Numbing emotions

I just rewatched Brené Brown’s famous TED talk on the power of vulnerability. And it put a lot of things into perspective for me, including a lot of the feelings I’ve been having lately.

People tend to numb emotions that feel bad, especially shame and fear. They use all kinds of methods to numb out: TV, movies, shopping, internet, eating, alcohol. They try anything they can to avoid having to confront those feelings.

I’ve realized that that’s at the root of my issues with my parents. Their method of avoiding feelings of shame and fear was largely trying to shove them under the rug and pretend they didn’t exist. If there were any experiences in their past (particularly the things in the deep dark secret category) they would avoid talking about it at all costs.

My husband and I were talking last night about how a lot of that was a generational thing, and my grandparents’ generation was even more close-lipped about family secrets.

They’ve always been bewildered by my openness in telling my own stories. They would often discourage me from talking too much, particularly to my kids, and encouraged me to keep more secrets in the guise of “protecting” my kids from things that might scare them. I suspect the truth was my parents were actually scared or ashamed of things and that’s why they wanted to keep them secret. A lot of people, probably most people, have that viewpoint.

I can say that the truth has never scared me; in fact, I seek it out probably more than average because I am perpetually curious and I dislike unnecessary secrets. As someone who spends a large part of my time in research mode and encourages my kids to do the same, I always want to know rather than remain ignorant.

I find that the more I face the truth, the less shame and fear that I feel. As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m still trying to work through body image issues. But the things that I face that are scary are easier because I let myself feel them. I’m disabled and yes, that’s scary. My husband has cancer and that’s even scarier. But instead of trying to avoid that fear by numbing it and pretending it doesn’t exist, it’s making me better.

I actually fully believe that my struggles have been a gift. Every painful thing I’ve ever gone through made me stronger. When my cat died, for example, I didn’t know how to deal with it because I had no real experience with how to cope with death. But what I didn’t do was stuff my feelings or try to numb them to distract myself from them. I just faced it head-on in all its ugly messiness. And from it, I learned that I was strong enough to survive grief.

The one exception might be the deep denial I had about my MS, though. For many years, I refused to believe I really had it because it just didn’t seem real. But I don’t know as though that’s the same thing as numbing myself to avoid feeling fear; maybe it is. Either way, I now look at my illness as a gift as well. It changed me, softened me, made me admit that I couldn’t control everything.

As Brené Brown says, you can’t selectively numb only some emotions. You can’t choose not to feel pain or fear and expect that you can also feel true gratitude and joy.

I am not trying to numb my fears about my husband’s cancer, even though it’s hands-down the most terrifying thing I’ve ever faced. Instead, I’m facing it, leaning into it. Feeling so aware that I could actually lose him much earlier than I ever expected makes me feel like I’m walking around with my heart outside my chest. I’m completely vulnerable.

But the openness and vulnerability does come with more gratitude and joy, too. I feel a deeper level of happiness and appreciation for him than I knew was possible before. Even though life is scarier now than it was a year ago, it also feels happier. I know that sounds like a paradox. But I really have found more happiness and peace as I’m becoming more vulnerable.

I had so much work to do on myself for so long and I feel like I’m finally starting to see some real progress. Whatever comes, I’m going to be open to it and see where it leads me.

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