Hello, I’m Tamara Bess. Welcome to my podcast: Listen to Your Body Heal Your Life. Today is Episode 2 and I want to talk about what I’m calling the “Numb epidemic.” You’ve probably never really heard about a numb epidemic, it’s really a term that I’ve coined. But as I’ve seen it, it really does affect us individually, it affects us as a family, and it affects us as a culture.
So what is the numb epidemic? Let me tell you when I first started noticing it. I was a child and I noticed people around me. When they didn’t feel good, they behaved in unusual ways. I noticed that when someone looked sad or lonely or afraid or when someone didn’t think they could do something; they, instead of talking about the thing that specifically was going on and saying that they were sad or acknowledging the feelings in the body, they would look angry instead or use food or spend too much money or (now I know) they would use sex or drugs and alcohol to stop feeling uncomfortable and instead to feel other things.
It didn’t make sense to me then, when I was a child. But, as they say, a therapist isn’t made, a therapist is born and I’ve always been thinking about these kind of things since I was really young. And so as I continue to think about what happens and why is it that people don’t feel and how is it they end up doing something that’s totally unrelated to what they actually need when they’re feeling uncomfortable feelings, I’ve come to more realizations about this and that’s what I wanted to share with you today.
But I want to go back to my beginning. As early as grade school I watched people and I intuited that when they were feeling uncomfortable, instead of addressing those feelings directly they would do things that were socially inappropriate or self numbing. This was during the time that I also . . . You know, every young person, every child looks around the world and decides who they want to be like and who they don’t want to be like. That’s why superheroes appeal so much to children. Because children don’t feel powerful as a whole. They are told what to do, they don’t get to do things freely, and so they naturally identify with superheroes and princesses and the characters that they see is not having the same limitations as them. On the same token they’re also looking around at adults and other people around them to determine what kind of behavior they want to model as an adult as they grow up. I was doing the same thing. I was developing my own list of things I was willing to do and things I definitely did not want to do in my own code of personal ethical behaviors of course as I grew up. I had to modify the original list, but my point here is that I first begin analyzing behaviors as a really young child. And that doesn’t make me special, it actually makes me like lots of children but I think we forget about that when we grow up. So the other thing to tell you about myself is that just because I noticed that other people were doing this doesn’t mean that I was immune to the practice myself.
At the same time as I saw that people were numbing themselves with food or shopping or alcohol or projections that blame other people for their own faults . . . I also really I’m at the point I’m at in my life right now because I had to learn how to overcome my own tendencies to numb myself. In fact, I’m an expert in the field of understanding the self numbing phenomena because I was really good at it I didn’t really use anything: I didn’t use food, I didn’t use alcohol or drugs. I actually just found a way to find a solid steel reinforced door inside of myself that I locked all of my uncomfortable feelings behind.
Now, I was a very sensitive child and many people would call me an intuitive now. There’s this thing that goes around on the Internet where people are talking about intuitives. I’m not overly sensitive, I’m not easily injured but I was a child. I’ve been called an empath. And I think there’s a way to balance the skill and talent of being an empath with understanding how to separate your feelings of today from old injuries of the past and how to set healthy boundaries with people so that you can actually grow and heal and become even more intuitive and more of a person who understands your own emotions and your own motivations.
But as I say, I didn’t start there I actually used my own reinforced steel door to protect myself. So I became the queen of emotional shut down. But as I learned in my own process, I learned that when you shut down emotionally, that energy that is connected to those emotions has to come out somewhere. And that’s where I often see that people are feeling something, but they have to put it in another behavior. Because the energy is in your body. So, what are you going to do with it? If you are super successful at shutting your emotions down, then you can’t just shut down the positive ones, you actually shut them all down. So, if you shut down discomfort and you shut down sadness, and you shut down grief, then you also shut down creativity and joy and authentic laughter. And so it’s really important to understand; that it goes together. This experience of being human means that we have to be open and willing to experience all of the emotions that come with this life, that come with interactions with other people, that come with accidents that come with joyful experiences.
So what I’m trying to say here is that it’s really impossible to shut down some of your feelings and not other feelings. I had to learn this rough truth for myself and fight my own way out of the invisible addiction that I had to never feeling bad. And I did that by: becoming expert in listening to what was behind the steel door so I could heal myself. I watch all the time as people become unafraid of listening to whatever it is that’s going on for them or if they want a mask with a behavior or hiding something behind the door or just shutting themselves down. I watch it all the time: people heal as soon as they listen. But, the more I think about it I realize that I’m not alone in my preference for shutdown. You’re not alone in your preference for shut down. No one is. It’s an epidemic. That’s why I call it the “numb epidemic.”
But, why? I’ve been thinking deeply about this because every time I meet someone new in my therapy practice I watch as that new client takes the first steps toward unlocking what is behind their door. What happens is universal: they heal! That healing begins. It is the way your body is programmed. So I started asking myself: “How did we become so universally disconnect from ourselves?” The other thing that’s true is that if I’m disconnected from myself there’s no way I can make an authentic connection with another person. There is so much conversation in our culture, in our society today about not connecting with each other. About feeling lonely. About using your portable device when you’re sitting at coffee with someone instead of real interactions. But real connection and intimacy: they’re necessary and only possible when each person who is in that interaction is connected with themselves. So how can you really create an authentic connection with anyone else if you’re so disconnected from yourself? If you’re afraid to look at your feelings?
So, what I want to do is look back at history. because we do . . . All of us have made these patterns. It’s universal. We universally shut ourselves down.
So let’s look at how it started. I like to use myself as an example because it’s the easiest way for me to outline it. I was born to a young couple who were just out of high school in California. One set of my grandparents actually moved as a young couple to California from out of state. They bought a plot of land and they pitched a tent on that plot of land and lived in that tent until they completed building their first home together with their own hands. I say their first home, but it was actually the home that my grandmother died in. So, that was their lifetime, marital, raising a family home and they built it on their own. That grandmother’s parents lived on a farm in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
And so, I’m going to talk about the hard things that happened for each one of them in a second, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were only about half of the homes in the United States that had electricity as late as 1925. So it’s really possible that my grandparents didn’t have electricity until 1925. And, why is that important? As I was doing research for this episode, I went and looked for some online examples of what life was like on the farm in the early 1900s and what I saw is that life was really difficult. It put a link to a video that I found that documents how difficult life was it that time and what’s really interesting is, we, as modern people, we have lots of things that we do to help us de-stress when we feel stressed out. You could go to a golf course. You can go get a massage. You can go get a mani/pedi. We have a lot of tools in our modern world. But I saw, in more than one example, that In the early 1900s, it was a luxury to read! So, if you choose to look at the video to see how life was in the early 1900s, take note of the reaction of the woman who gets the lamp pulled away from her as she starting to read her book. Just take note. Just think for yourself at about what she might be feeling and the stress that she might be under based on the reaction you see in the video.
I met my great grandparents when I was little. My great-grandfather was a jokester and he was giving me a piggy back right around the house. It probably would be called a horseback ride because he was crawling around on the floor on his hands and knees. And then he suddenly bucked me off. My family has a picture of me sitting on the floor crying, actually crying, after my great grandfather bucked me off. And he’s sitting there laughing. So he was a jokester. But I also have pictures of my great-grandmother and it always made an impression: the look on her face. She had really long gray hair that was braided, that she pinned to the top of her head. And the expression on her face is really sad and somber. Every time there’s ever a reference to my great-grandmother, the memory in my mind is her looking very sad and the only thing I can point to is that her life had to have been very difficult. Imagine getting up before dawn and making sure . . . you have to tend to the animals, and deal with the family tasks, and make sure that the vegetables are cultivated and make sure that everything is fine. And there’s no maintenance that is needed on the family farm and make sure that laundry is done without electricity. And make sure that dinner is on the table before sundown. So, I think that I think that there was a lot going on. And, the other thing is that marriage in the early 1900s happened very early (at least, in my family). And couples were expected to team together to get the work done that was required for survival. It was really different from the kind of relationship, the kind of coupling we do now. We couple for love, we couple for romance. But that’s not how it was before and that’s because the life was hard. People were struggling. People were . . . Maybe they married for love but they also, very quickly, got off the romantic track and got into the survival track. So there wasn’t really, I’m imagining, much time for the exploration and interpretation of feelings. Life was too much focused on survival.
So, after my great-grandmother, my next generation: my great-grandparent’s daughter that’s the one who built the new house with her husband while she lived in a tent. I can only imagine being a newlywed, living in a tent long enough to build a house with your new husband. It can’t have been easy! I’m sure that in doing that, in figuring out how to prepare food day in and day out while living in a tent, trying to figure out how to keep your food refrigerated living in a tent, figuring out how to, after a hard day’s work, bathe yourself when you’re building a house and there’s no plumbing yet because the house isn’t finished because you’re living in a tent. I just really imagined that my grandmother and my great grandmother just had to push through to get things done because their survival depended on that.
In fact, when I think about that, my family has a tradition of building their homes. When I was in high school my family (my dad and mom and my brother and sister and I) build our own home. Now, we weren’t living in a tent. We were living in a different house and building the house that we were working on. But my parents actually purchased an orange grove and, as a family, we cleared that grove, we level the ground, and we built the house there. So, the only thing that we didn’t do in that project that almost took a year is that we didn’t lay the foundation and we didn’t stucco the outside of the house. It was it’s a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom, 1800 square foot house that my family built. We did that. And even though we were living in the house and not in a tent, I can tell you it was fun, but it was strenuous. And took almost a year. And every day that we did the work, it left me feeling exhausted. There was even a day when my dad laid out all of the two-by-fours on the ground that would eventually make up one of the walls in my bedroom, he gave me a hammer and nails and said: “Okay, it’s your job to hammer all of these together to make this wall a wall.” I did that. It was fun. It was a great accomplishment, but it was exhausting. I can promise you, at the end of every day that I finished working with my family, I wasn’t thinking about my emotions. I was thinking about when rest would happen. I was thinking about food. I was thinking about how to make sure that I had enough energy for the following day. And this all while going to school. So, it just gives you an idea.
I also grew up during the Cold War, before the East German Wall came down. When you’re in high school during the Cold War, teachers frequently talked about how: at any moment, we could all be annihilated without notice. Just simply by the pressing of a button in Russia and that pressing of the button would cause a thermonuclear war and we would all die. That really scared me. It scared my friends. It’s like, the feeling in the society where I lived, in the city where I lived, any time that was brought up . . . . the news stories that happened related to it . . . everything felt scary. And crying or expressing my feelings or even protesting about my fears would not have made them go away because I didn’t have any control over anybody pushing a button in Russia. Who wants to live in constant fear? So, I learned how to turn it off. What else can we do?
[Queue song from “The Book of Mormon” musical] I got a feeling that you could be feeling a whole lot better than you feel today. You say you got a problem? Well, that’s no problem. It’s super easy not to feel that way. When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings hold them in instead. Turn it off! Like a light switch, just go click. It’s a cool little Mormon trick. We do it all the time. When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t seem right. Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light and turn them off. Like a light switch, just go bap. Really what’s so hard about that? Turn it off!
So, I add this song in jest because it’s kind of a fun song, but it really does capture an idea. It captures a feeling that I think is not just, you know, it says it’s a “fun little Mormon trick,” but I don’t think that’s the only place it exists. I think that it’s a pretty common thing. And the satire that happened in that musical really does, kind of, speak, for me, about what’s happening on a bigger level, on the cultural. When we feel upset, when we don’t know what to do. We turn it off. So, at this point in time I’ve outlined it for you, what happened to me and where my turn it off switch got revved up and how I learned how to do that. Where it happened in my history, where the things that happened in my family, pointed to not feeling, but pushing through.
I would challenge you to look at your own family legacy, so you can identify how survival in your family required turning off of your feelings. For example, Did your parents or your grandparents survive a war? Did your family immigrate to the United States? Did your family become victimized by any large-scale event that was disastrous to your family’s ability to survive? I mean, when you’re fighting to get away from a war, stopping and feeling your feelings and being depressed and crying actually is going to go against your survival because you have to stay connected to what’s needed for the here-and-now. So, think about that. Look at your family history. Look at where two, three, four generations back your family was doing what they did for you to be where you are today. And then, look at the hard things that were in your family history. What do they reveal? It doesn’t usually take too long to see why a discussion of the understanding of feelings didn’t take the top priority. Because, I’m talking about big historical things, big cultural things, but there are also smaller things that happened in families. I don’t think I have to give you examples to get you thinking about what losses or what events happened for your family that made things really difficult and made them hard to talk about, so people just put it away or turned it off. Were there messages passed down to you by your parents and family to you about traumas, about crisis, that added to your ability to shut things down?
So, now, looking at your family history and looking at the history of traumatic events that have happened in your family I also will invite you to think about this: the field of psychology is really relatively young and the old cliche is true that “Good help is hard to find.” Let me give you an example of how very little and how new, as a mental health community, our knowledge about trauma is. In 1976, there were 26 children who were in Chowchilla California that got kidnapped from a school bus and loaded onto windowless vans and then they were buried alive in a large hole about a hundred miles from their homes. They were there for 38 hours before all of them were rescued. So, they were all rescued, which is good news, but you can imagine being buried alive in a hole for 38 hours would be pretty severely traumatic. So, there’s a psychiatrist named Lenore Terr and she was able to study the effects of trauma on them and on development as she treated them. Then, in 1990, she came out with a comprehensive book about the developmental effects of trauma on children.
So, in 1990, we have the first comprehensive study of how trauma affects children. That’s pretty significant because 1990 is only about 30 years ago. So, the conclusion to draw from this is that psychology has been developing alongside of your family surviving in any way they knew how, without reference to the feelings that were the the fall out of any of the events that happened, the feelings that got left over or stored away because they were your family was busy surviving. Psychology wasn’t there! Psychology didn’t have answers. When they started developing answers, those answers weren’t anywhere near in time to rescue you or me from this numbing epidemic. That’s what I’ve been talking about, because we generally, we don’t really push good or happy feelings away, out of our awareness. It’s that uncomfortable stuff that we push away. But, here’s the thing. Here’s the problem. Here’s the conundrum, why it doesn’t work to keep things pushed away, as I said before.
Our body is a brilliant historian and it’s the body history that we have to fight against when we try to keep things put away. Our body history reminds us when something happens that’s like something that happened before, so we have to work hard, we actually have to make an effort to keep things shut down. We’re now in a place where our connection to ourselves and each other is in this long-standing need of repair because it just has seemed to be the norm to shut down that part of ourselves, to shut down the feelings that we have in order to be able to not feel uncomfortable. I think that there’s another thing that’s happening culturally now. People are getting angry and expressing anger in strong ways, really strong ways, and I think that points to long-held unexpressed feelings. Sometimes those feelings that get expressed in public forums really are expressions of old frustrations that are just getting poured into the present moment as if everything is about what’s happening right now.
The problem is that we don’t have tools that are as widespread as the need for understanding what’s happening in us and healing us and releasing that emotional energy in a way that’s healthy and life affirming and connection creating. But you can start. We all can start. There’s easy first steps and it is by listening to your body. Start approaching your feelings in your body history like they’re allies. Assume that they’re your tools to help you navigate instead of being nuisances that get in your way. I’ve seen over and over again that emotional healing begins in the body. And as emotional healing progresses, the body also heals. And as the body and emotions heal, your ability to use your body and mind/soul as your guide to a brilliant life, to the things that you want, that only improves as well. And what’s the alternative? It’s more of the same. It’s repeated history, because we’re shutting ourselves down so we don’t see warning signs coming around the corner. Because we don’t want to feel those feelings, so we get broadsided by something that happens that’s a repeat of history. And there’s nothing we could have done to see it coming as long as we down.
I’m going to put a fun video in the link to the show at the bottom. There’s a video that I watched recently and I think it’s related to being so shut down from our emotions and what I think can happen if we don’t ever really take the responsibility to wake up. The video is called: Most People Don’t Even Realize What’s Coming. I’ll put it in the show notes.
So, I don’t know, it’s something to think about. Look at your family history. Look at the things that maybe you’re not willing to feel. I think that one of the things that’s really important to understand is: that your feelings can’t hurt you. We put them away when they happen because we feel hurt. But their ability to do you harm once you pull them out of cold storage is so much less than the ability that they had, that the experience, that the events had to harm you when they originally occurred. Think about that.
If you’d like to get the gift that’s associated with this episode, I would like to provide you with a PDF download for how to identify feelings in your body and what to do with them once you find them. How to start listening to your body. If you’re interested in that, go back to the place where you found this podcast either at Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or where my podcast is housed at www.listentoyourbodyhealyourlife.com or at the blog at www.centerforhealthyrelationships.com. Look for the email opt-in form connected to this episode and I’ll send you the transcript of this episode as well as the checklist for how do identify feelings in your body.
My next episode is going to be about psychiatry, Big Pharma and the research that I’ve been doing based on the work of Kelly Brogan. It really, kind of, is a piece of research that as I’ve looked at it and I’ve been learning more and more, I’ve been, I’ve had to stop and walk away from it several times. It really can be scary if you don’t decide to take control of your mind and body and mental and physical and emotional health. So I’m going to talk about what I found in that research from Dr Kelly Brogan in the next episode. Until then, I hope you’ll accept my invitation to Listen To Your Body so you can Heal Your Life. I’m Tamara Bess. Thank you, so much, for listening.