Staying Numb Means Staying Unchanged

Asian woman with headache thinkingSome people drink a lot, smoke pot a lot, or work a hell of a lot.

While for many people, these activities might indicate a clinical addiction that needs to be directly addressed, for many others, these—and other activities—may be used to avoid discomfort.

A few of the most common issues people find themselves trying to avoid include:

  • Disappointment in relationships (or the lack of a relationship)
  • Feeling used at a job or unenthusiastic about work
  • Remembering something painful they would rather forget

Anyone who grew up with a pet hamster probably noticed how it would spend its day running in place on a wheel. Well, we can be like that, too. We can run and run as we try to hold off feelings of discomfort. The problem is, once we stop, we’re still on the wheel. We’re more exhausted, but we’re still in the same cage.

The Numbing Process

Some people I work with experience anger issues, but many others experience what appears to be the opposite: They go numb.

Through the anesthesia of their choice, they attempt to cordon themselves off from feelings. This can actually be effective for a certain amount of time. In fact, many people swear by this technique. Often, they’re proud of they way they “compartmentalize” so well!

Yet, feelings find a way to come out.

If you deal with discomfort by going numb, you’re hiding two things: You’re warding off the initial feeling, and you’re growing more worried of what will happen once that feeling emerges.

  • If you allow yourself to get angry, will you insult or hurt someone?
  • If you allow yourself to grieve, will you ever find your way out?
  • If you allow yourself to be scared, will you ever be strong again?
  • If you let others know you’re sad, will they say, “Get over it,” or tell you that you’re too needy?
  • If you let others know you’re angry at them, will they disappear?

Avoiding Feelings to Protect Our Relationships

Numbing is sometimes used to protect the status quo in our relationships with other people.

We are constantly changing and the world around us is constantly changing. Numbing, however, keeps things just as they are.This is often easier to see in others than ourselves. Can you think of a person who has a girlfriend, a parent, or a friend that they are always making excuses for? Maybe you question how and why they continue to keep this person in their life?

If they really considered the way that person treated them, they might need to say something or make some real changes in the relationship. Avoiding the negative feelings and continuing to run on the wheel means that someone doesn’t have to risk change. Change is scary, and it can sometimes be painful, so many people choose to avoid the risk.

Resistance to Change

We are constantly changing, and the world around us is constantly changing. Numbing, however, keeps things just as they are.

It’s hard to keep things the same when we live in a changing world. Both the people we love and the people we hate are changing. Maybe these changes aren’t big ones, and maybe people don’t change in the way we’d like them to change, but no one is static.

When we’re drunk, the world might seem OK. When we’re high, we can’t help laughing. When we’re at work six days a week, 10 hours a day, we are accomplishing something and stressing about something that has nothing to do with us. We’re running on a hamster wheel that we perceive is protecting us, but we’re not feeling what’s actually going on around us.

It’s not by accident that transitions—birthdays, breakups, funerals, graduations—are often surrounded with alcohol. We’re scared during these times, even if the transitions lead to something exciting. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Fear can be adaptive when we’re actively taking part in the transition to something new. It’s unhealthy, however, when we’re OK with being stuck on the hamster wheel.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • Merri

    Merri

    September 11th, 2015 at 3:46 AM

    I will admit that there have been times that the pain is so great that it almost feels better to your psyche to feel nothing at all versus letting all of the feelings come through.
    Now I will admit that that is not the healthiest thing to do in terms of getting over something, but it does help cushion things for a while until you are ready to confront the problem.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    September 11th, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    Absolutely, Merri. And there are times when numbing out is adaptive–certainly in times of crisis it can be a matter of survival for us to be numb instead of feeling all of the pain and suffering. Thanks for your comment!

  • Donna B.

    Donna B.

    September 12th, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    I have been running my whole life from something unknown, the feelings that I shut off then. I don’t know how to turn and embrace me. One way to live in trauma and with is to numb. What is your suggestion to get to the core feelings?

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    September 12th, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    My girlfriend is a stuffer and goes to a numb place when things hurt. I am the opposite. I have learned the hard way this last year that no filter causes deep pain. I’m praying that somewhere, through counseling, we can both learn skills that bring us both out of the extremes and closer to the center. She is the most important person in my world. Our opposite reactions, especially my lack of filtering my emotions before reacting, to difficult times has torn us apart. Change is scary but not healing and losing her is much more scary. I want a healthy relationship no matter how much work and change is required. And that scares me.

  • teller

    teller

    September 13th, 2015 at 8:32 AM

    You are so right- if we not willing to confront those scary feelings, then there will never be the opportunity to make the changes that we need

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    September 14th, 2015 at 5:45 AM

    Donna–Thanks for writing and being so vulnerable and honest. I wish there was an easy suggestion, but it’s often important to remember that there’s a reason we’re running from these feelings. When we’ve been doing it for so long, and if we’re trying to ‘out run’ a trauma, it can be best to slowly slow down while working with a therapist whom you trust–and that you’ve taken time to build that trusting relationship with.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    September 14th, 2015 at 5:48 AM

    Melissa–sounds like you’ve already started the process of doing the work. It IS scary–and uncomfortable, especially when you and your girlfriend use opposite means of managing difficult feelings. I admire your dedication to looking at this.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    September 14th, 2015 at 5:49 AM

    teller–Thanks for your comment. The word ‘scary’ seems to come up a lot. It’s true!

  • Kim

    Kim

    September 14th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Think about all of the things that you are missing out on by refusing to open up more to your own feelings.

  • Teka

    Teka

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    I want adventure so being stuck on the hamster wheel is definitely not my style. I have lately though been finding myself more and more afraid of the big things, trying something new like a new job or at times even going out and meeting new people. I’m not really sure where it is all coming from and it honestly makes me a little scared because I know that this is not the person that I have always been.

  • charity

    charity

    October 3rd, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    this article really hits home for me I have lived this way for so many years and it seems I’m stuck, I don’t know how to get past this coping mechanism and more often then not I feel stressed just thinking of escaping it. I really do want to try because this way is really wearing on me.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    October 4th, 2015 at 9:22 AM

    Charity-You’re certainly not alone in using this very effective coping mechanism. Effective, but exhausting. Still, it takes a lot of bravery to make this change so I appreciate your desire to take this step. Please find a safe, caring therapist to support you.

  • fin

    fin

    January 31st, 2016 at 4:19 AM

    but HOW do you start feeling again? how get close to difficult things without numbing? how how how?

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    January 31st, 2016 at 3:40 PM

    fin-That’s the question, right? I wish I had a step by step guide, but the best way I know is to slowly learn to have access to all of your feelings. All of them–the good ones and the ones that feel crappy. It’s what mindfulness is all about, and it’s certainly what therapy is about. Can you have a feeling, know you have a feeling, not judge the feeling, and go to the next moment? It’s what I spend my days helping people do and it’s not easy.

  • Sherry

    Sherry

    May 14th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    My only child committed suicide. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to deal with the grief. I feel like if I allow myself to go there, I’ll never recover. The pain is so intense it scares me. It’s been 2 years.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    May 16th, 2016 at 8:56 AM

    Sherry- Such an incredible, horrific thing for you. I’m so sorry. That kind of grief is extremely strong and the pain can seem unbearable. Sometimes the grief is the only thing we feel we have left of the person as well. The depth of that grief is not something that is easy–or even helpful– to connect with on your own and I hope you have some strong supports in your life–friends, family, a group, a therapist, a spiritual counselor. By commenting online I hope that’s an indication that you are finding ways to reach out. Moving through that alone is scary and can seem bottomless.

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