In episode 315, I answered a question that focused on emotional processing and difficulties with conveying your own emotions after supporting family members with their own mental health struggles from a young age. In this post, I dive into the fundamentals and offer my thoughts on making progress when you feel stuck in a state of numbness.
I’ve always had a hard time processing emotions and conveying them myself. From a young age I was responsible for supporting the heavy feelings of a parent struggling with mental illness along with a sibling with similar issues. Even now as an adult I have tried to put in the work to feel things the way I know I should but still overall feel numb and have a hard time caring about anything which has had an impact on my relationship. Any advice for how to work through this numbness and maybe start to feel like a normal person?
This is a really good question. I think that there are a lot of people out there that deal with this kind of thing. I want to first give you some reassurance. This is something that I’ve seen a number of times. In fact, I may have a few therapy patients of mine listening that have had the same issue and they are now in a place where they are really able to feel more and recognize their emotions better. There is hope!
Start where you are
I think in a situation like this, you are going to want to start with whatever you’ve got. Start where you are. You may have a hard time identifying what you are feeling, but what can you notice? Perhaps you can start with your body. What sensations can you notice when you are in a difficult situation? This is probably a social situation we are talking about, but it could also be something that you are feeling on your own. Maybe you can recognize a heat, a pain, a dropping sensation, etc. Where do you feel it? How would you describe it? From there, you can sometimes start to reverse-engineer the emotion. I feel hot in my head, flushed, and a little sick to my stomach. What is going on in the situation? Maybe I see a colleague that has a nice car and they are telling me that they are going on an amazing expensive vacation soon. Let’s add all this together… I’m probably feeling jealous. Does that sound right? It makes sense. I’ll file that for further review. The next time I feel something similar, I will consider if it could be jealousy again. I know it sounds kind of rote or tedious and it is. If you are truly as numb as you are describing, this might be where you need to start.
Other things that you could recognize other than just bodily sensations are circumstantial things like how you react, your body posture, and any of the easier top-layer emotions that you might be feeling. What I mean by that is emotions like anger are typically easier to access because they are simple and not very nuanced. In reality, there could be something like shame or worry that is actually the primary emotion under the surface. If you are unconvinced that the emotion you are feeling is really so simple, take note of the situation in the same way and spend some time pondering it later on.
Expanding your emotions
It can also be super helpful to expand your emotional vocabulary. I’ve talked about the emotions wheel a million times on this show. But using that wheel to browse and find good descriptors of what you are feeling can help to put a name to things that have so far been mysterious to you. You may also want to consider what sort of emotional influences you are getting. If you want to become more versed in feeling emotions and recognizing them, hanging out with people that are empathetic and emotionally aware is going to be more helpful to you than hanging out with closed-off unemotional people. If you are uncertain about what you are feeling or you feel like you aren’t feeling anything from a given situation, you can also talk through it with these people that I am mentioning. People that you trust. Ask them for feedback. Like did my response make sense? I can’t exactly figure out what I should be feeling about this. Just talk about it. Approach the emotions rather than running from them, even if you don’t know what they are. There are also some things that may be getting in the way of your feeling and processing of emotions. For example, if you are so busy and always going going going, you may not be giving yourself space and time for the feelings to catch up. This can be intentional or subconscious. Sometimes a bit of both.
The impact of mental health on emotions
Depression and anxiety are also mental health issues that can contribute to feeling numb or disconnected. A common symptom in depression is a lack of feeling. Anhedonia, we call it. It’s basically just an inability to feel a whole lot of anything. On the other side, anxiety or depression can cause dissociation and feeling disconnected from reality and from your own experience. If these are part of your experience, you are going to probably need to also address the primary mental health issue to some extent to start to thaw out that numbness you are feeling. These symptoms, especially dissociation are often defense mechanisms. They come into play when your emotions or something that happened to you is too much to handle at once, so your mind checks out and lets your body go on autopilot. For this reason, you may need to get some exposure to feelings and the process of allowing emotions to be there. Obviously, mindfulness can be a part of this, but you also just need to spend some time with your feelings or trying to feel them. You may find yourself defaulting to dissociation or checking out when feelings start to bubble up to the surface. That’s okay. Try not to beat yourself up for it. Instead, pause, work on trying to ground yourself by recognizing things in your environment, engaging with the physical world, and taking some breaths. Then continue. Dissociation won’t hurt you. This is going to help you build a better tolerance for having emotions. It takes some time and it might not be totally comfortable, but just remember that your feelings or numbness cannot hurt you.
I talked about speaking with other people about what you might be feeling. In some cases, that might be a little too intense to begin with. If that’s the case, writing about it might be easier. Again, start with whatever you can do and also whatever helps you access emotions most effectively. Maybe art or music! If you find a song that seems to get you, maybe you could reflect on it or send it to a friend to figure out why.
You are allowed to feel differently than other people
One thing that stuck out to me in your question was you saying that you have put in work to feel things the way you should. That concerns me a bit because I wonder if you are making some assumptions about how you SHOULD feel vs how you actually feel. We honestly don’t have a lot of control over how we feel, so it’s better to think of it as recognizing what you feel. You are also allowed to feel differently than other people. Just don’t run from the emotion. How are you doing with other aspects of your life? Do you have much going on? By engaging with things that make you happy, that light you up, that make you feel purposeful, or that make you feel like you are pursuing a value are all things that may help you feel more connected and engaged with life.
Process your past
You mentioned a challenging past. That’s real stuff. If you are avoiding digging into that past, that can be a limiting factor. Even if you are aware of your past and how impactful it has been, sometimes that awareness can actually be a form of avoidance. Like you might say “Oh yeah, my past was f**ked up. Thanks mom! etc.” But in saying that you just let that be instead of looking into the nuance. Things like how your mother was raised herself. Things like how you had to adapt to make it through your childhood. I suspect that one of your adaptations is to keep things at arm’s length. To hear the emotions and intellectually recognize them, but to not actually FEEL them for fear of your own self crumbling. It makes a lot of sense and is probably quite adaptive for your past. But it doesn’t serve you now. You mentioned that you have a partner. I’m not sure if you have asked for feedback from them yet, but that could be useful as well. Rather than just focusing on your own emotions, you can ask them about how they feel, how you made them feel etc. You can also ask them to express how they think you are feeling and why. They probably know you better than many, so they might be able to help you understand some things that are hiding from conscious awareness.
Overall, I encourage you to slow down and reflect a lot on this. Give it a lot of your attention. By yourself, with loved ones, and certainly with a therapist. The more attention you pay and care you give to your ability to engage with emotion, the more you will start to figure it out. You may have to use your intellect to start with as an avenue to find your empathy and emotional literacy. That’s totally okay. I like to think of it like learning a new language. When you begin learning a new language, you tend to start by translating everything in your mind to your native language. However, after some time and immersion, it starts to become more innate and integrated. Same thing here. So, I understand your concern. I think it comes from a valid place. You are definitely not hopeless and I think that integrating some of these tips can help you along the path to engaging with your emotions in a more satisfying way.
You can listen to this on Episode 315 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
If you know someone else who might benefit from this, please do share it with them. Send them a link or shoot over a screenshot, and share it on social media to show your support – you never know who needs to hear this type of information.
Got a topic or a guest you’d like to appear on the show? Or interested in having Duff answer a question on the podcast? Please get in touch! Email Duff and maybe you’ll hear it on a future episode!
Want to help out the show and Duff the Psych?
- Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
- Leave a podcast review on iTunes. These reviews really help Duff reach potential listeners, and he appreciates every one!
- Share the show on Facebook or Twitter.
- You can also buy Duff a cup of coffee, which helps fuel the energy that goes straight back into creating more content for YOU!