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Emotional detachment, in psychology, can mean two different things. In the first meaning, it refers to an "inability to connect" with others emotionally, as well as a means of dealing with anxiety by preventing certain situations that trigger it; it is often described as "emotional numbing" or dissociation, depersonalization or in its chronic form depersonalization disorder. In the second sense, it is a type of "mental assertiveness" that allows people to maintain their boundaries and psychic integrity when faced with the emotional demands of another person or group of persons.
Emotional detachment in the first sense above often arises from psychological trauma and is a component in many anxiety and stress disorders. The person, while physically present, moves elsewhere in the mind, and in a sense is "not entirely present", making them sometimes appear preoccupied or distracted. In other cases, the person may seem fully present but operate merely intellectually when emotional connection would be appropriate. This may present an extreme difficulty in giving or receiving empathy and can be related to the spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder.
Thus, such detachment is often not as outwardly obvious as other psychiatric symptoms; people with this problem often have emotional systems that are in overdrive. They have a hard time being a loving family member. They avoid activities, places, and people associated with any traumatic events they have experienced. The dissociation can also lead to lack of attention and, hence, to memory problems and in extreme cases, amnesia.
A fictional description of the experience of emotional detachment in the first sense was given by Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway. In that novel the multifaceted sufferings of a war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, with post-traumatic stress disorder (as this condition was later named) including dissociation, are elaborated in detail. One clinician has called some passages from the novel "classic" portrayals of the symptoms.
Emotional detachment in the second sense above is a positive and deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others. It is often applied to relatives and associates of people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding. A simple example might be a person who trains himself to ignore the "pleading" food requests of a dieting spouse. A more widespread example could be the indifference parents develop towards their children's begging. It is not to be confused with being willfully cold or unpleasant, because it is a positive mental attitude. Of course, the decision as to whether emotional detachment in any given set of circumstances is considered to be a positive or negative mental attitude is a subjective one, and therefore a decision on which different people may not agree.
This detachment does not mean avoiding the feeling of empathy; it is actually more of an awareness of empathetic feelings that allows the person space needed to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings.