Pic by KatB Photography
Know what really, really sucks? Feeling absolutely nothing for anyone or anything.
Emotional disengagement is an understandable strategy when faced with an overwhelming world. But when numbness goes beyond being a temporary coping mechanism and becomes your default state, something needs to be done. You need to bring yourself back.
So, what’s this numbness of which I speak? I’ll explain it according to my experience. It’s a sense of disconnection from the world. Things people say don’t register. You feel nothing. You have a lack of empathy for — or even like of — people. You judge them, criticise them and can’t get excited about their achievements. Your attention span is affected, too — you may read an entire page of a book, magazine or newspaper and have absolutely no recollection of what it was about.
Sometimes numbness is a reaction to something painful. Heartbreak tends to come first — it’s horrible, but it’s usually acute. It’s temporary, ripping through your world and displacing everything before moving on and giving you the opportunity to rebuild. But numbness is pervasive. It creeps in and settles. It gradually dulls your senses and seeps into the world around you, flooding it with white noise and blurring its outlines. Everything becomes hazy. Experiences wash over you and you stop noticing the details.
Numbness is also often the result of too much input and not enough output. Every day we are confronted with a barrage of information: RSS feeds, emails, advertising, TV, inane chatter, work demands — all of this swirls around in our heads and ends up getting stuck. It’s too much to process at once, and as a result our minds go “See ya!” and shut down.
Another cause is lack of human contact, especially if you tend to supplant real-life encounters with virtual ones. I went through a stage a few years back where I’d go entire weekends without talking to another human being. And because I was spending so much time alone, I began to feel embarrassed. Which made me more self-conscious, and less inclined to go out and talk to people. Hello, darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again!
When you don’t interact with other humans, you have no frames of reference. You lose context. You start to think that eating a dinner of cold spaghetti straight out of the can and wiping your mouth on your sleeve is normal. (I wish I could chalk up that example to a creative imagination, but I was actually that schlubby.)
So, how do you shake off the haze and reconnect with these human emotions that other people seem so capable of expressing? Here are a few strategies that can help:
- Express yourself. You know those repressed feelings that are rattling around your body? Lay ‘em out on the table. I’ve often been fond of encasing mine within a core of concentric spheres and burying the resulting Megaball of Emotions deep in the backyard. But that’s a really dumb idea. Just be straight-up with people and tell them how you feel. It’s scary, but ultimately incredibly rewarding.
- Bring on the music. Play a song that makes you giddily happy or desperately sad. Sing, scream, dance or cry along. Oh hi there, feelings. It’s been a while.
- Be with people. And don’t put any pressure on yourself to be funny or entertaining or smart. Pick a few friends and do something low-key. Have a picnic. Or make dinner together. If you all suck at cooking it’ll make it more hilarious. Just have a local take-out joint on speed-dial.
- Get naked and let someone touch you. Not like that. I’m talking massage, especially of the hardcore Tui Na variety. If your Tui Na practitioner is anything like mine, you will feel pain, then relief, in muscles you never knew you had. And he/she will likely be sitting on your butt at the time. Which is, you know, confronting. But in a strange way, the casual intimacy of this makes you feel like you must be okay. There’s a sense of self-acceptance that comes with having a small Chinese lady digging her elbows into your cervical vertebrae while sitting on your naked ass.
- Add a degree of difficulty to your day. Throwing an obstacle or challenge into your own path is a quick way to jolt yourself into a better frame of mind. Go harder at the gym or force yourself to make an unpleasant but necessary phone call. When it’s done you’ll feel pretty heroic.
- Take a break from technology. Yes, yes, I know — you are receiving this anti-technology advice from Internerd McHypocrite. I am a poor role model. But it makes such a difference, I cannot even tell you. Try having a tech-free day once a week, or make your home an internet-free zone after, say, 6pm.
- Find something to care about. It could be an artistic project, or an adorable kitty. Whatever it is, just make it something that requires your energy and attention. That way you feel needed and involved in nurturing something important.
I try to do these things often. But sometimes emotional disengagement still happens. (It’s inevitable when you live in crazypants New York.) I continue to have periods of numbness. Quite frequently, actually. But within that I get these extraordinary moments where a deep-seated feeling will lurch to the surface. Sometimes it feels like grief; other times it is closer to exhilaration. The strength and suddenness takes me by surprise. But instead of being unnerved by it, I try to be comforted. It’s wonderful to have such feelings. They prove that I’m a warm-blooded human who is affected by the world around me.