Painful life events and struggles are inevitable. They are part of the human experience. However, the interpretation or meaning that you give these painful experiences, and how you choose to cope (or not) with your emotions, is what will ultimately dictate your experience.
If you choose to numb your pain, you miss the wisdom and resilience it can offer you.
“Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid pain and consequently miss our becoming.”—Glennon Doyle
Do you struggle to be fully in touch with your emotions? Maybe you find yourself reaching for a glass of wine (or two, or three…) whenever discomfort arises. Perhaps you binge on sugary treats at night or shop compulsively online as a way to numb yourself. Or, maybe you do all of the above.
If you choose to (actively or unconsciously) numb yourself or engage in compulsory behaviors, know that there is nothing wrong with you.
It is common for humans to avoid their suffering.
However, looking to external factors to numb discomfort will only breed more suffering.
Why We Numb Ourselves
As a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of disordered eating and addiction, here are some common phrases I hear regarding why people choose to numb themselves to their experience:
“I don’t want to feel anything because it scares me.”
“If I slow down enough to feel, I’ll be out of control and never stop.”
“I like to stay busy so that I don’t feel my pain.”
Even when people don’t explicitly say these things, consider how many people you know (including yourself?) who’ve attempted to numb or distract their minds as a way to cope with challenging experiences, like trauma. Trauma specialist, Peter A. Levine, declares that the experience of trauma isn’t what will hurt you in the long term — it’s your perception, shame, and avoidance of dealing with it that ultimately creates suffering.
Levine says, “The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” Traumatic or painful life events can destroy in the sense that they can trigger a fight-or-flight response and the impulse to dissociate.
The impulse to disassociate from painful emotions is often tied to survival. Author, Renee Fredrickson, declares that “dissociation gets you through a brutal experience, letting your basic survival skills operate unimpeded…Your ability to survive is enhanced as the ability to feel is diminished…All feelings are blocked [and] you ‘go away.’ You are disconnected from the [painful experience] and yourself…Viewing the scene from up above or some other out-of-body perspective is common among [those who’ve experienced trauma].”
Perhaps your emotional pain has been so severe, for so long, that you choose to escape as a way to survive. And (even though it may not feel like a conscious decision), maybe you choose to numb yourself to experience some relief from the burdensome weight of your emotions.
However, by numbing yourself to your pain, you are also inadvertently denying yourself access to the many joys that life has to offer. Dr. Robert Firestone, author of Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life, states that each person develops idiosyncratic ways of dulling and deadening him or herself and disconnecting from unpleasant emotions and life experiences. To the extent you are defended, you are cut off from being able to experience genuine feelings — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus, to varying degrees, you walk through your life in a numbed state.
Are You Living Numb?
To establish whether or not you are choosing to live from a numb or defended space, it is helpful to consider what Dr. Firestone deems as being significant features of the numb or defended person. The characteristics of someone who chooses to cope in such ways can include:
- Loss of feeling and varying degrees of dissociation
- The tendency toward reliance on addictive substances and behaviors
- Preference for isolation and fantasy gratification over satisfaction derived from real achievements or relationships
- Self-critical or self-hating attitudes toward oneself
- Cynical and suspicious attitudes toward others
If you can identify with one or more of the characteristics mentioned above, then you know deep down that choosing to anesthetize your emotions is no longer working out for you.
If you want to live your life fully, you must permit yourself to feel your emotions—all of them. “You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts, and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody,” says Glennon Doyl. “Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.”
To fulfill what you came here to do (i.e., to live in your purpose and joy), you must quit trying to always control yourself. You must cultivate trust in yourself and your ability to move through difficult things. The only thing that was wrong with you was your belief that something was wrong with you — that you couldn’t trust yourself and your emotions. Somewhere along the way, you stopped honoring your truth, and numbing became a way to keep you busy, distracted, and distant in your life and relationships.
Your Healing Journey
Despite not trusting yourself or believing that you are strong enough to handle painful emotions, within you, there lives a deeply wise and intuitive child who yearns to feel safe and to love without abandon. And getting in touch with this inner child involves learning how to constructively handle your emotions—instead of choosing to numb, distract, or escape from them.
Paradoxically, all that you seek to numb—the truths too challenging to deal with, the unrealistic expectations you place on yourself, the loose ends stemming from your family-of-origin, and the heartbreaks that you’ve experienced — serve as fodder for your healing.
You’ll know you’ve made great strides in your healing journey when it starts feeling better to move through your emotions—the entire spectrum of them—rather than avoiding them and dealing with the emptiness that doing so inevitably brings. There comes the point when numbing yourself is no longer appealing, when you’d rather face yourself as you are and confront your pain head-on.
Ultimately, confronting your hurt (instead of numbing yourself to it) involves shifting the attitude that you choose to cultivate and expand on going forward. While you cannot change the past, you can undoubtedly change your response to it. German psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said that “everything can be taken away from a human being except the last freedom, the freedom to choose your attitude in response to the circumstances in your life.”
So, what are you going to choose — to continue numbing yourself and thus deny your becoming, or will you trust yourself enough to move through the pain so that you may create magic and share it with the world?
Catlett, J. & Firestone, R., Ph.D. (1989). Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life. (The Glendon Association.
Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed. (The Dial Press)
Frankl, V., Ph.D. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. (Verlag für Jugend und Volk)
Fredrickson, R. (1992). Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse (Fireside Parkside Books)
Joyce, C. (2021). Defense Mechanisms: How Defenses May Be Holding You Back. (https://www.psychalive.org/defense-mechanisms/).
Hartney, E., Ph.D. (2020). What is Dissociation? (Verywell Mind).
Levine, P.. Ph. D. (1997). Waking the Tiger. (North Atlantic Books).