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Feeling empty and emotionally numb can be a result of emotional detachment or a syndrome known as depersonalization. Feeling empty and numb is, in essence, the experience of feeling disconnected, surreal, and unable to identify emotions. When you are emotionally numb, you are also feeling empty and detached, as if you are an outside observer of your own life. You see your life without living in it.
You may also feel that you are losing control over your thoughts or actions. Have you ever ask yourself these questions?
Why do I feel empty, like I don’t even exist?
Why do I feel nothing when I should?
Why do I feel emotionally numb when I should be happy or upset?
Why do I feel detached from my loved ones, family, and friends?
Why do I look into the mirror and feel like I am seeing someone else?
Why do I feel like a robot, running on an auto-pilot?
Why do I feel hollow, with little joy, ups or downs in my life?
Why do I have this surreal feeling as I go through my day-to-day?
If you identify with the above, you might be struggling with or a form of dissociation known as depersonalization. Feeling empty, emotionally numb, or hollow, is prevalent in our emotion-phobic modern society- yet it is also one of the most underestimated and unaccounted for conditions.
“Louise often feels like part of her is “acting.” At the same time , “there is another part ‘inside’ that is not connecting with the me that is talking to you,” she says. When the depersonalization is at its most intense, she feels like she just doesn’t exist. These experiences leave her confused about who she really is, and quite often, she feels like an “actress” or simply, “a fake.”
― Daphne Simeon
‘Why Do I Feel Empty?’
On the surface, it might seem strange that emotionally intense and highly sensitive people who tend to feel so much would also struggle with being emotionally numb or feeling nothing. However, your sensitivity and intensity could be precisely why you had turned to numbness as an armor to protect yourself. It might be that from a young age you were overwhelmed by too many strong emotions such that you adopted numbing as a way to cope. It might be that your childhood environment was violent and precarious, so you had no choice but to detach from what was happening, cut yourself off, and resort to feeling empty, and emotional numbness to cope.
Out in the wild, self-defense is essential for survival. When faced with life-threatening danger, animals will either retreat, attack, assume threatening poses, spout poison, or camouflage themselves. What do we humans do when confronted with physical danger or emotional trauma? We might verbally or physically retaliate, we might run away. If neither is an option, we detach from ourselves, hide our true feelings by disappearing into a zone where our minds can live in denial of reality, and as a result, we find ourselves feeling nothing but void.
Once we have experienced a physically or emotionally painful situation, such as childhood abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma, we will do all we can to defend ourselves against ever being hurt again. We do so by building up a wall against the outside world. This is what emotional numbness helps us do.
Like a protective mechanism in an electric circuit, emotional numbness and emptiness kick in when we are unable to bear the weight of the truth.
Therefore, when you ask yourself ‘Why do I feel empty’, try not to do it in a punitive, self-critical way. Rather, be glad that the defence mechanism in you is working to protect you against trauma. Without your inner protector, things could have been worse.
Unfortunately, for some of us, the oppressive sense of abandonment, rejection, terror, or shame persists beyond the traumatic event, and ‘feeling emotionally numb’ or ‘feeling nothing’ becomes an auto-pilot response. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we become hard-wired to respond to life in a certain way.
Research has shown that childhood trauma emanating from separation (e.g., death of a parent), physical neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, witnessing violence, and sexual abuse has a strong bearing on one’s tendency to develop depersonalization. Of the above factors listed, emotional maltreatment by one’s parent or parents was found to be the most significant trigger for emotional numbness. Since emotional maltreatment by a parent does not leave any visible signs, its impact on the child often goes undetected until much later in life, when he/she exhibits an inability to self-regulate emotions.
Even in the absence of abuse, an emotionally sensitive child can feel out-of-place in their own home; especially if the parents fail to recognize that their child may feel and think differently from them. Telling a hypersensitive child to be stoic and rational, or excessively criticizing them when they have emotional outbursts, can push the child to feel incredibly alienated. The effect of being an apple that falls far from the tree is compounded by our culture, which promotes the values of masculinity, stoicism, regimentation, and rationalism. As paradoxical as it may sound, emotionally intense people are the most vulnerable to shielding themselves by being emotionally numb in order to appear ‘normal’ in the world.
Initially, disconnecting, feeling empty and being emotionally numb give you a pseudo-calm. It allows you to go on with life, to attend to your work responsibilities, chores, and free others from worrying about you. It may even conveniently allow you to appear’ ‘high-functioning’ in the outside world. But this facade comes at a high price. Feeling emotionally numb inhibits your ability to laugh wholeheartedly, express real sadness, or show excitement. By being emotionally numb, you may have become a bystander to your own life.
Eventually, as you grow accustomed to living inside the walls you build around yourself, you forget who you truly are– Passionate, emotional, excitable, the opposite of feeling empty. You may become detached not only from the outside world, but also from your innermost passion, playfulness, and vitality.
People experience emptiness and emotional numbness differently. You may feel chronically bored, or you may struggle to find words for your feelings. You may detach from your body, gradually losing the ability to be attuned to signals of hunger, tiredness, or losing your sex drive. You may lose the ability to respond to events with joy or sadness or struggle to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way.
In Schema Therapy, the wall you build between your true self and your feelings is called “a detach protector”. Much like what its name indicates, this wall started out as a benign attempt to protect yourself. It was valuable at some point in your life, but might have expired as a survival strategy and is now doing nothing but holding you back.
It is essential to understand that feeling empty and feeling numb is not a conscious choice and we must be compassionate with ourselves. Rather than resenting what has happened, we ought to be grateful to our ‘detached protector’ for saving our lives from unbearable pain.
“Oh God just look at me now… one night opens words and utters pain… I cannot begin to explain to you… this… I am not here. This is not happening. Oh wait, it is, isn’t it?
I am a ghost. I am not here, not really. You see skin and cuts and frailty…these are symptoms, you known, of a ghost.”
― Emily Andrews, The Finer Points of Becoming Machine
10 Signs you are Feeling Empty or Emotionally Numb
1. You are unable to experience or express emotions – positive or negative, including love and joy.
2. You routinely engage in mind-numbing activities such as TV watching or procrastination. You gain no pleasure from these activities, yet you do not feel motivated to do anything else.
3. You feel disconnected from your body. You feel fatigued, lifeless, and do not receive signals regarding hunger, thirst, tiredness or other discomforts.
4. You do not react in situations that would typically evoke emotions, such as watching movies or receiving certain news.
5. You feel like a passive observer of your life. Rather than living each moment with vitality, life seems unreal.
6. You go about each day in auto-pilot mode. By adopting emotional numbness or depersonalization, you are not truly living. You are watching your life from a seat in the audience.
7. You no longer find joy in doing activities you once enjoyed. Your memories feel like someone else’s story.
8. You become less and less interested in socializing or connecting with people and feel detached from friends and family.
9. You feel no one knows the real you. And gradually, you know yourself less and less. You lose touch with your own interests, passions and dreams.
10. You feel a lingering sense of boredom.
“”Oh God just look at me now… one night opens words and utters pain… I cannot begin to explain to you… this… I am not here. This is not happening. Oh wait, it is isn’t’ it?
I am a ghost. I am not here, not really. You see skin and cuts and frailty…these are symptoms, you known, of a ghost”.”
― Emily Andrews, The Finer Points of Becoming Machine
Do You Want To Be Feeling Empty and Emotionally Numb Forever?
Emotions are what make us human.
‘Why do I feel empty?’ “Why do I feel emotionally numb’? You might have asked these questions in great pain, but these questions point not to a defect, but deep strengths and creative self-protective mechanisms in you.
Feeling numb or using emotional avoidance as a coping mechanism works for a while, but ultimately, your trauma and feelings are going to find a way to creep back. When the floodgates burst open, you may be shocked, feel out of control, and frightened by your own behaviours. You may then employ drastic measures to push the feelings back down, engaging in alcohol and drug abuse, overspending, bingeing, self-mutilation, and other impulsive behaviors.
If left untreated, emotional numbness can manifest itself in the form of chronic physical ailments. It is a vicious cycle that becomes exasperating and physically draining, leaving you with even lesser energy to engage with family and friends. In the extreme, just like many who have PTSD or Complex PTSD, you may develop suicidal ideations.
When we turn away from what we consider to be negative emotions, we also say goodbye to joy, love, and all that life has to offer. In the end, we are lonely and stranded in a cold, barren place. There will always be a voice inside that reminds us we are wasting away our lives without fully living.
Inside of you is a wild, innocent and playful child.
Deep down, you long to live life with your full heart, to feel safe and to be held by others around you, and to love them, too, without holding back.
Feeling empty or emotionally numb as a survival strategy does not have to be forever. Through the construction of emotional skills and resilience, you can begin to dip your feet into the deep waters of feeling. You can start with small steps such as learning the language of emotions or building the ability to regulate. Slowly but surely, you will re-open the door to experience life’s joy, abundance, and aliveness—things that a hidden part of you has long been yearning for.
“Dissociation, a form of hypnotic trance, helps children survive the abuse…The abuse takes on a dream-like, surreal quality and deadened feelings and altered perceptions add to the strangeness. The whole scene does not fit into the ‘real world.’ It is simple to forget, easy to believe nothing happened.”
― Renee Fredrickson
Ways to Stop Being Emotionally Numb
Chronically being emotionally numb is a complex psychological condition. With courage and commitment, you can peel back layer-upon-layer of armour and reclaim the true self that has long waited for your attention.
Here are some of the healing steps in this process.
1. Let Go of Any Guilt or Shame that Comes from Being Emotionally Numb
As stated earlier, feeling numb is a psychological response and not something that you have consciously chosen.
Unfortunately, your inability to express feelings for others might have hurt and disappointed those that are the closest to you. Perhaps you have lost a few loving relationships along the way.
The past cannot be undone, it does not have to mean you carry shame or guilt for the rest of your life. Remember, your emptiness and numbness grew out of pain and was nothing but a desperate attempt to survive. Approach your emptiness and emotional numbness with compassion, and even gratitude. Rather than condemn yourself, love yourself back into life.
2. Embrace Tenderness
As you first strip away the armour that protected you for years, you may be overcome with a tsunami of emotions as your true feelings are revealed. You may feel tender or emotional, and surprise yourself with bursts of laughter and tears. Fear not, as you are simply returning to your natural state. Your body will slowly learn that it is safe to feel feelings. Very soon, you will even enjoy the sense of aliveness and connection it gives you. Even if the ride is turbulent, it is nevertheless a glorious one.
3. Visualize the barrier and dissolve it
In a quiet place, try and visualise your emotional numbness as a wall you have created, then ask yourself the following questions:
• How thick is the wall?
• What is the wall made of? Is it cold metal? Plastic? Or maybe cotton wool?
• Does the wall feel cold or warm? Does it move around?
• Has it remained static or grown in thickness over time?
• Do you see that the wall now has cracks in it?
• If your wall has a personality and a voice, what is it saying to you?
• Are you ready to let it go?
4. Thanking and transforming the emptiness or emotional numbness
Thank the emptiness or numbness for the purpose it has served in your life. But now it is time to break through and move towards the other side. Say to your shield, ”Thank you for protecting me all these years. Without you, I couldn’t have lived through those hard times. However, I am stronger now, and I no longer need you. I promise you, I will take care of myself. It is safe for us to say goodbye.”
You may add affirmations that help you move forward in life:
‘I am ready to experience life.’
’It is okay for me to feel sad sometimes.’
‘Feeling tender is not a sign of weakness.’
Things may not change overnight, but the next time you feel the shield emerging, you will be more aware. It will no longer be an unconscious, destructive force outside of your control. Your emotional wall is there to protect you in times of danger. You may choose to use it, or not. But the power remains in you.
5. Connect to your physical self
For people who are chronically feeling empty or emotionally numb, life can be an out-of-body experience. Reconnecting with your physical body is an essential step in feeling alive. Different things work for different people. Practising deep-breathing techniques, self-massage, yoga, meditation, and tai-chi are some of the ways to connect with your mind, body, and soul.
6. Do something cathartic
Anger is a challenging emotion for many people. It may well be the very emotions that you have defended against with your shield. Allow yourself to get in touch with your vitality through the following cathartic exercise, even if it feels unnatural at first.
• Scream into a pillow to let it all out. Even if your anger is directed towards yourself.
• Write a journal to document moments of your life that created feelings of immense sadness or loneliness. Try to answer the questions ‘Why do I feel empty?’ and ‘Why do I feel numb?’ ‘What am I trying to protect against?’ ‘What would I have to otherwise feel if I don’t feel empty, feel numb?’
• Paint or write a poem to express yourself creatively.
• Enrol for an intense dance or exercise class.
• Join a group for people with emotional numbness disorder.
Finally, dear sensitive souls, I would like to remind you that you are worth a full life.
No matter how you have pretended and defended over the past many years, deep inside your longing to love and to receive love once again, never died.
When you begin to acknowledge the deep-rooted sense of fear, shame, abandonment, or rejection, a natural thawing process will follow. Once the weight of heavy emotions is lifted, for the first time in a long time, you will see the reservoir of passion and vitality that have always been there, waiting to be discovered by you.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.