Numbing: What It Is and Why We All Do It

Let me preface this post by saying that what I suggest here is not applicable to situations in which addiction is in play. That needs to be handled by a licensed professional. But for every other situation, take note.

Numbing Behavior

We all do it. Yes, we all do it.

When we don’t want to feel negative feelings, we find ways to ignore them.

We actively seek out numbing behaviors.

We call it “blowing off some steam” or “taking the edge off”.

Usually there’s alcohol involved. Most of the time, you’re not even getting hammered (if you are, see my comment at the beginning of this post). It’s more like that extra glass of wine you wouldn’t normally have.

Or eating that second order of cheese fries.

Or hitting up the treadmill for an extra hour after your grueling spin and Pilates classes.

And while it feels great in the moment, we’re usually left with a hangover -- sometimes physically, always emotionally.

The negative emotions are still there.

We numb subconsciously by staying “crazy busy”.

You know, filling every waking moment with doing something. Anything to keep our mind occupied. Cleaning, working, eating, volunteering, exercising, multi-tasking.

Not a moment is wasted.

And we applaud ourselves for being uber productive.

But ultimately we feel exhausted and empty.

The reason why numbing doesn’t work long-term is that we cannot selectively numb our emotions.

In other words, we can’t numb the bad without numbing the good.

The good news is that the inverse is also true. If we feel the bad, we can also feel the good. But doesn’t that mean we have to experience the crappy emotions we so desperately try to avoid?

It does.

And I’m not saying it’s a delightful and easy experience. If it were, we wouldn’t feel the need to engage in numbing activities for relief.

But good old science tells us there are benefits to abandoning our numbing behaviors.

Research has shown that we engage in numbing behavior primarily because we want to stop feeling shame, anxiety and/or disconnection.

Basically, we want a break from feeling unworthy.

We want to feel connected to others and to feel like we belong to something larger than ourselves.

Here’s the tough part: Developing a sense of worthiness can only be done by yourself.

This is done by actually acknowledging those negative or painful emotions as they arise and being mindful of how you cope with them. As corny as it sounds, the only way to get rid of those crappy feelings is to experience them fully.

Just dig in and let the crappiness envelope you for a bit. Cry it out. Call a your partner or trusted friend and talk it out. Journal about how you’re feeling, why you feel the way you do, and how you’d like to move past it.

By getting clear on what you’re feeling, you’ll be more present and attentive in other areas of your life.

You won’t have to create a scenario of crazy-busy-ness or drunkenness or exhaustion to get things done without room for thought. Instead you’ll be able to experience the small pleasures that happen in daily life and feel genuine connections to others.

Even better -- you don’t have to stop engaging in activities that you sometimes use for numbing purposes. Wha-what?

The key is being mindful about these behaviors.

It’s not necessarily what you do, but why you do it.

So if you want to go to a wine tasting with your friends to enjoy some new wines and kick back. Do it!

But make sure you’re not planning to drink as many wine samples as possible so you can forget about that uncomfortable annual review you just had. Deal with your feelings surrounding the review, then hit up the wine tasting.

Studies show you’ll be less likely to experience a hangover.

What's your numbing behavior of choice?(Mine is eating an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos while watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.) How might you be subconsciously numbing? Hit up the comments below or shoot me an e-mail with your thoughts.