Let’s get one thing straight at the start of this blog post: we all numb our pain. We may like to pretend otherwise; that we are somehow more enlightened, that we lean into our pain, that we are proactive about our coping skills, and that we are invested in understanding our emotional experience, and while we may believevery strongly in the value of these approaches to life, when it comes right down to it, when we are hit upside the head with painful emotions, most of us flee. We head for cover, reach for the nearest bag of potato chips, put ourselves in a Netflix-induced coma, or push ourselves to oblivion out on the trail. The mechanism of numbing may be different, but the fact remains the same: we numb in the face of pain.
So, what is numbing exactly? Numbing includes those behaviors we engage in to distract, avoid, or distance ourselves from our present emotional experience, and we most often engage in numbing behavior to avoid difficult emotions such as fear, shame, grief, sadness, despair, and disappointment.
We all Numb
How can I speak so authoritatively about this? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to claim that everyone numbs emotional pain to some extent? Maybe, but here’s my case. First, the research bears this out. A look to Brene Brown’s research indicates that numbing is something we do to cope with the challenges and uncertainties of life.
Second, I’ve been on the front lines of numbing in my clinical work. As a psychologist, much of my work has been focused on helping individuals identify the ways they numb, the reasons for their numbing, and building strength for letting go of numbing behaviors and turning toward their pain and learning to cope with it. This process can take ten weeks or it can take ten years, depending on the level of conscious awareness about the numbing behavior, the depth of one’s pain, and the resilience of the individual. This is powerful work that is at once brave and terrifying.
Third, I know the mechanisms of numbing because I numb. Although I strive to live a mindfully present life, when I get hit upside the head with painful emotions, all I want to do is hide. Over the years I’ve developed some pretty good awareness about my numbing behaviors, and so though I still catch myself numbing, I can’t do it with any pleasure anymore. Excuse the language, but this is where awareness is a real bitch!
I recognize my tell-tale signs, and I would encourage you to recognize your tell-tale signs of numbing. One of my tells is working like a mad woman. I’ve always been a hard worker, but when I’m numbing my work takes on an obsessive quality, and I can be accused of being manic (which I’m not). I push myself on to the next thing without stopping to catch my breath because slowing down or stopping could allow my emotions to catch up with me, and when I’m trying to outrun fear or dread or disappointment, I can’t afford to stop. I can only work, work, work.
Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they will have to rent out football stadiums. I will be at the front of the line. But even as I share this example, I feel a bit uncomfortable because being seen as a hard worker is praised in our society. The reality of this challenge and how it prevents me from getting my own needs met hit home in a powerful way recently.
In a flurry of work-to-numb behavior, I snapped at my best friend. I immediately felt the wash of shame come over me. My internal alarm bells went off: “What is happening? Get control of yourself!” My ego tried to intrude and justify my behavior, but I knew that I was running on empty and that my approach of literally trying to out-work my fears had failed miserably. And of course, in addition to exhaustion and overwhelm, I had also added the pain of hurting my friend. Pain: 2. Me: 0.
So instead of continuing to avoid my pain, I apologized to my friend and opened up to her about some of my struggles. And of course, she was generous and tender and loving. But as is so often the case with those of us workaholics, when we are numbing we often are praised or are at the very least seen as high-functioning, which is exactly how my friend described me as she indicated not knowing that I was struggling.
It was a big reality check for me. I am good at numbing, and my mechanism of numbing is so effective that I may even be praised for it and fool everyone, including my best friend. That’s awesome if I’m invested in avoiding my emotions, but my value is around showing up for my life, and really leaning into hard emotions and living authentically, so I’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable and show my tender parts to those who—in the words of Brown—have earned the right to hear my story.
This is where the power of AND helps me. I acknowledge my fear and my desire to avoid, numb, and flee even as I choose to experience my emotions and be authentic and vulnerable because this aligns with my values. This is what it might sound like in my head: “This sucks, I am afraid and all I want to do is hide, AND I’m choosing to talk to/journal about/meditate/slow down/etc. because I want to live a connected, compassionate, and courageous life.”
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 as I talk about Numbing as a Way of Life.
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.