The slippery slope to numbness

23 11 2009

Sometimes as a counselor, I’ll encounter a client who says something to the effect of, “Well, I’m just not that emotional of a person.”

Statements like this always leave me a little bit sad.  Sad because I know it’s not true.

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Sorry Kiefer. Even as Jack Bauer, you have to cry sometimes.

I say this, not because I’m a counselor and I think I can “read” people, and know more about them than they do about themselves.  It’s more because of what I believe about people in general.  We’re made in the image of God.  God himself is passionate and emotional.  And he’s made us as reflections of Himself in this regard.

Think you’re not an emotional person?  If you could meet yourself as a small child I bet you’d change your mind.  Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around children knows that they are intensely emotional, capable of experiencing a whole range of emotions in a very short period of time.

baby-crying jpg

Infants cry an average of 2-3 hours per day. You were once an infant.

Now, of course, we mature emotionally as we grow older.  Our emotions become, to some degree, more stable, and we (hopefully) learn how to respond healthily to them.  But our emotionality doesn’t just disappear.

More often, I think that we are not taught what to do with our emotions, and so we learn to just get rid of them, or grit our teeth until they fade into the background.

A story of self-taught numbness.

I love the song “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” by Bright Eyes, because it illustrates so clearly the process of self-numbing that is usually unspoken and subconscious (at least in adults).  (Warning: This song and its lyrics are not explicit, but do talk about sex before marriage.)

In this song, the narrator tells the story of a time that he slept with a woman, though they had not previously been in a romantic relationship.  When he awoke the next morning, she was gone, but she had left a note by the bed:

“Everything is as it’s always been.  This never happened.  Don’t take it too bad.  It’s nothing you did.  It’s just, once something dies, you can’t make it live.  You’re a beautiful boy.  You’re a sweet little kid; but I am a woman.”

This marks a turning point in the life of the narrator.  He is hurt, and frightened.  He doesn’t give us the details of what he decided at that point, except to say, “Since then I’ve been so good at vanishing.”

For the rest of the story, he is avoiding his pain and perpetuating his numbness by hurting others in the same way he has been hurt, sleeping with them and then leaving.  And, he says, if anyone gets too close to him, “I will trap you in a song tied to a melody/and I will keep you there so you can’t bother me”.

Vows were made.

Similarly, I can think of particular moments in my life, significant events, when I decided, “Never again.  I will not feel this kind of pain again.”  I shut down a part of myself, or decided that I would not let myself care about others or what they think.

What about you?  Especially you men: Can you recall a time in your life when you did the same?  Maybe your anger led to you hurting someone else, and you decided, “Anger isn’t safe.  I’ll never be angry again.” Maybe someone hurt you, making you feel weak and powerless, and you decided, “I’ll always be strong and never show it when I’m hurt.”

The problem is, it’s one thing to shut off the pain, but once we start numbing ourselves, it’s notoriously difficult to reverse the process.  I can kill off parts of my heart, but what then?  What happens when I find myself unable to care for people in my life, or be emotionally available to those who care about me?

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Parts of us get cut off, one by one. But a stick will never do for an arm.

We move by slow degrees toward emotional death, until we are just an empty shell.  We get rid of uncomfortable or dangerous emotions one by one: “Anger?  Too dangerous.  Cut it off… Sadness?  Too vulnerable.  Stuff it down…  Vulnerability?  Too weak.  Cover it up.”  Until eventually… there’s nothing left.  And we forget that we ever chose our numbness.  “I don’t know”, we say.  “I guess I’m just not really an emotional person”.

“The only pain”, says Bono in the song A Man and A Woman, “Is to feel nothing at all.”  And in another song, “You should worry about the day that the pain goes away… You know, I miss mine sometimes.” (Fast Cars)

So now what?

Reversing this slow death is not easy.  It is a long and painful resurrection.  And I think most of us, if we are honest, aren’t sure that we even want to.  Oh, we give it great lip service.  We’d love to be more alive, more loving, more passionate, more emotionally engaged in our relationships.  We’d love to care more for the world and the people around us.  But when uncomfortable, messy emotions actually present themselves, we’re quick to push them away.  We expect to be able to go straight from numbness to godly emotion without having to wade through the mess.  We sometimes even have very spiritual sounding reasons for doing so.  (“I shouldn’t show my anger.  After all, the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.  I should be self-controlled enough to just deny myself, take up my cross, and forgive this person.”)

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Is this what you're afraid will happen?

Let’s start small: Try just noticing these things.  How many times today will you feel an emotion, and then move away from it?  How many times will a voice inside say, “Hey, I think I might be feeling something”, and then another voice quickly respond, “Best not to think about that.”?

Notice it.

At least know when – and how often – you are choosing to disconnect from what you feel.

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2 responses

23 11 2009
Meghan

Oh man, Tim, that picture of the little girl arsonist sent shivers down my spine. Yes, that IS what I think might happen, if I’m not careful. I fully believe in my own ability to burn a house down, should I lose that much control. Are other people like me in this way? How do we fight back against that fear of going crazy?

9 12 2009
Seth

Re: the range of emotions, it’s amazing watching C, at 4 months old, run the gamut of emotions in seconds, from happy to distraught to content to upset. Sometimes she does this in her sleep.

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