Why do I feel so numb?

Depersonalization: why do I feel empty and numb?

"I'm emotionally intense, but mostly I don't feel anything, empty, detached from reality and those around me ..."

Do you feel like the world around you is unreal?

Do you feel like you're watching your life go by without being there?

Are you having trouble knowing what you are feeling, or cannot find the vocabulary for it?

Do you feel disconnected from your body?

Although it sounds paradoxical at first, many emotionally intense and sensitive people struggle with "emotional numbness", a kind of inner lethality or emptiness that permeates their whole being and takes away the joy and fullness that life has to offer.

Depersonalization disorder is the experience of feeling unreal, aloof, and often unable to feel emotions. Individuals who experience depersonalization feel like an outside observer of themselves and often report a loss of control over their thoughts or actions.

Emotional numbness originates in a part of our personal history that is too painful to reach. It is human nature to defend oneself against pain. Once we have experienced a physically or emotionally painful situation, such as betrayal or intrusion, we will all bring our attention to defending ourselves against it from happening again.

In the face of physical, emotional, or relational traumatic experiences, people have three answers: fight, flight, or freeze. If the separation from others "flees" in order not to be hurt, then it is "freezing" to numb our emotions as a whole.

In extreme situations such as rejection, abandonment or shame, our body and psyche to switch to a "numbing mode" as part of this freezing reaction. Indeed, dissociation is our "organismic standard": it comes to us from our animal instincts to survive the most unimaginably difficult circumstances. When things get overwhelming, separating can be the only way to maintain our sanity or to save our lives.

However, this protective reflex sometimes persists much longer after the real danger has passed. Emotional numbness is usually not a conscious choice. You may only be aware of the pattern formation after it has become your "normal" functioning.

Initially, emotional separation offers a sense of pseudo-equanimity, a steady-state pleasantness that also allows you to develop into a socially acceptable person. You may feel like you can function normally - getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work. But at some point it becomes dampening.

This protective shield can seem useful at first: you will feel that the pain is gone and that you can “get on with life”, maybe even with confidence. Although the pattern was originally intended to protect you from others, it can eventually transform into you, hiding from yourself or denying your needs altogether.

Emotional numbness or distancing is experienced differently by different people: You may feel a lingering feeling of boredom and emptiness, as if you cannot show or feel any emotion. You may lose the ability to respond to events with the usual joy or sadness, or you may have difficulty connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways.

In psychology, the term "affect phobia" is used to describe the tendency of some people to avoid the feelings they find unbearable. As a result, they become emotionally detached and experience life in a "dissociated" or "depersonalized" way. The way your shield works can be compared to what psychologist Jeffrey Young calls the "freestanding protection mode". Signs and symptoms of the mode include "depersonalization, emptiness, boredom". Substance abuse, bingeing, self-mutilation, psychosomatic ailments, “emptiness”, or being cynical, aloof, or pessimistic about not investing in people or activities. "

The pain and the risk of freezing

While it may seem like a decent solution to emotional survival, there are many drawbacks to getting rid of pain. For one, repressed emotions pile up in your system, leaving a calm facade that hides the real psychological wounds: anger both expressed and suppressed; Longing for what could have been; Distress over past betrayal; or grief over relationships that ended too soon.

With so much hidden in it, you may feel particularly sensitive and irritable. It can take only minor events to reach your “boiling point” at which you may be surprised by emotional outbursts that seem to have come out of nowhere.

When you are cut off from the totality of your being, you can do certain things that are not in accordance with your true will. For example, if your basic needs for comfort and safety are not being met, you can calm yourself down by overeating, spending too much, or engaging in other impulsive behaviors.

When we turn away from bad emotions, we also set aside our ability to hold onto the joy of all life. You can become an observer of life and watch it go by without being in it. Some people may even experience memory loss as they don't remember much of their life - even looking at old pictures of themselves can seem surreal.

The pain of life may seem subdued, but you also won't feel the full extent of positive emotions - love, joy, or friendship. Although things may look good on the outside, you may feel overwhelmed by a wave of sadness or loneliness. Any memory of the finiteness of life can evoke painful existential awareness and guilt. This is because even if part of you insists on freezing, there is something deep inside you reminding you that you are missing out on life.

Deep down, you know that the strategy of locking your heart away has stopped working and that choosing to live this life fully means your heart will melt, bloom and ache at the same time. Inside you is a wildly spontaneous, innocent and playful child. Deep down, you long to be fully immersed in life, to feel perfectly safe and to love in the presence of others without holding back as is the call of your nature.

By building emotional skills and resilience, you can begin to feel confident enough to dip your feet in the deep waters of feeling. We can start with small strategies like learning to label and self-regulate emotions.

Once you begin to develop a certain level of emotional capacity, of course, the "thawing process" follows. At this point you have opened the door again to experience the joy, abundance, and vibrancy of life - things that a hidden part of you has longed for.

Reflection exercise: working with your shield

1. Give up guilt and shame

The first step to working with your emotional numbness is to give up any associated shame or self-criticism. In addition to the pain of feeling empty, you may have accumulated layers of relational shame and related conflict.

For example, your intimate partner may have accused you of being cold, defensive, or aloof when they needed affection from you. However, it is important to remember that your numbness emerged from a place of pain and tenderness and was nothing more than a desperate attempt at survival. Shaming or punishing yourself for becoming deaf in the first place will only reinforce the defense pattern.

2. Acknowledge the sadness

Once you've turned off your harsh internal critic, you are ready to approach your numbness from a place of compassion. This is important because when you first realize the extent to which your numbness has kept you from joy, you will encounter a wave of sadness. This is a grief over the fact that all the time you have been out of touch with yourself and your true nature. Rather than bypassing your sadness, make the intention to get closer to it and feel it so it can be digested rather than suppressed.

3. Examine the shield

Now you are ready to take a close look at your deafness. Use your imagination and reflect on the following questions:

  • If your emotional numbness is a wall or a sign how thick is it?
  • What materials would it be made of? Metal, wood or plastic? How dense or heavy is it?
  • Does it feel warm or cold when you touch your wall / sign?
  • Does it change according to your living circumstances or your energy level, or does it get stuck and static?
  • If your wall / sign has a voice, what does it say?

4. Thank deafness and transform it

Keep getting closer to your shield until you reach the delicate wounds that lie underneath. Breathe gently and thoroughly through this process. Only then may you want to say, "Thank you for protecting me all these years. I would not have survived without you. Now, however, I am stronger and I no longer need you."

Our goal here is not to get rid of the shield, but to befriend and get to know it so that the show no longer runs. We don't expect things to change overnight and you may have to repeat the process, approaching him and asking him over and over again.

The next time you use the shield to defend yourself against emotions as they arise, or when you feel numb where you want to feel alive and present, you will become more aware of this and your numbness is no longer an unconscious, destructive force.

Your emotional shield is there to protect, and you can decide whether or not to use it. But the power stays in you.

This post is an excerpt from the book Emotional sensitivity and intensity.


Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S. and Weishaar, M. E., 2003. Schema Therapy: A Guide for Practitioners. Guilford Press.