Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

Detached Engagement: How Obsessing Less Can Help Us Succeed

Why do we perform better in situations we care less about?

Key points

  • Pressure, high hopes, and extreme emotional investment often get in the way of our performance and goals.
  • Detached engagement can help us to keep a healthy perspective and celebrate our participation and progress.
  • With so much pressure on them, certain sports stars have adopted their own method of detached engagement.
Renith R/Unsplash
Detached Engagement
Source: Renith R/Unsplash

The English cricket captain Jos Buttler writes a controversial message on every bat he plays with: “F*ck It.”1

Ironically, he says, dismissing the game with expletives helps him win. As he puts it, "I think it’s just something that reminds me of what my best mindset is—when I’m playing cricket, and probably in life as well…It puts cricket in perspective. When you nick off, does it really matter?"

What he’s describing is a concept called detached engagement, which has its roots in Indian philosophy and which I believe is crucial for people’s success and survival in a stressful and challenging world.

If you’ve ever felt crushingly frustrated that you haven’t performed your best because you’re "overthinking it," you’re "in your own head," or putting too much pressure on yourself, then detached engagement could hold lessons for you.

That self-sabotaging feeling has almost certainly been felt by Ons Jabeur, the phenomenal tennis star hoping to be the first African woman to win Wimbledon. Twice she managed to make it to the final, but twice the pressure of that title got in the way.

The horrible truth is that being too obsessed with something can lead to a loss of boundaries, burnout, anxiety, negative self-talk, and disassociation.

And none of that is good for performance or your psychological health.

On the flip side, we know we often do better and feel better in situations we care less about. For instance, many of us feel we’d do better in a job interview when we were less invested in the role, simply because we’d be less nervous about it.

So, in a complicated and stressful world, how do we practice detached engagement? Essentially, this means engaging in the world but emotionally detaching from the consequences, good or ill, that emanate from our efforts.

I believe two things help with respect to detachment. The first is perspective. Nothing matters as much as you think at the time. With time, successes fade and failures lose their sting. So, practice zooming out and looking at what you care about from a bigger perspective. Even Buttler, who stood up to bat for his country in incredibly high-profile games, said it helped to ask, “When you nick off, does it really matter?”

The second is no ego. Take your ego out of situations as much as possible. Too often, we believe that winning a game or some other external success will prove our internal worth. This puts huge extra pressure on us because it raises the stakes of winning or losing. Who on earth could be content with losing if it meant you believed you were worthless or unloved?

Instead, we need to work on building that internal acceptance of ourselves that will remain whether we win or lose. By maintaining that zoomed-out lens, we can keep other parts of our lives that make us feel good and worthy in plain sight.

The crowds cheering so loud for Jabeur that she could hardly speak after her loss2 are a testament not only to her greatness but also to the crowd's unconditional love for who she is regardless of the result.

Believing in our internal worth and parking our ego needs is not easy in a world that forces us to compare ourselves with others all the time, particularly on social media where we can count the likes and dislikes and read floods of negative comments, but it’s essential.

Of course, engagement is essential for success, too. The theory of detached engagement still requires us to care deeply about what we’re striving for and to fight for it. It just says there are healthy ways to engage and unhealthy ways to engage.

Again, I believe two things can help keep us engaged. The first is a sense of duty arising from the various roles we have in life and our responsibility to them. As long as you’re focusing on your sense of duty, you can be satisfied that you are discharging your responsibilities. With this mindset, it’s not outcomes that count so much as your courage to take part, your commitment to trying and learning from the result.

The second principle that helps keep us positively engaged is focusing on progress rather than trying to achieve everything at once or giving up because the prize just seems so far away. Seeing yourself on a much bigger and longer journey helps. You can’t win or lose everything in one game, one job interview, or anything else. All we can do, in the great history of time and the universe, is move things along one tiny step at a time.

We all know that none of this is easy. As always with psychology, true growth tends to be a life’s work rather than a quick fix. But it does come, one step at a time, with a bit more practice and—ironically—a bit less obsession about the outcome.


1. Buttler explains bat handle message. Cricket. June 5, 2018.

2.Wimbledon. Ons Jabeur | Finalist Post-match Interview | Wimbledon 2023. YouTube.

More from Gurnek Bains Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today