Why Have We Become So Numb?

Numbness means there’s damage so profound and pervasive that we can’t even feel it.

I remember where I was when I heard about Chester Bennington’s death: I was in a lab in Japan and went out on a workout the next morning thinking about what Chester did for so many music fans and young, angsty kids like me.

I first heard Linkin Park, and Chester their lead singer, in fifth-grade. Perhaps the Linkin Park song that stuck with me the most was “Numb,” with the famous chorus of “I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there…Become so tired, so much more aware” deeply ingrained in my memory. “Numb” of Meteora is the most popular song of all time from the band, a song that, to this day, I still remember all the lyrics for.

And I remember the song for very good reason — it spoke to me and captured the pain I felt more than any song ever did. I felt numb. Although I stopped listening to Linkin Park by the time I was in high school, I can’t deny that listening to Linkin Park didn’t have a huge impact on myself and my childhood.

Numb. That’s the first word I think of when I think of Linkin Park.

Numb — that’s the first feeling we have when incredibly tragic or unfortunate events happen.

Sometimes, when something really bad happens, like the death of a close family member or a national tragedy like 9/11, the first thing we feel is, well, nothing. And then we feel incredibly bad for feeling nothing and having that sense of numbness — that maybe we aren’t grieving like we’re supposed to or reacting like we’re supposed to.

Is there something wrong with me? We ask. Well, apparently not.

Imi Lo of Psychology Today, describes numbness as one of human beings’ first responses to traumatic or incredibly emotional experiences. The three responses include fight, flight, and freeze, and numbing our emotions is the “freeze” response. She describes numbness with much stronger words of “internal deadness or emptiness” that strips us of the joyfulness and fullness of life, feeling as though the world is unreal and that we’re just watching life go by without actually going through it.

We often associate mental health conditions like depression and anxiety with emotions. We feel depressed, meaning we feel such an intense sadness and helplessness that it doesn’t feel normal. We feel anxious, meaning that our “fight” response feels so debilitating that it doesn’t feel normal and we can’t go on.

Numbness? That’s really hard to capture because by definition, we feel nothing. How is it wrong to feel nothing? Isn’t it better than feeling depressed or anxious? Isn’t numbness something that everyone feels?

Lo responds that numbness is a human adaptive coping mechanism that humans use to defend against a personal history too painful to reach. She notes that if we have an extremely painful situation like a traumatic death in the family, “we will bring all our attention to defend against it happening again.” The numbing and dissociation comes from an animal instinct for us to survive under the most unimaginably difficult circumstances.

“When things overwhelm us, disconnecting might be the only way that we can preserve our sanity or save our life,” Lo said.

We don’t emotionally numb ourselves as a conscious choice, but as a pattern until it becomes our “normal” way of functioning. In fact, I know that I have to numb as a coping mechanism for a lot of bad experiences and situations in the classroom — because I know I have to deal with even more situations later in the day. Maybe with more experience, my numbing defense will go away. But numbing is our natural response to emotional chaos — what else would we do to go on and function?

Emotional disconnection gives us a protective shield that allows us to function — which is why we subconsciously go numb at too-difficult situations. We get lulled into this complacency that the pain has gone away and that we can get on with life, but the numbing mechanism quickly evolves into “hiding from yourself or denying your needs altogether,” in the words of Lo.

She notes that different people experience numbness in different ways: some might feel bored and unable to feel emotions, while others might lose the ability to respond to events with our usual emotions of joy or sadness, and a lot of us may struggle to connect with people in a deep or meaningful way. People who look at life in a dissociated and personalized way exhibit a lack of investment in other people or activities, and frequently feel “frozen up”.

It is no secret that there are a lot of disadvantages to numbing ourselves that we can’t see in the moment — suppressed emotions build up. Even when we don’t realize it, the calm exterior we might show hides deep wounds like anger, distress, and grief that make us feel overly sensitive and irritable. Small, minor annoyances make us reach our threshold for outbursts for seemingly no reason. We have shorter fuses than we used to, and we don’t know why because we seemed to have dealt with previously extremely stressful events so effectively.

But when we constantly numb ourselves, we are cut off and do many things that are not in-tune with ourselves. Since numbing inherently means neglecting our basic needs for comfort and safety, we resort to temporary fixes like over-eating, over-spending, gambling, and drinking as impulsive self-destructive behaviors that give us the temporary reprieve to feel in a way we have so often neglected.

Turning off our bad emotions means that, in some way, our emotions strike back and we get tired of being observers of our lives without being able to attach ourselves to both the good and bad emotions.

By not feeling the bad, we don’t feel as much of the good in joy and friendship either. Internally, numbness leads us to be overwhelmed by waves of sadness or loneliness, because when we freeze and numb ourselves, “there is something deep down in you that cannot help but remind you that you are missing out on life,” Lo says.

It’s not like we choose to numb, but we do it as a natural response — but it doesn’t work in the long term. Few people would deny that locking away emotions isn’t a very fun way to live — it’s just a way to survive. Lo suggests building a degree of emotional skills, capacity, and “thawing” that allows us to experience life’s joy and aliveness and let the hidden parts of us feel.

The first step is to relinquish blame and shame, of examining the reason behind our numbness and let go of shaming ourselves for it. Maybe we thought everything was our fault and felt like we did everything wrong, or just didn’t handle a situation well, but that was then and this is now. We grew numb out of a place of pain in a “desperate attempt to survive,” and we need to forgive ourselves for that numbing response in the first place so we can get out of that defensive pattern.

Second, Lo urges that we acknowledge our sadness and how much our numbness held us back from joy. Acknowledging that by being numb, we robbed ourselves from joy will make us feel a sense of sadness, a grief over not having been in touch with ourselves all this time. Instead of trying to not feel the sadness, we must let ourselves feel it rather than keep suppressing it like we always have.

Lo uses the analogy of the shield as our numbness — if our emotional numbness is a shield, how does it feel? How thick and heavy is it? Does it change according to life’s circumstances, or does it remain stuck? What is it saying to us?

And then we have to transform the shield. Thank the shield for protecting us for such a long time and keeping us alive. But acknowledge, if you’re ready, that you’re stronger now and that you no longer need that shield, that you no longer need to feel numb like you were the protagonist of a Linkin Park song.

Don’t just try to get rid of the shield, but befriend it “so it no longer runs the show,” and forgive yourself when things don’t exactly change overnight because nothing truly does. You may have to befriend the shield over and over again.

Just a few minutes ago, I felt the shield come up again. I did something dumb when I failed at making a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster, and broke the toaster since smoke comes out of it. How could I be so stupid and idiotic? When my roommate asked me what happened, I noticed I was freezing up, but I see that the shield just protected me from my more palpable emotion of embarrassment and feelings of being incompetent that I try to avoid all so often as a teacher that I know are just normal.

Instead of the numbness being a natural reaction, let us realize, as Lo beautifully points out, that it’s just the way we protect ourselves and our shield from letting us feel our emotions. Let me be transparent and just say we can’t be emotionally vulnerable and allow ourselves to feel all the time or else we just can’t move forward sometimes or we won’t function like we want at work or home.

But when we get severe burns, sometimes it a day or two for symptoms of pain to develop. In 3rd-degree burns, the nerves are destroyed, meaning we can’t feel any pain — we just feel numb. That doesn’t mean the damage isn’t there, but the damage is so profound and pervasive that we can’t even feel it.

Why don’t we see our emotional wounds the same way?

The entire vulnerability movement is an attempt to dismantle expectations that we should have this shield up all the time and not be in tune with our emotions. But it takes a village to break down expectations of being hard, tough, and not vulnerable and it will take strong voices to speak out in that village, and maybe, just maybe, that voice could be us.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: ryanfan17@gmail.com. Support me: ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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