I used to think that people who engaged in numbing behaviors were people who have unhealthy addictions to things like drinking, drugs or gambling. It wasn’t until I learned more about this topic that I realized everybody, no matter how disciplined or healthy, engages in numbing at times, and the impact it has on our overall level of happiness.
We do it, quite simply, to escape emotions that don’t feel good. Some examples of numbing behaviors that are more commonly discussed and accepted among your Volvo-driving soccer mom friends include:
- Working (thank goodness it’s never really done)
- Exercising (I KNEW there was a reason I shouldn’t)
- Facebooking (yes-I just made Facebook a verb. You’re welcome)
- Pinning (my favorite creative outlet)
- Shopping (but there’s something at Target we need…I’m sure of it)
- Reading (nothing like escaping into the latest vampire novel)
- Eating (when you’re not hungry that is)
- Perfecting (if you’re a perfectionist you know what I mean)
- Cleaning (Seriously? How could this be bad?)
- Being too busy (everybody gets 24 hours every day)
- Yelling (sorry kids)
- Watching TV (my personal favorite)
Now hold on just a minute. I’m not saying you should not be doing the things listed above. Sometimes even a little yelling can be tremendously effective at getting the kids to finally brush their teeth. What I’m suggesting is to notice when you do these things in order to escape a negative feeling. When you get the bill from the dentist and it is twice what you expected and you have thoughts like, “I have no idea how we’re going to pay this!” you may feel fear. If you decide you don’t want to think about it so you hurry up and mop the floor, you’re practicing not feeling the emotion. You numb yourself a little bit more to emotions in general each time you do this.
I used to think this was the most effective way to manage my life. I was proud of the fact that if I didn’t feel good, I had “healthy coping mechanisms” that I could turn to. Perhaps I had an awful day at work. I would come home, go for a 5-mile jog and then scour the house from top to bottom and I would feel pretty darn good afterwards. Sounds healthy right?
Here is the problem. When we numb ourselves to feelings we do not get to numb only the negative ones. We numb ourselves from positive feelings as well. I always thought I was just not a very sentimental or emotional person. I could watch Marley and Me without shedding a single tear. But the truth is I got so good at avoiding my feelings, that I desensitized myself until I didn’t even know how to completely feel them any longer. The bad AND the good. I remember at one time wondering if I was just totally cold and dead inside because it took an extreme event for me to feel a lot of hurt OR a lot of joy. And I didn’t like it at all.
Many of the women I coach have desensitized themselves the same way I had. I like to talk with my clients about what emotions they feel regularly and some of them can’t tell me. They say they don’t know or they say they are just too busy to have time to stop and feel anything or that they don’t allow themselves to feel because it’s too painful. The shame of this is the joy and happiness they are missing out on. Isn’t that what this life is about?
So how do you know if you’re numbing or just going for a jog? You pay attention to yourself. You allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling by naming the emotion, acknowledging it and even connecting with it. Rather than push away the feeling by distracting yourself with a banana nut muffin and a Super Big Gulp, try leaning into it.
For example, when you open up that big fat dentist bill and feel a surge of heat up through your head follow these steps:
1. Name the emotion.
“Fear. This is fear.”
I like to talk to it and I say, “Hello fear. I see you.”
2. Explore it by describing what it feels like physically.
“You make my head feel hot and my palms sweat. I also feel you in my stomach. You make me queasy and not hungry. My mouth is dry when you’re here. You are dark blue and hot and you move fast through me.”
This step is important because you need to connect with what emotions feel like to YOU as we are all different. It also gives you practice with noticing and allowing feelings again.
3. Connect it to the thoughts that are causing it.
“I know you’re here because I just looked at this bill and I am thinking about how I don’t have enough money to pay it. My mind is running wild about what it might mean. I’m subconsciously thinking that I might not have enough, that I might not be able to meet a commitment, that I might have to sacrifice something I don’t want to, that I might not be the responsible, on-time bill paying person I want to be and what that might mean about me, my value, my life or my future.”
After you’ve done this, if you still want to go for a jog, do it! Just notice that if the feeling comes up again (which it probably will), you’ll want to repeat the process.
My favorite part about this exercise (which happens over the course of about 60 seconds) is that by the time I get to step 3 the emotion has washed over me and is gone. It might resurface again…maybe a few minutes later or a few hours later, but I repeat these 3 steps every time and I keep uncovering new thoughts (very interesting indeed!) and it keeps washing away. It’s like a wave that washes up and then is gone. Sometimes it repeats itself for days if it’s an extreme event but often two or three times and then it’s gone.
Negative emotions like to hide and sneak up on us and when we lean into them and acknowledge them, they lose their power. Furthermore, they don’t feel as horrible as we seem to fear they will. Just allowing them is so much less painful than resisting them.
Even better, I find myself experiencing joy and happiness and silliness and excitement and love and all the other positive emotions I want to feel…much more intensely as a result. You know those little moments that make up life? The ones you KNOW are where you need to find your joy but it’s just too hard with all the challenges. They start to become more intense when you’re good at allowing yourself to feel everything. The happy times become much more vibrant once you condition yourself to feel all over again.
So, keep reading, Pinning and if you want to have a Mad Men Marathon call me and I’ll join you. Just notice yourself when negative emotions arise and see what happens in your life when you stop numbing and just allow. I can’t wait for you to experience this as I really can’t do it justice with words.
If you have questions about this or any other topic you’re reading about here please send me a message: [email protected]
I love your guts.
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