Emotional Dissociation and How to Start Feeling Again
“I’m coming to terms with the fact that almost all of the time, I feel numb. This scares me. I feel that it’s not normal. Also, I feel that I won’t be able to continue my healing if I’m not in touch with my feelings. Any advice on this?”
A modern-day epidemic
So many people I had treated for anxiety or depression eventually come to realize that dissociation is an underlying issue. People normally don’t seek help for this issue. However, they should! Ignoring numbness is at the root of so many issues which develop later. There are various types and degrees, some more serious than others (depersonalization, derealization, identity confusion). However, I’m also talking about the common, everyday feeling of emptiness so many of us feel.
The solution is deceptively simple
This issue, however, is very treatable. When addressed, there is no need for concern. Here, I’ll talk about ways to start getting back in touch with emotion so that life starts to feel more engaging and joyful.
What numbness looks like:
1. Not being emotionally moved by beauty (nature, music, art, small children).
2. Remembering very few significant moments (from past week, month, year). Elizabeth Loftus proved how important emotion is to memory.
3. A feeling of emptiness, that you’re missing something that others have, that you’re on the outside looking in.
4. No real sense of excitement about goals.
5. Interactions with others are only done from a sense of obligation.
6. Occasionally you get a physical sensation (belly, chest or throat) that feels of emptiness.
7. You frequently question the meaning/purpose of your life.
8. You are a thrill-seeker (reckless behaviour, binges, provocation).
9. You use phrases like: I don’t know, I’m not sure, I don’t care, a lot of the time.
10. You get irritated being around people who are excited, playful or happy (fear of having to pretend).
11. You show few external emotional cues (not laughing out loud, narrow range of facial expressions).
Problems that come up
Numbness is a problem because emotions are vitally important. They act as a sort of guidance system. They tell you what to move towards and what to move away from. Problems that come from numbness might look like:
1. Your mother is emotionally abusive and manipulative. Change needs to take place. However, you start to numb out feelings and are now putting up with it, enabling it, or reinforcing it. The Martyr eventually become the feeler of nothing.
2. Your partner is feeling upset and disconnected. You feel that this should matter to you, and that you would like to change, but the real motivation to change isn’t there. You avoid difficult conversations and emotional intimacy due to lack of feeling.
3. You’ve disliked your job for years. Frustration and prolonged hopelessness have led to numbing or dissociation. The innate talent you have never gets to come forward as numbness is allowing you to tolerate the life that caused your negative feelings to begin with.
How this happens
People can shut out physical pain: People often do amazing things when they are physically in danger. A person with a strained ankle is capable of sprinting away from an ongoing physical assault. How, exactly? When the nervous system needs it to happen (survival) is simply shuts off the pain signal to the body.
We can also shut out emotional pain: Similarly, if we experience enough emotional suffering, and there is no obvious way to address it (or hope of addressing it) the body shuts off the emotional energy system. Childhood trauma (complex) is the most common cause. Childhood Emotional Neglect is another term commonly used to describe the cause. However, prolonged periods of overwhelm or hopelessness in later life can also cause numbness. Heartbreak or toxic relationships are also common causes of emotional numbness. The ultimate pain, grief, is another.
How we shut out emotional pain:
There are a variety of very well understood defence mechanisms that help people to block off the emotional energy system. A few of these are:
- Denial (willfully ignore, distract, avoid)
- Various coping strategies (busyness, sublimation, reaction formation, over planning)
Remember, this happened for a reason
It is vital to recognize that emotional numbness doesn’t just happen. It happens for a very important and useful reason. It is saving you from what may have been too overwhelming to face.
Now that you’ve spotted it, start to welcome it
What (obviously) doesn’t work: I hope it goes without saying but telling someone to ‘cheer up’ or to ‘get over it’ completely misses the point of the issue. Please don’t! Ignore anyone who tells you such things. Even though they are likely trying to help, this is not an issue that can be helped with force.
Acknowledge it as an experience: We usually talk about how to meet our feelings like more compassion and with less resistance. However, what do we do when we feel nothing at all? The approach here is to see this as simply another experience. It may not be an emotion you are having, but it is an experience. In other words, ‘something’ is ‘happening’. The fact that you are aware of it is a huge success in itself.
No broken, just threatened: That feeling of numbness is not a sign that something has gone wrong or that you are broken. It is simply another way in which your nervous system is trying to keep you safe. Much like anxiety, loneliness or depression, the feeling of numbness (or lack of feeling) can be met with an allowing or a compassion. This becomes easier when you realize that the numbness is ultimately on your side. It is a safety device. Gently start to ask your nervous system: “What are you trying to protect me from?”
Don’t try to feel, listen: Notice if you have any resistance to this numbness. Notice if you are trying to ‘fix’ the numbness or trying to ‘make’ yourself feel things. This feeling usually doesn’t last very long. It, like all feelings, passes with more ease when it is allowed. With allowing, this numbness can reveal something very useful. So, don’t ‘try’ to feel things. Rather, meet the numbness without any agenda. Simply ‘listen’ to the numbness and ‘hear’ what is might have to ‘say’. Would you ask your broken leg to ‘feel’ any differently to the way it simply feels? Emotional healing is a natural process. Above all, this process can’t be forced or rushed.
Safety first: In all probability, the numbness needs to feel that you are safe. Therefore, focus on safety. How can you start to feel more safety in your life? Are there certain people you would feel safe talking with? Are there things you can do in your life that make you feel safe? Do this involve shifting priorities in your life?
Body work is essential: Start to do more body work. Focus on breathing exercises. Practice grounding exercises or bringing awareness to what your physical senses are telling you (smell, touch, sounds etc.).