Are you a numb–er? Do you often look for something outside yourself to be distracted from the uncomfortable feelings happening on the inside? Do you consume a little too much of any one thing? I’m not talking about reaching for a glass of wine when you’ve had a bad day, I’m talking about obsessively turning outward to feel numb, to temporarily escape from the present. Continually feeding or fleeing from your feelings with too much food, work, booze, exercise, drugs, an overly-packed schedule, social media, sex, shopping, porn, video games, gambling, tech, Netflix, etc.
Too-muchness: we’re all suffering from it.
However, it’s not necessarily what we numb out on, but why you do it. Research has shown that we engage in numbing behavior primarily because we want to stop feeling shame, anxiety, sadness and/or disconnection. Basically, we want a break from feeling and dealing with our shit.
I define “numbing out” as anything I intentionally and incessantly do to take me away from being and feeling present. I typically numb out when I don’t want to feel or deal with my inner gremlins. And I will find any possible way to avoid them. I have mastered the art of living comfortably numb.
This just didn’t start happening though, I realized that I have been a lifelong numb-er:
As a child, I numbed out on candy (and the dentist bill was proof of that). Whenever I felt scared, sad or mad I would resort to what felt (and tasted) good: Hubba Bubba, Pop Rocks, Bottle Caps, Astro Pops and Now & Laters all numbed my feelings to the point of rotted teeth (twelve, to be exact).
As a teen, I numbed out on glam metal and long-haired boys. Most people reading this know I once had quite the obsession with Bon Jovi and men with hair longer than mine. When I felt angsty or uncertain, Jon and the boys’ lyrics (cheesy as they may be) spoke to me in ways that allowed me to escape from whatever teenage BS I was dealing with. When I felt sad or lonely, I headed to Streets in New Rochelle and communed with other long-hairs who felt the music as deeply as I did. Music was my way to cope at the time—and I guess it could have been worse. The point I am getting at is, when I finally turned down the music, my feelings were still ever-present and undealt with.
In my 20’s, I numbed out on work. I worked at least 16-hour days. Not because it was required, or because I had too much work to handle, but mainly because it fueled me. Work was what I was good at, where I received the most satisfaction. Work fed me, literally and figuratively. Work allowed me to avoid what was at home. For what was waiting for me was a relationship on life-support and work just allowed me to ignore the inevitable: pulling the plug. Which I eventually did, but even after burying the dead relationship, I still numbed out on work and even more, so I didn’t have to deal with healing my broken heart. Work was my salvation, my pint of ice-cream, my box of tissues, my absolute favorite numbing tool of choice.
In my 30’s, I numbed out on dating. I wrote about this in my “Why are You Still Single” blog. After ending my 7-year relationship, I dated. A lot. I chose to forego healing properly because, ya know, feeling the hurt, the pain and the loss just sucks. So, I threw my unhealed self into dating. Some weeks I had a date every night because I didn’t want to be alone physically, mentally, or emotionally. And, the way I planned it, I never had to be. Until it got old and I found my numbed-out self in another dysfunctional, long-term relationship.
In my 40’s, I found myself numbing out on Netflix and Social Media. It’s hard to numb out when you’re a single parent, because your eyes and ears must be on the littles every second they’re awake. But it wasn’t until Kellan would go down for the night that my numbing behavior would kick in. I would find myself scrolling through social media or 5 episodes deep into a Netflix binge, when I would realize it was 3am and Kellan would be awake in two hours. But I continued to scroll and binge because I didn’t know how to stop, and I had no interest in finding out how.
All this numbing worked for me. I wanted to be anywhere else but present. Until a year ago, when something marvelous happened. I had a well-intentioned growth spurt, grew deeper into my sense of self (and all the shit that went with it), and became much more comfortable in my own skin. Now, when the urge to numb emerges, and it still does, I sense it immediately. It’s that fleeting feeling of leaving my body, of not knowing what is happening around me, slowly floating away from the feelings. It’s scary how we can be in that numbing state and have no recollection of time or place. While it may have felt great in the moment, I would often find myself left with a hangover– sometimes physical, always emotional. What I was numbing out from feeling was still ever-present and more intensified. That’s when it occurred to me that you can’t numb the bad without numbing the good. Because, if you think about it, when we numb, we distract from feeling A.N.Y.T.H.I.N.G – even the good stuff! Shit. I was foregoing joy for Netflix and Instagram. WTF was I doing?! So, on my 46th birthday, I got real with myself– and my shit– and decided it was time to un-numb.
If you’re curious, here are some of the steps I took to stop the numbing:
Call Out your Numbing Mechanism(s) of Choice. You have to own what you’re numbing out on before you can stop doing it. Think about what you spend a copious amount of time doing when you don’t want to deal with your feels. I had to list mine out with pen and paper to truly honor every way I numb out– and what a freaking wake-up call! Now, each time I sense that I’m escaping what is (which does still happen), I pull myself back, declare that it is happening and deal with the ‘why’.
Spend Time in Silence. I used to hate spending alone-time with myself– hence the numbing– so this was challenging for me at first. I started out slow, taking 10-15 minutes each day to gauge how/what I am feeling, like taking an internal temperature check. This is so important because we no longer have gaps of quiet in our lives when life has the opportunity to speak to us and we have the chance to just be. Therefore, I set a daily appointment on my calendar with a 15-minute timer (I first started with just 5 minutes). I find some scenery I am fond of (beach, park, my bedroom, watching the stars, a quiet room at work, etc.) and I just be.
Use Tech for Good. Many of us numb out on our tech devices. Last September I started to monitor the time I spent with tech, and discovered I was tracking 6 hours a day (which is nuts). Believe it or not, it was technology that helped me un-numb and get my life back—specifically an app called In Moment.
- In Moment automatically tracks how much time you spend on social media (a number that’s likely embarrassingly high for most of us). It’ll also show which apps you use the most and allow you to set a time limit on app usage. Once you go over your daily limit, In Moment will block access to the social media app(s).
Reach Out, Connect, and Create. When we numb, we are isolated not only from our feelings, but from people, places, and things. I not only lost track of time, but I also disconnected from friends and things that brought me joy once upon a time. I began to lose track of my hobbies and what I liked to do for fun. I used to invest in passion projects, a new one each year, and six years went by since I became devoted to one. When I stopped numbing, I was able to activate my creative juices, and out of that discovery came a brand-new passion project called The Daily Feels.
Enjoy the ‘Meantime’. Have you noticed that when we’re sitting in a doctor’s office, or waiting for a friend to arrive at a restaurant, or sitting at a transit stop, we pick up our phones and start scrolling? We don’t see or feel our surroundings. I began to pay attention and noticed that every time I was “waiting” for something, I found ways to distract myself, typically with my phone. So now, when I am caught in the ‘meantime’, I take it all in, whatever ‘it’ is. I observe human interaction. I hear sounds of life happening. I experience beautiful scenery. I engage in thoughtful conversations. I was missing out on all these things because I was looking down, instead of up.
It’s pretty rad to be slowly reawakened to life. It truly is the best thing I’ve done for myself in years. So, what do ya say, are you up for a challenge? How about for the next 21 days—because research suggests it takes 21 days to change a habit– you join me in becoming more present? Life is too precious to lose yourself in all manners of distractions and escapes, so I challenge you to be present and feel what you need to feel. I promise it won’t kill you, and I guarantee that there is a gift on the other side: it’s called the present.