Creativity, Self Empowerment

The problem with numbing (and how journaling can help)

I watch a lot of TV. Not on my television – I don’t actually have one – but online. I love comedies – Community, Big Bang Theory, The Office, Seinfeld, Friends, New Girl… I guess that seems pretty harmless, right? Who doesn’t love to have a laugh?

Except that I don’t always watch the show to have a laugh. And sometimes, I’m watching an episode for the second, third… fifth time.

So why is this a problem?

A lot of the time, I’m watching the show to numb.

What is numbing?

Brené Brown defines numbing as something we do to avoid feeling the feelings we don’t want to feel.

Numbing can take many different forms – watching too much TV, over eating, over sleeping, shopping, gambling, drinking, drugs, sex… some of these things are obviously more socially accepted than others. Things like watching a little too much TV, or comfort eating after a bad day, or buying yourself something nice when you’re feeling down don’t seem to be particularly dangerous.

When it comes to watching my shows, if I’m being totally honest, it can be a variety of feelings I’m trying to numb: boredom, emptiness, fear, fatigue.

This might not seem like too much of a problem – I mean, we all do things to comfort ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable, bored or just not great.

Why is numbing a problem?

The real problem with numbing is that we can’t just numb the bad feelings. When we numb ourselves to the negative feelings, we also numb the positive feelings. Brown says:

We cannot selectively numb emotions: when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.

So while it’s all fine and dandy to take the pain of the moment away with a little retail therapy or a pint of icecream, if you do this often enough you’ll also notice a lack of joy in your life.

The other thing about numbing is that is that it can look a lot like self care. It can even start out as a gentle act of self care.

Having a some chocolate and snuggling under a blanket to watch a movie when PMS hits certainly can be self care. But usually this is one act that is part of a bigger self care approach. 

The key thing is how it leaves you feeling afterwards. If it leaves you feeling nourished and comforted, then it’s self care. If it leaves you feeling empty and craving more, then it’s numbing.

And there’s something else I’ve been thinking about, in between episodes of Parks and Rec: we can be numbing ourselves without even realising it. It’s not always a conscious decision – ‘oh what a lousy day, I don’t want to feel crappy so I’m going to drink a bottle of wine instead’ – sometimes we don’t realise we are doing it.

Like my TV shows – I don’t sit down to watch one thinking I feel crappy – oftentimes I don’t actually feel crappy to begin with. I might put on a TV show as something in the background while I potter around in my art journal. This in and of itself is not bad; it can be a lovely way to spend an evening. But if I do it too often, it starts to have a numbing effect, whether I mean it to or not.

And this is the third danger with numbing:

When numbing behaviours become habitual, we often turn to them out of habit and they create a numbing effect without us even noticing.

Before long we can be feeling, well, nothing, without even noticing it has happened.

How can journaling help?

The antidote, for me at least, is journaling. Some people might meditate, go running, or really do any number of things. But journaling is simple, and I can do it in my pyjamas.

With journaling daily, I cultivate awareness. The more awareness, the more I notice if I’m not feeling the good feelings – usually a sign of too much numbing or numbing behaviours.

Everyday when I sit down to write, since I don’t use prompts in my love and couragejournal, I wait to see what I have to say. I’m a firm believer that most of the time, we have plenty of things to say. I don’t know about you, but I walk around all day with a million thoughts going back and forward in my brain. I feel like a browser with 1567 tabs open at all times.

Strangely though, sometimes when I sit down with my journal I find the words aren’t coming. I feel empty, like I’ve got nothing to say. This to me, is a sign that I’ve been numbing too much. A sign that a few too many episodes of Community or a few too many sugary carbs has interfered.

I guess this could seem helpful in a way – I mean, numbing has a function of sorts, or else we wouldn’t do it. But the problem is that I can’t tap into my creativity or inspiration in this state. I can’t feel joy or gratitide for my life.

So when I find this happening in my journal, I know it’s time to step back from the TV episodes for a few days and go for a walk, read a book, and spend more time diving deep in my journal. I know it’s time to cultivate a sense of awareness in my life again.

Journal prompts for dealing with numbing

If you find yourself showing up to your journal feeling unsure of what to write, and you suspect numbing might be the cause, the following prompts can help.

  • Lately I’ve been feeling…
  • I don’t want to feel this way because…
  • Sometimes I spend too much time (your numbing methods here) because…
  • If I were to stop (your numbing methods here) then I would feel…
  • It can also help to have a list of positive coping mechanisms when you have feelings you don’t want to face. Make a list of alternatives to numbing in your journal, for example writing in your journal, having a chat with a friend, taking a walk outside, playing with your pet, doing some yoga, speaking to a counsellor, listening to music, painting, etc. Instead of numbing, I could…

Remember to be gentle and kind with yourself.