The official definition of the word Numb is, “Deprived of the power of sensation; without feeling.”
The official definition of the word Empty is, “Containing nothing; not filled or occupied.”
Of course, the word “numb” is used to describe a physical sensation, for example, “My leg is numb from cold.” And the word “empty” commonly applies to physical objects, such as, “This basket is empty.”
But these two words also have meanings far beyond the physical that are useful in understanding the human experience, happiness, and life satisfaction. They have an important link to people’s minds that goes to the epicenter of all three. It is this: both of these words describe feelings that are far more common than most people realize.
Most people don’t give much attention to their feelings and would not think of using the words empty or numb to describe their own emotions. But as a psychologist, I have seen, without a doubt, that countless people who seem absolutely fine on the outside walk through their lives feeling either empty or numb, or both, on the inside.
Why People Feel Numb
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents are not aware enough of your feelings and emotional needs as they raise you.
Imagine a child growing up in a family with his feelings essentially ignored. Imagine how that child’s feelings would be, over time, virtually neutralized by the day-to-day lack of emotional validation and lack of adult response.
That process, usually — not always — unintentional on the part of the parents, is the crux of Childhood Emotional Neglect and the reason why so many people, who are otherwise just fine, are walking through their lives feeling periodically empty or numb. It’s also why I wrote the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect way back in 2012.
In Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, my goal was to make people aware of Childhood Emotional Neglect, the reason it’s so invisible and unmemorable when it happens to you, and how it affects you throughout your whole life.
Here is an excerpt from that book (slightly edited for clarity):
Few people come to therapy because they feel empty, or numb, inside. It’s not a disorder in and of itself like anxiety or depression. Nor is it experienced by most people as a symptom that interferes with their lives. It’s more a general feeling of discomfort, a lack of being filled up that may come and go.
Some people experience it physically, as an empty space in their belly or chest. Others experience it more as emotional numbness. You may have a general sense that you’re missing something that everybody else has, or that you’re on the outside looking in. Something just isn’t right, but it’s hard to name. It makes you feel somehow set apart, disconnected as if you’re not enjoying life as you should.
I have found that most emotionally neglected people who come to therapy for anxiety, depression, or family-related problems, for example, eventually express these empty feelings in some way.
Typically the emptiness is chronic and has ebbed and flowed over the course of their lives. It may be difficult to imagine what would make a person feel this way. The answer lies in the lack of emotional responses from parents during childhood.
Here I would like to remind you that human beings are designed to feel emotion. When that design is short-circuited, first by emotionally neglectful parents and later continued by the child himself as an adult, it throws off the whole system.
Imagine ice-cream made without sugar or a computer program in which some of the most basic commands have been removed. Such is the malfunction of the human psyche when emotions are pushed out of it.
In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put into words something that is absent. If you do succeed in putting emptiness into words to try to explain it to another person, it’s very difficult for others to understand it.
Numbness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Emptiness or numbness is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape.
7 Signs That You are Emotionally Numb
- At times, you feel experience a physical sensation, especially in your belly, chest or throat (but can be anywhere in your body, of emptiness.
- You sometimes watch yourself going through the motions in a situation, perhaps even when you know you should be feeling happy, sad, connected or angry. Yet you feel nothing.
- You frequently question the meaning or purpose of your life.
- You have suicidal thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere.
- You are a thrill-seeker. Thrill-seeking is often an attempt to feel something.
- You feel mystifyingly different from other people. The lack of connection to your feelings does set you apart. You may feel like other people are living a more vivid life than you are.
- You often feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Your emotions should be connecting you to others, and instead, they are holding you separate.
You feel numb or empty for a reason, and you are not alone. Other people feel this way too. But most people do not. It is not how you are meant to be.
Those feelings of numbness are a message from your body. Your body is crying out to you to notice something is wrong here. There is an empty place where your feelings should be.
What have you been feeling as you read this post? Overwhelmed? Anxious? Sad? Curious? Hopeless? Or perhaps nothing at all?
Whatever you feel, it is OK. And I want to assure you that there are answers. You do not need to go through the motions anymore.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is very treatable. It is not an illness or disease; it’s simply something that did not happen for you as a child. And you can make it happen now.
CEN is difficult to see or remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free and you can find the link below.
To learn much more and get started on your journey, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link below).
It is never too late to heal. You can do it. Follow the steps of CEN recovery and you will be running on empty no more.