At some point or another we’ve all heard these words before:
“Suck it up princess!” “Be a man!” “Stop being a cry-baby,” “Get over it,” “Stop being so sensitive,” “Get thicker skin!”
While these words were likely spoken without consciously intending us long-term harm, they nevertheless point to a common and undeniably tragic truth in our society: that expressing your emotions is a sign of weakness, rather than strength.
If you were born into an emotionally repressed culture that valued the “masculine” ideals of efficiency and logic, it is likely that you struggle with some level of emotional numbness.
If you were born into a family that shunned any form of strong emotional expression, it is even more likely that emotional numbing is an issue for you.
And if you experienced an extremely traumatic life event that was simply too overwhelming for you to handle (from which you haven’t recovered), I can almost guarantee that you suffer from emotional numbness.
So how does emotional numbness impact virtually every part of our life? And what advice can I share with you after going through my own struggle with this issue? Keep reading and you’ll find out.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS?
Emotional numbness is a defense mechanism employed by the mind to avoid intense and overwhelming emotions such as fear, hatred, jealousy, and grief. When you go emotionally numb, you lose the ability to feel and experience your emotions on a psychological and emotional level. In this sense, emotional numbness is often clinically connected with dissociation, which is the disconnection from one’s memories, identity, environment, body, or senses.
WHAT CAUSES EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS?
As with most issues, emotional numbness goes back to childhood and the way we were raised by our parents. Being abused by our parents physically, emotionally, sexually, psychologically, or spiritually can contribute towards our inability to self-regulate emotions, which results in emotional numbness. Feeling alienated or disconnected from one or both of our parents, or family at large, can also contribute towards emotional numbness. Being punished whether directly or indirectly for expressing our emotions in childhood also creates emotional numbness.
Numbing our emotions may also start after a severely traumatic experience, such as witnessing acts of violence, being assaulted, experiencing rape, suffering intense loss, or anything that we didn’t have the capacity to psychologically and emotionally handle in the moment. For this reason, emotional numbness is often a symptom of PTSD and various anxiety disorders.
Emotional numbness is also influenced by our culture and wider social circles, particularly those that emphasize being stoic, rational, and emotionally invulnerable (e.g. British, Chinese, Japanese, Russian).
THE DANGER OF EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS
If you even have the slightest inkling that you might be emotionally numb, it’s time to listen up. Emotional numbness is not a small character flaw or minor area of self-growth to improve in – it is a serious problem which needs to be addressed immediately.
Speaking from experience, emotional numbness has formed the root of many issues I have faced (and still continue to face) in my life. Due to my upbringing in an emotionally stunted, dogmatically religious family whom I felt disconnected from for the majority of my life, I never learned how to handle strong emotions. I was punished verbally, emotionally or physically anytime I expressed strong emotions, and freethinking or any form of dissent was rejected, resulting in being ostracized.
The combination of having a British father and a mother who was traumatized by her own emotionally unstable mother – on top of an oppressive fundamentalist religion – led to grooming me as a stoic and “stable” person who was taught that expressing emotions was not only bad but shameful.
As you can see, sometimes there are numerous factors in play which may contribute to your inability to regulate intense emotions, and therefore resort to unconsciously numbing them. In my case, I learned that strong emotions = punishment in one form or another, and so I learned that they were dangerous to experience.
The danger of disconnecting from your emotions is that it can lead to a host of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual issues. Such issues may include dysfunctional coping mechanisms (obsessive compulsions), mild to severe depression, spiritual emptiness, inability to enjoy life, inability to form close and fulfilling relationships, disconnection from inner self, confusion, irritability, fatigue, addictions, chronic illnesses, and somatic illnesses (illnesses produced by the mind).