Some people drink a lot, smoke pot a lot, or work a hell of a lot.
While for many people, these activities might indicate a clinical addiction that needs to be directly addressed, for many others, these—and other activities—may be used to avoid discomfort.
A few of the most common issues people find themselves trying to avoid include:
- Disappointment in relationships (or the lack of a relationship)
- Feeling used at a job or unenthusiastic about work
- Remembering something painful they would rather forget
Anyone who grew up with a pet hamster probably noticed how it would spend its day running in place on a wheel. Well, we can be like that, too. We can run and run as we try to hold off feelings of discomfort. The problem is, once we stop, we’re still on the wheel. We’re more exhausted, but we’re still in the same cage.
The Numbing Process
Some people I work with experience anger issues, but many others experience what appears to be the opposite: They go numb.
Through the anesthesia of their choice, they attempt to cordon themselves off from feelings. This can actually be effective for a certain amount of time. In fact, many people swear by this technique. Often, they’re proud of they way they “compartmentalize” so well!
Yet, feelings find a way to come out.
If you deal with discomfort by going numb, you’re hiding two things: You’re warding off the initial feeling, and you’re growing more worried of what will happen once that feeling emerges.
- If you allow yourself to get angry, will you insult or hurt someone?
- If you allow yourself to grieve, will you ever find your way out?
- If you allow yourself to be scared, will you ever be strong again?
- If you let others know you’re sad, will they say, “Get over it,” or tell you that you’re too needy?
- If you let others know you’re angry at them, will they disappear?
Avoiding Feelings to Protect Our Relationships
Numbing is sometimes used to protect the status quo in our relationships with other people.
We are constantly changing and the world around us is constantly changing. Numbing, however, keeps things just as they are.This is often easier to see in others than ourselves. Can you think of a person who has a girlfriend, a parent, or a friend that they are always making excuses for? Maybe you question how and why they continue to keep this person in their life?
If they really considered the way that person treated them, they might need to say something or make some real changes in the relationship. Avoiding the negative feelings and continuing to run on the wheel means that someone doesn’t have to risk change. Change is scary, and it can sometimes be painful, so many people choose to avoid the risk.
Resistance to Change
We are constantly changing, and the world around us is constantly changing. Numbing, however, keeps things just as they are.
It’s hard to keep things the same when we live in a changing world. Both the people we love and the people we hate are changing. Maybe these changes aren’t big ones, and maybe people don’t change in the way we’d like them to change, but no one is static.
When we’re drunk, the world might seem OK. When we’re high, we can’t help laughing. When we’re at work six days a week, 10 hours a day, we are accomplishing something and stressing about something that has nothing to do with us. We’re running on a hamster wheel that we perceive is protecting us, but we’re not feeling what’s actually going on around us.
It’s not by accident that transitions—birthdays, breakups, funerals, graduations—are often surrounded with alcohol. We’re scared during these times, even if the transitions lead to something exciting. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Fear can be adaptive when we’re actively taking part in the transition to something new. It’s unhealthy, however, when we’re OK with being stuck on the hamster wheel.
© Copyright 2015 by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, NY. All Rights Reserved.