I once heard myself say something that, in hindsight, is sort of uncomfortable to admit:
“I can’t feel myself living anymore. I’m just existing, which doesn’t feel like anything.”
I’d gotten into a routine that most of you will recognize. It goes something like …
Wake up (at a time you don’t want to be waking up), get ready, take care of responsibilities (the dog, dishes, meal prep, etc.), grab something to eat on the go, drive to work, work for 9 hours (and everything that entails), commute home, prepare and eat dinner, clean up, watch a show, drink wine, go to bed too late, and start all over again tomorrow.
For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this routine. And if you love your life and you love what you do, then often this routine (or any routine) can be done joyfully.
But I wasn’t joyful. I was numb.
Numbness is scarily common. In my case, and for most people I’ve worked with, it’s usually a twisted form of self-protection.
The more overwhelmed, depressed, or afraid you are of life’s circumstances, the less you want to feel anything. Numbing is a way of insulating yourself from all kinds of pain.
In the Vampire Diaries (Hey, don’t judge. I’ve loved Ian Somerhalder since 2004, when LOST premiered), vampires can do this thing where they “flip their humanity switch.” They can just choose not to feel, period.
I think a lot of us have inadvertently flipped our humanity switches, as a way to cope.
But the problem with flipping that switch is that you’re robbed of everything — not just pain, but joy and happiness and contentment, too.
ONE MORE THING ABOUT THE VAMPIRE DIARIES
OK, so here’s the hard part: When a vampire switches their humanity back on, the emotional pain of it is often excruciating. Us humans are no different.
If you’ve been avoiding actually feeling the depth of your grief, despair, unhappiness, etc., then allowing yourself to finally process and navigate those feelings is going to be rough at first.
You know how your entire leg can fall asleep after sitting for a while, and when you stand up you can barely put pressure on it because it’s tingling SO much and it sort of hurts? It’s like that.
But whether we’re talking about vampires or legs … there’s really no difference. Eventually, if you allow the feelings to come back, at first it will hurt, and then things DO get better.
Why? Because when you’re not numb, you have the ability to actually take action.
Numbing out means you’re avoiding life. You’re not getting closer to answering any questions or figuring anything out. You’re just surviving.
If you allow yourself to feel the pain, you might finally admit what’s no longer working. You might quit that job, end that relationship, or make some other big change.
The longer you numb out and avoid feeling anything, the longer nothing will happen.
So, to motivate you to flip that switch, I want to share a few things you can look forward to when you’re not numb anymore.
YOU WON’T NEED TO RELY ON SUBSTANCES
I used to make a lot of coffee in the office Keurig and drink expensive, sickly sugary lattes. Not because I loved coffee, but because I was exhausted and needed a pick-me-up to look forward to.
And in the evening, I often drank wine while I was watching a show. Again, not because I loved wine that much, but because I needed something to enjoy.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with coffee or wine. If you truly, deeply enjoy them for their intrinsic value, then great!
But in my case, I relied on those substances to produce feelings artificially that I could no longer produce naturally.
I don’t drink coffee or alcohol anymore, and I feel a million times better than I did a few years ago.
(This isn’t an admonishment of caffeine and alcohol. If you enjoy them, that’s great! But personally, they did negative things for my health and I feel a lot better when I don’t partake).
I don’t need to induce artificial highs or lows because my own energy sustains me. And that never could have happened if I’d stayed numb.
YOU WON’T THROW MONEY INTO THE VOID
I can’t tell you how often I bought things I didn’t need, and often didn’t really want, to make me feel … anything.
I racked up credit card debt that followed me around for years thanks to my tendency to throw money into my existential void.
And of course, the clothes and shoes and handbags didn’t make me feel any better. I was just a numb, sad person with a better outfit.
These days I use money as a way to express what I value. I tend to spend the most on my health and well-being — my gym membership, organic groceries, supplements, etc. — because that’s what makes me feel alive.
And no amount of shoes ever made me feel like that.
LITTLE THINGS WILL BRING YOU CONTENTMENT
Speaking of the Vampire Diaries (last time, I promise), I remember this one time during the height of my numbness that I literally watched 22 episodes in 36 hours.
And while I guess you could say I enjoyed it, I think it was more in the gross, overindulgent way that you “enjoy” eating half a pizza by yourself.
There was nothing healthy or contented about that kind of bingeing.
I still love watching Netflix as much as ever, but I’ve never binged like that since. I can get more pure enjoyment from one episode of good TV than I ever got from a 22-episode binge-fest.
And that’s the really important point I want to make:
When you’re numb, you need bigger and more dramatic things to make you feel anything — substances, shopping sprees, and binge sessions, for example.
But when you’re not numb, you have a heightened sensitivity to life. Which means that much smaller things can make you feel happy and contented.
I recently heard the musician Moby being interviewed on Kate Northrup’s podcast. He was talking about how fame never lives up to its expectations and how famous people are often the least happy. Something he said really stuck with me:
“I think there’s more happiness to be found in a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice than in performing to a crowd of millions.”
I totally get that.
Nowadays, I get a lot of joy out of small things like a nice cup of tea, curling up with a good book, eating a well-prepared meal, or walking outside on a sunny day and just breathing it in.
Which leads me to one last point …
YOU WON’T NEED ANYTHING TO SAVE YOU
When I was numb, I was constantly searching for a workaround.
Because I was so desperate to not be stuck, I assumed the answer was to always feel the opposite of numb and miserable — so I looked to external things to swoop in and deliver all of my happiness to me.
I wanted out of my situation so badly that I looked at jobs and relationships as potential saviors that could “rescue” me from the nothingness.
When I woke up and started to engage with my feelings again, I had to start saving myself. I enrolled in coach training, and you know the rest.
And most importantly, I realized that it’s CRAZY to expect to never have rough patches in life. We’re humans! That’s part of the deal.
When you’re not numb, you can ride the wave of emotions. You’re not dragged down by every fearful, overwhelmed, anxious, miserable, or negative thought.
You don’t need to be saved from your bad times when you trust that good times are just around the corner.
So, what about you? Is your humanity switch flipped? If so, what’s your go-to numbing device, and how will you start to feel your feelings again? And if you’ve successfully flipped that switch back on, what worked for you? How did it go? Share with me in the comments below!
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Rachel (+ Kristen)
I definitely notice an uptick in the “numbing” behaviours when my mental health is suffering. I get anxious and depressed, and then my phone gets glued to my hand and makes me more anxious and depressed. The way out is some of what you mentioned: cut back on caffeine (one coffee is good, three or four leaves my body hyped up and jittery), get some exercise (bonus points for outdoors), spend time in person with good people (and do not touch the phone).
Hey Anna! Not touching the phone is so important, I’m glad you brought it up. It’s something I definitely need to do less of, too. And when I don’t, it’s so much easier to stay calm and grounded!
Rachel (+ Kristen), I loved this post! I left my job last December and it’s thrown me into a whole ‘un-numbing’ that I didn’t expect. I thought I would feel much happier and I do… but I didn’t expect fear and depression to also rush in so painfully. Not knowing what I’m supposed to be doing has thrown me for a loop, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to be doing that job. So making the choice to leave has led me down a road of uncovering more faulty thinking…now everything is up in the air, but for the first time in years I’m dealing with it. I can see in the past that I was looking for band aides, and I’m not choosing that anymore! Thank you for reminding me I’m on the right track to a brighter future. 🙂
Hey Brooke! You know, your experience is actually totally normal. When you’re in toleration mode for a long time, and then shake things up in a big way, it’s almost like you’re a slingshot. You’re being pulled back (which can feel awful and counter-productive int he moment), but what’s actually happening is that you’re gaining the momentum you need to propel *forward* in an even bigger way. So it’s OK for this to suck for the time being! But know that it’ setting you up for bigger and better things. 🙂
This was a goody good one! Thanks so much! Without saying it you made it clear how important it is to check in with ourselves and practice self-awareness. It’s especially important when we are “numb” because we are often “deaf” at the same time we are numb – no longer hearing or listening to those trying to speak life back into us
You’re right on the money, Nakia! This is totally about checking in with yourself and bringing compassionate self-awareness to the patterns you find yourself in that aren’t healthy or helpful. And you’re completely right about people being “deaf” while they’re numb. It can be hard for anything to get through when we feel numb!
First of all i really love your emails. Its something i look forward to now and then. I really liked this one especially because i was feeling numb for a long time and have just come out of it this week.
I recently got a job interview and got the job. I have been really worried about applying, thinking i would mess up.
I think this made me feel a lot less numb, as well as eating better now and walking my dogs every day. Feeling the breeze on my face i felt a lot lighter.
Having a mountain on your sholder is what makes me feel numb, so the more you take off your sholders the better you feel.
Congratulations on your new job, Jessica! I’m really glad to hear that a significant burden has been removed from your shoulders … life is a lot easier to enjoy (and not take so seriously) when we aren’t weighed down.
I have been searching for that word, “numb,” to describe my feeling and now it’s identified. Thanks! As I was reading this, I felt like I wrote it lol. I am currently in the denumbing transition, but I’m a firestarter so I need to ease out of it. I’m in the process of collecting all information while slowly making certain decisions and changes, so I can break free. I’m excited to see where my life is going to go from here, but I’m worried about my direction because I don’t want to waste anymore time and effort on the wrong things.
I’m glad this helped you put words to your feelings, Mike!
I’m also really glad you’re in a phase of de-numbing and focusing on making a big transition. And it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to waste any time or effort focusing on the wrong thing. FYI, that’s one of the biggest things that 1-on-1 coaching is good for — making sure that you’re certain about your direction so that you can put a lot of energy and momentum into building what you actually want. If that’s something you think could be in the cards for you, email us and we’d be happy to talk! [email protected], or go to our 1-on-1 coaching page and fill out the form: https://clarityonfire.com/work-with-us/1-on-1-coaching/