Have you ever gotten critical feedback from your boss and had too much to drink that night to “destress”?

Or fought with your partner and bought things you couldn’t afford to comfort yourself? 

If so, you may be engaging in numbing to distract yourself from your emotional experience.

Numbing is when you use a substance or an activity to zone out and get away from your own thoughts and feelings.

Common activities we use to numb out include eating, drinking, shopping, watching porn, watching TV, playing video games or games on our phones, biting our nails, picking our skin, pulling our hair, smoking, taking drugs, binging, binging and purging, or even just scrolling social media.

Even activities deemed “virtuous” by society can be used to numb out. If you exercise compulsively as your only way to cope with stress, or restrict your eating as a way to avoid your negative feelings, you are still numbing out.

Often you want to stop doing these things, but you feel like you can’t. It feels compulsive, even if you don’t have any kind of clinically diagnosable problem.

We feel so much unnecessary shame around numbing, so I want you to understand that you started numbing out for a reason.

Put simply, the reason is that they helped you tolerate overwhelming feelings that you didn’t know how to handle.

From a young age, we are rewarded for keeping our feelings to ourselves.

Nobody teaches us that feelings are harmless if we just allow and process them.

Instead, we’re taught that feelings are dangerous, uncontrollable, and should be repressed (or at the very least, not expressed).

So, it’s no surprise that we turn to whatever substances or activities we can find to get a break from the intensity of feelings we don’t know how to manage.

Even though these behaviors arose for a reason, I’m sure you’ve experienced the consequences of numbing firsthand.

First, there are the direct consequences of the numbing – fights with loved ones, credit card debt, physical consequences.

Second, there are indirect consequences of opportunity costs. All the time and energy you could be spending on other things in your life, you’re spending on numbing out instead.

Third, there are the emotional consequences. When you numb out the negative emotions in your life, you also numb out the positive. If you aren’t willing to feel and process negative emotion, you won’t feel and process positive emotion as much either.

Finally, there is the cost of not being present in your own life. Let’s call these the “spiritual consequences” of numbing out. When you compulsively numb out, you are essentially unwilling to be with yourself without a buffer between you and your own experience. When you compulsively numb out, you constantly reject yourself and turn away from the present moment and your own life.

Numbing out is extremely common, but it has huge costs to our happiness, health, and ability to truly live with presence and intention.

But before we can actually change anything, I want you to practice applying choice, compassion, and comprehension to your numbing.

First, start paying attention.

This habit is serving you somehow. Find out how. 

Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after. 

Get curious about what thought and feeling made you want to numb out – and what thought and feeling you had when you decided to go for the numb.

Once you are more aware, you can take ownership of your choices.

Choice is the key to taking power from the “compulsive” aspect of your numbing.

If you learn to exercise choice when it comes to your go-to numbing habits, you will reclaim power from the compulsion.

Choosing to enjoy something intentionally is very different than using it unconsciously. That’s obvious.

But even consciously choosing to occasionally go unconscious is different than operating on autopilot.

As you learn to process your emotions and sit with your negative feelings, you are going to experience a lot more negative emotion than you’re used to. You may occasionally choose to numb yourself out a bit, and that’s ok.

The key is to make those choices consciously rather than unconsciously. 

If you choose to numb yourself out because you don’t want to feel something, or you’re bored, or you don’t want to be present in your own life, you are allowed to make that choice. 

But be clear with yourself about what you are doing, and do it on purpose.

When you make a choice on purpose, you are not being compulsive by definition. Active choice and control is the opposite of compulsion.

Once you’ve developed some curiosity around why and how you numb, and taken ownership of your own actions, you will be able to work on reducing your numbing if you want to. That’s what I’ll teach you how to do next week.