When You Feel Numb
What do we do when we don’t seem to feel much emotion? How can we understand this experience, and what is God’s call to us in it? Listen as Alasdair Groves talks about the experience of numb emotions.
Hi. My name is Alasdair Groves and I’m the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time, you’ll know that emotions and how the Scriptures intersect with emotions and talk about emotions and teach us to think about emotions and handle emotions is just a particular interest of mine. I find it endlessly fascinating to think about how our emotional life relates to our faith and relates to the God who made us and why we have emotions and all that good stuff. If you want to dig into the podcast archives, you can find lots more there. When you spend time thinking about emotions and Scripture, at some point the question comes up, “What about people who don’t feel emotions or don’t feel much emotion or people who would say, ‘Man, my emotions are totally numb right now, my emotions have been numbed, or flattened, or I feel like I don’t feel anything at all’? How should we understand that? What’s happening in that kind of experience?” I wanted to spend some time today reflecting on that and thinking through how Scripture might guide us in seeing that particular experience that is certainly one that many people have in at least some level and form and most of us will taste at some point in our lives.
Let me start here. What is an emotion? Well, we’re not going to dive into the depths of the archives and spend 18 hours on it the way I might like to, but the short answer is your emotions as a human are the overflow of what you love. If you love someone or something and there’s a threat to that person or to that thing, you will feel fear, you’ll feel anxiety, you’ll feel scared in some way. If it’s something really good happens to something you love, then you’ll be happy, ecstatic, elated, content. If there is something unjust and wrong that has been done against someone or something you love, you will feel angry, and so on, and so forth, so our emotions are ways of love spilling over.
That then begs the question, and it’s one I’ve watched people grapple with on many different levels of, “Okay, what if I’m not feeling anything? What does that say about me?” Interestingly, when I’ve heard people in the more extreme ends of the spectrum feeling, “I really am feeling nothing, my whole world is gray and flat,” they don’t say, “Which is really pretty nice, it’s great. I don’t have to feel those pesky downer sorts of feelings. Yeah, it’s just flat. I just go through and it’s great.” No one ever says that. I’ve never had anyone in counseling, never had a friend at church say such a thing to me. They actually say the opposite. They say, “It’s miserable. To be in a place where you feel nothing is terrible, it is hellish.” We could spend a lot of time reflecting on why that is, but I want to simply say at the outset, it is not a good and pleasant thing to be walled off from one’s emotions, even if that means bad things can happen, and you don’t necessarily feel terribly affected by it in your experience of it.
Here’s how I think about this. I have found this helpful in numerous instances of being able to talk through what is it like to feel no emotions, what’s going on there? The way I think about it is that it’s actually probably better to conceive emotional numbness as an incredibly strong emotion, an emotion so strong that it basically drowns out everything else. Picture a pool of water with several different streams trickling into it, and then, I don’t know, something happens, a dam breaks further up the stream, whatever. All of a sudden, there’s this huge rushing waterfall pouring into that stream. Well, whatever’s coming in that waterfall, whatever the temperature of that water is, that’s going to set what the pool is like when there’s one thing pouring in so strongly. I have found this not just to be, “Oh, isn’t that interesting?”, but actually an incredibly helpful way of reframing the experience of not having strong emotions or any emotions in a given context.
Let me see if I can make this practical. Let me break this down and put this into a life-lived situation. Let’s consider the person who is at the funeral of a close loved one and their eyes are dry and they just seem to be unaffected at the funeral of a close loved friend or family member. Actually, just was talking recently with someone who’s had this experience. I asked them a bit about it, “What was that like for you?” She said, “I did cry at my father’s funeral.” She was a younger teenager and there was some level of something at the funeral, but for several years afterward, there were no tears, there was no feelings of grief, and she said, “I felt guilty that I didn’t seem to miss my dad, that I wasn’t feeling anything stronger, that I wasn’t experiencing the kind of grief that it seems like people should, or that I would see on a TV show of someone experiencing when they lost a parent.” She said, “It’s like the whole world for a long time was just hazy and foggy. It was like I would be eating food at lunch, and it was like it had no taste to it. I would laugh with friends, I would laugh, but it was an empty laughter. I was distant from the people that I was with.” She talked about how over the course of several years that began to recede. It wasn’t like the dam just suddenly broke. Obviously, that can happen. You can have people who have felt basically nothing for 20 years and something clicks, something connects, and all of a sudden, there’s just an outflowing and a flood of emotion that can last for weeks or months. But in her case, she said, “It was this slow set of experiences. I would watch a friend be moved by some issue with her dad. I would watch what was happening if someone would say they missed their family, and it would make me go, ‘Oh, I wonder what that’s like,’ or seeing that, maybe I’d feel a faint glimmer of something, being at graduation, and realizing my dad is not here.” Experience after experience has begun to awaken this in her.
Something like that particular case, it was a fairly obvious, “Why am I not feeling? I’ve just been essentially completely overwhelmed by the grief of losing my father. The experience is too much. It flooded the reactor. It short-circuited the connection. I shut down. I had no language inside, no ability to sustain that level of emotion.” While the experience in that place is, “I’m not feeling anything. It feels like there’s nothing. There’s no waterfall. There’s no water in this pool at all. I’m just sort of standing here in the mist,” I actually think a better way to think on a biblical level what’s happening to such a person is to say, “This is someone who is experiencing a flood, a torrent of overwhelmedness. It’s just too much to take in.” That experience of overwhelmedness, that experience of shutdown is actually an intense indicator of: “Something really important has been lost in my world or changed in my world. Some suffering, something that feels threatening, some grief, some sorrow, some heartache, something has landed.
Now, in this particular case, really easy to identify: the loss of a parent, but it can be much more complex than that. You could have someone who says, “My life is not what I thought it would be.” That could have so many factors to it. That could speak to, “I didn’t get the job I wanted, and the friends I have, it’s not the closeness I would’ve hoped for. It’s not the life with my people and we’re doing life together. Yeah, it’s more complicated than that, and some relationships are strained, or they’re just not that close friend I would’ve loved.” It could be, “I thought I had these giftings and they’re just not playing out. I don’t get to use my gifts. I’ve got a church that I did love and was really invested in, and now I feel distant and on the edges and I’m thinking about leaving and going to another church and I don’t even have much hope that that church will be any better.” There could be a whole set of combinations of things that are part grief, part confusion, part discouragement, part fear that would speak to… It’s like my whole world is just closed, so it doesn’t feel like a waterfall when you’re standing there in that place, but I do think it’s best to think of it as things that I had hoped for and loved, things I had dreamed of, things I had treasured, things I deeply cared about have indeed overflowed and it overflowed the banks and I have no feeling left. It’s left me spent. It’s too much to take in.
When I think about Scripture speaking to these things, when I think about, “Where does the Scripture go with this?”, the call always with anything on our hearts is to speak it to the Lord and to speak it to other people. The call of the Christian life is to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. One of the trickiest things about feeling flat and empty and, “My laughter’s empty and I’m distant from everyone and I’m not crying when I feel like I should be and what’s wrong with me?”, one of the most difficult things about that is you feel helpless and adrift. You feel like, “I don’t really understand what’s happening to me. I don’t know what to do with it. There’s no next step. I just feel like I’m switched off and I’m, yeah, lost at sea.” Thinking about it instead of as being utterly absent from emotions, but rather thinking of it as an overwhelming emotion is it actually gives a pathway forward. There is an ability then to speak to the Lord.
Now, that conversation might sound something like this, “Lord, I don’t feel anything at all. I don’t feel distant from You. I don’t feel close to You. I don’t feel desired to be close to You. I don’t feel much about anything else in my life. I feel so shut down. I can’t remember the last time I felt anything. It doesn’t feel like it’s even worth speaking to You right now. I don’t even know what I’m hoping for in this conversation, but I know, and I’ve been told, and I see throughout Scripture that to speak to You about whatever is going on in my life, it is always the right thing to do, so I’m coming and I’m bringing my emptiness, I’m bringing my hollowness, and somewhere in me probably is a part of me that would like to feel again, that wants to come back. I just listened to this podcast and the guy was saying that maybe there’s a flood here of things that have overwhelmed me and undone me, and if that’s true, would You help me maybe get a better sense of what it is that has been overwhelming to me, where the places are that are just too heavy for me to feel like I can bear them?” That would be the sound of faith, of hope, of walking in obedience to a God who says, “Pour out your heart to me at all times,” Psalm 62:8, one of my favorite verses speaking to just the breadth of what we are to do with all the different emotions we might face, including the emotion of being overwhelmed and the emotion of being shut down.
Now, what should we make of the flip side experience? The, “Yeah, it’s not like I have had this transition from being an emotional person to feeling totally shut down and cut off from all emotion, it’s rather, I’m just not a very feely person? I’m not a touchy-feely guy. I don’t have a lot of strong emotions one way or the other. That’s not a change. It’s just kind of always been that way.” How does that connect to what we’re talking about? I would suggest it connects something along these lines. First off, every culture suggests to the people in that culture, here’s what normal emotional life is like. That can differ by life stage, it can differ by gender, it can differ by all kinds of things. I would say generally we live in one of the more touchy-feely cultures in history. I guess we are more so than, I don’t know, 7th-century Bavaria or something like that. But still, today and probably more so, probably even significantly more so for men than women there, there’s a sense of, yeah, you’re not really supposed to have a lot of feelings all the time.
There can also be a familial aspect to this difference. Some families are going to have a much more emotionally intense experience and we have these deep conversations where we interact at high volume and life is full of feelings and people are up and down and other families, it’s sort of like, “Yeah, we’re doing our thing and we’re getting our things done. Yeah, it’s good to be together, and that was good. I’m glad we did that.” There’s just a whole spectrum of what you might experience. Broadly culturally, family culture, and then every one of us has a story of how we grew up and what has happened to us over the years and how we’ve responded to that and what’s worked for us and what hasn’t worked for us. I think a lot of times, if you’re someone who would speak the language of, “Yeah, I don’t know, I just don’t seem to feel a lot, I don’t think. I don’t necessarily feel crippled emotionally, just I’m not a very emotional person,” I think we would maybe best understand that in a couple of ways. Number one, there’s nothing wrong with not being completely caught up in the depths of emotional experience all the time. I think it’s appropriate and good and fine and lovely for there to be a real spectrum of human emotions and some people who can move to that place of being moved really easily and naturally and instinctively in other people who are just more prone to focus on, “Okay, well, what’s the next thing that needs to happen? Or what’s the best way to think about this?” Feeling, thinking, acting, those are all core components of human life, and some of us are going to gravitate towards different ends of that triangle, if you will.
So there’s nothing wrong with not being super feely all the time, just as there’s nothing wrong with being highly emotional and being “very in touch with your feelings.” Probably for most of us, actually, there’s a need to say, “Where am I instinctively? Do I move into action naturally? Do I move into emotion naturally? Am I a very thinky, cognitive person who always just sits and thinks it through first and that’s my instinct is to think it out?” Probably each of us could identify places where you could really stand to grow in responding to a biblically full picture of someone who acts and thinks and feels in ways that all honor the Lord and move closer to Him.
You’re not a feely person. What’s going on there? Yeah, it’s probably a combination of lots of things. Family, culture, personal experience. I was talking with a friend the other day who, that’s how he would identify himself, “Yeah, I’m just not a super emotional person, didn’t grow up in a very emotional family,” but even would say, “But there’s certainly times when I say, ‘Wow, I see other people read Scripture and come away with some insight or some sense of the Lord laying something in their heart and they’re tearing up and I feel like there’s something wrong with me that I don’t move that way, that I’m not quickly just captured by and moved by something in Scripture.’ Or I’m yeah, glad something’s going well at work, but I don’t get passionately excited about, ‘Wow, we had this thing and it finally worked and it happened and we saw the plan come to fruition.'”
I suspect there, there’s probably just an opportunity to say, “I want to grow as someone who does love and experience the overflow of love, and at the same time, I want to just appreciate and be thankful for the way the Lord has oriented me to be somebody who can move through things and who is not constantly thrown off of being able to walk forward the next step by having a flood of emotion.” The highly emotional person, that’s their struggle. It’s like, “I can’t stay on track. I’m completely thrown by emotions all the time. My life feels like I’m bouncing around inside a pinball machine.” Each one of us will face different struggles, but for each of us, there’s an opportunity to walk toward the Lord and walk toward each other. If your experience is ever, “Man, I see these other people doing this with their emotions, and I don’t feel like that. That doesn’t seem to be me, I don’t seem to have some of those reactions,” that in and of itself is always an opportunity to speak to the Lord and to speak to others.
If I can leave us with one last thought, it would simply be as we come to the question of emotion, and in particular, the question of not feeling strong emotion, we can know that we serve a God who is not thrown off by His emotions, who is not wildly fluctuating between different emotions. We have a God who is utterly steadfast and yet who is utterly strong in His feelings, whose love and passion and commitment and compassion and affection for His children is never waxing and waning. It is always at utter maximum, full, passionate, waterfall-like outpouring. Whether we feel that intensely and are moved by it, whether we don’t feel it at all, it is such a sweet thing to know and to be able to rest in and to trust that His feeling toward us will never change, cannot ever change it because He is who He is and He is the unchanging God whose fullness of passion can always be our refuge and who shockingly, staggeringly invites us to bring our emotions and our lack of emotions and our actions and our thoughts to Him in all things and who cares to receive our words, who actually wants to hear what is on our hearts, even when what’s on our hearts is, “Why isn’t there more on my heart?”