In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character finds himself trapped in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again. When we numb ourselves to unpleasant feelings rather than addressing them, we’re doing the same thing. For those of us working to stop bad behavior that hurts our partner and ourselves, emotional numbing means we fail to confront the cause of our actions.
What is emotional numbing?
Emotional numbing happens when we keep ourselves busy with work, self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or seek pleasure in unhealthy habits. Often these behaviors run in a repeating cycle. We binge-eat or drink, clean up our act, dive into an impossible to-do list, get overwhelmed, and repeat.
Even if we’re not numbing ourselves through these kinds of techniques, we may still have a mindset of “not thinking about it.” We become emotionally distant and disconnected from our everyday life and the people in it, as if it were a movie. Going through the motions of life but not really engaging with anyone, including ourselves, is an empty life.
Emotional numbing as self-defense
Whether it’s a series of behaviors or the way we think and feel, we use numbing as a defense mechanism. It’s really a way of avoiding pain and other uncomfortable feelings. In the psychology world, it is known as “dissociation.”
If you’re familiar with the term “fight or flight,” dissociation is the third option you might not have heard of: “freeze.” Like a possum playing dead, we react to discomfort, anxiety, or fear by zoning out. Our hope is that the dangerous or uncomfortable situation will just go away.
Emotional numbing is something that many of us go through at some point in our lives. If we have a bad breakup, we may experience short-term numbing as a natural, but hopefully temporary, response. However it can also be an unhealthy habit – like if we “tap out” every time we’re faced with change or conflict.
Numbing can even be our reaction to stress and burnout, whether it’s from parenting, work, or something else. In more severe cases, numbing can be a symptom of depression, anxiety, or PTSD. These serious manifestations indicate deeper emotional wounds – the kind you might sustain from experiencing war or abuse.
Often, we develop emotional numbing as a coping method during childhood. As kids, we are particularly prone to “step out” of ourselves in response to trauma. While this behavior helps us survive, if we don’t process the trauma properly, it can cause big problems down the line.
When self-defense doesn’t serve us
Emotional numbing and its associated behaviors are rarely good for us in the long term. It’s counterintuitive, but numbing ourselves actually makes us more fragile. Feelings always find their way out – whether it’s through stress-related disease, an emotional breakdown, or an angry outburst.
Even if we somehow avoid these dramatic eruptions, numbing can still lead to harmful behavior. By avoiding unpleasant feelings, such as those we experience when conflict arises, we can become emotionally distant from our partner. This is called stonewalling, and it can severely damage our relationships.
If we stay numb, we get stuck in a time loop – repeating these same damaging behaviors again and again. We stop growing and living to the fullest, and our relationships fall far short of their potential. The bottom line is we can’t numb ourselves from the bad feelings without also shutting out the good stuff: connection, love, creativity, and joy.
The upside to healing
Sometimes we don’t address our past emotional traumas because confronting them seems like it will be too painful. But even the low-level pain we feel from constant numbing will, over the years, add up. That’s costly to us personally.
Unaddressed trauma is a little like financing a television from a predatory lender. Sure, you only pay $1 a day, but the payments continue for the rest of your life. While it is more painful to part with $300 at the cash register, you can then use the TV for free forever.
Sadly, there is a human tendency to hang onto something bad and familiar rather than trading it for something better yet unknown. I can assure you, the new, healed you will feel more peaceful, present, and open to the good things in life. It’s a goal worth pursuing.
Coming back to life
If you have been using emotional numbing to avoid painful emotions, it can take time to unlearn the habit and connect with your true feelings. That’s why it’s worth making a plan of action. What are you going to do, and who can you find to help?
Part of that plan could include replacing your numbing habits with more restorative activities that connect you to your emotions. Reading, having a regular coffee or lunch meeting with a friend, or meditating while walking the dog are just a few ideas. Scheduling in healthy habits like this will give you joy and pleasure, helping you open back up to your feelings.
Consider getting help with this – whether from a professional counselor, pastor, mentor, or some other person you trust. By opening up to another person, especially in a therapeutic environment, we get to the root of the issue faster. An outsider can offer perspective and the support we need to process the source of our emotional numbing and pain.
As unpleasant and painful as they can be, we have feelings for a reason. Lean into what they’re trying to tell you—there is good and helpful information there. If you have decided to address your numbness, you are taking a big and brave step. Your existence can go from a life in grayscale to one in full color!