The last of the five-part series: glad, mad, sad, bad, flat.
First there were glad, mad, and sad. (Geek happy, geek rage, geek sad)
Then bad entered the mix. (Geek stress)
Finally, I added flat, since it covers (no pun intended) a lot of states that don’t fit into the other four.
‘Flat’ is a state of disconnect or numbness. It can easily be misinterpreted as a boring kind of contentment, but without the enduring peacefulness or pleasant tone that contentment has.
Flat is the state of withdrawal from emotional response. The state of disengagement with your emotional life.
It can have a sudden onset – the numbness of shock in a car accident, news of bereavement or serious illness.
Or it can come on insidiously, slowly, unnoticably, until one day you realise that you don’t feel happy all that often, or at all, and you feel cut off from feeling sad too. Come to think of it, you can’t cry either.
You can also deliberately bring on numbness to avoid anticipated pain: overeat, starve yourself, alcohol, smoke weed, whatever’s your narcotic of choice. Or keep yourself so busy you don’t have time to feel. You bury yourself in work, or books, or cleaning. Perfecting the art of not being with yourself in whatever way you choose.
At its heart, numbness is a defence mechanism against feeling. It shuts down our self-empathy – our ability to experience our own feelings. Usually, numbness creeps in because we subconsciously or consciously fear pain, so we shutdown and numb out.
Numbness can be self-protective. In the case of sudden shock, numbness allows us to function on a practical level and postpone dealing with our emotions until later. Numbness enables us to get through horrific circumstances.
If you stay in numbness though, and don’t catch up with your emotions later on, your emotions will bother you until you feel them, experience them and resolve them. What I mean by this is, that you can delay your emotional processing, but not indefinitely.
Numbing out is a ingrained habit of mine since I was very young. Sometimes, I’ve not noticed it for years. Other times, I’ve been acutely aware of feeling totally disconnected.
More lately, after years of mindfulness and meditation practice, and learning on a cognitive level about emotions and emotional processing, my experiential/practical methods for recognising, experiencing and resolving emotions have improved greatly.
These days, I recognise that I’m numbing out, and I create the time and space to let myself feel. A soft, warm blanket, a decent cup of tea, and a comfortable, undisturbed spot to sit or, preferably, lie down snuggled up in the aforementioned blanket. And I let myself begin to feel.
Having done this process quite a few times, my bodymind recognises what’s going on and is pretty quick these days to un-numb and let me feel what’s bothering me. In the beginning, it was slower. Although other times it was dramatic since I’d reached more of a crisis point that I wanted to admit to myself.
It’s easier to feel the pain in a ‘controlled’ – i.e. safe – environment than it is to un-numb in a non-safe environment. Knowing that my friends are out there for me, even if they’re not right in the process with me when it happens, is invaluable.
And the underlying pain? The trigger for the process of numbing out? It can be anything. Frustration, anger, hurt, upset, rage. Or relief – the sweet tears of relief that something bad has now ended, or something feared has not come to pass. It can be new pain – something that’s recently happened. Or old pain – grieving for something lost or taken long ago.
With practice, the numbness can be swiftly recognised and the underlying emotions skillfully resolved. This is a learnable – and highly valuable – skillset. With it, you can create healthier habits of handling emotions and be more fully alive in your life, rather than watching it from the sidelines.