What Is an Unhealthy Attachment?

paperclips symbolizing unhealthy attachmentsPeople who are familiar with St. Ignatius, the Spiritual Exercises, or Jesuit spirituality in general will sometimes use the term unhealthy attachment. What is that exactly? Let’s explore this by asking a few questions.

Is there any physical habit I have that gets in the way of my being available to God? Do I turn to food, drink, sex, exercise, or sleep to avoid facing myself or my conversation with the Divine?

What are my emotional habits? What is my first response to stress, fear, worry, or pain? Is it anger? Fear? Hyperactivity by which I hope to fix everything? Where am I most comfortable emotionally? It’s possible to be comfortable with emotions that aren’t necessarily positive but they are familiar, so we go to them quickly. Some people live comfortably with anger and irritability. Others want only positive feelings, which can motivate them to avoid struggle or anything perceived as negative.

What is my median attitude? This is similar to an emotional habit, but it adds outlook to emotion. Must I always look on the bright side, even when I need to deal with something that’s not so positive? Do I go immediately to the worst-case scenario? Do I keep myself set apart from others so that I can observe and judge rather than engage and risk? Or do I feel that everyone depends on me, all the time?

Physical habits, emotional habits, and attitudes/outlooks can be addictive. We learn patterns that can keep us safe from deep listening, honest reflection, and taking action. Listening to God, reflecting on our life in view of God’s love, and putting that love into action—these aspects of our spiritual life can be thwarted when we scramble back to our habits. There are other kinds of habits, too, such as habits of thought or habits of relationship with things. Any habit that helps us avoid authentic engagement with God is a form of unhealthy attachment.We usually think of unhealthy attachments in terms of relationships with people or relationships with possessions, money, or power. But it’s easy to overlook the subtler relationships we have within the self—with our feelings, our body, and our view of life.

  • For one week, take note of your emotional habits. Do you go through regular cycles? Are there emotions that, when you nurture them, make you feel more powerful or in charge? Or do you cling to emotions that make you feel needy or incompetent?
  • For another week, take note of your habits of attitude and outlook. Try to identify the things you say that indicate that you are: grateful/ungrateful; hopeful/not hopeful; generous/selfish, and so on.
  • And, on any particular day, notice what your body is used to, and if these patterns of food, sleep, activity, and rest are doing you good or harm.


  1. This article explains so much of the unhealthy habits that I have and I will try practicing the above exercise for one week to see how I go. I am sure that I will have a better relationship with God and other people when I do.

  2. I have known a very toxic and argumentative woman for many years. Frankly I am so tired. I am so tired of this person with all her negative energy.I am in great need of spiritual and common sense guidance.

    • Perhaps Arthur could find a spiritual director where he could talk through this situation as God is in all things and telling his story to the. SD and believing the Holy Spirit is present can be very helpful.

  3. I told my Jesuit adviser that I enjoyed visiting prison inmates, especially the hard core ones on death row. He said something that implied to me that because I enjoyed it was not a sufficient reason to do it. The Orthodox Jewish thing is that we keep one of the 600 plus commandments not because it “feels good” but because G-d enjoined us to to it. I don’t like this rationale but I think it is correct.

  4. Vinita, you push me. Unhealtlhy attachment to emotion. Positive or negative. Coz of my age (71) and experience (ex. entrepreneur) I see what my son or daughter is heading towards. So I am emotionally attached to “controlling” their behavior. Rather than letting to and letting God. For example, how do I let my daughter run her business her way rather than having opinions that stress her out. Just shut my mouth. Wait for right timing. Same with my son, Victor. I am tempted to teach him how he should manage the company. Rather than stepping back and letting You teach and train him. For example, should he drop out of the company and join his wife in hers or vice versa. I have my optinion. Should I speak out or keep it to myself. Again what is the timing for each action? To push or to hold back? I need daily discernment to keep me on course.

    • Larry, I think some of the deepest attachments–unhealthy or otherwise–have to do with our children. We want to help them, protect them, be there for them. But you’re right–we need discernment so that we don’t push or pull or overpower or even, unintentionally, shame the ones we love. Thanks for posting. I think many others will relate to what you’ve said.

  5. Yesterday in service, the statement was made “self protection” which means always cover up or making excuses for our actions. I am relatively new to Ignatius and the wording “Unhealthy Attachment” could not be better stated!

  6. Well stated, if we address the smaller unhealthy attachments I believe many of the larger ones would take care of themselves

  7. As St Paul wisely said, in another context – “all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient. I will not be enslaved to anything.”

  8. Two Lents ago I discovered 6:30 Mass. Now it’s being taken away. I wonder if it became a habit keeping me from God. I know my reaction to its elimination is an impediment.


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