In this post, I want to begin work on improving my ability to clearly know what I am feeling.
However, I want to understand the problem before I try to figure out the solution. I want to begin by understanding what could have caused me to numb out emotionally.
I began my search by asking Google: “What causes emotional numbness?” I scrolled through the results and shortlisted four articles.
The first article that caught my eye was, 7 Signs You Are Emotionally Numb. This felt like a good place to start because it offered me a chance to compare my symptoms with well-known symptoms of emotional numbness. Another factor that helped me choose this article was its author, Dr. Jonice Webb, whom I had heard of before.
After reading the seven signs from the article, I realized that five of them perfectly described what I felt:
At times, you feel experience a physical sensation, especially in your belly, chest or throat (but can be anywhere in your body), of emptiness.
You sometimes watch yourself going through the motions in a situation, perhaps even when you know you should be feeling happy, sad, connected or angry. Yet you feel nothing.
You frequently question the meaning or purpose of your life.
You feel mystifyingly different from other people. The lack of connection to your feelings does set you apart. You may feel like other people are living a more vivid life than you are.
You often feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Your emotions should be connecting you to others, and instead, they are holding you separate.
This was how I felt, perfectly explained in five lines.
From the remaining two signs, I have often felt a variation of one.
You are a thrill-seeker. Thrill-seeking is often an attempt to feel something.
I’m not a thrill-seeker per se but I do seek variety. When I examined this desire a bit deeper, I believe it’s for the same reason — an attempt to feel something.
So, yes, I do have the signs. I am grateful to Dr. Jonice Webb for articulating them.
She attributes emotional numbness to Childhood Emotional Neglect:
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents are not aware enough of your feelings and emotional needs as they raise you. — Dr. Jonice Webb
This does resonate with me. The circumstances of my childhood were such that it may have been difficult for my parents to be aware of my emotional needs. Not knowing what to do, I may have switched off my emotions as a survival mechanism. This makes sense because I remember having feelings of not being validated.
Encouraged by what I learned from Dr. Webb’s article, I moved onto the next article which was titled Understanding Emotional Numbness. As I read this article, I immediately resonated to an experience it described:
“The world around me often seems slightly superficial, [like] I am simply going through the motions and can’t connect to my environment,”
I‘ve felt that sense of disconnection for years. I use the past tense because I’m feeling better for the past few months (I can’t say for sure but engaging in creative activities seems to be helping me).
The article attributes emotional numbness to several causes such as anxiety, depression, acute stress, and PTSD.
Acute stress can cause the body to be flooded with stress hormones. If the body is subjected to such stress for a very long time then the limbic system could be affected, leading to emotional numbness.
By this point, I was beginning to get a better understanding of what may be happening but I had two more articles on my list and I wanted to complete reading them.
The next article, What Is Emotional Numbing? felt similar to the previous one but it explained the problem in a slightly different way. I know from experience that, sometimes, the choice of words can have a significant impact on how well I understand a concept.
The article’s first paragraph put me at ease when it explained:
Emotional numbness is something most people will experience at some point in their life. Quite often, the feeling is temporary. However, for some, feeling emotionally numb becomes a way of life to protect from further emotional or physical pain.
I knew it had been more than just a temporary feeling for me but I was also glad that I had become aware of a defense mechanism that was harming me and was finally ready to face it.
The article goes on to quote Dr. Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT about what could happen as a result of prolonged emotional numbness:
“While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engage in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills,”
From experience, I agree with all the above points.
This article lists PTSD, grief, overwhelming stress, and depression as possible causes along with physical, mental, emotional, or substance abuse.
The final article on my list felt slightly different. It was titled Depersonalisation: Why Do I Feel Empty and Numb? The article began with a quote that described someone’s personal experience:
“I am emotionally intense, but mostly I feel nothing, empty, detached from reality and those around me…”
This resonated with me right away. I know for sure that I’m an intense person and I also know that I feel emotional numbness.
Reading further, I found this cause of emotional numbness to be very helpful.
Emotional numbness finds its origin in a part of our personal history that is too painful to reach.
So, regardless of whether the cause is CEN, PTSD, overwhelming stress, or something else, emotional numbness seems to have its origin in some part of our past experiences that are too painful to reach.
The article was full of helpful points and guidance. I learned that what starts off as a protective shield often overextends its usefulness and becomes a chronic condition that prevents us from living life to the fullest.
Thanks to what I had just read, I came back to my own life and inquired a bit more into my own experience.
I’ve often felt flat. As if I had lost the ability to participate in life. All I could do was watch others participate and wonder how they did it.
It feels very true that it was a defense mechanism that protected me from repeatedly going through the experiences that were harming me. But unfortunately, the emotional numbness also preventing me from knowing that I was feeling acute stress. I also think that the passion I had for my work and software-development in general when I began my career and the drive to gather more knowledge further masked the feeling of stress and anxiety.
It feels late, when I’m already a few years past middle-age, to finally realize what’s been blocking me from feeling joy. It’s also painful to come to this realization. But it’s better late than never.
What I’ve learned has prompted me to inquire more into my own life history. Once I’ve done that, I plan to return to the four articles and read about the therapies they have suggested. I’ll write about them in my next post.
Thanks for reading and be well!!!