This Article First Appeared in Happify.
Emotions are messages from our interior—little bundles of information that allow us to navigate the world around us. Painful emotions tell us what to avoid and when to fight back. Joyful emotions do the opposite; they open us up and make us seek oneness with others and life.
In life, naturally, we experience both types of emotional states. But some of us may experience more of the negative, either because life just throws more pain our way, or because we are genetically wired to experience more distress than other people.
When painful emotions are a constant part of life, many of us resort to anesthetizing them in order to survive the day-to-day business of living. Although we may feel protected in the short term, this strategy cuts us off from everything that makes life worth living, such as joy, creativity, and connection. When life becomes devoid of meaning and mere existence, we are disregarding the blessing of being alive.
Here are three signs you may be numbing your emotions, and what you can do about it.
Sign #1: You Experience Less Joy
Numbing emotions is not a selective practice—when you numb negative emotions, you also feel less in general, because pathways in your brain dedicated to helping you feel become weaker. As Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection: “… when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
If you’d like to experience more positive emotions, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude or contentment, you need to rebuild the pathways that were lost or create the ones that never developed. Savoring helps you do so; for example, when you sit with a positive moment in your day and purposefully feel the emotion in your body. Describing these moments (rather than analyzing or relaying them) is also very helpful because it creates connections between the logical and emotional parts of your brain. Think not so much of what you did, but how it made you feel.
Sign #2: You’re Addicted to Doing
People who are uncomfortable being with their emotions become hooked on doing, checking off lists, planning the next event, perfecting a task that’s already complete. As a women’s well-being coach, I’ve worked with clients who drive themselves to burnout because the kitchen needs to be perfect before they go to bed, or because every little item or task needs to be completed before they leave work. Not only does this harm their health and cause needless anxiety, it also undermines their relationships because they’re never fully present with others. If that’s you, learn to be with yourself. Schedule “Me-Time” appointments where you simply sit back and reflect on your day—what you felt, the progress you made, the relationships that lit you up. You can make these moments enjoyable by also brewing a cup of tea, lighting your favorite candle, or turning on soft music. Because the better you get to know yourself—what brings you joy, pride, or confidence—the more you can purposefully experience these positive feelings during your day.
Sign #3: You Lose it Over Little Things
Many of us suppress our emotions, either because we fear that if we don’t we’ll go completely overboard, or because we’re hooked on approval and can’t deal with what others may think of us if we were to express ourselves. But here’s the thing: Suppressed emotions are like springs. The more we push them down, the greater they rebound the minute we let go even slightly, paradoxically confirming our belief that our emotions are out of control. If you can relate, begin the work of rebalancing by connecting back to your values. What are the things that are important to you and that you’re willing to take a stand for? Is it self-respect? Is it family time? Is it a cause you feel strongly about? Is it your professional or creative pursuits? And then practice how you will express your needs in a way that is grounded and reasonable. You may want to begin with identifying smaller needs if you’ve been suppressing your emotions for a long time, so you don’t put yourself in a situation that overwhelms you.
We live in a world where numbing is fast becoming a way of life. We numb everything that brings us discomfort—we have anesthetics for physical pain, distractions for emotional suffering, and the false promises of feel-good consumerism. We believe these bandages will heal the hurt that’s an inherent part of being human. Instead, they’re simply making us more sensitive to our pain.
The only way we truly heal is by learning to feel again. Because when we do, we not only connect back to ourselves, we also connect to our responsibility to the world we live in.