Addiction to NumbnessBy Dr. Margaret Paul
November 14, 2007
Do you numb out as a way of avoiding painful feelings? Are you afraid if you feel your pain it will overwhelm you? Discover how to manage life's painful feelings.
Linda sat opposite me at one of my five-day Inner Bonding Intensives. She had decided to attend the Intensive because her depression, which had plagued her for years, was not being helped by medication or by the numerous forms of therapy that she had tried.
As she sat opposite me, telling me about her past and her depression, I felt like I was sitting with a person who had stuffed herself into a box and closed the door. There was a sense of emptiness and numbness that emanated from her.
"Linda," I asked her. "When did you first feel this numbness that I feel coming from you?"
Linda started to cry. "I was 9 years old when my uncle sexually abused me. He and my aunt lived a few blocks from our house. I went to visit my aunt and she wasn't home but my uncle was, which had never happened before. He told me not to tell anyone but I ran home and told my mom about what he had made me do to him. As traumatic as the sexual abuse was, I was equally traumatized when my mother didn't believe me and punished me for lying. I felt so devastated and alone. Everything changed for me from that moment on. Before that, I was a happy girl who did well in school. After that, I don't remember feeling happy and my grades kept going down."
"Linda, there is an incredibly painful feeling that you felt when your uncle abused you and when you mother didn't believe you and punished you. You were too young to handle this feeling so you did the best thing you could do, which was to shut down and numb out. Our language doesn't have a good word for this feeling. The closest words we have are heartbreak and intense loneliness."
"Yes," said Linda. That's the feeling. I remember how overwhelmed I felt by that feeling. I felt like if I kept feeling it I would die or go crazy, so I shut it down by numbing out."
"Right. But now, as an adult, you can actually handle the feelings of loneliness and heartbreak, yet you are still avoiding them. By avoiding them with numbing out, you are stifling your true Self, your core Self. And so you end up depressed. We will always end up depressed when we put a lid on ourselves to avoid feelings we believe we can't handle."
"But I still don't think I can handle those feelings."
"Linda, are you willing to find out if that is true?"
"Close your eyes and put your focus into your body. Imagine the 9-year old that you were. Let yourself remember that awful day and let yourself remember what you felt like being abused and then not believed and punished. Imagine that you are an adult holding yourself as a 9-year old, believing her and allowing her to cry while you comfort her. Breathe into the feelings, acknowledging the heartbreak and loneliness, bringing deep love and compassion to your 9-year old."
Linda held a stuffed animal that represented her inner child, holding and rocking her crying 9-year old for about 5 minutes.
"Linda, what is happening with the feelings?"
"I am feeling much better, much lighter. I don't have that numbness right now. And I don't feel depressed right now!"
"So by acknowledging, embracing and moving into compassion for your feelings of heartbreak and loneliness, they moved through you. You CAN manage these feelings. You no longer have to avoid them by numbing out."
Linda had become addicted to numbness as her way of managing her feelings, but once she learned to acknowledge them and be with them with compassion, she no longer needed the numbness. I heard from her a couple of months after the Intensive and she was still feeling light and happy, with no sign of depression.
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Focus on anyone you are angry at. Let yourself voice your anger out loud but not at the person. Now turn it around and let your inner child say the same thing to you, listening with openness and compassion. Whoever you are angry at can become your teacher for becoming aware of how you may be abandoning yourself.
By Dr. Margaret Paul