Depersonalisation: Why Do I Feel Empty and Numb?
Why do emotionally sensitive and intense people sometimes feel "nothing"?
Posted October 31, 2018 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
“I am emotionally intense, but mostly I feel nothing, empty, detached from reality and those around me…”
Do you feel like the world around you is unreal?
Do you feel as though you are watching your life go by without being in it?
Do you struggle to know what you are feeling or cannot find the vocabulary for it?
Do you find yourself feeling disconnected from your body?
Though it sounds paradoxical at first, many emotionally intense and sensitive people struggle with “emotional numbness,” a kind of internal deadness or emptiness that permeates their whole being and strips them of the joy and fullness that life has to offer.
Depersonalization Disorder is the experience of feeling unreal, detached, and, often, unable to feel emotion. Individuals experiencing depersonalization feel as if they are an outside observer of themselves and often report feeling a loss of control over their thoughts or actions.
Emotional numbness finds its origin in a part of our personal history that is too painful to reach. It is in human nature to defend against pain. Once we have experienced a physically or emotionally painful situation, such as being betrayed or intruded, we will bring all our attention to defend against it happening again.
In the face of physical, emotional, or relational traumatic experiences, human beings have three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. If disconnecting with others to avoid getting hurt is "fleeing," then numbing out our emotions altogether is "freezing."
When faced with extreme situations, such as rejection, abandonment, or shame, our body and psyche to go into a “numbing mode” as part of that freezing response. In fact, dissociation is our "organismic default": It comes from our animal instincts to us to survive the most unimaginably difficult circumstances. When things overwhelm us, disconnecting might be the only way that we can preserve our sanity or save our life.
However, this protective reflex sometimes remains for much longer after the actual danger has passed. Emotional numbing tends not to be a conscious choice; you may not even be aware of the pattern building until after it becomes your “normal” way of functioning.
Initially, emotional disconnection offers a sense of pseudo-equanimity, a steady-state pleasantness which also allows you to put up a socially acceptable persona. You may feel that you can function normally—get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work. But eventually, it becomes deadening.
This protective shield can seem useful at first: you will feel that the pain has gone away and that you can “get on with life,” perhaps even with confidence. Although the pattern started off as a way of protecting you from others, it can eventually morph into you hiding from yourself or denying your needs altogether.
Emotional numbness, or detachment, is experienced differently by different people: You may feel a lingering sense of boredom and emptiness like you are not able to show or feel any emotions. You may lose the ability to respond to events with the usual joy or sadness, or you may struggle to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way.
In psychology, the term “affect phobia” is used to describe the tendency for some people to avoid the feelings that they believe are intolerable. As a result, they become emotionally detached and experience life in a “dissociated,” or “depersonalized,” way. The way your shield works can be likened to what psychologist Jeffrey Young calls the “detached protector mode." Signs and symptoms of the mode include “depersonalization, emptiness, boredom, substance abuse, bingeing, self-mutilation, psychosomatic complaints, 'blankness,' [or adopting] a cynical, aloof or pessimistic stance to avoid investing in people or activities.’’
The Pain and Danger of Freezing Up
Though it may seem like a decent solution for emotional survival, detaching from pain carries many downsides. For one, suppressed emotions tend to accumulate in your system, leaving you a calm façade that conceals the real psychic wounds: anger, both expressed and repressed; longing for what might have been; distress over past betrayal; or the grief over relationships that ended too soon.
With so much hidden within, you may feel particularly sensitive and irritable. It may take only minor events to reach your “boiling point,” where you may be caught off-guard by emotional outbursts that seem to have come out of nowhere.
If you are cut off from the entirety of your being, you may do certain things that are not congruent with your true will. For instance, if your basic needs for comfort and safety are not met, you may resort to self-soothing by over-eating, over-spending, or engaging in other impulsive behaviors.
When we turn away from feeling bad emotions, we also put aside our ability to attach to the joy of all life has to offer. You may become an observer of life, watching it go by without being “in” it. Some people may even experience memory loss, as they do not remember much of their life—even looking at old pictures of themselves can seem surreal.
Life’s pain may seem dampened, but you will not feel the full extent of the positive emotions either—love, joy, or friendship. Although things may seem fine on the outside, you may feel overcome by a wave of sadness or loneliness. Any reminder of life’s finiteness can bring on painful existential awareness and guilt. This is because even if part of you insists on freezing up, there is something deep down in you that cannot help but remind you that you are missing out on life.
Deep down, you know that the strategy of locking your heart away is no longer working and that to choose to live this life fully is to allow your heart to melt, blossom, and ache at the same time. Inside of you is a wildly spontaneous, innocent, and playful child. Deep down, you long to engage in life fully, to feel completely safe in the presence of others, and to love without holding back, as that is the call from your nature.
Through the construction of emotional skills and resilience, you can begin to feel safe enough to dip your feet into the deep waters of feeling. We can start with small strategies, such as learning to label emotions and self-regulate.
Once you begin to develop a degree of emotional capacity, the “thawing” process will naturally follow. At that point, you will have re-opened the door to experience life’s joy, abundance, and aliveness—things that a hidden part of you has long been yearning for.
Reflective Exercise: Working With Your Shield
1. Relinquishing blame and shame
The first step to working with your emotional numbness is to relinquish any shame or self-criticism attached to it. On top of the pain of feeling empty, you may have accumulated layers of relational shame and conflicts associated with it.
For instance, your intimate partner may have accused you of being cold, defensive, or distanced when they had needed affection from you. However, it is important to remember that your numbness grew out of a place of pain and tenderness and was nothing but a desperate attempt to survive. Shaming or punishing yourself for becoming numb in the first place will only reinforce the defensive pattern.
2. Acknowledging the sadness
Once you have parked away your harsh internal critic, you are ready to approach your numbness from a place of compassion. This is important because when you first acknowledge the extent to which your numbness has held you back from joy, you will hit a wave of sadness. This is grief over the fact that you have been out of touch with yourself and your true nature all these times. Instead of bypassing your sadness, set an intention to move closer to it, feel into it, so it can be digested, rather than suppressed.
3. Examining the shield
Now, you are ready to look carefully at your numbness. Use your imagination and reflect on the following questions:
- If your emotional numbness is a wall or a shield, how thick is it?
- What kind of materials would it be made of? Metal, wood, or plastic? How dense or heavy is it?
- When you touch into your wall/shield, does it feel warm or cold?
- Does it change according to your life circumstances or energy level, or does it remain stuck and static?
- If your wall/shield has a voice, what is it saying?
4. Thanking and transforming the numbness
Keep approaching your shield, until you reach the tender wounds that lie beneath it. Breathe gently and thoroughly through this process. Only then, you may wish to say: "Thank you for protecting me all these years. I would not have survived without you. However, I am stronger now, and I no longer need you."
Our goal here is not to get rid of the shield but to befriend it and get to know it, so it no longer runs the show. We do not expect things to change overnight, and you may have to repeat the process of approaching it and inquiring it again and again.
The next time you find yourself using the shield to defend against emotions that arise, or when you feel numb where you wish to feel alive and present, you will be more aware, and your numbness is no longer an unconscious, destructive force.
Your emotional shield aims to protect, and you may choose to use it or not. But the power remains 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 practitioner's guide. Guilford Press.