Though numbing is often used to avoid difficult emotions, such as pain, fear, grief, and shame, it can also be used to numb feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty, overwhelm, discontent, and disillusionment. Life is big, it is so, so big, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I consider the scope of life and all that it calls for, it leaves me feeling very overwhelmed and not at all up to the task. Churchill put it best: “Life is one damn thing after another.” Truer words were never spoken.
In these moments we are at as much risk for numbing as in our moments of deepest grief. When we feel disconnected from our partners or disillusioned at work, it is so much easier to sit through a Netflix haze all night then to have a difficult conversation or to actually apply for jobs that might frighten and excite us. I’m convinced that the path of least resistance is paved with television remote controls and empty ice cream cartons.
This type of numbing can be more insidious because it is more subtle. When we are in deep pain, we usually know it. We have some conscious awareness of our pain and that we are—to some degree—using a bandage (numbing) on our wound (emotional pain) that will have limited effectiveness. Think about it. If you’ve just experienced a serious break up, you know you’re “supposed” to be upset, that it’s normal to cry, and that a period of grief is understandable. You still may not be comfortable with facing your grief, but you know you have deep pain and there is at least some awareness and space for the idea that emotional expression of the pain is appropriate.
But the numbing of discontent, disillusionment, and disconnection is much sneakier because we often have little conscious awareness of our pain, and therefore less awareness of what needs to change, and how to go about it. It can be hard to uncover the pain of not living a life on purpose. It can hurt to acknowledge the loss of love in a relationship, or the misalignment of values and actions.
Numbing becomes problematic when it becomes a way of life. When we use numbing to cope with the challenges of life on a daily basis we run the risk of developing addictions, which Brown defines as chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off of feelings.
Over time, the occasional glass of wine with dinner becomes a necessity the moment you walk through the door, as you prepare dinner, as you eat dinner, after you put the kids to bed, and before you tuck yourself into bed. What began as a nightcap soon becomes something you look forward to, then rely on, and then can’t do without. And we live in a society that loves to normalize these behaviors. Brown calls these the “take-off-the-edge-aholics” and they could fill two football stadiums.
The real rub of numbing behavior is that we can’t just numb the painful emotions. When we block the dark, we also block the light and limit our expression of humor, happiness, and enthusiasm. In a very real way, our emotional expression becomes much more constrained, limiting authentic engagement, genuine connection, and spontaneous moments of creativity, inspiration, and joy.
The A-word makes many of us very uncomfortable, and I like to joke that I’m not in the business of accusing anyone of having an addiction, but perhaps I am. Regardless, the question to ask yourself is this: does numbing get in the way of living a full, authentic life? Does it get in the way of setting boundaries, being honest, and feeling good enough? Does the behavior keep you stuck in shame, judgment, and self-hate? Do you use the behavior to escape the reality of your life? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you’ve got some work to do (and we all have some work to do).
What to Do, What to Be
I’m always talking about mindfulness, and for good reason. Mindfulness is the antidote to numbing. It is the mechanism for showing up and being present to your life. Mindfulness is the route to 1) developing awareness of your emotional state, 2) cultivating compassion for yourself and 3) learning to tolerate your emotions without numbing.
Mindfulness requires us to be present to our lives without jumping to the past or to the future. Mindfulness requires us to call BS on our Ego, who is always trying to make a problem out of our present situation. Mindfulness asks us “what is happening now?” and “how can I be a friend to the present moment?” and “what is right action in this moment?”
Mindfulness is not concerned with the past. Mindfulness is not worried about the future. Mindfulness recognizes that the only moment of power—the only moment—is this moment, and that our willingness to tolerate our emotions in this moment will provide us the skills we need to take right action and take good care of ourselves.
Mindfulness is ultimately a call to responsibility. It calls us to awaken to our lives and all life demands of us. It says “Stop sleep-walking through your life!” “Stop numbing. Life is at your door, it is asking for your attention. Be here, so you can answer Life’s call and live well.” We can’t hear Life’s call over the television. We can’t see Life’s call through our dense to-do list. We can’t feel Life’s call through the fog of prescription medications.
We can only hear, feel, see, and realize Life’s call in quiet moments of stillness when we are present to ourselves. To be present to ourselves is to be present to Life. Brown talks about two factors that help us overcome numbing: resilience and spirituality.
Resilient people are problem-solvers. They will keep working a problem until it is solved. They are willing to seek help and recognize that they don’t have to figure out a problem all by themselves. Resilient people believe that there are things they can do to help themselves cope with their difficult emotions, and they utilize social support, and work to build connections with others.
Spirituality—not to be mistaken for religion—is the belief in an interconnectedness greater than ourselves based in love and compassion. Spirituality has many faces, but ultimately allows us to cultivate hope, and brings perspective and meaning to our lives. Hope helps us have confidence in our ability to do hard things, cope well, and overcome life’s challenges while growing.
As we answer Life’s call to wake up to all that is available to us we recognize that yes, sometimes we are terrified, sometimes we are ecstatic, but mostly we are very much skin-tingling awake, aware, and alive.
Reference: Brown, C. B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden.