‘Strong’ seemed a strange word for the context, yet there it was scrawled on the board – as a negative word. It was during an event I helped facilitate at my local yoga centre in support of mindfulness and community mental health as all the participants – all of whom were acknowledging their everyday internal struggles, like depression or anxiety – came up with their word of significance with regards to mental health. There were many other words you may expect, like apathy, numb, alone, angry, isolated – But ‘strong’?
The person who contributed the word shared with the group that for a full two years after her mother’s death (when she was urged to be strong by herself and others) she did not grieve. Instead she became emotionally numb; she felt no sadness, no joy. She was simply functioning, and living an emotionally numb existence. She described it as having a muffler on her life – none of her experiences during that time were truly felt in the same way as she had used to feel things. All of a sudden, one day, the release of emotion came and only then did she realize how stuck she had been, and then her healing began in a new phase.
The need for stoicism and to be the solid cornerstone for others or oneself can override healthier ways to deal with upsetting and traumatic life experiences. Instead of allowing a natural flow of emotional dealing, we build an enforced wall which blocks our ability to work through our feelings, or be there for others too.
And to make emotional numbness worse, it is not readily understood by many people, and as a result they sometimes inevitably judge…
“You’re such a robot!”
“Don’t you care?”
They may even ostracize you as your energy is not making them feel good, or because they have an opinion or judgement about the way you are responding to a situation or a person.
There are lots of causes for emotional numbness; trauma, abuse, bullying, culture and upbringing are just a few. The need to be strong, and feeling the need to project ‘strength’ is an inextricable part of human life – expressions like “Stop being a cry-baby,” “Get over it,” “Stop being so sensitive,” “Get thicker skin!”are familiar and commonly heard.
There are numerous examples seen in history and literature. I remember identifying with Elinor, when I read the classic novel Sense & Sensibility, as she suffered her own hurt privately behind her shield of reserve. While her emotional mother and two impulsive sisters, struggle vocally with the loss of the father, and the other dramas which surround the family, Elinor suffers silently, outwardly uncomplaining of her own broken heart, acting as the family rock. The perfect poignant scene of this is in the 1995 film, as Elinor, played by Emma Thompson, sits on the stairs of the cottage she shares with her mother and sisters, after all of them have run to their rooms in tears, slamming doors, as Willoughby flees from the house after breaking off his relationship with Marianne. Elinor, surrounded by the tempest of emotion at the same time as battling her own hurts, does not follow suit. She simply sits on the stairs, sipping tea. This scene always provokes a reaction to me, from (dependent on my own mood at the time) a wry smile, to tears welling in my eyes. The often unseen or unconsidered pain of the misunderstood person, who has either appointed themselves the rock, or who is unable to release strong emotion.
Buddhists call the holding onto emotional energy, ‘clinging’. On the premise that energy (being the essence of all life) is supposed to flow, creating blockages causes stagnation and mental, emotional and physical problems. In the course of any given day, one feels a huge variety of emotions; possibly grumpiness as we get out of bed too early, peace as we join our yoga class or meditate, joy as our child runs to us for a hug, frustration as we are misunderstood, sadness as we hear bad news. These emotions arise, are felt, and continue to flow, onto the next.
But imagine you have an unpleasant confrontation with someone, and instead of feeling and releasing any feelings of anger or hurt, you cling to these emotions, refusing to deal with them or reliving them again and again, you cling and hold on to a low, negative energy which is physically held in our body.
How often have you been urged to dismiss emotions, and instead ‘be strong’? Certainly everyone has at some point either been urged to be strong or heard someone else be told to toughen up. The problem of emotional suppression is all-pervasive, resulting in a society of emotional sidestepping and stifling.
How many dysfunctional adults are out there? Try asking a single person in their 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s who’s searching for someone ‘sane’ enough to spend time with, let alone a lifetime… The answer often reflects the state of a world populated by many, many people struggling with unacknowledged mental issues. And it can be argued that many of these issues are caused by the stifling of emotions, lack of recognition of emotions, and the blocking of expression.
Knowing that your ego is often at work, when you are clinging, reliving, defending yourself or getting upset or angry, can be helpful. And the ego is not often helpful when we are looking to deal with our emotions in the healthiest way. So try spending the day being conscious of your emotional reactions, and how you express them. Notice if you are holding on to any element of how you are feeling, and if you find you are reliving something, ask yourself what you can do to stop the replay. For a start, try to Breathe! If you’re clinging and re-living, you’re likely to find your breathing is shallow and irregular. When you calm your breathing and focus on it, you’ll find you physically ‘unclench’ and it can help you mentally disengage from the downward spiral.
Other ideas we shared with the group at the mindfulness event, to help calm the hectic mind and ego:
Try ‘brain-dumping’ by writing down how you feel – sometimes the physical act of getting your thoughts out from floating around inside of you and into words on a sheet of paper can cease the internal havoc they have been creating.
Adopt a mindfulness practice, even for a few minutes a day, and take some time to focus on breathing deeply into your stomach, and focusing on your slow, easy breaths.
Go outside and be away from others or your screen for a minute or two, or ten!
Refocus and take pleasure in what is around you; notice the details, take note of something you would never normally look at – Break that compulsive thought; interrupt the mental pattern.
Sources of information appreciated in the writing of this blog post:
Article: 13 Signs You’re Struggling With Emotional Numbness (The Secret Illness)
Book: The Untethered Soul – By Michael A Singer
And of course: The Japson Club – By CJ Butler