment and get unstuck if you become fused with an unhelpful aspect of your conceptualized self.