We all numb negative emotions with something. We all take the edge off. Food, cigarettes, relationships, beer, wine, liquor, shopping, staying busy, working too much, gambling, caretaking, co-dependency, gambling, affairs, chaos, perfectionism, constant change, television and the Internet.
Anything ringing a bell?
I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection in conjunction with an online Oprah course. Numbing was the focus of week five, and it hit home for me.
Numbing with Food
The reason I became so overweight as a young adult was because I overate. I used overeating to numb emotions and feelings I did not want to feel. Pain, fear, shame, disappointment, grief, rejection, sadness. These are all negative emotions and feelings all of us deal with. Here’s the thing: For years, I was not conscious that I numbed emotions with food. Not until I hit rock bottom did I realized I was eating so much good-tasting food to feel good. A temporary feel-good that made me reach for food again and again. When I came home from school from another day where my crush didn’t like me, do you know what I did? I ate.
When we are dissatisfied in any component of life — self-worth, relationships, money, etc — we feel negative emotions. Negative emotions are not easy to deal with, so what many of us do? We try to bury them, to numb them, to pretend they’re not there. You can do this for years, but the issues will resurface. Karma.
Do you know what you miss out on while you temporarily avoid the intensity of negative emotions and feelings? Joy. You miss out on joy.
Why do you miss out on joy? Because you cannot selectively numb emotions. When you numb the negative feelings, you numb the positive ones. When you numb the dark, you numb the light. When you “take the edge off,” you dull your good feelings. I learned this several years ago, and because I don’t want to miss out on anymore joy, I put on my brave face and deal with pain. I deal with the ugly stuff head-on because I know the repercussions of numbing. As Brene describes wholehearted people, I try to “lean into the discomfort of hard emotions.”
Joy is just as sharp as the dark emotions, Brene writes.
Does this surprise you?
“To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your entire being, to celebrate a fleeting moment, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees — these are risks that involve vulnerability and pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy. In fact, addiction research shows us that an intensely positive experience is as likely to cause relapse as an intensely painful experience.”
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, page 73
Are you feeling discomfort reading this?
Numbing and Addiction
Numbing and taking the edge off is not just about addiction. Everyone numbs, but not everyone has an addiction. The difference is whether our way of numbing gets in the way from being emotionally honest, setting boundaries, feeling like we’re enough, staying out of judgment, and feeling connected. Numbing is a problem when we use it to escape or hide from the realities of our life.
Face-to-Face with Numbing
In week five of Oprah and Brene’s course, we got deep into numbing. The first step was to make a little collage of things that drive me to numb. What drives me to numb are things that take stabs at my self-worth. I was more specific in my art journal, of course.
The second step was to pinpoint all the ways that I numb. Fortunately, for the last few years, I’ve been able to pinpoint when I numb pretty quickly. I don’t do it all that much, but my go-to numbing behaviors are food and the Internet. In case you are wondering about the Internet thing, any prolonged facetime with tv, Internet, or the phone is distraction. Numbing is all about distraction.
The third step was to think about things that bring me comfort. Here is what I wrote:
Specifically, what drives you numb? Have you been numbing something for years? Do you often numb the same kinds of feelings?
Recognize how you numb. In the absence of that brownie, cigarette, shopping spree, gossip session, Google search, or other usual distraction, how do you feel?
Try the exercise that I did above. Figure out what drives you to numb, what you numb with, and what brings you true comfort. When you finally are able to embrace the dark, you can feel the ecstasy of joy, as fleeting as it is.
I hope you found meaning in this. It was a bit difficult to write, but once again, as I lean into vulnerability, I lean into joy.
If you are hungry for some guidance on living a wholehearted life, and giving up numbing with food or other things, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing Brene’s guideposts on living wholeheartedly.