Feeling empty and detached? You could be suffering from emotional numbness
Emotional Detachment is the experience of feeling disconnected, surreal, and unable to feel emotions. With Emotional Detachment, you feel empty and numb, as if you are an outside observer of your own life. You see it without living in it. You may also report feeling a loss of control over your thoughts or actions.
- Do you feel emotionally empty?
- Do you feel detached from your family and friends?
- Do you look into the mirror and feel like you see a different person?
- Do you feel like a robot, operating life on auto-pilot?
- Do you feel that there is no joy in your life?
- Do you have a surreal feeling as you go through your daily life?
If you identify with the above, you might be struggling with or a form of dissociation known as depersonalization. Emotional numbness is prevalent in our emotion-phobic modern society- yet it is one of the most underestimated and unaccounted for conditions.
“Louise often feels like part of her is “acting.” At the same time , “there is another part ‘inside’ that is not connecting with the me that is talking to you,” she says. When the depersonalization is at its most intense, she feels like she just doesn’t exist. These experiences leave her confused about who she really is, and quite often, she feels like an “actress” or simply, “a fake.” ― Daphne Simeon, Feeling Unreal
How We Become Emotionally Numb
On the surface, it might seem strange that intense people who feel so much would struggle with numbness. However, your sensitivity and intensity could be precisely why you had turned to numbness as an armor to protect yourself.
It might be that you were overwhelmed by too many and too strong emotions from a young age so that you have found numbing as a way to cope. It might be that your childhood environment was violent and precarious, so you had no choice but to detach from what was happening.
In the wild, self-defense is essential for survival. When faced with life-threatening danger, animals will either retreat, attack, assume threatening poses, spout poison, or camouflage themselves. What do we humans do when confronted with physical danger or emotional trauma? We might verbally or physically retaliate, we might run away. If neither is an option, we detach from ourselves, hide our true feelings by disappearing into a zone where our minds could live in denial of reality.
Once we have experienced a physically or emotionally painful situation, such as childhood abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma, we will do all we can to defend against ever being hurt again. We do so by building a wall against the outside world.
Like a protective mechanism in an electric circuit, numbness and emptiness’ kicks in when we are unable to bear the weight of the truth.
Unfortunately, for some of us, the oppressive sense of abandonment, rejection, terror, or shame persists beyond the traumatic event, and the numbness becomes an auto-pilot response. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we become hard-wired to respond to life in a certain way.
Research has shown that childhood trauma emanating from separation (e.g., death of a parent), physical neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, witnessing of violence, and sexual abuse has a strong bearing on their tendency to develop depersonalization.
Of the above factors listed, emotional maltreatment by a parent or parents were found to be the most significant trigger for emotional numbness. Since emotional maltreatment by a parent does not carry any visible signs, its impact on the child often goes undetected until much later in life when he/she exhibits an inability to self-regulate emotions.
Even in the absence of abuse, an emotionally sensitive child can feel out-of-place in their own home; especially if the parents fail to recognize how their child may feel and think differently from them. Telling a hypersensitive child to be stoic and rational, or excessively criticizing them when they have emotional outbursts, can push the child to feel incredibly alienated.
The effect of being an apple that falls far from the tree is compounded by our culture, which promotes the values of masculinity, stoicism, regimentation, and rationalism. As paradoxical as it sounds, emotionally intense people are the most vulnerable to using emotional numbness as a shield to appear ‘normal’ in the world.
Initially, disconnecting made us feel pseudo-calm. It allows us to go on in life, to attend to our work responsibilities, chores and avoid others from worrying about us. It may even be convenient and allow us to appear’ ‘high-functioning’ in the outside world. But this facade comes with a high price. Emotional numbness inhibits our ability to laugh wholeheartedly, express real sadness, or show excitement. We become bystanders in our lives.
Eventually, as we get accustomed to living inside these walls we build around us, we forget who we truly are. We become detached not only from the outside world, but also from our innermost passion, playfulness, and vitality.
People experience numbness differently. You may feel chronically bored, or you may struggle to find words for your feelings. You may detach from your body, gradually losing the ability to be attuned with your body signal of hunger, tiredness, or even losing your sex drive. You may lose the ability to respond to events with joy or sadness, or you struggle to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way.
In Schema Therapy, the wall you built between your true self and your feelings is called “a detach protector’. Much like what its name indicates, it started as a benign attempt to protect us. It was valuable at some point in your life, but might have expired as a survival strategy and is now doing nothing but holds you back.