Life Beyond Therapy | Michael Kimmel
Why do we numb ourselves? What is it we don’t want to feel? Is it so bad to “take the edge off”?
Of course not, but how do you get there? Do you need something external (drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping) to make you feel better, or is there a way to get there on your own?
As 2017 nears, there is plenty of stuff to worry about: homophobia, racism, Donald Trump, sexism, ageism, global warming, Donald Trump.
But, does numbing ourselves really help the situation?
In the short run, sure, have an occasional drink, do a little shopping or have sex to feel better … but, don’t make a habit of it. This is avoidance with a capital “A” and avoidance isn’t going to help us deal with any of the challenges coming our way in 2017.
Instead, you could becoming more aware: aware of what you’re thinking, aware of what you’re feeling. Awareness is the antidote to numbness. It’s also a good antidote to fear, boredom and a whole host of negative emotions.
I recently read a book —“Turning Toward Enlightenment” by Encinitas author Gary Crowley — that had a particularly unusual exercise to increase awareness:
Imagine that your head has been removed. In its place imagine only awareness. Keep your eyes open as you do this. Notice there is only the awareness of a body and all that surrounds it. Having no head leaves “I am aware” as the only thing that sits on your shoulders.
At first, this exercise seemed bizarre, but I gave it a shot and surprisingly, it brought me a lot of peace, “spaciousness” and a nice, relaxing “emptiness.”
I felt my worries temporarily go away and I was able to think more calmly and clearly. Crowley’s book has a bunch of interesting exercises like this to help us “turn towards enlightenment.” I highly recommend it.
Let’s talk more about emotional numbness. Why do we want to go there?
From a psychological point of view, it can look appealing when we feel emotionally disconnected from a situation.
For example, the U.S. elects a person like Donald Trump to be our next president and it’s such a shock that we feel disconnected from reality (“How could this happen?”) and hopeless (“OMG, his whole cabinet looks like the alt-right.”)
Perhaps Mr. Trump’s election has been great news for alcohol, marijuana and sex-focused businesses, but, I have seen in my psychotherapy practice that the incoming Trump administration more typically invokes a PTSD-like reactions: (1) emotional arousal and/or (2) emotional numbing.
Emotional arousal typically appears as being easily startled, upset or pissed off. All your senses are heightened and you frequently feel on the edge of losing it.
In the emotional numbing stage, you try to avoid thinking about the traumatic event (e.g., four or eight years of a Trump administration). You may not want to feel much of anything, so you drink, smoke weed or find some other way to keep numbing yourself out. You may even experience problems with concentrating and remembering things.
I know that the day after Trump won, I couldn’t focus on anything and my memory was shot: I was emotionally numb.
For most of my clients, alcohol is their numbing agent of choice, with marijuana and sex tied for second. I read in the New York Times that many women have dramatically changed their haircut and color in the weeks following Trump’s election. This too is a way of coping with feeling numb: We try to “shock” ourselves into a better place by changing our hair, which can be a very symbolic way to tell the world: “Hey, it’s time for a big change. I don’t like how things are going, so I’ll start with my hair.”
I know I’ve done this. I once went platinum when I was feeling particularly numb. I felt dead and after all that bleach, so did my hair! (I don’t recommend this as a constructive coping device).
What about you? How do you numb yourself and escape things you don’t want to feel or face? Would you be willing to try and just be aware of what’s going on — internally and externally — without habitually reacting or avoiding it?
You can have a numb new year or an aware one; the choice is yours. (I hope it’s the latter!)
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.