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Feeling numb and shut down? How to turn your feelings back on

feelings

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It was a Sunday in March 2015. Kristen and I had flown down to Fort Lauderdale to speak at a women’s conference, which had wrapped up the night before.

The weather was glorious — clear blue sky, breezy, and 60-degrees. It was crisp, but not cold; the perfect conditions for sitting at an outdoor café, bundled up in a light scarf and jacket, and sipping hot tea.

And yet … there amidst the sunshine and happy, chattering people, I was having a complete emotional breakdown.

My sunglasses were on, but it was pretty impossible to hide the fact that I was silently sobbing, completely unable to stem the tide of tears and deep sadness that was pouring out of me, almost faster than I could control it.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that there was an absolute perfect storm of events that converged that weekend to plow me over.

The conference had completely drained me, and not in a “fun” way. I’m an introvert, and we’d been going-going-going since we landed in Florida two days earlier. I’d had no time to be alone or recover. All weekend Kristen and I had felt like the only two introverts in a group of thousands of extroverts. What we’d thought would be a fun weekend had been incredibly exhausting and, even though we’d been surrounded by people, weirdly lonely.

The food situation had been dicey at best. I’ve always had a sensitive system, and I do best when I can cut certain foods out of my diet, which had been difficult to do all weekend. So on top of being exhausted, I was feeling physically “off.”

We were also trying to launch a course for the first time, from a remote location, which was completely stressful, and enrollment wasn’t going well. So I was feeling like a failure, questioning whether we’d ever be successful, and freaking out about our money situation.

And then the cherry on top — Kristen was dating a guy I really didn’t like and knew was no good for her, but I couldn’t share just how wrong I felt it was (because that had never gone well in the past, and I was trying to learn my lesson about not interfering in other people’s lives, even when you love them). I’d been in a confined space with her for two days while trying to hide my feelings, which as her best friend was completely eating away at me.

I’d been simmering for days, and that Sunday at the café it all boiled over — grief, fear, anxiety, heartache, rage, loneliness, exhaustion — I cried for hours without stopping.

Kristen kept staring at me with wide eyes, asking what was wrong. But I couldn’t open my mouth. I literally could not form words for the depth of emotion I was experiencing. All I had was an endless supply of tears.

HOW OFTEN DO WE ACTUALLY FEEL OUR FEELINGS?

It’s pretty safe to say that what I experienced that day wasn’t exactly “normal.” We usually have far more control over our emotions, and most of us are really good at shutting them down.

And it makes sense — why would anyone want to go through that? Why would you willingly volunteer to experience waves of wrenching grief, sadness, loneliness, despair, rage, or anxiety if you could avoid it?

Not only that, but we’re encouraged to shut down our feelings in almost every way you can imagine:

  • How many times were you told as a kid to “suck it up” or reprimanded for crying for “no reason”? We’re taught that vulnerability is weakness — something to be ashamed of.
  • Why is it that, for most of American history, women weren’t “qualified” to be President? Because they would be too emotional.
  • What happens when you cry at work? You’re called
  • What are we encouraged to do as college grads? Take the job that earns us the most money and prestige, not pursue a path that we love and feel deeply
  • Why do we so rarely tell people how we actually feel? Because we’re afraid that we’ll be disliked, misunderstood, or rejected.

SO WE TURN TO THE THINGS THAT HELP US NOT FEEL

Throughout our life we learn that feelings are awkward, painful, sticky, and scary.

It’s much cleaner and easier to suppress, stifle, suffocate, and amputate them. And when we shut our emotions down, we often get praised — for being “logical” and “put together” and “strong.”

We get really good at not feeling. As soon as an uncomfortable feeling starts to bubble up, we numb out with …

  • Booze: Be it a nightly glass of wine or a weekend of binge drinking.
  • Pills: Anything that helps suppress the physical and emotional pain.
  • Sex: We use other people’s bodies, as well as porn, as a place to hide.
  • Scrolling: We reach for our phone and automatically pull up Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat.
  • TV: We mindlessly binge-watch shows to escape from our discomfort.
  • Over-working: We work until 9pm so we don’t have time to feel.
  • Over-planning: We keep ourselves endlessly busy so we’re too exhausted for introspection.

We’ve become so good at not having to feel anything that what should be normal and come naturally to all humans — allowing yourself to feel things — is now a rare thing to do, let alone be good at doing.

EXCEPT WE’RE MAKING OURSELVES SICK, SAD, AND ANGRY

My friend Joanna made a really great point on her podcast (Love Always, Jo) the other day:

There’s a reason that we cry in the face of intense emotion (happy, sad, and everything in between). Tears aren’t random, or arbitrary. They’re a biological mechanism that’s literally designed to help us release emotion.

So, if we’re supposed to be releasing emotion, but most of us don’t (at least, not often enough), because we feel ashamed or afraid or numb … then what happens when we don’t?

The answer is pretty clear: We get sick, sad, and angry.

Cutting off and stifling our feelings doesn’t make all that energy disappear; it just turns inward and starts to fester.

At best, that means we’re functional, but unable to really enjoy life. (Because if you can’t feel the uncomfortable stuff, you also can’t feel the good stuff: joy, love, connection, contentment.) It’s like we’re existing, but not really living.

More likely, we get depressed. We suffer from constant anxiety. We can’t take a deep breath. We’re resentful and unhappy and can’t figure out why.

At worst, all that internalized stress builds in our bodies until we have an actual disease (literally, dis-ease) or addiction.

And at the very worst, that pressure erupts into violence against yourself and other living beings.

THE HOT LONELINESS

If you want to be a human who’s capable of joy, deep contentment, and big love, then you’ve also got to be a human who’s capable of grief, fear, and rage.

If you refuse to feel half of your emotions, then you’re refusing to feel all of them.

So … how do we feel the hard stuff without shutting down and numbing out?

We learn to sit with what Pema Chodron, the American Tibetan Buddhist nun, calls “hot loneliness” — AKA that rush of uncomfortable (but totally normal and human) emotions like shame, grief, rage, fear, anxiety, despair, heartbreak, resentment, and sadness that bubbles up within us from time to time.

Pema says:

“If the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even 1, that’s the journey of the warrior.”

We’re so afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel an uncomfortable emotion, we might get stuck there permanently. So we numb and suppress and shut down; often for years.

But here’s the irony of that:

Humans aren’t capable of sustaining any one emotion for very long. If you allow the wave of “hot loneliness” to come without reaching for your phone, or a drink, or another hour in your inbox, it will pass. It might take a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a week, but you will not get stuck in that feeling forever.

I love that Pema calls this the “journey of the warrior,” because it shows that strength is not about being invulnerable and shutting your feelings down.

Strength is letting a wave of pain wash over you and proving to yourself that you can survive it. It’s allowing discomfort to transform you into a resilient human who’s capable of deeply feeling everything — the love, the joy, and everything else that makes life worth living.

This is how you learn to feel again:

The next time you feel the “hot loneliness,” don’t move. Just sit. Let it out. Feel how you need to feel. Breathe through the discomfort (and it will be uncomfortable). And know that this — feeling all the things — is both the best and worst of what it means to be human.

I didn’t know it, but that day at the café? I was letting the hot loneliness out. And yeah, it sucked. But the next day, I was OK. My problems hadn’t been solved, but I felt better about them, because I wasn’t suppressing them anyone. Which made it easier to move forward.

What about you? How might you be numbing instead of allowing yourself to feel? When have you let the hot loneliness out? Come share with me, in the comments.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …

Things you can look forward to when you’re not numb anymore

Are you blocking yourself from joy?

How to get through any major life transition

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)

P.S. I first learned about the concept of “hot loneliness” in Glennon Doyle’s memoir Love Warrior. I cannot recommend this book enough!

P.P.S. For those of you concerned, I eventually did tell Kristen how I felt about that dude. Things eventually ended with him, and our friendship obviously survived. And I got her permission before talking about this.

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How you can stop freaking out about not knowing the future

future

If reading long blogs just isn’t your deal, you can listen to me read it instead!

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My dad is fond of teasing my mom about how, back when they were in college, she would buy all of her school books, take them home, and immediately flip to the back of each book.

As she glanced through the final chapters of each textbook, she would get more and more anxious. Eventually, fighting back tears, she’d throw her hands up and say, “I don’t understand any of this! I’m never going to make it through these classes.”

My dad would always chuckle and reassure her by saying, “Of course you don’t understand the stuff in the back of the book. That’s why you’re taking this class! So that by the time you get there, you DO know how to do all of it.”

We all laugh about this story now. It’s one of those Thanksgiving-table stories that gets told over and over again.

But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that this story isn’t just a funny family anecdote. It’s actually a great analogy for what most of us do all the time.

We’re all peeking into the “back of the book,” trying to figure out what’s coming and how we’re going to handle it, and getting overwhelmed by everything we don’t know yet.

Last week I read a story about school bullying, and later that day I caught myself worrying about how I’m going to handle it if my kids experience bullying.

Mind you, I don’t have kids. I don’t even have the faintest idea yet who I might want to have kids with. I’m SO far away from being ready to have kids — much less school-aged kids who are old enough to potentially be bullied — that it’s ridiculous for me to be worrying about this now.

And yet, there I was, worrying about kids that don’t even exist yet.

I had to stop and remind myself, “Stop looking in the back of the book, Kristen! You don’t need to know how to handle this right now.

By the time I do have kids old enough to possibly experience bullying, I’ll be FAR more equipped to handle that situation. I’ll be older and wiser, plus I’ll have years of parenting experience under my belt.

Future Kristen is WAY more qualified to figure this out than Present-Day Kristen is. I really should leave this one to her.

AN IMPOSSIBLE JIGSAW PUZZLE

A client of mine wants to start her own business.

She’s come to me with a few different ideas by now, and every time she gets excited about a new business concept, she immediately skips 20 steps ahead to why it won’t work because she has no idea how to do X, Y, or Z (things she wouldn’t have to do for months or even years down the road).

“I can’t start a bakery because I have no idea how to hire employees and figure out compensation and benefits and all of that. It’s too hard; I should just scrap the idea.”

Or, “I can’t open a coding school for girls because how would I structure it? And where would I host it? And who would I get to teach them? And how much would I charge? I can’t do this.”

I told her that, by trying to figure everything out immediately after having the idea, it was like trying to complete a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. Not only is it not possible — it’s maddening!

She was driving herself crazy trying to answer questions that she couldn’t possibly answer right then. And she kept shutting down great ideas because she didn’t yet have a crystal clear picture of how it would all work out.

I GET WHY SHE DID THIS

On one level, it doesn’t make much sense to skip to the back of the book and fret about things we can’t possibly understand yet. We all logically know that that kind of worrying is useless.

But on a deeper, emotional level, it makes perfect sense why we all do it.

Because the unknown is really scary. And in the face of it, we all want to feel some semblance of solid ground.

My mom was a brand new college student on an unfamiliar campus trying to navigate a new, scarily independent phase of her life. Looking in the back of her textbooks and trying to get a handle on her classes before they even started was her way of trying to regain some small sense of control.

I see parenthood as this amazing, wild, unpredictable adventure where there’s no textbook on how to handle challenging situations. So by trying to figure out what I’ll do in the most complicated moments years in advance, it’s my mind’s way of trying to make parenthood seem less overwhelming.

My client is just as scared of entrepreneurship as she is excited about it (as are most entrepreneurs I know!). So in an attempt to quell her fear of failure, she tries to create a mental 50-page business plan immediately after an idea pops into her mind.

We’re all trying to use “figuring things out” as a balm for our fear of the unknown.

But fear doesn’t go away because you figured everything out in advance. Fear dissolves when you trust yourself enough to figure it out when you get there.

FUTURE YOU HAS GOT THIS ON LOCK

You’re much better off trusting Future You to handle what’s coming. Future You is just as smart and capable as Present-Day You, but with far more information, experience, and resources.

When you start really trusting your future self, the unknown doesn’t seem nearly as scary because you know you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.

If you’re having trouble letting go of control in the moment and trusting Future You, here are a few ways to boost your self-trust muscle:

  • Collect proof. Compile a list of all the times when you weren’t sure how to do something (or even if you could do it at all), but in the end you figured it out and everything turned out fine. When you can remind yourself that you’ve faced the unknown before and come out unscathed, you build trust in your own resourcefulness.
  • Start small. Ask yourself, “What’s something I can do now to help prepare Future Me to be able to handle this situation if/when it happens?” This shifts your energy from trying to plan out every detail of your future to what small step you can take right now to move in the right direction, which is way more manageable.
  • Recognize your progress. Think back on yourself 2, 5, or 10 years ago. How much wiser are you than that previous version of yourself? How much have you grown? Now project that forward and consider how much more you’ll have learned and experienced in the next 2, 5, or 10 years. Future You is pretty damn wise! Don’t you want that version of yourself figuring things out on your behalf?

So tell me, what in your life have you been worrying about that you want to let Future You figure out instead? Share with me in the comments!

IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …

How to get over your fear of failure

Why you need to stop fighting your life and just go with it

How to access your most untapped source of wisdom

How to get out of Analysis Paralysis

Much Love,

Kristen (& Rachel)

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