I have written a lot here about the warning signs of numbed out feelings. I have highlighted the usual suspects: food, alcohol, screen time, over busyness, shopping, gambling.
But, today I have been thinking about WHY we numb. What is it that leads us to a place where we purposely clamp down on emotions which, when embraced, could lead to wholehearted living?
Let’s face it, emotions are a tricky business. Ultimately it isn’t the emotion we fear, it is the feeling that the emotion gives us that we try to avoid. For lack of a gentler way of saying it, feeling our feelings scares the bejeezus out of us.
But honestly, there is a really good reason that we squelch our feelings. For most of us, the reason we are so afraid of feeling the scary negative emotions is because we never learned how.
Think about it. What was the standard when you were a kid? Was it:
“You’re crying?!? I’ll give you something to cry about!”
or “Go to your room and come back when you can be civilized.”
How about “You’re scared?!? Don’t be ridiculous, there is nothing to be scared of.”
or “Disappointed? Just do something to get your mind off of it.”
or the oh so well intentioned, but fatal, “Honey, are you sad? Have some cookies and ice cream to make it all better.”
The message is clear. Emotions are to be denied, hidden, covered up or numbed. In other words, feelings are either completely invalid or a weakness. They are an inconvenient part of life that need to be fixed or hidden away, never to see the light of day.
Why didn’t our parents teach us differently? Because no one ever taught them. You can’t give others what you didn’t get yourself.
And so we have generations of families who are living under the constant black cloud of neglected emotions. If we don’t talk about how we’re feeling it’ll just go away, right?
Yeah, not so much.
I don’t remember how my emotions were handled when I was growing up, but I know how I’ve always been with my kids. Anytime they are upset in any way I just want it to go away. I desperately want them to be happy and unfortunately have fixed, covered up, fed, invalidated and detoured them countless times.
I try to be different now. With them and myself.
Is this hitting home for you? When you find yourself reacting to something, do you immediately tell yourself why you shouldn’t be feeling that way? Or are you super quick to get defensive and angry? When your child is having an outburst, will you do anything to fix it or make it go away? When you get upset do you head directly to the cupboard? Do you believe that being emotional makes you weak?
I want to make a quick point about anger. For many, anger is a go to. It is socially permissible and not equated with being weak. But the thing about anger is that it is a secondary emotion. You may feel like you are being emotional, but actually you are covering up your real feelings. The feeling underneath might be hurt, fear, sadness or guilt. But please don’t mistake getting angry as dealing with your emotions. It is simply another way to numb out what is really happening in your body.
What if we had all been taught that feelings are like storms? That sometimes there will be a short, quick thunder bumper after which skies are quickly sunny again. Other times it’s a three day blizzard, but eventually the sun returns and the snow melts.
If we can think of our feelings as clouds that need to pass on through we can be much more present to what is truly happening in our lives. This metaphor also reminds us that above the clouds there is always a constant bright, beautiful blue sky.
I think one of the fears that holds people back is that if they acknowledge the clouds that they will become overwhelmed by them. But this isn’t true. Acknowledging, allowing and being with the clouds is what encourages them to come and go with more ease.
Depression and anxiety occur when we hold too tightly to the clouds that wish to pass.
If you have covered up your feelings for most of your life, there will be some backlog to deal with. I know that sounds scary, but I promise that there are so many ways to deal with it.
I wanted to go into some of those ways, but this post has gotten longer than expected.
So next week I will follow up with:
~the warning signs that your squelched feelings have had enough of living in the dark (because, duh, they don’t just go away) and
~a few different ways you can deal with your dammed up emotions. (And shockingly, some of my suggestions don’t involve talking about them.)
Until then, pay attention to your patterns. Do you constantly invalidate your own feelings? Do you catch yourself disdaining other peoples vulnerabilities? Do you give your family a hard time if they don’t “keep it together”?
You may be doing these things without realizing it. But I promise that your body has been trying to get your attention. Next week I will tell you how.
Big emotional hugs,
In order to change your life, you must first change your mind.