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Emotional Numbing Is a Coping Mechanism Run Amok

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As a coach and psychologist I work with many people who have baggage from the past. Face it, we all have some. No one gets through their life without something happening that has a negative impact. Whether these events are traumatic or whether they are merely stressful, we all develop coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with them and to get by.

Sometimes those coping mechanisms are responsible for our very survival. For example, they may allow us to “turn off” our emotional reaction so that we can do what we need to do to survive, as is the case for soldiers in battle. These coping mechanisms may keep us from experiencing things that are far too intense for us to be able to comprehend, such as when a sexually abused child disconnects and floats out of her body. We may shove our own feelings aside in order to help others as is the case in accidents or disasters. In order to cope, people learn to “turn off” their emotions. And emotional numbing is a good thing at the time. It helps them survive. It helps them cope.

But these same coping strategies that started off as a survival tool can run amok and become a huge detriment to a happy life. While turning off the emotion was once a lifesaver, it can become an automatic response and gets used as the default response even though the stressor that prompted this response in the first place is no longer there.

As humans we are not robots, and behaving like one doesn’t allow us to experience all the things that are important about being human. It shuts us off from intimate relationships. It keeps us from experiencing joy and happiness. It doesn’t allow us to live fully and passionately. When we are emotionally numb, we go through life as if it is grey, maybe no longer experiencing lows and intense negative emotions, but also not able to experience highs and intense positive emotions either. We wander around as if we are in an emotional fog, cut off from one of the things that makes us uniquely human-our emotions.

Some people might not think this is a big deal. After all, that coping mechanism that allows us to numb ourselves-dissociation-keeps us from being overwhelmed and allows us to focus on what we need to do to survive. It can allow us to reduce both emotional and physical pain, allowing us to cut ourselves off from our experience until we are better able to manage it. But when we use the coping mechanism of emotional numbing all the time, we lose our ability to feel.

Unfortunately, the emotions you numbed get stockpiled and you don’t ever get a chance to work them through. Your own coping mechanism essentially keeps you from getting down to dealing with the situation and those emotions you’ve been avoiding. You don’t get an opportunity to manage the emotions so that you won’t need to avoid them.

In addition, many people form the belief that it is bad to feel intense emotions-because it wasn’t O.K. way back when, it still isn’t O.K. to feel them. They generalize from the experience where they numbed their emotions in order to cope to current situations. The assumption is that the current situation is also one that needs to be numbed. And, all of this goes on below the surface of your conscious mind, in the part of your mind that is below your awareness most of the time-your subconscious mind.

Emotional numbing, once it becomes a habit, doesn’t usually give you the opportunity to experience your current emotions and discover that you can manage them very well without having to numb them. You don’t get the corrective experience to unhook from this pattern.

Because emotional numbing has become an unconscious habit, you need to take steps to change it. And, it can be changed. To change it, you typically need to revisit the event in which this habit first formed. The good news is that it is not completely necessary to go digging around in the muck and mire and re-experience old trauma or old negative experiences. When you view those experiences from a distance, and discover what you need to learn from such experiences, it is easy to let go of the intense emotions that were blocked by your emotional numbing. But you do need to let those emotions go in order to be able to begin to feel again.

One way of thinking about it is that the intense emotions and the desire to avoid them are damming up your ability to feel. Once you acknowledge the intense emotions (notice I said “acknowledge,” not “re-experience”) them, you can learn what it is you need to know from that experience and leave this behind. I use a method I’ve developed called the “Life Moments Makeover Systemâ„¢” which allows people to release the negative emotions and beliefs attached to significant moments in their lives so that they are no longer held captive by those moments. Once that happens, they can once again begin to experience emotions about events in their past without worry that the emotions will be too intense.

It can take some practice to begin to re-experience emotions again-they sometimes have to come out of hibernation. But the idea is to be able to experience emotions in the moment without having to carry the emotional charge around from past experiences. The idea is that you won’t have to numb yourself because you really won’t be haunted by those emotions from past experiences.

While this may sound complicated, it really isn’t. It may take a little guidance or some practice to begin to feel again without being worried about being overwhelmed by emotions from the past. Getting rid of the negative emotions and limiting beliefs from past negative experiences is the first step towards being able to feel again. And it is well worth it!

(c) 2011 Linda S. Pucci, Ph.D.

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