By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Seattle Christian Counseling
Emotions can be overwhelming. But what if you never feel anything? For some people, emotions are totally foreign. They hear other people talk about being anxious about a presentation, sad over the death of a loved one, or angry with a rude driver, but they can’t fully appreciate what it is like to experience those reactions. If this sounds familiar, some exercises from Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation, may be helpful for you.
Why Don’t I Feel Anything?
With the exception of a tiny portion of the population suffering from extreme personality disorders, everyone is born with the capacity for emotion. Have you ever seen an emotionless baby? No. Even the most even-keeled infants occasionally cry, giggle, or show interest in their surroundings. People become numb because of circumstances that happen later. Maybe their parents were cold and distant growing up. Or they experienced a trauma so severe that the only way to deal with it was to shut down emotionally.
Emotional numbness is not a natural state of being. It’s a defense mechanism. It happens as a result of something. For instance, a child with indifferent parents may suppress their feelings because they can’t stand the pain of loneliness and longing for affection. They recognize their parents are unlikely to change. The only way to make the situation bearable is to shut out those feelings that make it painful.
Unfortunately, you cannot constantly repress a single feeling, and continue to feel the rest. Once you begin training your brain to ignore one emotion, it automatically begins to act that way with all of them. You start out trying to stop feeling sad, but eventually get to where you can’t feel anything.
Jesus Saw Feelings as Important
It may seem as if going through life avoiding pain is preferable, but it makes it difficult to develop healthy relationships with others. You may avoid intimacy as a way to protect yourself. Unfortunately, this creates a toxic cycle. You are unable to be vulnerable or connect with others, which creates the painful distance that caused you to become numb in the first place.
Scripture does not encourage believers to be cold and unfeeling. Quite the opposite. We see Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, enjoying the camaraderie of the disciples in the upper room, and experiencing overwhelming anxiety at the prospect of his excruciating final days.
Jesus set an example of close fellowship and public displays of emotion, because that is how God created humans to be. Feelings are the natural result of the fluctuating human experience. That is the message of Ecclesiastes. You cannot peg your hopes or happiness on any one thing, because life is so uncertain. It is best to accept that God has a plan for every season of your life, and that each up and down will propel you to further maturity.
Learning To Feel Your Feelings
If you struggle with numbness, you can re-train yourself to tune into your feelings by accessing them through the backdoor. Your heart may be silent, but your body isn’t.
- Find a quiet space where you can be alone. Sit or lay still.
- Starting with your feet, mentally work your way up your body, taking note of how each body part feels. Do you notice any tension, discomfort, or heaviness?
- If you do, what do you think may be causing that? Muscle tension might signal anger, stomach discomfort could mean you’re anxious, and heaviness in your chest may indicate sadness.
- Allow others to discuss their feelings with you (maybe they had a bad day, and need someone to listen). This can help you see what more pronounced emotional responses look like in daily life. Pay attention to what caused this person’s emotional reaction, and how you might react to something like that.
- Try watching the TV with the sound off. This helps relax the more analytical left-brain, because it’s not being stimulated, allowing your emotions better opportunity to be engaged. Siegel calls it an exercise in “nonverbal perception ability,” because the goal is to focus on the expressions of the people on TV, and what they might be feeling.
Tuning into your physical sensations may bring to mind memories of other occasions when you felt similarly. Keeping a journal of these images, and any feelings you notice when you listen to your body, can create opportunities for you to access and analyze your emotions.
Christian Counseling for Emotional Numbness
Working out your feelings on your own can be difficult. People often shut down their feelings for legitimate and painful reasons. Finding someone to support you through the process can be a big help. They will use biblical principles and therapeutic techniques to help you interact with yourself, and others, in a healthier more sympathetic way.
“alone,” by wencorteo, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Couple sitting against wall of unrenovated room” 76038538, courtesy of Scott Lewis, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)